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Afghanistan, Islam and the Revolutionary Left

By Peter Taaffe

War and Marxism

What is required today is not a simple repetition of ideas which fitted the conditions of 60 years ago or even 20 years ago. The development of independent states and national bourgeois regimes is a big change compared to when Trotsky wrote on these issues. Some of them, like that of Saddam Hussein, have the most hideous and repulsive features of dictatorship. They suppress the working class and deny national and ethnic rights. This has changed the circumstances, to a great extent, in which Marxists work today. It means that we cannot simply imitate the approach of Trotsky at the time of the Chinese/Japanese war in the 1930s, in Ethiopia in 1935, or base ourselves upon the hypothetical situation sketched out by Trotsky in relation to Brazil. We will comment further on these issues a little bit later on, but they are related to the approach that we adopt to war and, specifically, the war in Afghanistan, as well as Islam in general.

Marxism does not have a ‘general’ position on wars. We have never put all wars on the same plane. There are ‘just’ wars, in which Marxists and Trotskyists have given critical support to one side against the other in the course of a war. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels supported the revolutionary struggle of the Irish against British imperialism in the 19thcentury, as they did also in the struggle of the Poles against the Russian tsar. This was despite the fact that, in the words of Trotsky, "These two nationalist wars and leaders were, for the most part, members of the bourgeoisie and even, at times of the feudal aristocracy… at all events, Catholic reactionaries". We ourselves gave support, both political and material, to the National Liberation Front (FLN) in the nationalist war waged against French imperialism in Algeria, which culminated in its liberation and the evacuation of French forces in 1962.

But there was nothing ‘progressive’ or ‘just’ in the brutal war of the US, Britain and the ‘coalition’, which they have waged against the Afghan people under the false banner of waging a ‘war against terrorism’. The perceived ‘war aims’ of eliminating bin Laden and al-Qa’ida have still not been achieved at the time of writing. Our position has been explained very clearly in CWI material we have produced on the war. This was primarily a war to restore the wounded prestige and power of US and world imperialism. Moreover, given the capitulation of the Taliban (if not yet of the ‘Arab Afghans’) imperialism has succeeded temporarily in strengthening its own position and altering the relationship of world forces to its own advantage. (This was shown by the bellicose words and actions of George W Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and even the previously ‘dove-like’ Colin Powell in giving the green light to Ariel Sharon and the Israeli ruling class to launch its 2001 offensive against the Palestinian people. The aim of this was to seriously undermine the already fragile authority of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority (PA). [See previous CWI documents on the Middle East.])

This was followed by US government officials declaring that Iraq would be the next target, and ‘military-police’ type operations were in preparation against Somalia and possibly Sudan. This is a war to root out and allegedly crush al-Qa’ida once and for all. In the bloody equation of war, it is not possible to accurately predict the precise outcome. However, the outcome of a military conflict between US imperialism, the mightiest military power the world has ever seen, and the feeble Taliban was from the outset equivalent to a contest between an elephant and a flea, which the elephant could not fail to win. However, what could not be predetermined were the kind of social reserves the Taliban could call on given foreign intervention in Afghanistan. Events illustrated the very narrow basis for the regime, which ensured victory for imperialism in the main through the use of air power backed up by the ‘ground troops’ of US imperialism.

What was unexpected from all sides was the rapid capitulation of the Taliban in the north and the minimal resistance in the south. This has had important consequences. Victory to imperialism, combined with the complete capitulation without real struggle by the Taliban, has had big repercussions worldwide, particularly in the neo-colonial world. It is perceived that US imperialism has once again been militarily victorious. This is the third military victory in a little over a decade – the Gulf war, Kosova/Kosovo and now Afghanistan. However, even more than in the previous two conflicts, the rampant triumphalism of US imperialism is open and unrestrained, with one of their representatives openly declaring, "We are on a roll".

Mistakenly, imperialism now believes it can impose its power with minimal resistance anywhere on the globe. Ultimately, all its problems will be compounded. It has undoubtedly strengthened itself temporarily while the confidence of the world working class and labour movement, particularly in the neo-colonial world, has suffered a blow. How long lasting and how severe this will be is not possible to say at this stage. It was for all these reasons that we implacably opposed US imperialism and its war. Strip away all the ‘democratic’ phraseology and camouflage and what we had was a new version of an imperialist war, not just against Afghanistan but the whole neo-colonial world and, therefore, the majority of humankind.

Not a traditional colonial war

But it was not, as the ‘United Secretariat of the Fourth International’ (USFI) argued, simply a new version of a traditional colonial war, motivated primarily for economic reasons: "A war for oil". The reality of US imperialism’s aims in Afghanistan is more complex than this. Ultimately, of course, economic power, the financial stake of imperialism and the source of its profits and income are all-important, even decisive, factors. It was for these reasons that US oil companies feted the Taliban and took them on lavish trips to the US in the 1990s. Their perception of Afghanistan at that stage was as an important area for a possible pipeline for the as yet largely untapped oil and gas riches in the Caspian Sea and the Transcaucasus. However, given the organic instability of Afghanistan, let alone the Transcaucasus region, the site of this country as a possible pipeline was problematical to say the least. Even in the post-war situation, such is the likely chaos dislocation and anarchy that it would be a very big gamble for the oil companies to engage in such a risky venture.

The resources of the Transcaucasus and the Caspian could be important issues for imperialism in the long run. They were not, however, the immediate cause of this war. Prior to 11 September a mighty tussle was taking place between Putin’s Russian capitalism, which still considers the Caucasus as a vital component of its ‘sphere of influence’, and the US oil companies, backed up by the Bush administration, which were struggling to supplant it. After the attack on the Twin Towers, which revealed the involvement of Saudi nationals and also some of the figures in the Saudi regime, at least financially, much discussion ensued in the US bourgeois press about a switch in US interests from Saudi Arabian oil to a possible alternative supply in the Caucasus. However, this is still the music of the future, given the increased dependence of US imperialism on Middle Eastern, particularly Saudi, oil since the Gulf war. The motivating factor, therefore, in the first instance, for US imperialism’s intervention was to restore its power and prestige, which was severely dented by the attacks of 11 September. Any increased income flowing from this victory was to come at a later stage.

If, therefore, we perceive this war as thoroughly reactionary on the part of imperialism, does this mean that we throw in our lot, albeit ‘critically’, with those who have allegedly ‘resisted’ the US juggernaut, namely bin Laden, his al-Qa’ida and the Taliban government? Unbelievably, this is the position of some small Trotskyist groups, such as Workers Power and the Morenoite LIT. The latter is largely based in Latin America. Their approach will find absolutely no echo amongst the world working class, particularly the proletariat in the developed capitalist countries. Nevertheless, because they utilised some of the past writings of Trotsky to justify their position during the war they could, and did in some instances, confuse and befuddle some young people and workers who came into contact with them. It is necessary, therefore, to deal with their arguments here as a means of clarifying the issues within our own ranks. They also show utter confusion on developments within ‘Islam’.