Should the left call for Taliban victory?

AS SOCIALISTS, we support the right of oppressed peoples to fight for self-determination unreservedly, just as we oppose imperialism, without caveat.

This perspective is generally accepted by the left without question in contexts such as Latin America or Africa, where bitter fights against U.S. and European imperialism have been fought and, in some cases, won.

Yet, when it comes to the Middle East and Afghanistan today there is suddenly much less clarity about what radicals and Marxists should be saying. Nowhere is that more evident than in the case of Afghanistan, which has suffered under the yoke of U.S. imperialism since 2001 (with active U.S. interference in the country since at least the 1970s).

The idea that the Taliban, as a movement fighting against U.S. occupation, is a force we should be supporting is, unfortunately, a somewhat controversial position to hold, even on the far left. This is a serious mistake and speaks both to the extent to which Islamophobia has penetrated the left, as well as to the lack of understanding of the social dynamics of an oppressed and devastated country like Afghanistan.

We are all familiar with the lies and excuses used to justify the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Bush and his coterie of crooks and warmongers told us that only a military invasion could liberate the people, and especially the women, of Afghanistan from the brutal, misogynistic and "medieval" Taliban movement.

There was no mention, of course, of the substantial support offered to the Taliban regime in the late 1990s when Clinton was president and in the early days of the Bush presidency, nor of the long and ugly history of U.S. intervention in Central and South Asia, which was an important precondition for the rise of Islamism.

We should condemn unreservedly the oppression of women and the general social conservatism of the pre-2001 Taliban regime, as well, of course, as their efforts to cut deals with regional and global superpowers against the interests of the vast majority of Afghans. However, we must also unreservedly condemn the racism and Islamophobia used as an ideological fig leaf to justify invasion and imperialism, and it is the left's weakness on this issue, which has blinded many to the new realities on the ground in Afghanistan.

Before addressing the important question of who the Taliban actually are, it is important to understand the material conditions Afghans face. Afghanistan is a devastated country. It is ranked at or near the bottom of a broad range of social indicators, such as levels of poverty, infant mortality, literacy, per capita income, prevalence of easily preventable diseases and so forth. Most major cities in Afghanistan, including the capital Kabul, are in ruins (despite claims of "reconstruction" by NATO imperialists) and decent roads, electricity, clean water, sanitation and basic social services are unheard of for most of the population, especially in the rural areas. The majority of the population ekes out a living on a subsistence basis, and the struggle for survival is the overarching concern for most Afghans.

In a nutshell, there is no Afghan working class or progressive petit bourgeoisie to speak of, and the major social classes (aside from the puppet regime and it's assortment of bandits and thugs) are the poor peasantry and the Islamic clergy.

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THE SIGNIFICANCE of this to a discussion of anti-imperialist resistance in Afghanistan should be obvious to any serious historical materialist. This question cannot be thought about in the abstract, it must be considered in light of the material realities on the ground. Such realities necessarily shape the kinds of social forces and the character of class struggle in that country and make it highly likely that any grassroots resistance will have a strongly religious character, given that the rural clergy are the only force capable of uniting the peasantry against the comprador ruling class.

The following point cannot be stressed enough; whilst the U.S. remains in Afghanistan, economic and social development will not occur much beyond current levels. This in turn means that the Taliban, as a broad-based movement of poor farmers and lower clergy, is the face of anti-imperialist resistance in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.

To put it another way, if we, as avowed anti-imperialists, intend to wait around for a resistance movement that agrees with us on every issue, including the need to fight the oppression of women, gays, racial and religious minorities, etc., we'll be waiting a long time. The Taliban is the resistance in Afghanistan and we must support it, critically, but unreservedly.

The Taliban that ruled Afghanistan prior to the U.S. invasion no longer exists. The U.S. and NATO routinely refer to any act of resistance as the work of the "Taliban" (meaning the followers of Mullah Omar), much as every act of resistance in Iraq was the work of "Baath loyalists."

To be sure, there are attacks being carried out by people who support the former regime, but many, perhaps most, resistance fighters have no particular loyalty to the former leadership and some are actively hostile to it.

Anand Gopal, one of the few independent journalists actively trying to find out what is actually happening in Afghanistan has written some very useful and insightful work on this, and as he points out, the ranks of the Taliban have been swelled in recent years by rural peasants who have been radicalized as a result of US/NATO brutality, including the indiscriminate air attacks which have killed thousands of Afghans.

The Taliban are increasingly espousing a strong nationalist message and, in some cases, have substantially moderated their social conservatism in order to build a more broad-based and effective resistance movement.

It is also the case that the "Taliban" is effectively a blanket term for a coalition of groups, some drawn from the tiny strata of educated middle class Afghans, which aim to eject foreign troops from their country. In short, when the U.S. and its allies use the term "Taliban" they want us to think of public stonings, music bans and ultra-conservative clerics--and if we follow their lead we do a grave disservice to the Afghan resistance and only help to perpetuate Islamophobic caricatures of "crazed, bearded extremists."

There is no fundamental difference between the liberation theology movements in South America and the popular Islamist resistance movements in the Middle East and Asia, movements such as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Taliban. To be sure, the former were less socially conservative, but as religiously colored grassroots resistance movements they are essentially the same kind of manifestation of class resistance.

The left needs to ask itself why it is much more critical of Muslims expressing class anger in a religious form than of South American Christians; to my mind, unexamined Islamophobia explains much of this discrepancy.

Every U.S. and NATO tank that the Taliban destroy, every Karzai-appointed stooge they assassinate and every town or village they liberate is a victory for our side and a grievous blow to U.S. imperialism--we would do well to remember that and to offer our solidarity and support for a Taliban victory in Afghanistan.
Nick K., from the Internet