45. War in Afghanistan



Blair indicated just how unprepared and light-minded he and Bush were in rushing to war in Afghanistan. Even Pakistan’s President Musharraf, although publicly supporting Blair and Bush and condemning the actions of the Taliban, nevertheless warned Blair in private of actions by leaders which can have unintended consequences: “He told me something I reflected upon a good deal in later years: in the 1970s, General Zia had made the fatal error of linking Pakistani nationalism to devout Islam, in the course of which he had adopted the manner of a religious as well as a political and military leader, proudly showing the mark on his forehead from being pressed to the ground in prayer. The connection between the two, Musharraf explained, had furthered radicalism [right-wing political Islam] in the country, heightened the issue of Kashmir and made reconciliation with India harder.”1

Blair claimed: “The Taliban had collapsed by the end of 2001, remnants melting back into the Pushtun populace in southern Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas.”2 Yet he concedes after the fact: “Many who were not extremists nevertheless shared a sense that they were justified in fighting us; that this was a battle between the West and the people of Afghanistan.”3 So to eradicate the Afghan people’s ‘false consciousness’, they had to be bombed back into the Stone Age! This did not work, as he in effect concedes: “I certainly misjudged the depth of the failure of the Afghan state and the ability of the Taliban to immerse themselves into local communities, particularly in the south, and to call upon reinforcements from across the border in the mountainous highlands that seemed a law unto themselves.”4 He certainly would have ‘understood’ if beforehand he had studied the history of Afghanistan, particularly the fate of invaders of the country, or if he had perused the publications of the CWI!

Incredibly, Blair claims that, in his partnership with Bush, invading Afghanistan and then Iraq, he “had become a revolutionary”!5 He has missed out one little word: “counter”! Imperialist intervention in the region perpetuated its age-old poverty, with the added aim of securing their strategic interests, including the defence of their oil interests. The invasion of Afghanistan was christened ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’. A more apt description for the peoples of this blighted country and region would be “enduring misery, poverty, war and backwardness”.

The US ruling class and its allies launched a massive ideological offensive to prepare the ground for the physical offensive against ‘terrorism’. We stated that this offensive would not just be aimed at those Middle Eastern groups attacking uS imperialism but could also be used to attack anyone challenging the capitalist system. The journals of capitalism began to claim that this was a battle between the ‘civilised’ and the ‘uncivilised’, with Bush in his usual simplistic fashion, arguing that the choice was between ‘good’ – represented by him and Blair – and ‘evil’: not just bin Laden, but anyone who stood in the way of the aims of the US and imperialism as a whole. We reminded our readers that the roots of the developing conflict were found in the wars conducted 10 years previously in the Gulf and the horrific sanctions against Iraq which killed an estimated half a million children.

Bush and Blair played on the feelings of outrage at 9/11 and initially got significant support, especially in the US where 84% said that they supported military retaliation. Yet we argued that despite the bombing of Iraq, through the ‘no-fly zone’, Saddam was still “in place. It was not the bombings during the war in Kosova that removed Milosevic, but mass action by ordinary Serbs, including the organised working class.”6 Bill Clinton had also bombed targets in Iraq with B-52 bombers armed with up to 300 cruise missiles in 1998. We had argued that the US wanted “Saddam out of the way, by military strike, coup or assassination.”7 Just weeks after his inauguration, George W Bush had flexed his country’s muscles by bombing Iraq, with the intention of demonstrating his ‘decisiveness’. As usual, Tony Blair applauded his actions, playing the role of US imperialism’s lapdog.

The New Labour government’s ministers for defence, John Speller and Geoff Hoon, with their usual breathtaking hypocrisy, supported this action, claiming that it was necessary to cage Saddam Hussein and thereby protect the Kurds of the north and the Shia Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq. While there was majority support for Bush’s stance, certainly in America, with the opinion polls initially at over 90% approval, the highest ever for the US president, we argued that there would be significant opposition and this would grow, especially in the event of an invasion.

After 9/11 the anti-war movement began to develop. In London 2,000 people assembled on 21 September to condemn Bush and Blair’s plans for war. So crammed was the room where the meeting was taking place that an overspill room was organised, which heard speakers outside. These included Tariq Ali, Socialist Alliance member Liz Davies and others. But Socialist Party member and Socialist Alliance chairperson Dave Nellist was prevented from speaking – another example of the exclusive and sectarian position of our left opponents. Apart from the fact that Dave Nellist had been consistently elected as a councillor and was part of the same broad Socialist Alliance as the organisers, the SWP made sure that he was not given a platform. John Rees – in the SWP at this time – attempted to offer some ‘analysis’ in distinction to other speakers but he was the only one not to condemn the atrocities in the US – merely concluding that if we stopped the war now, there would be a “better life for decent, ordinary people everywhere”.

This was an example of the SWP’s avoidance of any criticism of right-wing ‘political Islam’, which caused divisions then and later in the anti-war movement. We opposed their stance as well as that of other organisations on the left on this issue, which amounted to giving ‘critical’ support to what they perceived were “anti-imperialist” forces in the Middle East and elsewhere. We set out our differences in a lengthy document, ‘Afghanistan, Islam and the revolutionary left’. We pointed out:

“War is an acid test for the programme, perspectives, strategy and tactics of all political formations, particularly those that stand on the left. Everything which is positive, which in action shows a way forward for the working class, is revealed. Conversely, everything that is rotten, which is false, is also laid bare. So it was in the Gulf war, in the conflict in Kosova/Kosovo and now also in the war in Afghanistan…

“Compare the positions taken by the CWI and its sections with those of other organisations, particularly those who claim to stand on the revolutionary left… Most of [them] erred, and sometimes quite grossly, during the war. Some were opportunist; mostly however they were ultra-left and sometimes managed to combine both opportunism and ultra-leftism.”

We stated:

“To call baldly and crudely for the ‘defeat of US imperialism’ and its coalition allies as an agitational slogan is wrong. When Lenin used the term ‘revolutionary defeatism’, as Trotsky subsequently explained, it was in order to clearly delineate revolutionary Marxism from opportunism following the betrayal of the German social democracy and their opportunist international co-thinkers at the beginning of the First World War. It was primarily a policy for the cadres to draw a clear line of separation between the revolutionaries and the opportunists. It was not a policy that could have won the masses to the banner of Bolshevism or to the revolution. It was the programme of the Bolsheviks and everything that flowed from this, including the taking of power by the working class in alliance with the peasantry, which guaranteed the success of the Russian Revolution.”8

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, had the most hideous and repulsive features of dictatorship. They suppressed the working class and denied national and ethnic rights. This changed the circumstances 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 or in Ethiopia in 1935, or base ourselves upon the hypothetical situation sketched out by Trotsky in relation to Brazil.

Internationally, the anti-war movement developed rapidly with 10,000 demonstrating in Bellingham, Washington State, US, in September. The CWI’s German section, SAV, intervened in mass demonstrations with the slogan “No more victims, stop the war!” In Britain in October, the Socialist carried the slogan “War is no solution”. We pointed out that “Blair and George Bush will declare war on the dirt poor country of Afghanistan – a third of whose population (8 million) are dependent upon United Nations food handouts to survive… even if this war succeeds in dislodging the medieval rule of the Taliban, it’s extremely unlikely the opposition Northern Alliance will restore democratic rights to the Afghan people.”9

From the beginning we pointed out that the real solution lay in the hands of ordinary Afghans who must fight for a government of working people and the rural poor as part of a socialist confederation of the Middle East. At the same time, we demanded that the working class should not pay the price for capitalism’s war. In its approach towards the war, the US faced confused ‘war aims’. Colin Powell, Secretary of State, defined the limits of US capacity: “We do deserts, we don’t do mountains.”

By early November, the systematic bombing of Afghanistan had begun. There was plenty of talk of conducting this war in a ‘humanitarian’ fashion. We pointed out that it was likely that US  imperialism would succeed in overthrowing the Taliban, which by this time was extremely unpopular in Afghanistan, by using a combination of bombing, limited ground troops, funding the Northern Alliance and attempting to split the Taliban itself. Robert Fisk in the Independent accurately described the Northern Alliance as “a confederacy of warlords… rapists and torturers.” He described how, when they took control of the capital in 1992, they “looted and raped their way through the suburbs of Kabul”.10 At one stage previously, the Mujahideen as a whole were receiving around $1 million a day from the US.

Terrorism, we argued, far from being defeated, had increased. At the same time, the working class in the West would be expected to foot the bill for the war in the form of job cuts, attacks on public spending and tax increases. Moreover, the ruling class in the US and elsewhere used the attacks to justify a serious undermining of democratic rights. The Prevention of Terrorism Act in Britain was introduced as a knee-jerk reaction to the IRA bombings in Britain in the early 1970s. It did not defeat the IRA but it was responsible for miscarriages of justice such as in the cases of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. Any repressive laws introduced would undoubtedly generate a climate whereby racist attacks on Arabs and Muslims around the world could take place. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, people had been shot in racist attacks. In Britain an Afghan taxi driver was paralysed after an assault.

In the US opinion polls at first showed overwhelming support for military action but in Britain the majority said they would oppose military strikes if they harmed civilians. The economic fallout was considerable as well. Not surprisingly, the attacks brought the biggest stock exchange fall since 1929 – inevitably echoed by similar falls in stock exchanges around the world. The most immediate impact of the attack was on airlines, which faced devastating losses and even bankruptcy. Before 9/11, US airlines had been forecast to make a combined loss of up to $3.5 billion in 2001. The airline bosses had no hesitation in going to the President and Congress demanding a $24 billion rescue package in the form of tax relief and guaranteed loans. The price of oil rose immediately after 9/11, but big oil producers like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates rushed to help their friend, the US, promising they would increase production in order to meet demand. However, the price of oil had already tripled since the slump in prices following the Asian crisis of 1997-98.

Just a month after the attacks, we drew a balance sheet of the repercussions for the changed era we were likely to pass through. Even the popular press were pessimistic: “We are looking at civil war, revolution, international conflict. We are facing uprisings by fundamentalist fanatics against America and its allies.”11 We commented: “It is a measure of how much the world has changed, and ‘changed utterly’, when the British ‘popular’ (gutter) press speaks in such apocalyptic tones about the future, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.”12

A US Army strategic planner stated that the US “may be embarking on an endless war of attrition against a faceless enemy – think of a global Vietcong.”13 A lawyer in Washington commented: “No one wants to hear about American policies or how they might have influenced or caused what has happened.”14 For the time being, this will be the case, we wrote. Yet the shattering of ‘Fortress USA’ would ultimately force the population to confront the reality of the ‘country’s standing in the world’.

Thousands died in the terrorist attacks. Yet terrible as this was, it was outstripped by the number of children who died in Iraq every month through lack of medicine and food because of the US government’s sanctions policy. Author Martin Amis wrote: “It will also be horribly difficult and painful for Americans to absorb the fact that they are hated, and hated intelligibly. How many of them know, for example, that their government has destroyed at least 5% of the Iraqi population? How many of them then transfer that figure to America (and come up with 14m)?”15

There was worldwide condemnation of the attacks. Even Iran, Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, and Syria, together with Gaddafi’s Libyan regime condemned the attacks without overtly signing up to the ‘coalition’ organised against Al-Qa’ida. We foresaw future developments when we wrote: “The capture or killing of bin Laden would not shatter the terrorist network which exists. His organisation acts as an umbrella organisation, a ‘think tank’, a kind of ‘Ford Foundation for terrorism’ which, it is alleged, has a presence in at least 60 countries.”16 Prophetic words in view of the later killing of bin Laden under Obama and the increase in terrorism in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Even before the invasion of Afghanistan, the country was in a terrible position and was already firmly located in the Stone Age. “Life expectancy… has fallen to the age of 42 for women and 44 for men.”17 Out of 26 million people, at least five million had fled the country. With the economy in ruins, drought and famine faced those who were left behind. The US was preparing to bomb the country. Ferocious pressure was exerted on Pakistan to force the Taliban to hand over bin Laden and provide facilities for operations against Afghanistan. Pakistani officials complained to the Financial Times: “The US told us: ‘you are either with us or against us’… Under the circumstances we had no option but to sign up.”18 In this sense, the Gulf War was being repeated, with huge financial subsidies dangled before those who would sign up and sanctions against those who wouldn’t.

In Pakistan itself right-wing Islamism at this stage derived its strength from state patronage rather than popular support. The ascendancy of religious fundamentalism was the legacy of the previous military dictator, General Zia al Haq, who had received backing from Washington during his 11 years in power. As president he created a network of madrassas (religious boarding schools) which were funded by the Saudi Arabian regime. We pointed out that religious zealotry alone would not have guaranteed victory for the Taliban. It was the Pakistani army, through the medium of ‘volunteers’, that guaranteed its success. Moreover, this was the only foreign ‘victory’ of the Pakistani army, hence its tenacious support for the Taliban.

Fuelled by the rottenness and corruption of successive Pakistani regimes, as well as the worsening of the conditions of the already impoverished masses, political Islam began to sink roots in Pakistan itself and was now like a giant octopus threatening to completely strangle the country. The intervention of the US and Pakistan in Afghanistan provoked complaints, with the former head of the intelligence service protesting: “America has shown breathtaking arrogance in asking Pakistan to once again demonstrate that it is a friend. We gave everything in the 1980s to help America drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan, and when it no longer suited their interests, the Americans simply abandoned us.” This source went on to point out that bin Laden was part of an anti-Soviet Mujahideen group that received at least $10 million from the US during the 1980s. “The Taliban regime of Afghanistan grew directly out of the generous funding that the US gave to Islamic Mujaheddin groups in the 1980s.”19 Another general spat out: “Pakistan was the condom the Americans needed to enter Afghanistan. We served our purpose and they think we can be flushed down the toilet.”20

In the US we anticipated that opposition would grow despite the fact that Bush had been given greater support in Congress than any president since the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 (opposed by only two Senators), which led the US to immerse itself in the Vietnam disaster. This time round, only one congresswoman, representing the district covering Berkeley University and Oakland, California, voted against giving Bush unlimited powers. We wrote: “This unanimity will not hold in the teeth of the increased problems which will confront the prosecution of this ‘war’. But at the same time, a different kind of ‘war’ will eventually unfold in the US and throughout the capitalist world, in parallel with the military efforts of US imperialism and its allies: a class war. This will result from the inevitable resistance of working class people to the capitalists’ attempt to use the cover of this conflict to carry thorough wholesale attacks on workers’ living standards.”21 It took a long time for the working out of this perspective, but it is revealed in the huge changes taking place in the US today, symbolised by the victory of Kshama Sawant in Seattle in November 2013.  In the immediate days after 9/11, we reaffirmed our opposition to terrorism. It is the responsibility of the capitalist class who are incapable of solving the problems of the world: poverty, unemployment and deprivation. As shocking as the events of the World Trade Centre were, out of this carnage we predicted a layer would ask questions as to why these horrific events took place, while large parts of the world were already submerged in poverty and barbarism. We expected that they would ultimately discover that the system was incapable of satisfying the needs of the majority on the planet and that they would turn towards the ideas of socialism and Marxism.