Socialism Today   Socialist Party magazine

The world after Afghanistan

THE DEFEAT OF the Taliban regime is undoubtedly a victory for the US superpower. It has, for the time being, restored the ‘credibility’ or prestige of US imperialism, the pre-eminent power of world capitalism, which was seriously damaged by the September 11 terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Deep outrage at the atrocity, the most destructive single terrorist attack in history, aroused public support in the US and in many other countries for US military action, for a ‘war against terrorism’.

The war was quickly directed against the Taliban regime, in the first place to destroy the main base of the al-Qa’ida terrorist network. This intervention, however, inevitably connected with longstanding aims of US imperialism, strategic control of the Central Asian region and privileged access to its oil and gas reserves.

The rapid overthrow of the Taliban regime confirmed the US’s overwhelming military power. As after the Gulf war of 1990-91, the idea is about that the US can intervene anywhere, without risking casualties amongst its own forces, in order to impose its ‘imperial order’ across the globe. As after the Gulf war, however, this victory will soon appear much more limited. While its military superiority is unquestionable, US imperialism is far from having unlimited power to determine the course of international events.

Even the US victory in Afghanistan itself is only partial. The Taliban has been smashed, but other key objectives have not been achieved. Osama bin Laden, wanted ‘dead or alive’ by Bush, has not been captured, nor has sultan Omar, the Taliban leader, been caught. It appears that they have escaped to remote areas or to Pakistan, helped by tribal leaders and possibly by sympathetic elements in the Pakistan military. While several thousand foreign Taliban fighters have been killed or captured, many imprisoned under barbaric conditions, thousands have melted into the tribal society from which they came.

The Taliban is finished, a product of a particular period of Afghanistan’s tortured history. But there is no assurance at all that many of the elements who joined the Taliban, or who were part of the al-Qa’ida network, will not reappear later in Pakistan, Kashmir, or further afield. So long as the conditions which turn people towards movements like the Taliban exist, there will always be more recruits. The failure of ‘modernisation’ on the Western capitalist model, extreme poverty, lack of education and healthcare, and especially the humiliation of domination by rich foreign powers, will continue to push strata of the population towards ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, or more accurately right-wing, Islamic parties and movements. Most of the leaders of these movements are linked to feudals and tribal leaders, who implacably oppose social progress. But they attract mass support because of the absence of any alternative, particularly the lack of mass parties fighting for the working class, poor farmers, and the dispossessed.

The smashing of the Taliban regime will not in itself curb the development of reactionary Islamic groups, or of their armed militias or terrorist adjuncts. On the contrary, the military pounding of Afghanistan, together with the intensified oppression of the Palestinian people, will only fuel the sense of grievance, reinforce despair, and produce more recruits for terrorist organisations and suicide attacks.

The US-led ‘war against terrorism’ will not assure the safety and security of people in the US or elsewhere. On the contrary, military action which appears to wide sections of the population in the underdeveloped countries as wanton revenge, will only increase the risks. At the same time, the US’s barbaric treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan and the cancellation of many democratic and legal rights for non-citizens in the US will shatter the US’s credibility as an upholder of ‘democracy and freedom’.

No stability in Afghanistan

WHAT DOES THE rout of the Taliban regime mean for Afghanistan? Will the provisional government, sponsored by the US and other Western powers, open up a new period of stability and social progress? Despite pressure from the powers to introduce reforms, especially reducing the most conspicuous restrictions on women, the prospects are not good. The provisional government is a fragile coalition of warlords, the very leaders who tore Afghanistan apart and created the conditions for the Taliban to come to power. The country’s economy, devastated by 20 years of civil war, has been set back even further by the recent conflict. While most Afghans appear to have welcomed the overthrow of the Taliban, there is nevertheless deep resentment at the role of the US, particularly the air strikes which claimed the lives of thousands of civilians – and are still continuing.

The provisional government is far from having centralised authority over the whole country. It is a coalition of warlords, who are striving to re-establish their hold over their local fiefdoms. The Northern Alliance, on which the US relied for its initial offensive against the Taliban regime, is still the dominant element in the government. One of its leaders, general Rashid Dostum, now deputy defence minister, has a well-known record of brutal repression and civil war atrocities. Heavily rearmed by the US, his commanders are once again carrying out widespread pillaging and looting. He is also protecting former Taliban commanders.

Hamid Karzai was brought in, at the insistence of the West, to head the government as he is from the majority Pashtun (Pathan) section of the population. His influence over the Pashtun warlords of the south, however, is very limited – and is being further undermined by resentment at the continued US bombing campaign.

The new governor of Kandahar province, for instance, is Gul Agha Shirzai, who was previously the notoriously repressive and corrupt governor of Kandahar before being ousted by the Taliban. Back in power, with the help of US dollars and weapons, Gul is now defying both the Kabul government and the US. Recently, he freed three Taliban leaders on the US’s ‘most wanted’ list. The regional warlords, with their substantial private armies, and support from the local feudals and tribal leaders, are a powerful destabilising factor.

"Afghanistan’s economy", stated a World Bank report in December, "is in a state of collapse". Twenty-five years ago, Afghanistan was already one of the most backward countries in the world. Years of civil war have pushed the country back even further. There are no jobs, no services, minimal transport. Agriculture is devastated, and farmers are turning back to heroin cultivation, briefly suppressed under the Taliban. The World Bank estimates that at least $25 billion is needed over the next five years to begin reconstructing the economy. Whether anything like this amount will be forthcoming in practice is doubtful, in the light of the Balkans and other devastated war zones. At the so-called ‘donors conference’ of major powers in Tokyo on 21 January there will no doubt be grandiose promises of reconstruction aid – how much is actually delivered remains to be seen.

Wide sections of Afghan society undoubtedly welcomed the overthrow of the Taliban regime, which proved to be as repressive and corrupt as the warlords it replaced. They are far from welcoming the US as a ‘liberating power’. There is deep resentment at the civilian casualties of the devastating US air strikes. A Pashtun tribal leader from the southern city of Kandahar recently warned Karzai that "their loyalty to the government was being stretched to the limit if the US bombing of al-Qa’ida, which has killed hundreds of civilians, continued". (Ahmed Rashid, Daily Telegraph, 12 January 2002)

India and Pakistan

HAS THE DEFEAT of the Taliban regime increased regional stability in Southern and Central Asia? Within days of the Taliban’s downfall, the subcontinent was brought to the brink of war between two major regional powers, both armed with nuclear weapons. This was the biggest mobilisation of forces since 1971, when India and Pakistan fought their last full-scale war.

It was inevitable that the end of the Taliban would trigger conflict between India and Pakistan, just as the defeat of the Milosevic regime in Bosnia-Hercegovina later spilled over to the conflict in Kosova/Kosovo. The defeat of the Taliban was also a defeat for the Pakistani ruling class and intelligence services, which had promoted the Taliban as an instrument of its regional influence and to provide cover for Pakistan-sponsored guerrilla groups operating in Indian-Occupied Kashmir. As Pervaiz Musharraf, under intense pressure from US imperialism, had signed up for the ‘war against terrorism’, the Indian government demanded that Musharraf end his support for armed Kashmiri groups and take action against their activists. The Indian government was also reacting against the armed attack on the Indian parliament on 13 December by gunmen linked to anti-Indian Kashmiri groups. The forthcoming elections in the province of Uttar Pradesh, moreover, are undoubtedly another factor behind the actions of the Hindu nationalist BJP government.

India mobilised over half-a-million troops along the Indian-Pakistani border, together with heavy artillery and missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. "I have mobilised to be ready for war", stated general Sunderajan Padmanabhan, the Indian army’s chief of staff. He warned Pakistan that "if anyone is mad enough to use nuclear weapons against India, the perpetrator shall be punished so severely that his continuation in any form would be doubtful... we are ready for a second strike".

Faced with this threat and under intense pressure from the US, Musharraf retreated. On 13 January, Musharraf declared a ban on five Pakistan-based Muslim groups, including the two the Indian government blames for attacking its parliament last month and for launching attacks in Indian-Occupied Kashmir. Leaders of groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba have been arrested. At the same time, Musharraf promised to reform thousands of the Islamic schools, the madrassahs, from which the Taliban and other right-wing Islamic militias recruited.

In response, the Indian government welcomed Musharraf’s measures, but said that it would only consider demobilising its forces when Musharraf actually ‘operationalised’ the promised measures. How rigorously the measures will be put into effect remains to be seen. Musharraf already faced massive opposition for his support for the US offensive in Afghanistan, and will now face increased anger at the suppression of the Kashmir guerrilla organisations. Possession of the whole of Kashmir has been a burning issue for the Pakistani ruling class, and especially the military, since independence in 1947. While Musharraf appears to be in firm command at the moment, anger at his perceived betrayal of Kashmir could lead to moves against him by sections of the military and the ruling class. At the same time, there is enormous popular resentment against India for its rule over Indian-Occupied Kashmir. Lashkar-e-Taiba and other groups have threatened to carry out suicide strikes against the Indian military – which could provoke counter moves by India.

The Indian leadership threatened war, including willingness to retaliate with nuclear weapons. In reality, it appears their intention was to put pressure on the Pakistan government to retreat, a ‘calculated and calibrated’ move in a dangerous poker game. Large-scale military mobilisations have a dangerous logic of their own. When "two wild bulls fight in the jungle", admitted general Padmanabhan, "they carry on regardless [of outside influences]".

Although still gridlocked in a tense border confrontation, it appears that the immediate threat of war has receded. For so long as the Kashmir issue remains unresolved, however, there will be the potential for renewed confrontation and war. In the last 13 years, over 35,000 people have died in the conflict over the division of Kashmir. Neither the ruling class of Pakistan nor of India has the least intention of conceding control to the other, or of accepting the only real solution, an independent state of Kashmir. Because of the irreconcilable conflict between national capitalist states, such a state could only be realised on the basis of the socialist solution.

US military power

HAS THE US intervention in Afghanistan confirmed the claim, put forward by the Bush administration and many commentators, that the US can now intervene decisively throughout the world on the basis of air power alone, without having to mobilise major US ground forces? This claim implies that, on the basis of hi-tech weaponry and communications, US imperialism now has the ability, without facing major casualties of its own forces, of removing ‘rogue’ regimes or blocking radical regimes which threaten the interests of international capitalism. If this were so, the US – given its military-technological superiority – would be able to maintain international ‘law and order’ according to Washington’s rule book.

This claim, however, is being sustained on the basis of a few, exceptional examples. In the case of the Gulf war of 1990-91, the devastating US air strikes played a decisive part in destroying the defences of the Iraqi regime. Despite the claim to ‘precision bombing’, the offensive claimed thousands of civilian lives, while the destruction of services such as electricity, water, and health services caused many more deaths. Even so, the US’s defeat of Saddam Hussein’s regime was clinched only by the mobilisation of massive ground forces. Even then, however, the US recognised that it could not occupy Iraq without provoking a major, and possibly protracted, ground war. That would have broken the US-dominated ‘Gulf coalition’ against Saddam’s regime, and produced massive US casualties and an inevitable political backlash within the United States. Bush senior was later heavily criticised for not ‘marching to Baghdad’. But against Bush junior’s hawks, like Donald Rumsfeld’s deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, who have recently argued for a new offensive against Saddam’s regime, more sober leaders like Colin Powell and Sandy Berger (national security advisor during the Gulf war) have reminded the younger Bush of the realities of the 1991 situation.

In Kosova, US air power was used to pulverise Milosevic’s forces, while the forces of the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) were used as a surrogate ground force by the US. Nevertheless, the US together with Britain, Germany and other Nato allies, had to mobilise a ground force in preparation for intervention to inflict a decisive defeat on Milosevic. It was that threat, combined with the signal from the Yeltsin government that Russia would not oppose such a move, that led to Milosevic’s retreat from Kosova.

In Afghanistan, the US succeeded in overthrowing the Taliban regime even quicker than it expected. Again, remorseless air strikes, continued over a sustained period, were a major factor in destroying the Taliban’s forces. Undoubtedly, new technology, particularly sophisticated satellite communications, allowed a small handful of special forces to track the Taliban’s ground forces and pinpoint targets. Even so, the US would not have been able to rout the Taliban without ground forces. In this case, despite misgivings about their potentially unruly role, the US rearmed and financed the warlords of the Northern Alliance and anti-Taliban Pashtun leaders in the south to bear the main burden of the ground offensive.

Compared to the Iraqi regime or Milosevic’s forces, the Taliban was relatively poorly armed, lacking any modern air defences. Moreover, the political support of the Taliban regime was far more deeply undermined than most outside observers realised. From being welcomed as being bringers of peace in 1996, the Taliban became widely hated for its oppression and corruption. Widespread opposition to the Taliban, combined with a traditional readiness by local warlords to change to the winning side, led to the rapid collapse of the Taliban’s position. This was a major factor in the rapid defeat of the regime. The US was not fighting against a national liberation struggle, such as that in Vietnam in the 1960s, where a guerrilla army supported by North Vietnam enjoyed popular support amongst the population of the South. Intervention against the backward looking Taliban regime, linked to feudals and tribal leaders, is one thing. Defeating a peasant insurgency based on the demand for land and the overthrow of an oppressive regime, or against an insurgent working class, would be an entirely different matter.

Until recently, Bush’s Washington hawks, such as Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, were clamouring for a renewed military intervention against Saddam’s regime. The immediate repercussions of the war in Afghanistan, especially the escalation of conflict between India and Pakistan, has forced them to think again. Even for the US superpower, with its enormous military and economic resources, a simultaneous struggle to contain the outbreak of war in the Indian subcontinent and to wage war against Iraq would be a nightmare scenario. Even Wolfowitz has been forced to concede that a US military offensive against Iraq is something for the future, not an immediate prospect. Instead, the State Department and the Pentagon are drawing up plans for an intervention against terrorist bases in countries like Somalia, Yemen, Philippines, Indonesia, etc. Perhaps they have not forgotten, however, that even interventions in such poor, chaotic states as Somalia have not been without their cost in US casualties and political backlash at home.

New world order? New contradictions

WILL GEORGE BUSH the younger be able, on the basis of the Afghan victory, to establish a more durable Mark II of the New World Order proclaimed by Bush the elder after the Gulf war? Even the first base is not secure. Afghanistan itself could easily slide into renewed civil war and further social disintegration. Tensions within India, Pakistan and other states of the subcontinent are sharper than ever before, with the inherent possibility of a major regional war erupting. Russia, the Central Asian Republics, Iran, and other neighbouring powers, while supporting or acquiescing in the US intervention, are all contending for regional power and economic advantage.

In the adjacent region of the Middle East, the traditional ‘cockpit of the powers’, national and social antagonisms are even sharper than in the Gulf war period. The Israel/Palestine peace process, promoted by the US in the aftermath of the Gulf war, partly as the price paid for the support of Arab regimes against Iraq, has completely broken down. The level of conflict is sharper than at any time since the formation of the state of Israel in 1948. The failure of secular, nationalist organisations such as the PLO and former left organisations to achieve any sustained gains for Palestinians has increased support for Islamic organisations such as Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Hezbollah, which use terrorist tactics. As in the Indian subcontinent, the national borders and social structures established after the end of the second world war are in a state of disintegration. In order to woo support from the Arab regimes for the intervention in Afghanistan, Bush proclaimed that he was in favour of a Palestinian state. From the leader of the superpower which is the main backer of the Israeli state, this is a completely hollow pronouncement.

Anger at the oppression of the Palestinians, and especially of the denial of their national rights, is one of the foremost sources of hatred of the US and the Western powers generally amongst Arab and Islamic peoples internationally.

Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two of the US’s key allies in the region, are time bombs waiting to blow. In return for access for cheap Saudi oil, the US has for 50 years turned a blind eye to the repressive methods and religious bigotry of Saudi Arabia’s monarchical dictatorship. One of the glaring contradictions of the Afghan war is that both the Taliban and Osama bin Laden/al-Qa’ida were armed and financed by wealthy Saudi supporters, with the connivance of the ruling class. This rebounded on the Saudi royal family when the right-wing Islamic groups, including bin Laden, turned on them because they accepted US bases in the ‘holy land’, following the Gulf war. There is the strong possibility of upheavals in both Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the next period, which would plunge the whole region into conflict – besides threatening Western oil supplies.

Bush senior’s New World Order rapidly crumbled, even with the advantage of generally favourable world economic conditions for capitalism during the 1990s. The emergence of the rapidly growing ‘tiger economies’ and the spectacular financial boom in the US, and to some extent in Europe, sustained the capitalist triumphalism launched by the collapse of the Stalinist states after 1990. The Asian currency crisis of 1997 triggered political upheavals in South Korea, the Philippines, and especially Indonesia. However, the wider effects of these crises were to some extent cushioned by the continuation of the boom in the United States, which only broke in 1999.

Today, however, the picture is very different. Capitalism is facing a generalised world slump, with the prospect of a prolonged period of stagnation and decline (which does not rule out a continued cycle of weak recovery and renewed recession). This will not prevent major capitalist states, particularly the USA, from reinforcing their military capacity. The sharp increase in US arms expenditure after 11 September confirms this, as does Bush’s decision to press ahead with the national missile defence system, ‘Star Wars II’.

An economic downturn does not rule out military intervention by the major powers, or armed conflict between regional powers. On the contrary, historically, periods of economic and social crisis have always been accompanied by increased conflict between national capitalist states, and between antagonistic national and social groups within states. While possessing enormous, historically unprecedented military power, it will be impossible for US imperialism to maintain a stable world order.

The upheaval in Argentina is an important marker of things to come. Economically, Argentina marks a breakdown of globalisation, an exploitative process dominated by the multi-national corporations and promoted by US imperialism. Capitalist leaders in Argentina have been forced, in order to try and save their political skins, to turn away from the neo-liberal policies of the IMF, and internationally others will be forced to change direction too. Politically, Argentina signals the reassertion of the power of the working class (and also the rebellion of the impoverished middle class), who have risen up against the bloodsucking policies of the international banks and corporations.

What solution does the US superpower offer to Argentina? And the next country plunged into crisis? What solution does it have to the generalised economic, social, and political crisis now unfolding?

Even some commentators in the serious capitalist press are beginning to question the validity of the ‘free market’ and the ideology of ‘liberal individualism’. Commenting on the mood of political and ideological uncertainty provoked by September 11, John Lloyd, writing in the Financial Times (12 January, 2002) says: "What we need most of all is a big idea to organise, even to civilise opposition to liberal democracy and to capitalism". Despite the scepticism of this commentator, however, the ‘big idea’ exists, and remains valid: socialism. Not the grotesque Stalinist distortion of the former Soviet Union and its satellites, but genuine socialism based on democratic planning and the democratic running of society at every level. A new world socialist order would provide the real wealth required for everyone to enjoy civilised conditions of life. Only that would provide the basis for harmonious international relations and the elimination of conflict and war. The re-emergence of the working class as a powerful political force internationally will ensure that socialist ideas are renewed and brought to the fore as the only way out of the capitalist quagmire.

Without social justice, impossible on the basis of capitalism, there is no way of eliminating terrorism and war. Military intervention only aggravates the problem, as the example of Afghanistan will unfortunately demonstrate.


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