The Spark

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

Afghanistan and the Taliban

Sep 24, 2001

Today there are about 25 million people living in Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world. An additional 4 million live in refugee camps outside the country. Today one of four children die before the age of 5, life expectancy is about 43, infant and maternal death rate is the second highest in the world and only 12% of the population has safe water. Only 30% of men and 15% of women can read and write.

The regime in power, called the Taliban (the Islamic students), has slaughtered civilians, burnt homes, and destroyed crops in the villages and towns it conquered. It deprived women of education and jobs, and has administered beatings and even mutilations for punishment of religious laws. The situation of Afghanistan has been spoken of a lot recently in this country. What hasn’t been so well known is that the Taliban’s seizure of power from 1994 to 1996 was supported by the Clinton administration, which funneled military and financial aid to the Taliban, through Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Nor is it well known that support for this regime continued under the Bush administration.

Afghanistan: Borders drawn by imperialism

Afghanistan today is a mixture of eight main ethnic groups, further divided by the languages they speak. Even its overwhelmingly Muslim population is split between the 80% Sunnis and 20% Shiite. The border of Afghanistan is the Durand line, named after Montagu Durand, the British high commissioner, who directed the imposing of borders to serve British strategic interests in the late 19th century. This border cuts right through the Pashtun people, splitting them between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and that has been a major source of conflict between the countries ever since. Another people, the Baluchis, are split between these two countries and also Iran. Also the border cuts the Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek minorities in half between those in Afghanistan and those in neighboring countries.

In the 1950s the monarchy that ruled Afghanistan tried to get a big increase in U.S. aid. But the U.S. turned it down because it didn't want to jeopardize the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, the rival of Afghanistan. So Afghanistan turned toward the USSR, which by the late 1960s gave two-thirds of all military and technical aid received by the Afghan monarchy. Afghanistan became part of the USSR's sphere of influence, and none of the western governments protested.

In 1979 the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan took power, based on educated petty bourgeois people from the cities, who wanted to fight the aristocracy's monopoly over economic and social life. They undertook a series of reforms, including a land reform that ended feudalism. But even when these reforms benefitted the poorer classes, the new regime used brutality and repression, rather than on relying on the conscious agreement of the people they sought to help. These actions enabled the religious leaders to stir up the people against the regime. Rebel groups sprung up in every area of the country and entire areas practically broke away.

Intervention by the USSR

The Soviet Union decided to send its army into the country in December 1979. The USSR’s goal was to reinforce the existing regime. It hoped to prevent political instability on the border of the USSR, and to stop Muslim fundamentalism from affecting Muslims in its own Central Asian republics.

But the effect of this military intervention was to increase the Afghani population’s opposition to the regime and to throw the people into the hands of the fundamentalists, who presented themselves as liberators against a brutal foreign occupation.

The war in Afghanistan bogged down the USSR just as the U.S. had been mired down in Viet Nam.

In neighboring Pakistan, the military government established some 2,500 religious schools, which were funded by Saudi Arabia and backed by the U.S. Some 225,000 children who went to these schools were trained to fight as guerrillas in Afghanistan. Pakistan's political police, the ISI, opened up guerilla training camps – also funded by the U.S. The U.S. may have been fighting Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, but it was happy to rely on fundamentalist warriors that it had financed in Afghanistan. By the time the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia together had spent 40 billion dollars. Not a penny was spent in defense of the Afghan people. This war left one million of them dead.

In April 1992 the various guerrilla armies took over Kabul, where they promptly started fighting among themselves for power. There were street fights in the capital, battles for control of strategic positions. The U.S. encouraged and enabled Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to support one faction called the Islamic Party, whose army had destroyed most of Kabul in 1993. Iran, Russia, India, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan chose other factions to back. For the next three years, the United States would support first one, then another fundamentalist faction in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the people suffered, caught in endless civil war.

The rise of the Taliban to power

Around 1993, the Pakistani government became interested in opening up trade with the new Central Asian republics that split from the old USSR. But the warfare in Afghanistan blocked the roads. A way to end the warfare was needed.

The Pakistan government once again set up schools for guerrillas, masked as religious schools. They recruited from the Afghan refugee camps. The leaders who would become the Taliban developed in these schools and camps.

By the summer of 1994 the first grouping of guerrillas was ready. It was led by older religious teachers and Pakistani soldiers, and armed by Saudi Arabia, with the cooperation of the CIA. The arms, food and four wheel drive vehicles gave the Taliban the material means to grow rapidly, against those less equipped.

The Taliban were only one more armed reactionary band in a country with a lot of them. Yet in a couple of years they were able to take power. They profited from the advanced decomposition of the state apparatus and were able to take entire cities without combat. Some of the war lords preferred to join the Taliban, while others fled instead of fighting.

But the Taliban also benefitted from direct aid from Pakistan and, behind it, the U.S. Imperialism worried that the war between the Afghan factions could extend to the new states of central Asia with their tremendous oil and natural gas reserves. The U.S. therefore wanted an end to the de-stabilization in Afghanistan. It encouraged Pakistan to reinforce the Taliban, so they could bring the country under control.

The Taliban presented themselves as champions against corruption and against the rule of war lords. They appeared as austere, disinterested combatants, opposed to pillage and respecting private property. They received at least the resigned consent of the population to end the civil war, even if that meant giving up the most basic liberties.

The Koran was already the law of the land, and rights of women hardly existed. The Taliban rescued village girls from soldiers who kidnapped and raped them. They reopened roads from war lords who had extorted tolls to pass.

If the Taliban’s punishments were often cruel, they at least seemed no worse than the war lord’s while bringing more benefits.

After the Taliban took control of Kabul in September 1996, Glyn Davies, a State Department spokesman, said that the United States saw "nothing criticizable in the measures now taken by the Taliban movement to impose Islamic law in the zones which it controls." U.S. imperialism saw the Taliban as establishing order. Unocal, the giant California-based oil company, looked forward to being able to build a giant pipeline across the country.

After coming to power, the Taliban again opened training camps for recruits from fundamentalist groups around the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Today when U.S. imperialism points to these camps, it can hardly be surprised. After all, the camps that the U.S. supported were successful in leading the Taliban itself to power.