#56 - War in Afghanistan : behind imperialism's terror against the poor

October 2001

Imperialism's war aims

No-one can say how far the imperialist powers will take their new military adventure in the Middle East. The US leaders are probably not too sure about this themselves. But there is no doubt that their objectives go far beyond bin Laden, the Taliban, Afghanistan and terrorism and that they have nothing to do with the virtuous pretexts invented over the past few weeks in order to make their war more acceptable to Western public opinion.

Of course the permanent threat of terrorist attacks against US facilities across the world and in the USA itself, is a thorn in the flesh of the US government. Not because the US leaders are particularly concerned by the casualties these attacks may cause among the US population. The World Trade Centre attack may have resulted in many deaths, but the military and economic machine of US imperialism was not even dented - and for Bush, this is what really matters.

In fact the imperialist governments can live with such a terrorist threat. They can even turn it into a very convenient tool to rally domestic public opinion around their oppressive policies at home and abroad. The British state demonstrated this not so long ago in the way that it used the IRA's bombing campaigns in England to justify keeping Northern Ireland under virtual military rule for the best of two decades.

The real issue for the rich powers is elsewhere. They cannot and will not tolerate that, as a result of spectacular terrorist operations such as that against the World Trade Centre or any other events for that matter, the poor masses they oppress develop the illusion that the grip of imperialism is weakening.

So, for the imperialist leaders, the demonstrators who rejoiced, albeit misguidedly, after the attack against the World Trade Centre, must be punished ruthlessly. And the punishment must be such as to demonstrate that the cost of inflicting even a minor wound to the imperialist machinery (although not minor for the victims and their families, of course) is far too high to even try it.

This is why their so-called "war against terrorism" has to be, first and foremost, a terrorist war against the poor. It is aimed at driving home in the minds of a whole generation at least, the conviction that they are totally impotent against the military might of imperialism. And by the same token, it is aimed at reminding all regimes in the poor countries, that imperialism is and will remain their master, regardless of the human and military cost.

In this respect, no matter the nuances and reservations which may be expressed by the minor imperialist governments, they are all 100% behind Bush. Blair acted as Bush's diplomatic jack-of-all trades. He made a big fuss about Britain's symbolic military involvement. By contrast, while French president Chirac made just as much noise about his commitment to give Bush the military support required in due time, he avoided setting a date for this. But both Blair's and Chirac's attitudes are merely posturing, designed to serve a political agenda dictated both by domestic considerations and by their rivalries with the other imperialist powers.

For the time being, Bush does not need the help of the lesser imperialist countries and, in fact, he probably prefers not to have them around. But should the US start to demand reinforcements in the face of strong resistance, or because its military expedition is dragging on and costing too much, there is no doubt that the Blairs and the Chiracs of this world will stand to attention and send their troops to crush whichever target they are assigned. The imperialist governments may often act as rivals, because they represent the interests of large companies which are competing on the world market, but when it comes to terrorising populations, so that these companies can carry on their looting of the poor countries, they have no disagreements whatsoever.

In fact the US leaders are almost open about the real objectives of this war. On October 8th, the second day of the bombing against Afghanistan, the US government sent a letter to the UN Security Council saying: "We may find that our self-defence requires further action with respect to other organisations and other states." By that time, already, some papers reported "high-ranking US security sources" hinting that Iraq, Sudan, Somalia and even Syria, could be the next US targets after Afghanistan. In other words, Bush's terrorist war may be taken further than Afghanistan, to other countries whose regimes have failed to be pliable enough to the diktats of imperialism.

A deadly mechanism built into capitalist exploitation

The use of state terrorism against populations is as old as capitalism itself. It is built into the very operation of the capitalist system, particularly once it had reached its present stage of decay, the imperialist stage, a century ago.

In the last resort, the military strategy and diplomacy of each imperialist government is designed to defend the dominant economic position occupied by its own large industrial and financial companies on the world market. But the domination of imperialist companies over the planet can only be enforced by repressing ruthlessly any idea of revolt among the poor masses who are at the receiving end of this domination. To this end, since the collapse of the last colonial empires, in the 1960s, imperialism has relied on the oppressive policies of brutal regimes across the Third World, which have no popular support among their populations.

There are a few exceptions to this rule - the main one being the Israeli state, which has operated more or less according to a broad consensus among the Jewish population since its inception. However, the basis on which the Israeli state was set up - depriving the Palestinian population of its land - means that Israel's repressive role with regard to the poor masses, in Israel itself and in the neighbouring Arab countries, is no different from that of any of the other Middle Eastern dictatorships.

Leaving aside the case of Israel, the brutal regimes on which imperialism depends for its plundering of the poor countries owe their survival exclusively to the military and financial aid of the rich countries (this aid is in fact a hidden subsidy that the imperialist states pay to their respective multinationals out of public funds). This direct dependence has consequences, however.

It means, in particular, that the poor masses of these countries are all too aware of the fact that the abject oppression and poverty they are subjected to must be blamed as much on imperialism as on their local rulers - and more specifically on the imperialist powers whose presence is most visible, namely the USA and, to a lesser extent, Britain or France.

The many Americans who wondered, after the devastation at the World Trade Centre, probably often in good faith, why so many people in the poor countries "hate" the USA, should seek the answer in the squalid conditions of Gaza's shanty towns and the oppressive societies of the Gulf's medieval oil states.

At the same time, the fact that the dictatorships running the poor countries have no social base can only result in the stoking up of explosive forces which, sooner or later, are bound to bring down these regimes. This political instability is unacceptable for imperialism because it represents a threat for capitalist profit. So the flood of Western weapons is constantly increased, in order to boost the profits of Western arms manufacturers, of course, but also to strengthen the ability of these regimes to crush a rebellion of their own populations. And of course, the cost of this military hardware is paid for by worse poverty for the poorest, thereby stoking even more despair and anger.

By the same token, whenever one of these Third World dictatorships seeks to enlarge its social base, it can only do so by resorting to anti-imperialist demagogy and making gestures of independence towards its Western masters. And this, of course, is just as intolerable for imperialism - hence the bombing of Saddam Hussein's Iraq by the US and Britain over the past decade, for instance. Some form of punishment has to be meted out against such unruly puppets and their populations - thereby again stoking more despair and anger.

Not only is the plundering of the Third World by imperialism pushing its populations further and further into poverty. But the continuous efforts of the imperialist powers to consolidate their domination over the poor countries, under the pretext of maintaining political stability and sometimes by means of direct military intervention, only result in destabilising them even more. This results in a spiral of terror, tainted with the blood of dozens of millions among the poor masses of the Third World and tens of thousands in the rich imperialist countries - all innocent victims, who have never had a say in the policies which are shaping this society.

A sickening myth: the imperialist "liberators"

Looking back at the terrorist policies of imperialism over the past half-a-century or so, it must be said, that the imperialist powers have proved capable of applying them to the populations of other rich countries as well.

It is sickening to hear politicians justifying their endorsement of Bush's terrorist drive against Afghanistan by referring to the US state as having "liberated" Europe from Hitler in World War II. As if US imperialism was not, like British imperialism, among the main culprits in the crimes against humanity committed during this War!

Indeed, how did World War II come about in the first place? After the previous world war, the victors - Britain, France and the USA - stripped Germany of its markets, colonies and part of its natural resources and industrial output. As a result the German economy was never able to recover from the war before being brought to its knees by the world recession of the 1930s. These were the material factors which contributed to Hitler's rise to power.

But it was in the last part of the war that the US and British governments were responsible for some of the worst atrocities.

As early as February 1942, an instruction issued by the newly-appointed head of RAF bomber command (later known as "Bomber" Harris), stated that "even where docks or factories are mentioned, the targets should be the dwelling areas." The official phrase for this strategy, which was also adopted by the US Air Force, was "saturation bombing", but what it really meant was the cold-blooded murder of civilians or, to be more precise, working class families.

The following year, this policy started to be implemented on a large scale. In late July 1943, explosive and incendiary bombs were dropped over the working class areas of Hamburg for a whole week. These phosphorus incendiary bombs, were considered "revolutionary" devices by British military experts because they made bomb-shelters useless: the heat generated by these bombs was so high that those taking refuge in shelters were "boiled alive". Indeed, 50,000 people died in Hamburg and 800,000 were made homeless. In May 1944, Berlin was subjected to the same treatment with the same results. The worst atrocity was the carpet- bombing of Dresden, in February 1945. There were no military targets in Dresden, which was used as a regroupment centre for refugees. Yet three waves involving 1,500 bombers each were sent against the town, killing 130,000 people in just two days.

The treatment meted out to Japan was even worse. The use of the atomic bomb is the best-known aspect of it. But it was not even the worst. During the eight months preceding Japan's surrender, in August 1945, 100 of Japan's largest towns were systematically bombed and destroyed by the US Air Force. The devastation was even worse than in Germany. In March 1945, for instance, 200,000 people were killed in Tokyo during just one night- raid lasting three hours - not much fewer than the 250,000 victims of the Hiroshima bomb, five months later, but significantly more than the 120,000 killed by the second atomic bomb in Nagasaki. In total this last bombing campaign against Japan killed 700,000. Eight million people were made homeless and a similar number fled to the countryside.

The bombing of German and Japanese working class towns had no military purpose, but it did have a political aim. Both in Germany and in Japan, the militarisation of the economy had resulted in the development of enormous working class concentrations. In both countries, the state machinery was threatening to collapse as a result of military defeat. In neither of these countries was there any bourgeois political party with enough credit among the population to fill the gap left by the demise of their dictatorships. And in both countries, the working class had huge accounts to settle with their exploiters. These were explosive situations and Western imperialist leaders had the painful memory of how the Russian proletariat had taken its revenge against the warmongers in 1917. The imperialist victors wanted to prevent any possibility of the working class getting itself organised and the most expedient way they found to achieve this was to decimate the urban population, so as to terrorise workers and force them to disperse to the countryside.

As to the use of the atom bomb in Japan, at a time when this country was already defeated militarily and economically, an official US body, the Strategic Bombing Survey, stated just after the war that "Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated." In fact, there is every reason to believe that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki explosions were also intended as a demonstration of imperialist might aimed at the populations of all the poor countries - a way of warning them that once the war was over, their imperialist masters would be back, stronger than ever, despite the enormous damage caused by the war.

Facing the postwar nationalist tide

The postwar settlement saw a repartition of the world into spheres of influence between the two main partners in the Allied camp - the USA and the Soviet Union. These spheres of influence were defined in a series of conferences held during the war.

The aim of this exercise was to maintain order and to ensure that no major social unrest would be allowed to develop anywhere in the political vacuum created by the end of the war. In this, imperialism and Stalin's regime had a common interest. Neither of them could afford to allow the proletariat to raise the revolutionary flag anywhere in the world - the risk of contagion in their own fiefdoms was too high.

In the poor countries, however, things did not go quite so smoothly, particularly in Asia. US imperialism did not object to Asian countries becoming independent. On the contrary, the collapse of the old European colonial empires and spheres of influence would have suited US economic interests - that is provided the new regimes were stable and willing to do business with US imperialism on its own terms. However the only way for these nationalist-led regimes to achieve some stability was by building a base of popular support. But once they had such a base, they tended to become uncontrollable and to resort to radical measures, sometimes going so far as to threaten to nationalise US assets. Of course, this was something that imperialism was not prepared to tolerate.

So the US leaders' policy wavered between using tokenistic anti-colonial language, preventing the victory of mass nationalist movements and arming trusted dictators. They allowed Britain and France to restore control over their former colonies, as a means to ensure that if independence did take place, it would take place on the terms dictated by imperialism. This did not always work, however. In Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, a nationalist insurrection declared independence. Holland sent troops despite opposition from the United Nations. The hundreds of thousands of US troops in the region stood by, while Holland flouted the UN resolution and butchered the insurgents. However, after four years of bloody war, Washington put pressure on Holland to withdraw, leaving the nationalists in control under Sukarno. By that time Sukarno had won the esteem of the US thanks to the absence of any social objectives in his programme and, above all, to his brutal repression of a communist-led uprising, in 1948, which had left 10,000 dead.

The worst setback for imperialism, however, took place in China. In 1946, the US leaders tried to broker an agreement between Mao Zedong's Communist party and Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang. But the Kuomintang turned it down, on the assumption that with the US military aid they would be able to defeat the Communist party's army. That year a huge peasant uprising developed in the countryside against the feudal system of land ownership. While Mao sought to use the uprising as a lever in his fight for power, Chiang Kai-shek's corrupt regime "invested" the US funds they received in all kinds of trafficking. Some Kuomintang generals even made fortunes by selling the American weapons they received to Mao's troops. Predictably, by 1948 Mao had effectively defeated the Kuomintang and the following year Chiang Kai-shek and his troops were forced to take refuge in Taiwan under US protection.

In top US spheres, a few voices argued in favour of a compromise with Mao. After all, despite the label of his party, Mao was first and foremost a bourgeois nationalist leader, just like Sukarno. But the fact that Mao had come to power riding a peasant uprising against its own puppet, Chiang Kai-shek, was enough for the US government to put China in quarantine.

In any case Mao's victory was a huge moral defeat for imperialism. Only two years after president Truman had announced his "containment" policy towards the Soviet Union, a regime which called itself "communist" had come to power in a country which comprised 700-million inhabitants! Even if Mao's policy was in no way "communist", this did not look too good for US diplomacy and military might. It showed that despite having the atom bomb, US imperialism was not powerful enough to prevent a country of that size from escaping from its stranglehold - imperialism had been unable to do anything to stop Mao's rise to power, quite simply because it did not have the manpower necessary for a military intervention against China.

From the imperialist bloodbath in Korea...

Truman's announcement of the US "containment" policy, on 12 March 1947, was the first shot in a new kind of war - the so-called "Cold War". It was described as "cold" because it never resulted in direct confrontation between the two camps which were supposed to be at war - namely on one side the so-called "free world", which included all imperialist countries and their satellites behind the USA, and on the other, the so-called Eastern Bloc, with the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence. But in fact, this Cold War resulted in a long string of wars, in which the US military machine went on the offensive against alleged "communist" forces in the Third World.

Above all, this war was first and foremost about imposing the domination of US companies over the world. This objective was put bluntly in 1948 by the director of policy planning at the State Department, George Kennan, when he stated: "We have 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population (..) Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will allow us to maintain this position of disparity."

Of course, Truman's "containment" seemed to mark a U-turn in US policy. But then the only reason which had led Washington to co-operate with Moscow during World War II had been a common fear of revolutionary explosions in its aftermath. However the fundamental hostility of the imperialist leaders towards a regime over which they had no control did not disappear. Nor did their fear that the existence of the USSR could encourage the poor countries to oppose the imperialist plunder of their resources. So, in 1947, once the situation had stabilised, the US leaders reverted to their past policy aimed at reducing the influence of the Soviet Union across the world while using anti-communist scaremongering to reinforce their political grip at home and abroad.

In the Third World, the "Cold War" soon turned into open warfare in Korea. This former Japanese colony had been a symbol of the coming Cold War even before it was officialised. In 1945, the northern part of the country had been occupied by Soviet troops while the Southern part was occupied by US forces. General MacArthur proposed the 38th parallel as the border between the two zones - which Stalin agreed to readily. The agreement provided for the organisation of elections in both zones as soon as practicable with the aim of uniting the two zones under a common government.

However what was meant to be a temporary arrangement became permanent. In the South, the US administration established a puppet dictatorship led by Syngman Rhee. In the North, the Soviet army had brought Kim Il Sung from Moscow, who proceeded to set up his own regime. However, at that point at least, Kim Il Sung enjoyed broad support among the population. This was partly due to the fact that during the decades of Japanese occupation, the clandestine Korean Communist Party had been the most active opposition to the Japanese plundering and oppression of the country. But it was mainly the result of the land reform carried out in the North in 1946, which gave half of the land to 725,000 landless peasants. This won Kim Il Sung the loyalty of the vast majority of the peasantry. By contrast, in the South, Syngman Rhee's regime appeared as the representative of the landowners and wartime profiteers and was loathed by the population.

Eventually, in late 1949 the Soviet troops withdrew, followed six months later by the US army. In June 1950, however, following a long string of military skirmishes along the 38th parallel, 70,000 Northern soldiers and 70 tanks invaded the South. They met with no real resistance and the Southern population welcomed the prospect implied by the invasion - the demise of Syngman Rhee's corrupt regime, the reunification of the country as promised in 1945 and, above all, radical land reform as in the North.

But Truman did not care about the feelings of the Korean population. As far as he was concerned, no-one could be allowed to threaten one of his puppet regimes. Two days after the Northern invasion, the US Navy and Air Force were ordered to intervene while a resolution was railroaded through the UN to impose sanctions on North Korea. The US military machine started raining thousands of tons of bombs on the North Korean troops. But this counter-offensive was a flop. By September, the US and South Korean troops had been forced to withdraw to a small area around the Southern port of Pusan.

On 15 September the US army retaliated with a massive landing of troops near Seoul, behind the North Korean lines. It was successful, mainly because the North Koreans had no air force nor anti-aircraft artillery due to Stalin's refusal to provide them. Two weeks later, US troops crossed the 38th parallel and within two months they had reached the Chinese border. However, unlike Stalin, Mao Zedong reacted. 200,000 Chinese soldiers entered the fray and the US marines were forced to retreat hastily back to the 38th parallel. From then onwards the war turned into a battle for trenches and hilltops. It was a protracted and vicious war, in which a powerful and modern army, equipped with a large number of aircraft, fought against a poor country's army, which had no air force and very little artillery. It was also the first time that an experimental jellied gasoline, known as napalm, was used by US forces.

Eventually, in June 1951, peace talks opened, jointly chaired by the USA and the Soviet Union. By that time, both great powers had agreed that the war would not go any further - in particular that it would not be extended to China, let alone to the USSR. It took two years of diplomatic posturing on the part of the US for a cease-fire to be finally agreed in July 1953. There was no military purpose for these additional two years of war since everyone knew that the balance of forces would not change and agreed that the final settlement would involve the recognition of the partition of the country along the 38th parallel.

However, there were political reasons for the negotiations to drag on. The US leaders' objective was to teach a devastating and lasting lesson to the Korean population and the entire Third World on the risks involved in challenging imperialism. In fact the US army itself suffered most of its casualties during this last part of the war. 54,000 US soldiers were killed in total, but at least ten times as many on the opposite side. Counting civilians, it is estimated that the total number of casualties during this war was somewhere between 2.5 and 4 million. In North Korea, dozens of towns were completely wiped off the map and the modern industry set up under Japanese occupation was systematically destroyed. South Korea was not in a much better shape, in particular the capital Seoul was reduced to rubble. For the US leaders, who had failed to use the opportunity to take control of the country as a whole, it was not a victory by any means. But for the Koreans it was a devastating bloodbath.

... to deadly hell in Vietnam

A similar terrorist policy was carried out less than two decades later in Vietnam. After the defeat of French troops by the Vietnamese nationalists, in 1954, France withdrew from the country and the USA took over in the name of containment. At first, the US leaders trained and equipped the military dictatorship they had set up in South-Vietnam, under Diem, and only maintained a limited presence. But by the early 1960s, with the rapid development of the nationalist guerilla force in South Vietnam, the days of Diem's regime were numbered. So, in 1961, Kennedy more than doubled US military funding to Diem while ordering the first bombings by US aircraft against guerilla targets. Then, in early 1965, president Johnson ordered the systematic bombing of both South and North Vietnam and sent in huge reinforcements - the number of US troops increased from 23,000 to over 200,000 in less than nine months. And, with the exception of the atomic bomb, just about every weapon in the US military armoury was used in Vietnam.

But it was a failure. First it was a resounding failure in the USA, where instead of sustaining the patriotic climate they wanted, the US leaders only managed to unleash the largest wave of mass protest ever seen in the country - a wave which started among the middle-class intelligentsia but later took on a social content with the "Black Power" movement and the ghetto uprisings of the late 1960s. Second, it was also a failure in Vietnam, in military terms. Despite the systematic bombing of the entire country, North and South, nothing seemed able to stop the growth of the Vietnamese guerrilla force. The US army itself was affected by low morale, extensive drug usage and growing social tension. The number of incidents in which GIs turned their weapons against their officers was increasing dramatically. The final blow was the Têt offensive, in January 1968, when the South-Vietnamese guerillas together with the North Vietnamese troops managed to take over fifty large towns in the South, for a few hours, including the two largest - Saigon and Hue.

This final blow to the US demonstrated that no matter how much they bombed the country, they could not win this war. At this point, Nixon, who had just been elected president, offered to open peace negotiations. But the same murderous trick was played on Vietnam as on Korea two decades before. The US representatives ensured that the talks dragged on and on. It took five years before a peace agreement was signed in 1973 and another two years before the last American soldier left Saigon. Half of the 60,000 US soldiers killed during the war died during these negotiations. The US terrorist bombing of the country went on as before, except that this time, towns were targeted as well as guerilla zones, to ensure that the Vietnamese population and the Third World as a whole would never forget the cost of defying imperialism. Over 1.5 million Vietnamese were killed during this war, most of them civilians, including many children. And today, many Vietnamese still suffer from the side-effects of one of the US "high-tech" weapons, the defoliant "agent orange", while others are still being blown up by US anti-personnel landmines which were left by the departing troops just about everywhere in the country.

Crippling the Indian subcontinent

In South East Asia, the main factor which determined the policy of imperialism during the era of "containment" was China's regional presence. If it had not been for China, it is possible that the US would not have bothered with Korea, nor would they have allowed themselves to get bogged down in the Vietnam war. But China's stature represented a tangible threat for imperialism's ability to keep the region under its control.

In some respects, the Indian subcontinent presented imperialism with a problem potentially similar to China. British colonial India - that is the entity formed by today's India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka -encompassed both an enormous population and huge natural resources. Like China it had the human potential to stand up to the demands of imperialism. But in addition, it occupied a strategic position, between the vital oil resources of the Middle East and the impoverished powder kegs of South East Asia.

British colonial India was also one of Britain's oldest colonies. Over the generations London had shaped a layer of local intellectuals, functionaries, politicians and businessmen, who were totally devoted to the imperialist world order. While many of the leading figures of the various nationalist movements came out of this layer, there was no radical nationalist movement with an influence comparable to Mao's Chinese communist party.

However, the fact that this nationalist movement was relatively tame did not prevent an explosion in the aftermath of the war. Towards the end of 1945, a wave of social unrest broke out in the industrial working class, among the poor peasants and in the Indian Navy, raising at the same time the demand for independence. The British army was sent against the strikers and with the backing of the colonial authorities the privileged classes unleashed communal violence across India. As the prospect of self-government was coming closer, politicians shifted increasingly to communal politics as a means to build up support for themselves. In the end, the British Labour government, fearing an explosion that if would be unable to handle, came up with a plan for independence. Not only did this plan involve splitting the colony into two states along communal lines (Sri Lanka acceded to independence separately the following year), but Pakistan, which was assigned to the Muslim section of the population, was made of two distinct enclaves 1300 miles apart.

This was a recipe for disaster. Not only did partition result in a communal explosion and a huge wave of pogroms, forcing millions of people to flee from their villages and towns and causing hundreds of thousands of casualties. But in addition, it created a situation in which the component parts of the former colonial India were pitted against one another in permanent conflicts over disputed territories, such as Kashmir. Moreover, it entrenched communal rivalries as an acceptable lever for politicians' ambitions, both within each one of the new countries and in their mutual relationships.

The consequences are well-known: three bloody wars between India and Pakistan, including the 1971 war which saw the secession of Bangladesh; the systematic oppression of many ethnic minorities resulting in local protracted conflicts dotted about in all these countries; communalism occupying the centre stage of political and social life and, over the past two decades, the rapid rise of fundamentalist-type movements (Muslim but also Hindu, Sikh, etc..) all bidding, albeit to various degrees, to turn the clock back.

Why such an inept and criminal settlement? Given London's very old expertise in colonial administration and the huge economic interests involved for British capital, it could only have been a deliberate policy. And its objective was clearly to prevent the emergence of a stable regional power, which would be large enough to hold sway against imperialism, by driving a lethal wedge in its flesh right from its inception. In fact, although London denied it, the idea of partitioning India along communal lines dated back to the discussion preceding the enactment of the 1935 Constitution - a constitution which had already entrenched social, religious and communal divisions, by establishing separate electoral colleges for Muslims, Sikhs, Anglo-Indians, Indian Christians, Untouchables, Europeans, landowners, etc..

Ever since 1947, the capacity of India, Pakistan, and later Bangladesh, to oppose an effective resistance to the diktats of imperialism, has been hampered by this built-in weakness. All the more so as the imperialist leaders, and more specifically those in Washington, have often played Pakistan against India when it suited their agenda, thereby adding even more poison to on-going rivalry between the two countries.

Pawns in the US power games

In fact India and Pakistan have been at the centre of two separate power games played by the US - Pakistan as a pawn in the US efforts to maintain its control over the Middle East and India as an instrument to keep China in check.

Less than four years after Indian independence, the crisis in Iran caused by the nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company by Musaddeq's government, led western powers to seek new locations for military bases in the Middle East. The USA and Britain turned to Pakistan. Possible sites for US air bases in Pakistan were investigated and in return, by mid-1952, the USA began to provide Pakistan with military aid. Eventually, Mossadeq was overthrown by a CIA-sponsored coup and his social-democrat government was replaced with the bloody dictatorship of the Shah for the following three decades. But the US military bases and advisers remained in Pakistan.

The relationship between imperialism and India was more convoluted than with Pakistan, due to Nehru's reluctance to submit India unconditionally to the hazards of US policy. His "non-alignment" policy was primarily based on the illusion that by playing the Soviet Union against imperialism, India would be able to achieve a dreater degree of independence - an attitude which, of course, caused suspicion in Washington. But this did not mean that Nehru was against maintaining a close relationship with the US, nor that the US heaped massive pressure on India. On the contrary, the US strategists encouraged Nehru's ambition to build India into the region's dominant power - for obvious reasons, since the only other possible contender was China, then America's public enemy number two after the Soviet Union.

So, in 1951, Nehru signed his first defence agreement with the USA. Subsequently US aid to India continued to be forthcoming, even after the USSR also started to provide some limited aid to India in 1953. Of course, when it came to the vexed issue of Kashmir, the US sided with Pakistan, whereas the USSR always vetoed any discussion on the subject at the UN Security Council, thereby implicitly supporting Nehru's argument that this was purely an "internal" problem. But this did not prevent the Indian Central Intelligence Bureau from helping the CIA, for instance, to set up an army of Tibetan émigrés on Indian territory, in 1956, to organise a separatist uprising against Beijing.

When relations between India and China began to deteriorate, with a series of border skirmishes in the late 1950s, both the US and the USSR provided Nehru with military hardware, which he used in 1961-62 to penetrate into disputed border areas with China. But when, in November 1962, the Chinese army retaliated with a large-scale offensive in Assam and, to a lesser extent, in Kashmir, literally wiping out the Indian army, Nehru immediately turned to the USA for assistance and US weapons flowed into the country.

A turn came in 1965, with the second Indo-Pakistani war over Kashmir. The Pakistani dictator Ayub Khan had relied on US support but this was a miscalculation. Washington was so embarrassed when it was revealed that both sides were using the same US-supplied weapons, that they declared an arms embargo on both countries. This allowed the USSR to step in, first by brokering a peace agreement between India and Pakistan and subsequently by becoming both India's biggest arms supplier and the biggest single buyer of its goods (only slightly ahead of the USA, though).

However, by the early 1970s, US-Indian relations began to change again. When Indira Gandhi ordered the first nuclear test in India, in 1974, thanks to the technological help of the USSR, but possibly also of the USA, there was no question of sanctions. This regional counterweight to China's nuclear capability (demonstrated already ten years before) was apparently welcome. Indeed, the following month, the US authorities approved their largest loan programme ever to India. Meanwhile the Pentagon helped India to develop one of the world's largest radar and military communications systems aimed mainly against China.

Ironically, by that time, while the US leaders were using India as a regional counter-weight against China, they were using Pakistan, then under a civilian government led by Ali Bhutto, as a channel of communication with the same China. By that time the "containment" policy was over and US imperialism was seeking ways to normalise its relationship with the Chinese regime, at some point in the future. So when Ali Bhutto announced plans to develop a nuclear capability, in 1971, the US government made no more objections than it had to India's programme and even granted Westinghouse export licences to deliver equipment for this project.

The Afghan crisis

During the 1970s, one of Pakistan's neighbours was going through a deep crisis. This was Afghanistan, a country which, so far, had never attracted much attention from the imperialist powers, to the extent that it is still one of the very few countries in the world which does not have even one railway line.

But first it is worth recalling briefly the making of this country as it has direct consequences in today's situation. For a long time Afghanistan had been part of a larger entity including Pakistan, Iran and southern areas of the former Soviet Republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, within which the populations moved more or less freely. In the 19th century, however, the British empire, whose influence extended to Iran and India, became concerned about the attempts of the Czarist empire to work its way to the Arabic sea. Afghanistan soon became the only barrier between the two empires.

Twice, in 1839 and 1878, British troops tried to invade Afghan territory. Twice they failed. In the 1880s, however, Britain won some concessions from the ruling dynasty. During that period, in 1893, the country's present borders were formalised. Its border with Pakistan, the Durand line, was named after the colonial civil servant who drew it. The purpose of these borders was to turn Afghanistan into a buffer state between Russia and the British empire. This is why Afghanistan includes a bizarre long, narrow strip of high mountains, the Wakhan corridor, which extends right to the Chinese border. Its was designed to avoid a common border between the British and Russian empires.

As usual with all borders inherited from the colonial era, the rights of peoples were disregarded. The Pashtuns, for instance, who make up nearly 40% of today's Afghan population, were split in equal numbers between Afghanistan and Pakistan; so were the much smaller Nouristani ethnic group. The Tadjiks, the second largest Afghan minority, were separated from the majority of their ethnic group by the Northern border; so were the Uzbeks and the Turkmens. And in the South, the Baluchi minority was split three ways, between Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

In 1919, Britain was defeated once again in the third Anglo-Afghan war and this time for good. Afghanistan became the first country in the world to recognize the new Soviet regime, with which it established political and economic ties. These links were reinforced after World War II, when the US proved unwilling to increase their economic aid to the country. Until the late sixties, Russian military and technical aid represented two thirds of all foreign aid received by Afghanistan. The army of the Afghan monarchy was to a large extent equipped by the USSR, and most of its officers were trained in Soviet military academies.

From the mid-1960s, political agitation developed in two directions among the intellectual petty-bourgeoisie: to the left, towards the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) - a pro-Soviet party which combined nationalism and reformism - and to the right, towards traditionalist Islamic societies. In 1973, a palace coup staged by a member of the royal family, prince Daud, brought the corrupted ruling monarchy to an end. The former king, Zaher Shah, went into exile in Rome and Daud proceeded to modernise Afghan society with the help of PDPA members who were invited to join the government. Soon, however, Daud's regime reverted to the past practices of the monarchy. The old aristocracy returned to a comfortable parasitic life mostly financed by Russian aid. And the regime became increasingly repressive and corrupt. In 1978, following the arrest of most of the PDPA's leadership, the party's supporters and allies in the army staged a bloodless coup and proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.

The change seems to have been welcomed with relief by the population including in the countryside, which was still dominated by clerics and feudal landowners. All the more so because the new government immediately proceeded to announce a large range of reforms which favoured the poorest peasants. However, the PDPA was largely a petty-bourgeois urban organisation with hardly any roots in the countryside. Instead of seeking to mobilise the poor masses in order to get them to carry out the planned reforms themselves, the regime tried to imposed these reforms, if necessary by force. In the country's backward countryside, the result of this policy was catastrophic. For instance, many keen young PDPA recruits were killed in the literacy campaign organised in villages, when they tried to bring in the same classes both men and women.

This bureaucratic policy quickly isolated the regime. All the more so because of a violent feud between the two main factions of the ruling party, thereby undermining support for the regime, even in the towns. The more isolated the regime became, the more it resorted to repression, thereby providing ammunition for the clerics, the landowners and the anti-communist Islamic societies to rally more and more people against it. Within ten months of the PDPA's arrival in power, the state machinery began to collapse. A series of unrelated rebellions erupted in remote parts of the country led by local warlords and often inspired by clerics. In March 1979, an uprising was staged in the Shiite town of Herat, in which several hundred government officials and Russian advisers were killed. By July, entire units of the army had deserted to join local warlords, reducing the size of the army by half. Chaos was threatening the country.

At that point, the then leader of the PDPA and head of government, Hafizullah Amin, made a sharp political U-turn. He demanded the recall of the Soviet Union's ambassador and blamed the USSR for the country's catastrophic economic situation. At the same time he embarked on a vocal campaign to woo the support of the Islamic clerics and medium farmers. This did little to boost Amin's popular support, but it was the last straw for Moscow. Fearing political instability on its borders and the possible contagion of Islamic fundamentalism spreading to the Soviet Southern Republics, Moscow decided to intervene to stop the collapse of the regime. So in December 1979, Soviet troops entered Afghanistan, Amin was arrested and replaced with his main rival in the PDPA. A new, broad government was formed including some of the nationalist currents that Amin had sent to jail, Islam became a regular item on the government's radio, government officials were invited to attend mosque on Fridays and 2,000 political prisoners were freed. However, by that time, 12,000 political prisoners had already been executed under Amin. And anyway, the aim of these measures was to ease the political tension and woo the clerics, not to defend the interests of the population, as the next ten years of war were to demonstrate.

Imperialism's warlords

Predictably, the imperialist powers made loud noises in condemnation of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. However, these condemnations were as hypocritical as they were vocal - and this for three reasons.

First, there is every reason to think that the Soviet leaders had sought and obtained, formally or informally, assurances that the USA would not retaliate militarily if they sent troops to Afghanistan. Indeed it would have been inconceivable for Moscow to take the risk of a military confrontation with imperialism over Afghanistan which, after all, was not vital for its security.

Second, by intervening militarily, the Soviet Union was pre-empting the need for the imperialist powers to do it themselves. The development of a new focus of political instability just one year after the main pillar of the imperialist in the Middle East, the Shah's regime in Iran, had been overthrown by a popular uprising, was a major threat to the stability of the whole region. All the more so because of the many ethnic links between Afghanistan and the neighbouring countries. Not only did the Soviet troops solve a problem for imperialism, but their intervention meant that the imperialist powers did not have to pay the political and economic cost of intervening themselves.

Lastly, as it became known later, the US leaders had their own share of responsibility in the Afghan crisis. Indeed, as early as April 1979, the US embassy in Pakistan had asked Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), the Pakistani secret service trained under the auspices of the US, to provide a list of rebel Afghan organisations to which the US could channel "friendly" funding. This was how Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of the Pashtun fundamentalist Party of Islam (Hezb-i-Islami), became the favoured US puppet and main recipient of funds and military aid. To what extent these funds allowed Hekmatyar to destabilise Kabul's regime before the Soviet intervention is impossible to say. But in any case, the US already had a finger in the pie even before the Soviet intervention became a pretext to step up its funding of the fundamentalist guerillas.

However, the fact that the Soviet troops were doing a dirty job which coincided with the interests of imperialism did not mean that the US leaders planned to remain on the side-lines and do nothing. On the contrary, their policy was first, to ensure that the Soviet intervention would be as costly as possible, in every respect, and second, to try to use the opportunity to bring Afghanistan into the imperialist sphere of influence.

So, within days of the Soviet intervention, US president Carter was on the phone to Pakistan's dictator, general Zia, to ask him for his co-operation in the Afghan crisis. Ironically, Carter had first to cancel the sanctions he himself had imposed on Pakistan following Zia's refusal to hand over power to a civilian regime after his military coup, in 1977. Having done that, not only did Carter restore the past level of US military aid to Pakistan but he asked Zia to channel huge funds and arms supplies to the Islamic guerillas through the ISI. In fact, according to US official figures, between 1980 and 1989, the Afghan Islamic groups based in Pakistan received a total of £250m, just from the USA.

The flow of US dollars to the resistance against the Soviet occupation had one direct consequence - the mushrooming of rival groups, all claiming to have better reasons than the others to exist. Of course, in reality, many of these groups had no reason to exist other than the desire by their leaders for a share of the US loot. Most of these resistance groups were fundamentalists. Some were Shiites and others Sunnis. Most had a particular ethnic base. Many were merely the armed organisation of a local clan. Those which were really active on the ground - which was not the case for all of them, by far - specially in the regions close to the Pakistan border, were also involved in all sorts of trafficking - drugs being the most widespread activity. These so-called resistance fighters were not only religious fanatics determined to return Afghanistan to medieval times, they were also more often than not plain crooks.

So these were the kind of mercenaries that the US leaders chose to arm in order to fight in the Afghan war. But why should anyone be surprised by this? After all it seems perfectly appropriate for the godfathers of capital to use crooks to do their dirty business!

War between the warlords

In the end, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan failed to achieve any of its aims. It failed to restore political stability and by alienating the population it helped the fundamentalist groups to increase their influence, with the additional help of US funds. The only result of this intervention was catastrophic devastation and over a million killed.

However, the departure of the Soviet troops, in February 1989, did not bring the war to an end. Instead, the various groups forming the resistance embarked on a new war, this time aimed at overthrowing the PDPA regime which was still in power in Kabul under prime minister Najibullah. None of these groups had the capacity to achieve this on its own, but they all wanted to have their share of power. So the war increasingly took the form of a gang war, in which temporary coalitions were formed and broken depending on the immediate gains that their leaders hoped for.

The main gangs leading the fray were Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami, which was still in receipt of US funds via Pakistan; Jamiat-i-Islami, a Tadjik fundamentalist group led by Rabbani and the now deceased "commander" Massoud, which was based in the North-Eastern Panshir Valley; the Wahdat front, which brought together most Shiite groups and was predominantly composed of Hazaras; and the National Islamic Movement, a mostly Uzbek militia led by "general" Rashid Dostum, who had fought alongside the Russian troops for several years before turning his weapons against them. All the other groups and warlords combined around these main gangs, or sometimes even with government forces. And all these coalitions fought against one another while fighting against the government forces.

In the end, despite the predictions of the then US representative in Kabul that the PDPA regime would collapse within five months of the departure of the Soviet troops, it took another three years before the Islamic forces were able to capture Kabul and force Najibullah to hand over power, in April 1992- thereby showing, in passing, that the PDPA must still have had a sizeable base of support among the population to be able to hold out for so long without, this time, any help from the Soviet Union. But then, probably the prospect of the fundamentalists taking power was terrifying enough for a lot of people to prefer the PDPA, despite its record.

But even then this did not stop the war. Despite many attempts by the United Nations envoy to get the warring factions to form a joint government they never stopped fighting one another. Not that these attempts were totally unsuccessful. Joint structures were agreed bringing together the main faction, with Rabbani as self-proclaimed president, his deputy Massoud as Defence minister and Hekmatyar as prime minister. But no sooner was the agreement made than Hekmatyar chose a spurious pretext to walk out of the coalition . He then set up his artillery on the hills surrounding Kabul and, for a whole year, he shelled the building of the Ministry of Defence occupied by Massoud and other government buildings. Meanwhile the representatives of the Wahdat front had also left over threats made by Dostum against their troops.

There was therefore no prospect of political stability, only the prospect of an on-going war between relatively small but over-equipped military apparatuses - largely thanks to US imperialism.

The rise of the Taliban

This failure to end the Afghan war was upsetting a lot of people, and not just in Afghanistan. In fact there were considerable capitalist interests at work behind the scenes which had been gambling on order being restored in Afghanistan and they were becoming increasingly restless.

Among them was the American oil company Unocal, the largest participant in the CENTGAS consortium, which had been set up to develop a $5bn project comprising a natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan and an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to Pakistan via the same route. Among the other companies concerned by the project were Chevron, BP, British Gas, the Italian company AGIP, etc.. Unocal itself had already invested heavily in the project. Its political adviser was Charles Santos, a former UN special envoy to Afghanistan and it had hired the former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger and the former US ambassador to Pakistan, Robert Oakley, to canvass for the project. The US government was also interested in the project for political reasons: the only two other possible routes for Kazakhstan's oil were through Russia, which made US oil delivery dependent on Moscow, or through Iran, which was out of the question.

This was the context in which the Taliban finally intervened in 1994. They were a new force recruited and trained in Koranic schools, or "madrassas", by the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islami, a small Pakistani fundamentalist party. This party had just come to prominence in 1993, when it was invited by Benazir Bhutto's Pakistani People's Party to join a coalition government. It was known to have built a sizeable presence in the army and the ISI. And it was the ISI which provided this party with the funds, weapons and training necessary to form this new militia. And given the close relations between the CIA and the ISI, it is inconceivable that this initiative could have been taken by the ISI without the agreement, if not under the instructions, of the CIA - nor without the CIA providing at least part of the funds.

As to the Taliban, in most respects they were in no way different from other fundamentalist gangs such as Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami. Except on two points: first they claimed to represent the Pashtun "nation" and refused any coalition with other ethnic minorities; second, and most importantly, they appeared as a new force, as they were not discredited by the factional war which had devastated the country since the departure of the Soviet troops and they seemed determined to fight the corruption of the warring factions.

Many people have wondered how such a reactionary force could have succeeded in taking over most of the country in less than two years, without having to face fierce resistance from the population. But is that really so surprising? The population were exhausted by the war and the Taliban managed to convince them that their aim was not to enjoy the perks of power but to end the war. As to their medieval practices, their appalling punishments and their inhuman treatment of women, did this really represent such a change for a majority of the population? In the countryside, as the PDPA activists had discovered to their cost, the fate of women was already not that different in practice from what the Taliban wanted to impose - after all the warlords had immediately proclaimed an Islamic state after the PDPA's fall, in 1992. In fact only a relatively small layer of westernised urban petty-bourgeois had really broken with the oppressive way of life of traditional Islam. For the rest of the population, the vast majority, a tightening of existing traditional practices may have seemed a small price to pay in return for peace.

In any case, in September 1996, the Taliban were in control of Kabul and two-thirds of the country. The other factions were forced to flee and take refuge in their regional strongholds, like the Panshir Valley, a region close to Uzbekistan and a small area close to Iran.

The Taliban's victory was hailed in the USA, and especially by Unocal's president. Even a rather liberal paper like the Washington Post, wrote: "The stunning capture of Kabul by the radical Taliban militia organisation represents the best chance in years of ending the anarchy that has wracked Afghanistan." The paper added that "from the US point of view, a Taliban-dominated government represents a preferable alternative in some ways to the faction-ridden coalition headed by president Rabbani, which was unable to impose its authority on the entire country. 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." And a State Department spokesman called on the Taliban to "move quickly to restore order", insisting that, as far as the US government was concerned, there was "nothing objectionable" in the measures taken so far by the Taliban to enforce the Islamic law.

But if the US leaders and their mouthpieces in the media were so pleased with the Taliban at the time, why are the USA bombing them today? It is not so much because the Taliban provide a sanctuary for bin Laden, but primarily because the Taliban proved incapable of restoring order over the whole country. Had the Taliban managed to defeat the Northern Alliance, Bush might still have bombed Afghanistan, not to replace their regime, but to force it into being more pliable to imperialist demands. And today, if the US leaders insist on the setting up of a coalition government bringing together both the Northern Alliance and at least a sizeable section of the Taliban, it is not for the sake of democracy, of course, but merely to ensure that the fighting will stop.

In fact this is what Unocal is again preparing for. After having withdrawn from the CENTGAS consortium in 1998, following the Clinton's first bombing of bin Laden's alleged training camp in Afghanistan by the US, they have now announced that they are ready to rejoin it.

Business must restart and, to this end, order must be restored, at all costs, and any kind of order in fact. The Taliban order was good enough for imperialism in 1996. Today it will be that of the Taliban plus the Northern Alliance, that is the alliance of the very same fundamentalist factions which waged such a bloody war between themselves for seven years, until the Taliban took power. This is the kind of order that Bush has in store for the Afghan poor - warlords and zealots. But as long as they manage to keep the poor under control, it is good enough for imperialism!

Fundamentalism and imperialism - twin threats for the poor

Despite what we are told about terrorist threats, it is not so much in the rich countries that fundamentalism represents a danger for the population, but in the poor countries. Indeed, in a number of poor countries the life of the entire population is shaped day in and day out by the terrorist bigotry of such thugs - even when they are not in power.

In Pakistan, for instance, fundamentalist groups have existed for a long time. But it is only over the past two decades that they have began to develop on any scale, thanks to their generous funding by the USA, the increasingly catastrophic economic situation which impoverishes the vast majority of the population and the generalised corruption of the political system.

The media keep telling us that these groups have no real influence, that they do not represent the majority of public opinion. And journalists quote their modest results in elections as proof of this. Maybe so. But a large part of the Pakistani poor are not even on the electoral register, so how can one tell? On the other hand, who occupies the forefront of the political scene in Pakistan today? The religious parties and virtually only them. If anyone in the population wants to vent his anger against the murder of his fellow Afghans by the US military, or outrage at the spectacle of the richest country in the world attacking one of the poorest, the only way he can do this is by joining the protests organised by the religious parties. Why? Because of the cowardice of almost all the other parties, who have lined up behind General Musharraf's support for the US intervention.

And yet these religious parties are the same parties which burn down voluntary schools for girls and women, instruct their members to molest women who are "immodestly" dressed and attack clinics which employ women doctors. These parties are not just backward-looking and hysterical, they are deadly enemies of the poor!

And it is not just in Pakistan or Afghanistan that fundamentalism has developed over the past period. Today there are significant fundamentalist movements from all kinds of religions, in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Iran, of course, Algeria and Morocco, but also Nigeria and South Africa, to name only a few examples. These movements have different social roots and their development has followed different paths. But they all have three things in common: they all reflect in a certain sense the reactionary shift which has taken place in society over the past period; they all feed on the despair of a population which is trapped between repressive regimes, imperialist oppression and abject poverty, without any perspective of a better future; and they all have been propped up, at some point of their development, by imperialism or its local agents.

It was not a coincidence that the CIA chose to finance fundamentalist guerillas against the Soviet occupation rather than Afghan nationalists. Religious currents do not object to trading on the terms dictated by imperialism, only nationalist currents do. And Afghanistan is no exception. In Egypt, for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood was used by the country's monarch, a British puppet, to break a general strike in 1946. Likewise, in India, the Bombay-based Hindu fundamentalist Shiv Sena, was also used to break many strikes by the textile industry magnates, while its election campaigns were financed, up until recently, by British banks such as Barclays and Standard Chartered. Fundamentalist groups are always useful tools for the imperialist powers - they are useful tools because they deprive the poor of their ability to understand and put into question the social organisation of society and its exploitative nature and, above all, of their ability to change it.

But sometimes weapons do explode in the hands of those who handle them. This is what happened to the US leaders with the Taliban and their ally bin Laden. The victims of the World Trade Centre may have died as a result of a conspiracy conceived by bin Laden's network, but it was the US leaders who created the conditions for this network's emergence, as part of their power games in Afghanistan.

In any disease the pain and symptoms have to be taken care of, but it is the cause that needs to be tackled. It is vital for the oppressed classes that fundamentalism should be exposed and opposed, but it is even more vital to fight the cause of this oppression - the capitalist system. If the poor masses of the Third World are to escape from the trap of fundamentalism, they have to be offered another perspective which will only come from a revival of the revolutionary working class movement internationally and of the collective action of the working masses to end the domination of capital over the economy and of imperialism over the planet.

As for us, workers in Britain, it is in our interest to oppose this terrorist war and to side with the Afghan poor against the imperialist rulers who are also our own exploiters.

October 2001