The shifting fronts of Bush’s war

Issue: 116

When Gordon Brown took over from Blair the biggest obstacle to refurbishing the image of New Labour was the war in Iraq. It remains an obstacle, despite the British withdrawal of troops from the centre of Basra to the airport outside the city—effectively a recognition of defeat in the effort to control the south of the country. But the one thing Brown did not dare say was that this marked the end of British involvement. For that would have been seen as withdrawing moral support for George Bush’s war.

The Bush administration feels it must try to rescue something from defeat. That is the significance of the Petraeus-Cocker report to Congress and Bush’s announcement that the “surge” will continue into next year. All the Petraeus report showed, in reality, was that if enough troops are concentrated long enough in one area, their opponents are likely to move elsewhere or to go into hiding. To retreat in the face of overwhelming numbers is the most elementary rule of guerrilla warfare.

Yet the very visible failure of the US military presence in Iraq is eroding its global power. This provides the context for a speech in late August in which Bush raised the threat of military action against Iran. There have been several such moments of anti-Iranian rhetoric over the past three years. This instance may also lead nowhere, but the possibility that Bush will try to compensate for defeat in Iraq by bombing Iran cannot be ruled out. A US attack on Iran would create near insuperable difficulties for Brown. The massive opposition to Blair’s support for the Israeli war on Lebanon last year shows how easily such actions can massively reinvigorate the anti-war movement.

There is, however, one US war which Brown thinks he will gain from backing—the one in Afghanistan. Those Western powers who did not see any advantage in supporting a war in Iraq have sought to show that the US has to take them seriously by offering to help it out in Afghanistan. France, Germany and Spain all have troops in Afghanistan. The Brown strategy seems to be to use the British presence in southern Afghanistan to overcome any tension with the US over withdrawal from Basra. Much of the media has come to Brown’s aid, painting the conflict as the “good war” in contrast with the “bad war” in Iraq.

Such arguments have even gained currency with sections of the left internationally. So the Spanish social democrats who won an election by opposing the Iraq war, and the leaders of Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, who mobilised huge numbers against it, now routinely vote for troops in Afghanistan on the grounds that they are “peacekeepers”. This involves an assumption that the imperialist powers can bring “civilisation”, “peace” and “freedom for women”. Yet it is precisely the intervention of the imperialist great powers that has pushed Afghanistan backwards over the past 30 years.

Afghanistan in the 1970s was a peculiarly lopsided society—an extreme example of “uneven and combined” development. The great mass of the population were cultivators and herders, eking out a living from the land, sometimes supplemented by low level trade, artisanal production, smuggling and brigandage, with social relations characteristic of clan or tribal societies. Only a relatively small segment of the population, based in the towns, especially Kabul, were fully part of the modern world of capitalism. They experienced university education or military training, and aspired to turn Afghanistan into a “modern country”. A section of this group, based mainly among the army officers and organised through the “Communist” People’s Democratic Party, tried to impose top_down modernisation after a coup in 1977. The attempt to speed up history failed disastrously. Spontaneous rural uprisings occurred, which increasingly articulated their opposition through rival Islamist currents. The “modernisers” ended up blaming each other for their failure. The Communist leader, Taraki, was murdered by his number two, Amin, and the party split along ethnic lines between Persian speaking and Pushtun speaking factions.

The country had long been a buffer state with Russia on one side and Britain, then the US, on the other. Now inter-imperialist rivalry began to have a devastating effect. Since the Communist officers were allied with the USSR, the US thought it could weaken its influence by providing arms to the various insurgent forces. The USSR, afraid of losing influence, intervened to try to stabilise the country under its own control. It sent in many thousands of troops, murdering Amin, imposing Babrik Karmal as his successor and attempting to crush resistance using all the tried and tested forms of “ant-insurgent” warfare pioneered by the British in Malaya and the US in Vietnam. The US then upped the ante by working with the Pakistani military dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq and that country’s right wing Islamist parties to provide heavy armaments to—and exercise control over —the rival Afghan resistance forces.

What would have been a nasty civil war, involving the use of light weapons, until rival factions came to a compromise, became a devastating conflict involving the most destructive modern weaponry. Even the final abandonment of Afghanistan by the USSR, preoccupied by its domestic crisis, did not end the mayhem. The different forces armed by the great powers turned on each other, as rival Tajik, Uzbek and Pushtun groups (the latter with arms and encouragement from the US allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) fought for control of Kabul.

The effect of a decade and a half of such devastation, epitomised by the five million Afghans who took refuge in neighbouring countries, was to push the whole society backwards. It was this that gave rise to the Taliban, although an important role was also played by Saudis and the then prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, who wanted a Pakistan dominated zone in southern Afghanistan to counter any Indian influence over the central government in Kabul.

The Taliban were the sons of Pushtun peasants and refugees whose education in Islamic seminaries, madrassas, gave them a certain status in their villages of birth. Their ultra puritanical version of Islam, with its rejection of modern “Western” artefacts such as recorded music and videos, and its strict segregation of the sexes, fitted in with the perception of village people who blamed “foreigners” and “modern ways” for the devastation and the murderous infighting between the old Islamist parties. Such had been the destruction that even supposedly modern-thinking traders welcomed its military victories, while former members of the Pushtun wing of Afghan Communism, the Khalq, were to be found fighting in its ranks. The paradox was that the Taliban, by giving heightened expression to the traditional peasant distrust of the city and “city folk”, were able to take control of Kabul.

The contradictory position the Taliban found themselves in would eventually have produced internal convulsions. They were, after all, trying to impose the traditional values of a peasant society while keeping the country’s traders content, working closely with the government of modern, capitalist Pakistan and engaging in negotiations over the building of an oil pipeline with US multinationals. But the US bombardment and invasion of the country after 11 September 2001 meant the internal contradictions never had a chance to work themselves out.

Capitalist ideological orthodoxy holds that economic development after the US occupation should have weaned the Pushtun peasantry away from their attachment to the Taliban. This proposition ignores the fact that capitalist development can further impoverish and marginalise layers of peasants. But the orthodoxy was never put to the test. The aid that was meant to encourage capitalist development was simply not forthcoming, and the US and its allies were happy to hand the country over to the “Northern League”, one of the armed factions that had caused so much devastation in the past, with a token Pushtun presiding over an overwhelmingly non_Pushtun government. It is hardly surprising that the Taliban have been able to find a new hearing among Pushtun peasant communities.

The most recent twist to events is the US demand for “hot pursuit”—the right to attack supporters of the Taliban across the border in Pakistan. Even from Bush, this is an amazing combination of arrogance and short sightedness. The border region of Waziristan is populated by peasant clans who have a history of a century and a half of exploiting its rugged terrain to defeat invading armies. The British never succeed in controlling the region, even though at one point in the 1930s there were more British Indian army troops in Waziristan than in the whole of the rest of the subcontinent. The British were forced to negotiate with local clans. A government “political agent” resided in a protected enclave in each “tribal area” with a military force to protect him, but could only get his way through bribes, diplomacy aimed at exploiting feuds between different clans, and the threat of punitive military raids. The same method was used by successive Pakistani governments,1 until the present insurgency led to the deaths of 150 political agents in two years.

Musharraf has 130,000 Pakistani troops in the region, but he faces the problem that virtually the whole of the local population identifies with the struggles of their relatives across the border against the Nato forces. As a commentator in the Karachi paper Dawn noted a few months ago, bombing the area simply creates a bitterness that demands revenge against the outsiders.2 In fact, the only success Musharraf seems to have had has been to get one of the clans to turn against a group of Uzbek Islamist fighters on the grounds that their attempts to fight the Pakistani government as “hypocrites” are a diversion from the fight against “infidel” invaders of Afghanistan.3

It is nonsense to believe that US or Nato forces will be able to achieve more than the Pakistani army did, especially since their numbers would be much smaller. (In the whole of Afghanistan Nato has a quarter of the number of troops deployed by Pakistan in Waziristan.) The only significantly different approach Nato could take to that of the Pakistani army would be even more brutal, bombing wide areas in the hope of terrifying the whole population. The most likely effect would be to give further impetus to the other Pushtun peoples of North West Pakistan to identify with the struggle against the US and with the Taliban—and then the logic for Nato would be to spread the brutality even further and to justify it by the need to end “savage” and “barbaric” behaviour.

The argument of the liberals and the supposed left wing supporters of military intervention in this situation—as in so many others—is that “something must be done”. Some of the practices of the Waziristan peoples are anathema to anyone trying to make the world a better place. But that is not going to be overcome by waging war.

Waziristan is an impoverished peasant society, with the average holdings among the biggest clan group, the Mahsuds, amounting to no more than two acres. Like many such societies elsewhere in the world it has been characterised by bloody vendettas and by patriarchal practices in the full meaning of the term (the male head of a household has been able to treat women like chattels). It has been drawn partially into the wider capitalist world in recent years, but this has happened in a way that has distorted people’s lives even more. Some families have risen out of abysmal poverty. One in ten men work as labourers in the Gulf states; others play a part in smuggling networks that stretch from Iran across Afghanistan and deep into Pakistan; a few have made careers in the Pakistani army or state bureaucracy; the number of children in primary schools has grown fivefold over the last quarter century. Yet the basic poverty of most people remains untouched. The drop out rate from primary schools remains 90 percent; high school enrolment has fallen by more than a third; families unable to afford a state education send their children to the religious madrassas.

It is these conditions that encourage people to continue to recast their traditional values in a Taliban form. The answer to that does not lie in the military obliteration of men, women and children alike. Rather it involves dealing with the roots of the poverty and providing them with a wider perspective on life. Neither Nato troops nor the Pakistani military are going to do this. The one thing that might is wider, deep seated social change in Pakistan. But, as the British and American governments repeatedly make clear, one purpose of the military activity in Afghanistan is to “stabilise” Pakistan. The left internationally should oppose this war as firmly as the one in Iraq.


1: One former political agent has described both the anthropology of the region and the methods of the government: see Akbar S Ahmed’s Resistance and Control in Pakistan.

2: Dawn, 11 March 2007.

3: Dawn, 10 April 2007.