The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Behind the Rise of the Taliban Lurks Imperialism

Nov 8, 1996

The warlords who had been fighting for seven years for the control of the Afghan capital, Kabul, were driven out of the city on September 27 by the Taliban. These Sunni fundamentalist militias may advocate a return to medieval Islam, but this did not prevent certain western leaders and commentators from celebrating their victory, heralding it as a "return to order" in Afghanistan.

The Washington Post, for example, the day after the capture of Kabul, wrote that: "The stunning capture of Kabul by the radical Taliban militia organization represents the best chance in years of ending the anarchy that has wracked Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion in 1979." The same newspaper quoted a spokesman for the American State Department, Glyn Davies, as saying that the United States saw "nothing objectionable" about "the steps so far taken by the Taliban movement to impose Islamic law in the areas that it controls." And the Washington Post concluded that "American analysts describe the Taliban as ‘anti-modern’ rather than ‘anti-Western’, and note that it seems bent on restoring a traditional society in Afghanistan, rather than exporting an Islamic revolution .... The military successes of the Taliban appeared to be a setback for Iran, which had been supportive of the previous government."

In other words, for the Washington Post, the newspaper which most directly expresses the foreign policy goals of American imperialism, the victory of the Taliban enabled the imperialist order to kill three birds with one stone: it settled the problem of political instability in Afghanistan; it installed a pro-western regime; at the same time it weakened the position of Iran in the region.

It’s not so clear that the fundamentalist Talaban militias can quickly bring the Afghan population to heel. Four weeks after the Taliban took Kabul, they were on the defensive, having suffered a series of setbacks which could jeopardize their control over the capital.

In any event, while the Taliban may currently control two-thirds of the country, their lightning offensive of the last few months definitely seems to have been stopped, while the open civil war which has been covering the country in blood for the past seventeen years is still going on, with renewed intensity, and with no end in sight.

The Reign of the Warlords

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, its aim was to prevent political instability from developing on its borders; at the same time, it wanted to contain the rise of Islamic fundamentalism which was threatening the neighboring Soviet republics. Not only did this intervention fail to contain or prevent anything, it galvanized opposition to the regime and drove the population into the arms of the Islamic fundamentalists. They were able to present themselves as liberators in contrast to the brutality of the occupying troops. And American imperialism supplied them with the weapons they needed. Ten years later, the last Russian troops withdrew, defeated, at the end of a war which had led to more than a million deaths.

The departure of Soviet troops, however, did not put an end to the civil war. The rival warlords, who had each carved out their own territory over the previous decade, continued their effort to drive out the regime the Soviet troops had left in power. At the same time, they also began to struggle between themselves for power. When the regime fell, or more exactly disintegrated, in April 1992, this struggle intensified.

From February 13, 1989, when the last Russian troops departed, to September 27, 1990, Afghanistan was the scene of a confused and bloody conflict between the four main factions included in the so-called coalition government set up under the authority of the United Nations. Rather than being well-defined clans, these factions were more like unstable conglomerates of local and regional chiefs who had become "commanders" thanks to the stock of weapons they had accumulated; they were linked by clientele-type relations, which were often short-lived, and they were prone to changing their alliances.

The most important of these factions was that of the Jamiat-i-Islami, a Tadzhik-dominated fundamentalist party, the main leaders of which were the self-proclaimed president of the republic, Rabbani, and his defense minister, Massoud, the warlord of the Panjshir Valley to the north of the capital. Then there was the Pushtun fundamentalist party Hezb-i-Islami, whose leader, Hekmatyar, although nominally prime minister on several occasions, spent more time bombing the troops of the regime from the heights near Kabul than occupying his seat as a minister. There was also the Shiite fundamentalist Hezb-i-Wahdat front, dominated by the Hazaras, mainly present in the suburbs of Kabul and in the center of the country. Finally there was the faction of the Uzbek warlord Dostam, who had privately set up a fully-fledged independent state in the north-west of the country.

For seven years, each of these factions fought the other three under cover of all possible and imaginable combinations of alliances aimed at extending their own influence. That is, until the victorious offensive of this latest faction, the Taliban, forced them to set up a united front, since the Taliban themselves refuse to make concessions or consider any alliances.

The Inexorable March of the Taliban

The capture of Kabul focussed international attention on this deadly and interminable civil war which had almost been forgotten. The most shocking thing about it was the way the Taliban immediately set the clocks back a thousand years for Afghan society. Western TV channels showed ritual burnings of films, cassette players and videos, all symbols of modern culture. The Taliban began to apply the Law of the Koran in all its medieval barbarity: with the revolting slavery it imposed on women; the public beatings or even mutilations it prescribed as punishment; prayers five time a day—in short, a whole catalogue of humiliations and ordeals inflicted on the population.

Brutality alone does not explain the Taliban’s lightning ascension to power. A year after their first appearance in 1994, they already controlled half the country; today, another year later, they control two thirds of the country, including the capital. They were able to do this in the face of opponents who outnumbered them and who were already well established in power. No doubt the Taliban took advantage of the continuing disintegration of the state apparatus, which enabled them to take whole towns without a fight. The local warlords, allies of the Rabbani- Massoud clan, preferred to join the Taliban, or flee from them, rather than having to give battle.

Yet in a country where everyone has weapons and where the whole population has been hardened by so many years of war, the Taliban, relatively weak numerically since they apparently have only 25,000 fighters, could not have established their control over entire regions against the will of a hostile population. We can assume that the way they presented themselves had something to do with their ability to take control. They posed as champions of the fight against corruption and against all the rivalries between warlords which were undermining the country; they cultivated an austere image as selfless fighters. Thus, they were initially able to obtain, if not the active sympathy, at least the resigned consent of an exhausted population which clung to the hope that the Taliban would put an end to the civil war. Did this mean giving up the most elementary freedoms? In fact, this surrender of freedom was not very significant; the Law of the Koran had already been the official law of the country since 1992; women’s rights had already been reduced almost to zero, except no doubt for a section of the urban petty bourgeoisie. And the Taliban’s barbaric punishments may not have appeared much more terrifying than the exactions demanded by the feudal lords and local chiefs who had previously represented the Kabul government. This was particularly true in rural areas.

Even so, the Taliban could not have obtained popular consent so quickly without having some credibility. That is, they had to provide proof that they could end the war; they had to win an initial battle, then a second one, etc. But to do this, they needed weapons, material means and money. They needed not only to recruit troops but also to arm them, feed them and provide them with the countless Japanese jeeps whose mobility contributed to their success. These material means were provided by Pakistan.

Imperialist Order and Regional Rivalries

Pakistan had long intervened in Afghan affairs. Facing regional competition with Iran and rivalry with India, Pakistan sought ways to influence affairs in Afghanistan. From 1947 to 1979, India and Afghanistan maintained privileged relations with the Soviet Union, while Pakistan served as a regional lever for American imperialism against Soviet influence. Throughout this period, the Pakistani government encouraged the emergence of a Pushtun religious opposition in Afghanistan. Split in two by the Pakistani-Afghan border, as early as 1973 the Pushtun found a rear base in Pakistan. They were the first Afghani fundamentalist guerrillas.

With the Russian intervention in Afghanistan, American imperialism turned more openly to Pakistan. In their turn, the Pakistani leaders looked for ways to help set up an Afghan power closer to Pakistan than to India and Iran. The U.S. provided millions of dollars to Pakistan, with the goal of arming the Afghan resistance. The Pakistani political police, the ISI, set about recruiting, arming and training volunteers in the Afghan refugee camps in the border zone. Eventually, the ISI handed over this role to the rising star of Pushtun fundamentalism, Hekmatyar, the leader of the Hezb-i-Islami.

The withdrawal of Soviet troops may have changed the problem for the U.S.—at least slightly—but it did not change Pakistan’s ambitions. Facing attempts by the Iranian regime to obtain the good graces of different warlords fighting for power, Pakistan continued to keep Hekmatyar as the instrument of its own regional policy.

On the other hand, the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the former Soviet republics of Central Asia gaining independence, completely transformed the regional situation. The potential sphere of regional influence for both Pakistan and Iran was suddenly enlarged by five new states—Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan, Kirghistan and Kazakhstan—three of which shared not only a border, but also common ethnic groups with Afghanistan. Washington, which had practically discarded Pakistan for awhile, suddenly began to look in its direction again.

Once again, American and Pakistani interests coincided. Washington feared that the Afghan civil war would extend to the former Soviet republics, thereby creating a focus of political instability far more dangerous than Afghanistan had previously been. At the same time, the United States still was concerned about containing Iranian influence. Pakistan, for its part, wanted an end to the Afghan civil war, with a regime established in Kabul which could serve as Pakistan’s gateway to the republics of Central Asia.

Hekmatyar had become an inconvenient ally. Not only did he seem to be the main destabilizing factor in every new turn in the civil war, he was ready to ally himself with the Hezb-i-Wahdat Shiite front, an instrument of Iranian policy in Afghanistan. No longer subsidized as much by Pakistan, Hekmatyar turned to fundamentalist opposition forces in the Gulf states. Thus, he attracted not only Saudi Arabia’s hostility, but also Washington’s. Thus, the Pakistani regime decided to abandon Hekmatyar once and for all, thereby causing a few top level heads to roll in its political police.

But the Pakistani political police, and the American secret police agencies to which they were linked, did not abandon their objectives. In 1993, students belonging to a radical faction of the Pakistani fundamentalist party Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Islam began to work in the Koran schools which the Jamiat had created in Afghan refugee camps inside Pakistan. It was from these schools that the initial core of the Taliban movement emerged the following year. In the summer of 1994, the first guerrilla groups were formed, composed of former participants of the Koran schools, organized in part by Pakistani militants. Weapons were graciously supplied by Saudi Arabia, i.e. probably by the American secret police agencies or, at any rate, with their consent.

It comes as no surprise that the person who today serves as an intermediary for all attempted negotiations between the Taliban and the other Afghan clans is the Pakistani Minister of the Interior, Naseerulla Babar. This man is simultaneously the direct head of the Pakistani political police, the strong man of Baluchistan and the unofficial spokesman of Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Islam within the Pakistani government. It seems likely, as the opposition in Pakistan has charged, that Babar is orchestrating the Taliban operation. Apparently, the only goal of this operation was to create a force in Afghanistan, disciplined enough not to give in to the generalized corruption and capable of seeming like a "new" force to the population. This operation, in order to capitalize on the population’s desire to end the civil war, had to create a consensus in support of what is, in reality, nothing more than another reactionary armed band in a country where there are already more than enough.

A Question of Oil

Behind the strategic concerns of American imperialism and its regional representatives, there are other, much more down-to-earth interests at stake. The day after the Taliban captured Kabul, the American press reported that Chris Taggart, vice-president of Unocal Corporation, a powerful energy and oil consortium based in California, expressed his satisfaction with the way the war was going. This gentleman stated, among other things: "I understand Pakistan has already recognized the Taliban government. If the United States follows, it will lead the way to international lending agencies coming in. If the Taliban’s victory leads to stability and international recognition, then it’s positive."

The fact is that Unocal, in collaboration with the Saudi company Delta Oil, has been looking into investing in Afghanistan. Concretely, the two companies are proposing to construct a gas pipeline designed to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistani thermal power stations, and a crude oil pipeline capable of carrying a million barrels of crude per day also from Turkmenistan to an oil terminal located on the Pakistani coast. But, in both cases, the pipelines have to pass through virtually the whole Afghan territory. Obviously, the two companies are not about to risk the five billion dollars involved in the middle of a civil war. That’s what dictatorships are for: to ensure the safety of capital. Unocal Corporation has some experience in this kind of situation. In alliance with the French group Total, it is currently building a pipeline in Burma, aided by the military junta which polices a vast territory occupied by ethnic minorities in order to protect the project.

There are other projects waiting to emerge. The republics of Central Asia have considerable mining resources. Turkmenistan is not the only source for oil. Kazakhstan is reputed to have a quarter of the world’s oil resources along with the accompanying natural gas (the American trust Chevron, the Italian company AGIP and British Gas are already on the scene). Uzbekistan has the biggest gold mine in the world; Tadzhikistan has the biggest known deposit of silver. At the moment there are only two possible ways of getting this mineral wealth out—railways and trans-Iranian pipelines or the route through Russia. These are two routes which American imperialism would like to avoid: the first for political reasons, the second for reasons of cost as much as economic competition, because the Russian bureaucrats take their share of everything which passes through their territory. The only other possibility, therefore, is the route to the sea which is the quickest, the route through Afghanistan.

Road transport through Afghanistan, which would make it possible to exploit the limited but still important consumer goods markets in the republics of Central Asia, is held back not so much by the civil war itself as by the exorbitant transit and protection taxes extorted by each of the warlords, not to mention their regional underlings.

In any event, imperialism and its auxiliaries have every reason, both economic and political, to want a quick end to the Afghan conflict which they themselves largely helped to fan.

For the imperialist order and for its profits, it doesn’t matter that this haste is likely to impose on the Afghan population one of the most reactionary regimes ever seen in the Third World. Throwing a sop to American public opinion, the American government will make declarations and pass resolutions about human rights in Afghanistan - - which everyone will promptly forget, just as has been the case with so many other dictatorships which the U.S. set up or protected. It may even apply more or less symbolic economic sanctions, as it has toward Iraq today, sanctions for which only the poor population really pays any price. But it will not relieve the oppression of the population of Afghanistan. The oppression of populations is as inseparable from the imperialist order as is the race for profit.