Afghanistan: War lights fire throughout Middle East

The US bombing of Afghanistan has continued relentlessly since 7 October. The Taliban has reported that over 100 innocent civilians have been killed as a result. Many more will die over the coming weeks. Unlike the Gulf or Kosovo/Kosova wars, there are no independent reports from ‘the other side’, from within Afghanistan, apart from one or two reporters. Therefore, the analysis made by the Western media has to be treated cautiously.

War in Afghanistan

War lights a fire throughout the Middle East

Nevertheless, it does appear that the important military installations and sections of infrastructure targeted by the US and British attacks have been effectively knocked out. A continuation of the bombing, particularly at the range of thousands of feet in the air, would largely result in ‘rearranging the sand’, further destruction of civilian buildings and more innocent deaths. Therefore, the question of a ground war and the deployment of US and other troops – which would be a new phase in the war – as we anticipated in our earlier statement, have now come onto the agenda. However, this is easier to plan on paper than to carry out in reality. As arch right-wing Republican, US deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, commented, the aim of the Bush administration in fighting ‘terrorism’ was ‘to drain the swamp’. However, in seeking to carry out this task the US could be dragged under by the swamp.

The deployment of ground troops will probably mean the extensive use of helicopters which by definition will be flying low. Therefore, they will be susceptible, much more than the high-flying bombers used previously, to the Stinger missiles and other weaponry which the Taliban inherited from the war against the former Soviet Union. During that war they were successful in bringing down hundreds of Soviet helicopters and it cannot be ruled out that they will be successful once more.

Military tactics

The military tactics of the US ‘coalition’ is to strike hard against Taliban armed forces and destroy units of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida fighters. At the same time, the CIA and other ‘intelligence’ organisations have employed ‘Psych Ops’ in an attempt to win support amongst ordinary Afghans. As one CIA operative commented to the International Herald Tribune, some of the Pashtun warlords who supported the Taliban were in ‘rented relationships’. In other words, they could be bought, as this operative indicated, for ‘a few bucks’. Nevertheless, it is not going to be as easy as Western commentators have indicated to militarily defeat the Taliban without the deployment of ground troops.

Therefore, the Northern Alliance (the remnants of the original mujaheddin forces funded by the CIA in the 1980s war against the former Soviet Union) will be used initially as the ground troops of the US. As unsavoury as the record of the Northern Alliance is, it is quite clear that the US will use it in an attempt to at least militarily weaken the Taliban. Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, commented: "Let there be no doubt, these elements on the ground – the tribes in the South, the Northern Alliance, elements within Taliban that are anti-al-Qaeda – we’re encouraging them. We would like to see them succeed. We would like to see them heave the al-Qaeda and the Taliban leadership that has been so repressive, out of that country." (Financial Times, London, 11 October)

The US has ascribed to these forces a similar role as that played by the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) in the 1999 Nato Balkans’ war. However, in Kosovo/Kosova, the population was 90% Albanian and mainly supported the KLA. The ethnic balance in Afghanistan is entirely different. It is also the case that the KLA had not yet played the bloodthirsty, rampaging role that the Northern Alliance has already demonstrated. Moreover, as they are going to discover in Afghanistan as well, the KLA could be used against Serbian forces but then not easily controlled in the aftermath of the war.

The extension of the ‘war aims’ – involving attacks on Iraq and other ‘terrorist’ states – is still on the table but is a disputed issue between the major components of the ‘coalition’. The Blair government has indicated that this is not an ‘early option’ and the US administration is still divided. The London-based Middle East International magazine reported in an article by Dilip Hiro: "Paul Wolfowitz, the US deputy secretary of defence, has been urging air strikes not only against Afghanistan but also Iraq. He had earlier expressed the end-purpose of such action: ‘It’s not simply a matter of capturing people and holding them accountable, but removing the sanctuaries… ending states who sponsor terrorism.’ By ‘ending states’, he apparently meant ending regimes’… Wolfowitz’s advocacy of simultaneous military strikes against Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon (for harbouring Hizbullah), brought the reported response from Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff: ‘Do you want to start World War III?’" (28 September)

Strike on Iraq

Therefore, a strike on Iraq is not immediately posed but is inherent in the situation. At the same time, imperialism is frantically working to create the political alternative to the Taliban regime. In this sense the military campaign has run far ahead of the diplomatic one. This involves not just an attempt to put together a ramshackle coalition around the former king, Zaid Shah, but also to dangle the prospect of a ‘mini-Marshall Plan’ before the Afghani population. This would allegedly improve the living standards of the masses in the area thus ‘creating conditions of stability’. Yet as one US military expert said at the time of the Vietnam war, in answer to a question as how ‘hearts and minds’ would be won in that country, ‘Give me their balls, and their hearts and minds will follow’. US imperialism intends to win this war irrespective of the number of victims, but will be compelled to introduce economic measures, the aim of which is to stabilise any new regime and ‘win hearts and minds’. But in the case of Bosnia, the reconstruction programme is costing $5 billion, with a population a quarter the size of Afghanistan.

The biggest fallout of the war so far has been in the Middle East and countries like Pakistan. This was dramatically evidenced in the clashes between Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority (PA) police and security forces and the thousands of young people who demonstrated on Monday 8 October in Gaza city. The CWI opposes the methods of bin Laden and the reactionary nature of the Islamic Wahhabist ideas he propagates. However, given the deep anger amongst the Arab and, in particular, Palestinian masses because of the conditions they face, the video produced by the founder of al-Qa’ida had an immediate and profound effect especially amongst the youth.

An Egyptian student who spoke to the International Herald Tribune summed up this mood: "He is so convincing. This was the first time I’ve seen him on TV and I felt sure he is not a terrorist. I felt his aim is to protect Islam, nothing more." Another Palestinian student from Nablus in the West Bank, expressed criticism of bin Laden’s methods but maintained support for his anti-US position: "We don’t support bin Laden for his attacks on America, bit if his ideas spread throughout the Muslim world it can do something." (10 October)

Bin Laden’s denunciation of the corrupt ruling elites in the Gulf and throughout the Arab world resonated with the Palestinian masses who also would no doubt draw parallels with Arafat’s corrupt Palestinian Authority. Since 11 September, Arafat has ingratiated himself with George W Bush and US imperialism. He believes he made a fundamental error at the time of the Gulf war in siding with Iraq. The difference is that while this time he is on the side of the US, the Palestinians support those figures who appear to be standing up to the world’s only superpower. They regard the US as responsible for the terrible conditions which confront the Palestinian people today. Moreover, Arafat has not uttered a single word of condemnation of the US bombing of Afghanistan. Similarly, fellow PA cabinet members have bent over backwards to distance themselves from bin Laden and his pro-Palestinian comments. For example, Nabil Sha’ath speaking in Doha, Qatar, at the Islamic Conference of foreign ministers on Tuesday, insisted that Palestinians did not support bin Laden. When questioned, he retorted: "If (bin Laden) thinks that he serves the Palestinian cause, then let him be responsible for his remarks. We will not be." (Ha’aretz, Israel, 11 October)

It has become apparent that Arafat promised Bush that there would be no demonstrations in support of bin Laden in Gaza and the West Bank following the commencement of US action in Afghanistan. His reward was the private promise of a new initiative in the Middle East ‘peace process’ and a statement from Bush in which he conceded in words the idea of a ‘Palestinian state’. However, George Bush Senior made similar statements to appease Arab opinion during the Gulf war but once the conflict was over, such notions of genuine national rights were put into cold storage. Instead, the now shattered Oslo ‘peace process’ offered the Palestinians a cantonised state with Israeli Defence Forces as prison overseers.

Gaza clashes

This is the background to the clashes that took place on 8 October when 1,000 youth from Gaza’s Islamic University (which has 14,000 students and is a stronghold of the Islamic group Hamas), streamed out of their campus onto the streets. Students from the al-Azzar University and youth from the surrounding communities soon joined them. Many of the demonstrators in this Hamas-organised demonstration, chanted: "Death to America! Hamas hails bin Laden." The mood was clearly in violent opposition to the US bombings, and showed strong support for bin Laden.

They were confronted with the PA police and security forces who were under instructions from Arafat to suppress such protests, particularly if they supported bin Laden. It is of some significance that the PA security forces and their dependents account for 25% of the population in Gaza and the West Bank. After this clash Hamas probably held the masses back from further action, not wishing to set in train a movement they could not control. Hamas is not prepared to mount a serious bid for power – nor does it have the necessary mass support. Any threat to do so, it fears, would be met by massive Israeli military retaliation. These factors account for the fact that the protests in this initial stage did not immediately become a full scale uprising against Arafat’s rule.

Three people were killed when live ammunition and tear gas were used against the demonstrators. This led to a number of protest actions against the measures taken by the PA security forces in parts of the West Bank with a virtual ‘civil war’ situation developing in Gaza. On Monday night, Palestinian youth congregated outside police stations in Gaza – normally the target of destruction by the Israeli Defence Forces – and proceeded to burn them down such was their hatred of the security forces.

So serious was this situation that Arafat resorted to the very methods which the Israeli state has used in the past to suppress the Palestinian uprising, such as the banning of journalists and television from Gaza, the closure of all schools and universities there and, as already stated, the use of live ammunition and tear gas. This betrayal will not go unnoticed by the Palestinian masses.

The actions of the PA in attempting to crush this protest have produced the most serious situation confronting the Arafat regime since 1995 when 15 Palestinians and Hamas supporters were shot dead by PA security services in demonstrations against the Oslo ‘peace accord’. However, the 1995 killings took place against an entirely different background than the one we confront today. The granting of a ‘Palestinian state’ through the Oslo ‘peace accords’ had only been relatively recently established in 1994. There were still hopes and illusions amongst wide sections of the Palestinian masses that this would lead to genuine national liberation. The anger of the Palestinian masses towards the PA security forces at that time was not as deep as a result.

Now, however, the Palestinians have had a year of the second intifada, six more year’s experience of the corrupt, rotten Arafat regime, and a devastating collapse in social and economic conditions inside the PA. The net result of this has been to widen the gulf between the PA and the Palestinian masses, which could lead to a further growth in support for the Islamic fundamentalist groups such as Hamas. It has roughly 20% support in Gaza. Opinion polls giving these figures were taken before the full effects of the Gaza demonstrations had been felt.

The rise in support for Islamic fundamentalist groups is in marked contrast to the situation that existed amongst the Palestinians in the 1960s and 1970s. Then Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation and other Stalinist-aligned left organisations had the majority amongst the Palestinian masses. All these groups were secular. As a result of the failure of these forces to lead the national liberation struggle to victory and, in some cases, their betrayal of the Palestinians, together with the political effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been a collapse in their support. The vacuum has been partially filled by Islamic fundamentalist groups such as Hamas which are seen as the most consistent and radical anti-imperialist forces in terms of their rhetoric. However, their reactionary religious ideology, which is extremely hostile to the ideas of socialism, and working-class struggle, unity and international solidarity, means that the situation in the region is far more complicated today.

Weakened PA

So weakened is the PA in the face of this mass opposition that, according to Ha’aretz, an Israeli Jewish newspaper: "Perhaps most embarrassing for the PA, Israeli media reported Wednesday that Palestinian officials had asked Israel for riot control equipment to help put down the unrest. The reports prompted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to vow that he would not hand over weaponry of any kind to Arafat.

"Other Israeli officials indicated that Israel could hardly afford to assist the Authority with riot-control gear, when Israel lacked enough for its own needs. As Palestinian calls mounted for Arafat to sack senior PA security officials responsible for the order to use gunfire to suppress demonstrations – the first such incident of internal strife since the uprising began over a year ago – Israeli rightists stepped up their calls for Arafat’s ouster." (Ha’aretz, 11 October)

It is not uncommon that the former leadership of a bourgeois-national liberation struggle, after taking power – or, in the case of Arafat, a semblance of power –is compelled to turn on the very masses that brought them there. Thus, in Ireland following partition in 1921, the Free State forces which had just come to power after a guerrilla war, borrowed mortars and guns from the British to use against their former comrades who opposed the compromise settlement of a 26-county state in the south of Ireland.

In a similar vein, Israeli commentators have drawn comparisons between Arafat’s position and the ‘Altalena’ incident in Israeli Jewish history. The ‘Altalena’ was a ship chartered by the reactionary Jewish Irgun group in 1948, which brought arms to the newly-formed Israeli state, a percentage of which they wanted to keep for themselves. The Israeli regime, under the leadership of Ben Gurion, demanded the Irgun hand over the weapons to the recently consituted IDF. The Irgun refused. Soon afterwards, Ben Gurion gave the order that the Altalena should be shelled. These commentators suggest that Arafat is approaching his ‘Altalena moment’.

So precarious is Arafat’s position that former Israeli prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, blurted out in a recent interview that it should be made clear to Arafat that, "not only is his regime in danger, but his life is in danger, tangible danger". (Ha’aretz, 11 October) Yet this has not prevented the US commentators from urging Arafat to crush Hamas and other Islamic fundamentalist groups. They have compared him unfavourably to president Pervaiz Musharraf in Pakistan who has allegedly stood up to the Islamic fundamentalists in his country. Yet they completely underestimate the danger Musharraf faces. There is huge popular anger shown by the mass demonstrations against Musharraf’s support for the US bombings. The Islamic fundamentalist groups could enormously benefit from this mood. This could even lead to the overthrow of the Musharraf regime by a coup led by army officers influenced by or supporting the Islamic fundamentalist organisations. Musharraf, in his opposition to the fundamentalists, is banking on the bulk of the 145 million population in Pakistan, supporting him in his confrontation with these forces. The key area for the ruling elite is the Punjab, the most populous area. Nevertheless, this is not at all guaranteed because of the anger in all parts of Pakistan, but particularly the Western regions against the US attacks.

Pakistan fractures?

As we have pointed out before, there is the prospect of the fracturing of Pakistan and the breaking away of the North West Frontier Province and even Balouchistan to create a new Pashtun independent territory. The regional instability could produce a nightmare clash between Pakistan and India – both of whom are armed with nuclear weapons. India presently is making threatening noises about crossing the disputed Line of Control in Kashmir to deal with Pakistani-backed Islamic groups which constantly cross the border into Indian-occupied Kashmir to carry out bombing attacks there.

Arafat’s position is much more precarious. Indeed, the Washington Post has described his dilemma accurately: "If he tries to face them (those who support bin Laden and his methods) the collapse of his fight with Israel," may take place and "might trigger a civil war amongst the Palestinians". On the other hand, if he does not and the suicide bombings and shootings of Israelis continues, then the Israeli regime of Sharon will lump him together with the Taliban as a ‘sponsor of terrorism’. Therefore, the Washington Post proposes that, "Arafat break once and for all, links with Islamic extremist groups that engage in terrorism. Unless he takes this step – unless he arrests those in the West Bank and Gaza who are involved in such acts – the violence will not end and negotiations will progress; he will never regain his credibility as a negotiating partner with Israel." (International Herald Tribune, 11 October) However, Arafat is not about to commit political suicide despite the actions on 8 October.

The perspectives for the Palestinian Authority and its population are organically connected to the war in Afghanistan and its repercussions over time in the Middle East. If the war continues for any length of time then Arafat could be effectively elbowed aside, either being replaced or kicked upstairs to some kind of titular head of a Palestinian entity. What could then take the place of the present arrangement in the PA could be the formation of an emergency ‘Palestinian national unity government’, which would involve the more combative, and now semi-autonomous elements of the Fatah militias, the Tanzeem, which in many areas are seen to have led the intifada on the ground. It could also contain representatives of Hamas and other Islamic groups, as well as other more radical secular groups or elements within these organisations. Undoubtedly, imperialism will be compelled to try another attempt at a peace settlement. This would be done to partially bolster Arafat – as long as he toes their line in the ‘war against terrorism’.

Nevertheless, on the basis of capitalism it is not possible to solve the explosive national question in this area. This can only be done through the struggle of the working class and the poor peasants of the region fighting for a democratic, socialist Palestine alongside a socialist Israel as part of a socialist confederation of the region. This would mean fulfilling the national aspirations of the Palestinian masses through the establishment of an independent state and genuine stability and prosperity. This also necessitates guaranteeing the national rights and answering the security fears of the Israeli Jewish population. It means protecting the language, cultural, religious and democratic rights of all minorities in the region. Just as importantly, it means ending the poverty and social deprivation that exist amongst the working class and poor peasant masses (i.e. amongst the Arab masses, the Palestinians, and the Israeli Jewish working class). This requires the building of a mass movement to overthrow oppressive Israeli capitalism and the reactionary Arab elites that dominate the region. The CWI has members in Israel who are campaigning to achieve these aims.

The so-called Oslo ‘peace process’ was never aimed at solving any of the fundamental problems in the region. It was instigated primarily by US imperialism to provide extremely limited concessions to the Palestinian masses to forestall a mass movement on their part. Oslo was also designed to put in place a regime – under the control of Yasser Arafat – which would hold back the masses from further struggle. Oslo’s conditions meant that the Palestinians ended up facing two oppressors: the Israeli Defence Force and the Arafat clique with its 14 security agencies. The Palestinian masses were promised massive aid leading to a sharp increase in living standards. Instead, they suffered a calamitous collapse in social and economic conditions and a corrupt police state.

Shaking foundations

The effects on the Palestinian areas and Israel are not the only repercussions within the Middle East of the war. The whole of the Arab world has been shaken to its foundations by the events of 11 September, the war and the effect on the consciousness of the broad mass of the Arab population. Even the seemingly most stable pro-Western regimes in the Middle East have seen populations touched by these events. In Oman, where 55,000 British troops are stationed on ‘military exercises’, demonstrations of students have taken place declaring ‘Death to America’. The Omani regime gave the go-ahead for these demonstrations as a result of the pressure from below and in the hope that after giving vent to their frustrations students would return to their studies. At the start of the second intifada, the Jordanian regime had the same approach but did a rapid about-face, banning all demonstrations, when they threatened to get out of hand.

The demonstrations in the Arab world in opposition to the war being waged by US imperialism are not as large as the huge protests against Israel that took place at the beginning of the second intifada. However, the anger now runs much deeper than then. This has presented a very uncomfortable and invidious choice to be made by the bourgeois Arab leaders. Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, for example, did not rush forward immediately after 11 September to support US imperialism and its determination to go to war. Now he is ‘on board’ and has denounced bin Laden and terrorism in general. However, even Mubarak faces massive popular discontent and growing opposition from Islamic groups in the midst of a worsening economic situation.

Saudi Arabia has also come out in support of the US but this regime is probably in the greatest danger from the challenge posed by bin Laden and the repercussions of his actions. It is also the regime, because of its huge oil reserves, in which US imperialism fears unrest the most. It was no accident that in his famous video, bin Laden attacked the ‘hereditary’ corrupt regimes in the Gulf, and particularly those in his homeland of Saudi Arabia. Undoubtedly, he has found a widespread echo amongst the Saudi population for his denunciation of the king Fahd regime that tolerates the stationing of reportedly up to 15,000 US troops on the ‘soil of Arabia’, which contains Mecca and Medina – the holiest places in Islam.

The propaganda used by US representatives to justify the stationing of troops there is paper-thin. They claim these troops are used to help police the no-fly zone in Iraq, which was established in the aftermath of the Gulf war. However, US troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia before the establishment of this zone. The existence of aircraft carriers in the Red Sea and the Gulf, and US military bases in Turkey (which are already used for the no-fly zone) would be perfectly suitable bases to carry out this task.

Defence strategists in the region who claim to know the content of secret agreements between Washington and Riyadh (the Saudi capital), explain that these troops are primarily there to protect the political and military stability of the Fahd regime. Arrogant US generals commented after the Gulf war that although the Saudi army had been given much more advanced US military hardware, they were not fully capable of using it. This was another secondary reason for the stationing of US troops.

Unpopular Saudi monarchy

The increasingly unpopular Saudi monarchy is in danger from rising domestic instability, protests and even a coup which could overthrow this regime. King Fahd was given a warning with the occupation of the al-Ahram mosque in Mecca in November 1979, apparently by Shiah Muslims who demanded the recognition of their leader as a new prophet who would ‘cleanse’ Islam in Saudi Arabia. The results of these events were more far reaching at the time than was admitted by the regime and there were reports of uprisings in other cities and towns in Saudi Arabia. Such was the threat to the regime that the then king, Khaled, removed the head of the air force, the director of military operations, and the head of the security services. It is also of importance to note that rumours circulated at the time that the US was partially responsible for the occupation of this most holy of mosques. This led to large protests across the Muslim world, with the burning down of the US embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. US fears were exacerbated by the influence of the Iranian revolution and the coming to power in Iran of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Although not immediately and directly aimed at the Saudi monarchy, events like those of 1979 could trigger a movement against the regime given its increasing unpopularity, the growing differentials between rich and poor, which are the product of the decline in the oil incomes of the regime, and the costs imposed by the US to pay for the Gulf war. Bin Laden has played on the opposition of the youth, who form a majority of the Saudi population. Because of the economic situation, however, they no longer have the opportunities that existed in the past. The second al-Qa’ida broadcast makes specific mention of these disaffected youth: "In the [Muslim] nation there are thousands of youths who are as keen on death as Americans are keen on life and let them know that by invading the land of Afghanistan they have opened a new page of enmity between us and the infidel forces."

These developments are against the background of colossal instability throughout the Middle East. In the Abdullah kingdom of Jordan, national divisions amongst its population and growing economic problems have created a tinderbox.

This war is laying the ground for the biggest upheavals in the troubled history of one of the most explosive regions of the world. In the course of these events the best elements of the working class and youth will see the need for a socialist solution to the running, open sores created by western imperialism and the corrupt capitalist regimes in the region.

The CWI fights for:

  • Stop the war now! Organise and build international mass protests against the war.
  • No US and British imperialist intervention in the Middle East and Asia
  • Democratic, language, cultural and national rights of all minorities in the region
  • For workers’ control, management and ownership of industry and the resources of the region. For a democratic socialist plan of production in the interests of the masses.
  • A mass struggle of the working class and the oppressed masses to overthrow the capitalist regime in Israel, the Arafat clique in Palestine, and the corrupt regimes in the rest of the Arab world.
  • For a democratic, socialist Palestine alongside a socialist Israel as part of a socialist confederation of the Middle East –independent socialist states with participation on a voluntary and equal basis.

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