AFGHANISTAN: How the US put Taliban in power

Issue 

BY YACOV BEN EFRAT

Until recently, the name "Afghanistan" had an exotic ring to many, but not to US policy-makers. For a decade (1979-1989) they backed the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, contributing to the latter's collapse. The new world order had its start, one might say, in this desolate country, although it reached its heyday a short time later in the Gulf War.

From 1979 until 1989, the US was extremely busy in Afghanistan, then ruled by forces of the Soviet Union. America saw the Soviet presence as a threat to its influence in central Asia, and especially as a threat to its allies, Pakistan and Turkey. The Iranian revolution had recently toppled the shah.

This trauma heightened America's anxiety about Afghanistan's fall to the Soviets. As a counterweight, [Egyptian President] Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David accords, crossing to the Western bloc. Yet because of his subsequent isolation in the Arab world, his about-face did not reassure America concerning the area's future.

In order to realise its ambition of shaping events in Afghanistan, the US needed a more aggressive foreign policy. That required an internal transformation. It happened at the end of 1980, when conservative Republican Ronald Reagan defeated Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Reagan entered the White House armed with an extreme anti-Soviet political program. Almost immediately he found a close ally in Pakistan's leader, General Zia al-Haq, who had overthrown the legal government of Ali Bhutto three years earlier.

The Carter administration had imposed sanctions on Pakistan because of its nuclear-weapons program and abuses of human rights; Reagan promptly cancelled them. He provided generous military assistance. Pakistan became third among the nations receiving US foreign aid. In return, it supported US policy.

In order to win domestic legitimacy for his dictatorial regime, General Zia began to depend on Islamist tendencies. While suppressing political parties and cancelling freedoms, he tried to give the regime a new identity. Among the religious movements he relied on was Jama'at al-Islam, a right-wing fundamentalist party founded in 1941. Zia gave it broad powers to administer the educational system, including the universities. He also helped it gain influence over the media.

The power of this party extended to all aspects of life, including the military, arousing concern within the Pakistani opposition. The idyll between Zia and the Islamists reached its height in 1980, when Islamic law (shariah) became the law of the land.

The fundamentalist character of Pakistan's regime did not bother Washington. On the contrary, the CIA adopted a view put forth by Pakistan's ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence): the Islamic extremists in Afghanistan must be aided in their struggle against the more educated, liberal, left-leaning classes.

Origins of Taliban

The Taliban movement has its origin in a network of religious schools, established in Pakistan by another Islamist party, Jama'iyyat Ulama al-Islam.

In the early '90s, some 4000 madrassas (boarding schools) sprang up all over Pakistan, especially near the Afghan border (where two million Afghan refugees were living in camps). These schools included not only refugee children, but also sons of wealthy Pakistani families. At present they have half a million pupils.

Until 1993 Jama'iyyat Ulama al-Islam was still a rather isolated party in Pakistani politics. Then, however, it joined the government of Benazir Bhutto. The coalition was headed by the Pakistani People's Party (PPP). Under this aegis, the madrassas of Jama'iyyat Ulama al-Islam trained their pupils within a military and political framework. Out of it came the Taliban movement, under the supervision and responsibility of Pakistan's ISI.

In August 1994, the Pakistani regime decided to use the Taliban in order to establish control over Afghanistan, where it intended to impose order and stability.

The chief of Jama'iyyat Ulama al-Islam, Mullah Fadel al-Rahman (once head of the Pakistani parliament's foreign affairs committee) at this time made a series of visits to Saudi Arabia. His aim was to persuade the Saudis to support the new Pakistani policy in Afghanistan. The head of the Saudi secret service, Prince Turki al-Faisal, then paid a visit to the Taliban's centre at Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. Pakistan's pressure bore fruit: the Saudis decided to finance the Taliban.

They had an additional motive to do so. Jama'iyyat Ulama al-Islam and the Taliban belong to an Islamic school of thought known as Deoband, named after the Indian town where it was founded in 1867. This school is based on a separatist, reactionary interpretation of Islam. Deoband is very close to the Wahabi school, to which the Saudi royal family belongs.

The US joined its allies in aiding the Taliban movement, ignoring its cruelty toward Afghan citizens. Washington pursued a single objective only: control over the oil and gas resources in the Caspian Sea. On September 26, 1996, after seven years of civil war, the Taliban captured Kabul, the capital. They imposed their authority and secured, for a short time, a measure of stability.

One year later a contract was signed between, on the one hand, a group of oil companies including America's Unocal and Saudi Arabia's Delta Oil, and, on the other, the government of Turkmenistan (formerly a Soviet republic). The agreement included the laying of a pipeline 790km long, from the gas fields of Turkmenistan on the Caspian Sea to the Indian Ocean. The pipeline was supposed to pass through Afghanistan and Pakistan, enabling the Americans to bypass Iran and Russia. The Taliban government promised Pakistan to keep the area around the pipeline stable.

Trud, a Russian newspaper, quoted the assistant director of Unocal, Chris Taggart, on October 29, 1997 as follows: "If the Taliban stabilises the situation in Afghanistan and can gain international recognition, the possibilities of constructing a pipeline will be significantly improved."

Osama bin Laden

In August 1998, the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es-Salam were bombed. The attacks were linked to Osama bin Laden, now based in Afghanistan under the aegis of the Taliban government. Three months later, Unocal cancelled its part in the pipeline deal.

The Taliban victory in Afghanistan resulted not from divine intervention, rather from the support of Pakistan's army and secret service, together with American and Saudi money. In less abnormal circumstances, even all these would not have sufficed. One more element was required: Afghanistan's sheer backwardness. Were it not for that, a movement with so benighted an interpretation of Islam could never have taken over. This movement could only find footing in a country lacking the infrastructure of modern life.

The intimate relation between bin Laden and the Taliban did not result from any interest on his part in the welfare of the Afghan people. The need to restore the ravaged land had no place on his agenda. On the contrary, devastation and backwardness provided fertile soil for his megalomaniac program: to turn Afghanistan into a major base of jihad fighters for the sake of Islamic conquest.

The Taliban movement did not establish a modern system of government. It did not aim to solve the economic and social crisis, caused by years of war and drought. Instead, through a special police system, it set about enforcing its reactionary Wahabi version of Islam. The new laws proscribed, among other things, listening to music or making art. Afghan women paid the highest price. The Taliban forbade them to study or work or even, except under strictly defined conditions, to go out of doors.

The Taliban did bring relative stability, however, which stopped the flow of refugees to Pakistan. This neighbour viewed the new government in a favourable light and acted as its patron. To Pakistan, a friendly Afghanistan is a source of strategic depth. It provides vital help in the confrontation with India over the control of central Asia. In particular, the Taliban jihad fighters reinforce pro-Pakistan troops in disputed Kashmir.

In the border battles of May 1999, between India and Pakistan, bin Laden's forces played a major role.

Before September 11, the foreign policy of the United States was directed mainly against Russia. America views Russia as a nuclear power that competes with it for influence in the vital areas of central Europe, the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. As for bin Laden, he was not considered as serious a threat as "rogue states" like Iran, Iraq and North Korea.

The main strategic initiative of George W. Bush was to cancel the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty of 1972 and increase the effort to build an anti-missile defence system, which was supposed to ensure supremacy over Russia.

The aid that America gave the Taliban in Afghanistan was a product of the same strategy. It was the Taliban's role to guarantee an American foothold in the three Muslim states that border the Caspian Sea and are presently under Russian influence: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The US preferred the Taliban regime in Afghanistan because of its absolute dependence on Pakistan. The alternative "Northern Alliance", supported by Russia and Iran, was repugnant to American eyes.

Despite Washington's present use of the Northern Alliance as a lever against the Taliban, it does not see the former as a strategic partner. Nor does it want to create antagonism with its devoted allies in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Washington is determined to eliminate bin Laden and stabilise the Afghan regime without disturbing the regional balance. If it succeeds in this, it will continue its crusade to liberate the sacred Caspian oil fields. It will seek to bring other nearby lands, such as Georgia, into its orbit.

Growing global anarchy

The roots of the "first war of the 21st century" may be found in the wars America waged in the 1990s against Iraq and Yugoslavia. It fought against countries that could offer no resistance, military or economic. It paraded these wars under enlightened titles such as the defence of ethnic groups, of human rights, of democracy. Their single purpose, however, was to enforce a new world order, commanded by the United States.

The use of force to impose hegemony is a sign of weakness. It shows that the global capitalist regime is nearing collapse.

Anarchy in weaker lands may be taken as the first sparrow. For the past two years, however, the crisis has been hitting the big industrial centres. Japan, Europe and America itself were slipping into recession even before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. These came as a rude awakening: the malignancy has not stayed locked up within the borders of Africa, Asia or Latin America. It has found its way to the nerve-centre of the capitalist order.

The attack on the US is a warning. The lack of any alternative on a global scale raises unprecedented dangers.

The beginnings of disarray can be seen already, in the cracks that have opened among the former members of the alliance against Iraq. They do not go along with the American notion that problems can be solved by force. They worry that they too may become a target for rage, with anarchy popping up in their own backyards.

The enemy is evasive. It is not just bin Laden or the Taliban. The real enemy is the anarchy America itself has created. The present war will strengthen this anarchy. The economic crisis, meanwhile, sharpens conflicts of interest among the more influential states. There is growing danger of nuclear confrontation between China and Taiwan, India and Pakistan, and yes, America and Russia.

Soon after the suicide actions, the New Statesman, a British weekly close to the Labour Party, included the following analysis in its lead editorial (September 17, 2001): "Since the communist bloc began to weaken in the 1980s, and finally collapsed in the 1990s, capitalism has reverted to type, though with most of the misery exported from the industrialised nations. A world in which there is only one superpower deprives poor countries of the best lever for improving themselves that they ever had: if one side wouldn't provide aid, in cash or kind, they could go straight to the other.

"True, this kind of blackmail allowed many cruel and corrupt dictators to retain power. But you may be sure that, if the Soviet Union were still a reality and a threat, the debt crisis, which now affects some 50 countries and has reached previously unimagined levels (some countries have to use a quarter of their export earnings to service debt), would not exist...

"The death of the Soviet Union also deprived the global poor of something more intangible: not exactly hope, perhaps, but the sense of an alternative, of possibility."

These points are clearly beyond the comprehension of Osama bin Laden and his band. When he called on Muslims to wage a jihad against American bases in Saudi Arabia, against the siege on Iraq and against the oppression of the Palestinians, he forgot one thing: it was he and his followers who helped bring down the Soviet Union - and who bear, therefore, responsibility for the ills he rails against.

In Lebanon in the early 1980s, when Palestinians resisted Israel and received support from the Soviet Union, bin Laden (with Saudi help) gave America a gift in Afghanistan. Instead of defending the oppressed, he struck at their ally. If the Arab volunteers in Afghanistan had really wanted to sacrifice themselves, they could have gone to Beirut when it was under siege, at a time when the Palestinians and Lebanese desperately needed Arab solidarity.

Why didn't they go? Because the war in Beirut, unlike that in Afghanistan, was being fought against American imperialism, and this didn't fit their concept. Osama bin Laden "beat communism", but the victory was a Pyrrhic one, and the first of its victims was the Palestinian people.

Not just this people, however, but all peoples of the world are paying the price for the Soviet demise.

Absurdly enough, the capitalist regime too pays the price for its downfall. The Soviet Union had ensured a measure of political and economic stability in many lands. Upon its collapse, responsibility passed to the United States.

Global problem

The current global problem, however, is not the fact that there is just one superpower, but the absence of a significant organised political opposition within that superpower.

The US prides itself on being the stronghold of democracy. What is this democracy? A coterie shuffles power among its members. Around this magic circle the media form a consensus of specious reasonableness, in which the human causes of massive suffering pass as immutable laws.

One result of the lack of broad-based opposition in the US has been the rise of extremist tendencies in the rest of the world. While Americans huddled cozily, enjoying their "way of life", others have been in decline. It is no wonder, therefore, that the poor of the Earth, among them Islamic peoples, have developed a deep hatred for America. Its exploitation of them for the sake of its standard of living, accompanied by indifference to their catastrophes, has led to the present state of things, where the US has become a target.

A true response to the recent events, on the part of the American people, would be to take a stand - and offer at last an alternative to the coterie that got them into this mess.

It is not accidental that the movement against globalisation began in Seattle in 1999. This was a good beginning toward building an alternative. But the recent suicide actions have caught the anti-globalisation movement unprepared. Its lack of readiness shows in the absence of a clear political program to counter capitalism.

The earth-shaking events of September 11 should make it possible for popular movements in the industrial nations, and especially in the US, to put politics back on the public agenda. America still has its masses, its working class, its unions. It is upon them to put forth a new position, blocking reactionary trends that threaten to cast the world into anarchy.

As Marxists, we attempt to understand the contradictions of the capitalist regime and to work for its downfall. Acts of suicidal murder contribute nothing toward this difficult goal. Our way is long, requiring patience and persistent labour. Our purpose is to persuade the masses and to organise them within the framework of political parties, until they are able to realise their democratic right to determine their own fate.

Politics must be put back on the public agenda, not as an end in itself, but as a means to return society's resources to society's hands. These resources ought to be distributed equally among all peoples, so that each may feel itself to be part of humanity. If this does not happen, what we saw on September 11 will turn out to be part of an ongoing series. Between socialism and barbarism there is no third alternative. The time has come to choose.

[Translated from the Hebrew by Stephen Langfur. Abridged from Challenge, a bimonthly journal which offers investigative reporting and in-depth analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To subscribe: Please send a cheque (made out to CHALLENGE) for US$30, 20L, 55DM to: POB 41199, Jaffa 61411, Israel. Other currencies should be sent by a bank cheque in US dollars or a post office transfer. If neither is possible send your cash currency (well covered). Please write your address clearly.]

From Green Left Weekly, November 21, 2001.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.