War in Afghanistan - Imperialism threatens to set alight a whole region

nov 2001

Three weeks into the war against Afghanistan, the US leaders are no longer trying to conceal the devastation caused by their bombs in a country which had already been largely destroyed by 23 years of on-going war. Day after day, we hear that villages, food storage depots, old people's homes, hospitals, residential areas, etc.. have been reduced to rubble by Washington's "surgical strikes". Or else a triumphant press statement boasts about the destruction of Kabul's only operating power station - and obvious "military target" for the Pentagon. As if the first victims of such a "victory" are not the civilian population. No-one should forget that in Iraq, according to the United Nations itself, the destruction of power stations and water purification plants resulted in the deaths of more people after the Gulf War than the bombing caused during it.

Whatever Bush may say, he is targeting the Afghan population. Otherwise, why would cluster bombs be dropped on Kabul or Herat, as the US general staff recently admitted? Using such weapons against towns can only have one purpose - to kill, maim and terrorise the population.

By now we have already moved a long way from the "war against terrorism" launched by Bush - with the support of all minor imperialisms - in order to "bring bin Laden to justice". In fact, in an interview published by USA Today, US Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld even admitted that bin Laden may never be caught, no matter the military means used by the US.

As if the US leaders had never considered such a possibility before embarking on this military adventure! And as if the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s had not already demonstrated the difficulties that might be involved. At that time, despite its 120,000 well-equipped soldiers and powerful air force, the Soviet army lost 20,000 men without ever being able to extend its control beyond the main towns and roads, into the mountainous areas which cover most of the country. And yet, in addition to its military might on the ground, the Soviet army could rely on the Afghan regime which, although discredited, still had a social base among the population. Could Bush and his general staff really believe that their artillery - no matter how powerful - and some commando operations (which are so secretive that they seem to have no impact whatsoever on the situation) would be enough to catch bin Laden and his supporters - especially since they seemed to be able to rely on the Taliban's protection? This is doubtful.

In fact, Bush's war against Afghanistan is primarily intended to be a show of strength. It is aimed at US public opinion, which was shattered by the events of September 11th. But beyond this, it is also intended as a demonstration in front of the peoples of the poor countries that no-one can get away with attacking US imperialism.

This demonstration is all the more despicable because the people of Afghanistan have nothing to do with bin Laden's crimes. But in addition, it may well turn out that the bombing of Afghanistan poses new problems for the US leaders. The longer the bombing campaign and the longer the list of Afghan civilian casualties, the more this war is likely to destabilise the whole region. However, the logic of Bush's strategy means that he must be able to claim a victory. And because he has linked the "fight against bin Laden" to the "fight against the Taliban", a failure to catch bin Laden means that Bush has to overthrow the Taliban regime in order to be able to claim a victory.

But assuming that the Taliban regime falls - which is still far from being the achieved - what will replace it? The thousands of bombs raining down over Afghanistan cannot resolve this political problem. Any government patched together and imposed on the country by the US would be unable to survive, at least not without the US leaving troops on the ground - something that Bush does not intend to do.

However, the specific problems posed by the imperialist aggression against Afghanistan are compounded by other problems inherited from the past - both recent and more distant - in a country which has been a long-standing powderkeg in an unstable region.

From the making of the Afghan powderkeg...

The role played by the great powers in stoking up the Afghan powderkeg goes back a long way, to the 19th century. It was at that time, in 1893 to be precise, that the Afghan borders were artificially drawn by British imperialism to reflect the balance of forces between the Russian empire, on the one hand, and, on the other, the British empire and its sphere of influence. Having failed to include Afghanistan into its empire, London's aim was to make it into a buffer zone between the two rival empires.

The result of this operation was a country which had no known natural resources, no access to the sea, and was mostly covered with inhospitable high mountain ranges, deserts covered with stones and arid steppes.

But above all, the new Afghanistan was an incredible patchwork of peoples, with different religious and linguistic traditions. And today, most of the various ethnic groups which make up the Afghan population remain split between Afghanistan and one or several of its five neighbouring countries. Its largest ethnic minority, the Pashtuns, who make up nearly 40% of the Afghan population, is concentrated in the southern half of the country. But the majority of this ethnic group actually lives on the other side of the Pakistani border (the so-called "Durand line"), where they form Pakistan's second largest ethnic group. The much smaller Nuristani, who live in the eastern mountain ranges of Afghanistan, are also split in two by the same border. Afghanistan's second largest ethnic minority, with 30%, the Tadjiks, live in the north-east of the country but also in Tadjikistan and Uzbekistan. Two smaller ethnic groups - the Uzbek in the North and the Turkmens in the north west - are also to be found in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In the centre of Afghanistan live the Hazaras, who have Mogul ancestry. They have no ethnic ties with any of the neighbouring countries, but they form the largest Shia grouping in Sunni-dominated Afghanistan and, as a result, have close ties with Iran. Finally, in the south of Afghanistan, the smaller Baluchi ethnic group is related to much larger groups in Iran and, above all, in Pakistan.

In Afghanistan itself and, in fact, in the whole surrounding region, the contradictions between ethnic divisions and national borders have been a constant cause of conflicts. At the same time, these contradictions can easily turn any local destabilisation into a threat for the whole region. All the more so, because the five neighbours of Afghanistan are also, to various degrees, heterogenous patchworks of populations which are living together under the yoke of a dictatorship - rather than as a result of a free choice within a democratic framework respectful of the rights of minorities.

Thus ethnic conflicts have often threatened the relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the 1960s, for instance, there were many border incidents between the two countries. On the Afghan side, the former king Zahir Shah (the same individual that the USA have just pulled out of their hat from his exile in Rome) championed the idea of a "Greater Pashtunistan", which would have redrawn the Durand line in order to integrate the Pashtun part of Pakistan into Afghanistan. On the Pakistani side, the then dictator, Marshall Ayub Khan, had plans to turn Afghanistan into a kind of Pakistani satellite state. Then, during the following decade, Pakistan's Baluchi minority staged an armed uprising against Islamabad. It took five years of bloody repression, involving 100,000 soldiers on Pakistan's side, for the populist prime minister Ali Bhutto, to crush the insurgents. And many times during the course of these five years, Afghanistan came very close to being engulfed in a war with Pakistan simply because, quite naturally, the Baluchi People's Liberation Front was using the Baluchi area of Afghanistan as a rear base for their military operations in Pakistan.

Have the ethnic-based territorial disputes between Afghanistan and Pakistan dissipated over time? This is doubtful. Over the past two decades, Pakistan's successive regimes have all intervened in the on-going war in Afghanistan - on behalf of imperialism's interests, of course, but also to promote their own interests. Moreover, on the Afghan side, recent public statements have shown that the old territorial claims have not been forgotten. For instance, one of Zahir Shah's advisers used the example of Hong Kong's return to China by Britain to back his claim that the Durand line should be renegotiated in compliance with the 100- year time limit written into the 1893 agreement which created it. In 1993, when this deadline came, Afghanistan was still deep in civil war. But it may well re-emerge in the demagogy of politicians seeking to achieve national unity in Afghanistan - or among the Pashtuns - at Pakistan's expense.

... to that of Indo-Pakistan

One should also recall how the games of the great powers affected Pakistan itself, dramatically, right from its inception.

In 1947, Britain withdrew from its Indian empire, against a background of social cataclysm, which was the direct consequence of London's "divide and rule" policy over so many decades. In late 1945, the colonial authorities were confronted with an unprecedented wave of strikes and demonstrations in favour of independence, which spread to the Indian army and navy. Britain responded with brutal repression while, behind the scenes, it encouraged Muslim and Hindu gangs to go on the rampage and carry out pogroms in order to break the wave of strikes and unrest. By the same token, however, the colonial power opened the gates to a flood of demagogic overbidding among local politicians seeking to build a power base for themselves - if not a state of their own - by taking the lead of the pogromist gangs.

Soon the British Labour government lost control of the situation it had created. So it chose to run away. But in so doing, it did not lose sight of the interests of imperialism in general, nor of those of British imperialism in particular. Under the pretext of protecting religious rights, London engineered the partition of the Indian subcontinent. A huge Indian federation would harbour the non- Muslim population while retaining most of the resources of the former colony. And on either side of it, east and west, two territories, 1,300 miles apart were to constitute Pakistan, carved out for the Muslim population. However, not only was Pakistan much poorer and smaller, but separated into two in this way, it was also obviously unviable.

In and of itself this partition turned the wave of communal pogroms into a social catastrophe which left half-a-million dead and forced ten million people to flee in both directions. In addition it set the two new countries against each other over the territorial claims created by the artificial borders drawn by London. The consequences are well-known: two bloody wars over the issue of Kashmir - immediately after independence and, again, in 1965 - and another one, which led to the secession of East Pakistan, in 1971, to form today's Bangladesh, with India's help.

As subsequent events showed, Pakistan's political instability was not resolved by the secession of Bangladesh. The Indian federation, by contrast, although also a patchwork of ethnic groups, proved large enough for the biggest groups to want to remain within it and for the occasional shocks created by separatist movements to be absorbed without serious consequences. But Pakistan was much poorer, with a territory only one fourth of the size of India and a population around one eighth of that of India. Its various ethnic components had few incentives to remain within Pakistan. So right from the start, the country was torn apart by centrifugal forces: Baluchi and Pashtun nationalism, as mentioned before; Punjabi separatism (Punjab being split in two between India and Pakistan); more recently, the nationalist movement which developed among the Mohadjir (a milieu formed by families who came from India in 1947 and populated southern towns, like Karachi, without being really integrated by the local semi-feudal society).

Moreover, as a result of the 1947 partition, communalist and religious demagogy became respectable components of political life both in India and in Pakistan, thereby paving the way for many more pogroms in both countries, as well as for the rise of various forms of fundamentalism - Islamic, Hindu, Sikh, etc.. - over the past two decades.

India's partition was primarily designed to benefit imperialism, regardless of the cost to the population. In particular, it took into account the lessons of China, where the US leaders were unable to intervene to prevent the forces of their puppet, Chiang Kai- shek, from disintegrating in front of the offensive led by Mao Zedong, who was riding a peasant uprising against feudal landowners. For the imperialist leaders, it was vital that no such setback should be allowed to happen in India and, therefore, everything had to be done to prevent the possibility of a mass mobilisation deep enough to try to challenge the domination of the imperialist powers. And since India's independence could not be avoided, it had to take the form of a divided sub-continent, which would be crippled and poisoned by internal conflicts and, therefore, paralysed against imperialism. The British Labour ministers did what was required to achieve this objective - with the blood of hundreds of thousands of people from the sub- continent.

During the subsequent decades, imperialism used this partition to its advantage in several different ways.

India's size and resources allowed it to extract some concessions from imperialism, or at least to demand something in return for everything it conceded. This allowed the Indian leader, Nehru, together with the Indonesian leader Sukarno, to champion "non-alignment" - i.e. a certain degree of independence towards imperialism, although it was mostly an illusion. This also allowed India to benefit from the military aid of the Soviet Union without ever losing that of the USA. But this did not prevent the Indian economy from being looted by imperialist multinationals. Nor did it prevent the USA from manipulating Nehru, by encouraging his regional ambitions against China, regardless of the resulting potential risk of triggering a war between the two countries - which was exactly what happened when the Chinese army invaded Assam, in 1962.

Pakistan, by contrast, due to its poverty and instability, proved an easy prey for the US leaders, especially after they backed Pakistan's claim over Kashmir against India. As an instrument of imperialism, Pakistan became all the more pliable as its army - the backbone of its state machinery and its only institution capable of keeping the country together - became more dependent on US subsidies. From being merely a tool designed to contain the desire for independence of its giant Indian neighbour, Pakistan soon became an important auxiliary for US imperialism.

A geo-political interface

Indeed, since World War II Pakistan has been located on the interface between three geo-political entities: to the west, the Middle East and its huge energy resources; to the east, Asia, which is dominated by China; and to the north, the Soviet Union and, subsequently, after it felt apart, the Russian sphere of influence.

In each of these regions, US imperialism has been operating with the active complicity, or at least the support, of the minors imperialisms such as Britain. It has moved pawns according to various strategies, which were sometimes contradictory, using its economic and military power to bribe or subjugate regimes, to play them against one another and, of course, whenever possible, to drown in blood any attempt by the populations to rebel. Pakistan and Afghanistan found themselves caught in the middle of this complex power game and, as a result, have been its main victims.

In 1951, it was the situation in Middle East - specifically the nationalisation of foreign oil companies' assets by the Iranian prime minister Mussadeq, which prompted Washington to tighten its grip on Pakistan and turn it into a regional auxiliary of its policy. So, by 1952, president Sikandar Mirza agreed in principle to the US setting up military bases on Pakistani territory and, in return, the USA promised to train and arm the Pakistani army.

As it happened, the Iranian crisis was promptly resolved by Mussadeq's overthrow in a military coup, organised with the help of the CIA, in 1953. Nevertheless the USA went ahead with their plans regarding the Pakistani army. And in 1958, when Marshall Ayub Khan overthrew the civilian government in a military coup, the USA did not bother to raise the issue of democracy. But during Khan's first year in power, the US opened its first air base in Pakistan, near Peshawar, close to the northern Pakistani-Afghan border. This base could be used both against the USSR (which was just over 300 miles away) and against Iran, the most populated country of the Middle East (which was 600 miles away).

With the close of the 1960s and the setback suffered by US imperialism in Vietnam, came the end of the "containment" policy. The US leaders began to search for rapprochement with China. This was, in fact, a rather convoluted policy. Because, on the one hand, the USA carried on encouraging India in its rivalry with China while, on the other, they used Ali Bhutto's regime in Pakistan as a conduit of communication with Beijing.

The opportunistic nature of the US nuclear non-proliferation policy was exposed against the backdrop of this complex diplomatic game. The Indian nuclear programme had been launched in 1964, following the first Chinese nuclear explosion. It had been developed with the help of Washington, who had allowed the sale of two General Electric reactors to India. By the early 1970s, the fact that India was about to test its first nuclear bomb (developed with the help of the USSR) did not prevent the USA from supplying India with the "heavy water" it required. And, in 1974, after India carried out its first nuclear test, Washington demonstrated its tacit approval by a massive increase in its military aid to India. Obviously, so far as the US leaders were concerned, the Indian bomb was a useful counterweight to the Chinese bomb.

As to Pakistan, it first joined the nuclear race in late 1971, under Ali Bhutto. Not only did Washington choose not to oppose it, but they actually helped, by allowing the sale of Westinghouse reactors to Pakistan. At the same time, supplies of conventional weapons to Pakistan were massively increased - officially to "make the development of a Pakistani bomb redundant." Of course, the point was to avoid upsetting such a useful regional ally, all the more so because, otherwise, China might have used the opportunity to offer its help to Pakistan.

With regard to US policy towards the USSR, Pakistan played an essentially passive role up until the end of the 1970s. Except for a brief period, in the early days of Bhutto's regime when he resorted to a kind of "socialist" demagogy, all the Pakistani regimes, whether military or not, shared the same vocal anti-communism - and all the more so because their Indian neighbour was presented as a Soviet ally on the international scene, although this was a wild exaggeration. Beyond that, the only role played by Pakistan was to provide US imperialism with military bases to complement its encirclement of the USSR.

It must be noted, however, that US policy towards Afghanistan during that period was very cautious. And the US leaders did whatever was necessary to discourage their Pakistani allies from embarking on a military adventure in Afghanistan. Just like their British predecessors in the 19th century, and despite the fact that it was under Soviet influence, Washington's strategists saw Afghanistan as a useful buffer state between the Soviet Union and the imperialist world, which, in addition, had no economic attractions for the imperialist multinationals.

Cold War and fundamentalism

In 1979, two new developments took place. One of the main pillars of the imperialist domination of the Middle East, the bloody dictatorship of the Iranian Shah, collapsed in January 1979. Then in the course of the same year, a civil war broke out in Afghanistan, resulting in the Soviet Union's military intervention in December of that year.

The political change in Iran confronted US imperialism with a three-fold problem. First, it put into question imperialism's well tested system of domination in the Middle East - a system which relied on the tripod formed by Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Secondly, the fact that a popular movement had been able to overthrow one of the most repressive regimes in the region could set a dangerous precedent for the future. Thirdly, although the US leaders had been rather pleased by Khomeini's hijacking of the Iranian revolution, they were worried by the political instability which carried on during that whole year in Iran, by the increasing anti-American demagogy used by the new regime and by its proclaimed intention to generate support among the Arab populations. All these factors played a role in the US moving the centre of gravity of its policy towards Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and towards Pakistan, on the other, where the dominant version of Islam was Sunni rather Khomeini's Shia version.

The events in Afghanistan raised a different kind of problem. Since April 1978, the PDPA (People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan) was in power, following a military coup which had overthrown the dictatorship of prince Daoud. The PDPA was a pro-soviet party, which was above all a mixture of nationalism and social-democracy, representing mostly the modernist urban petty- bourgeois layers. Soon, the PDPA was torn apart by brutal factional fights which traditional landlords and clerics used to discredit the regime among the rural majority of the population. A whole section of the state machinery began to melt away. Civil war developed, with entire regions of the country breaking all ties with the central government. Moreover there was a possibility that this dangerous situation might spread to the neighbouring countries through ethnic and religious ties.

The Soviet intervention, in December 1979, was convenient for the imperialist powers as it meant that they would not have to do the job themselves - assuming that they had not explicitly given their go-ahead to Moscow. However, this did not prevent Western governments from condemning the USSR. And above all, it did not prevent US imperialism from trying to use the opportunity to create difficulties for the Soviet Union and to prevent it from consolidating its influence over Afghanistan.

As is known today, Washington did not wait for the Soviet intervention to try to take advantage of the situation. High- ranking Pakistani officers revealed later that, as early as April 1979, the US embassy in Pakistan had asked the ISI (the Inter Service Intelligence - the Pakistani secret police which had been shaped and trained by American specialists) to provide it with a list of Afghan opposition groups to which the USA could give financial (and if need be military) "assistance". It was at that time that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb i-Islami (Party of Islam) became the main recipient of US subsidies and weapons. And it was to retain this privilege for over a decade.

The Soviet intervention immediately resulted in the US stepping up the policy they had started in April 1979. Pakistan became the main transmission belt for Washington's new power game. US president Carter forgot about the economic and military sanctions he had ordered himself against the then Pakistani dictator, general Zia ul-Haq, following his military coup, in 1977, and the subsequent repression. From 1980 onwards, Pakistan became the world's third largest recipient of US aid, after Israel and Egypt.

The resources of the Pakistani army and, above all, that of ISI were mobilised to channel the funds and weapons supplied by the USA, as well as by Saudi Arabia and some Gulf emirates, to the "Afghan resistance". Over the duration of the war, US funding alone was estimated at $250m. In addition, the "Afghan resistance" also had a few other benefactors - like Iran, China and Egypt, for instance - who chose to distribute their aid without resorting to Pakistan's help.

Most of these funds and weapons went to Islamic fundamentalist groups. This was not by accident. Nor was it due to the absence of other political forces opposing the Soviet occupation - such forces existed and they were not less significant that the fundamentalist groups, which were still tiny. The fact that US aid benefited mainly fundamentalist groups was the result of a political choice. This choice was partly inspired by Pakistan - whose policy had been to offer a rear base to Afghan fundamentalist groups ever since 1973, when they were banned in Afghanistan - and by general Zia personally, who had close ties with the Islamic Alliance (Jamaat i-Islami), a small Pakistani fundamentalist party. But above all, as far as the US leaders were concerned, the fundamentalist groups appeared as the most determined enemies of the Soviet Union and, therefore, the best bet to ensure that Soviet influence over Afghanistan would end once the war was over.

This being said, the flood of dollars and weapons resulted in the mushrooming of rival groups. In reality many of these groups had not reason to exist other than the ambition of their leaders to be awarded a share of the US largesse. Some of these groups were Sunni, Shia or represented minor religious sects. Most of them were strictly ethnic-based. Many among them were merely the armed organisation of a local clan. Those who had a real presence on the ground - which was not always the case, by far - were often more preoccupied with protecting their trafficking (that of opium in particular) against the Soviet troops, or their territories against rival resistance groups, than with protecting the Afghan population. In short, the leaders of this "resistance", armed and financed as it was by imperialism, were not only religious fanatics, bent on pushing their country back into medieval times, they were war lords and, more often than not, plain crooks.

But none of this prevented the US leaders from distributing their subsidies to them. It did not take long, however, for the consequences of this policy to manifest in Afghanistan itself.

The Afghan catastrophe

After ten years of bloody fighting in the Afghan quagmire, the Soviet troops eventually withdrew, in February 1989. They left the country under a government which was still led by the PDPA, but also included a number of nationalist politicians. For the US leaders, it seemed that the day of "victory" had finally arrived. Their envoy in Kabul, Jon Glassman, considered that the PDPA regime would be finished within five months. The Pakistani army general staff drew up plans for a general offensive by the resistance, against Kabul, with the help of US advisers. It was a disaster. The battle lasted two months, leaving 2,000 dead, but the PDPA remained firmly in power - not just for five months, but for over three years.

Eventually, however, in April 1982, the disintegration of the PDPA regime was finally complete, after whole units of its army and police had joined, one after the other, the main groups of the resistance. The latter entered Kabul and the United Nations hailed the setting up of what they called a "democratic" government in Afghanistan - despite the fact that this government had only succeeded in taking power thanks to imperialism's weapons.

The new power - which called itself an "Islamic government" - was based on a coalition of the ten largest resistance groups. This included nine fundamentalist groups and the National Islamic Movement led by the Uzbek warlord, general Dostum. In addition, the new regime was supposed to make space for a myriad of smaller groups through institutions which had still to be defined. However, while the details of its structure were still vague, the nature of the new regime was not: it was to be an Islamic republic.

However, no sooner had this regime settled in Kabul than the coalition lost two of its main protagonists - Hekmatyar's Hizb i- Islami, the largest group, and the Shia front, Wahdat. From this point onwards, the civil war resumed, as fiercely as ever. Worse, as the strongest groups in the ruling coalition were now Tadjik and Uzbek, the civil war took on a more distinctively ethnic character - which was duly stressed both by the coalition's opponents and by the Pakistani leaders who still hung on to Hekmatyar. For four years, the country was deprived of a recognised central power and plunged in more bloody fighting - by the factions which were fighting for power in Kabul, but also by a host of local warlords who were trying to take advantage of the power vacuum to carve a territory for themselves at the population's expense.

It was primarily this situation which paved the way for the Taliban's victorious march to power, between 1994 and 1996. It seems that the apparent determination of this new generation of fighters to bring the war and the corruption caused by the other fundamentalist factions to an end, generated some illusions among the Afghan population. And, probably, the Taliban did not appear more repressive than the other factions.

Of course, the imperialist leaders' preoccupations were very different. They were certainly worried about the power vacuum and civil war in Afghanistan and the ever present risk of contagion this represented for the neighbouring countries. However, they might have tolerated this situation, at least temporarily, had it not been for major changes which had occurred in the Soviet Union in the meantime.

Indeed, the collapse of the Soviet Union had opened the possibility for Western multinationals to gain access to the national markets and, above all, the natural resources of the former Central Asian Soviet republics. According to estimates made then, these natural resources, particularly in oil and natural gas, were enormous. As a result, Western multinationals were scrambling to take options on Turkmenistan's gas and Kazakhstan's oil. Their only problem was to find a way to bring this oil and gas to Western markets. From this point of view, Afghanistan offered entirely new prospects. Indeed, by building pipelines across Afghanistan to bring this oil and gas to the sea, it became possible to avoid going through Russia - which involved extortionate transit fees and gave Russia a measure of control over Western energy supplies - or through Iran - which was still subject to US economic sanctions.

However no pipeline could be operated through Afghanistan as long as the civil war carried on. Besides, Afghanistan's political instability threatened to spread to some of the former Central Asian Soviet republics, where fundamentalism was already rife - which would have deprived Western multinationals of the chance to plunder these countries' natural resources.

No-one knows precisely the role played by the US in arming and training the Taliban - and, obviously, the US leaders are unlikely to boast about it in today's context. What is known, is that between 1993 and 1996, Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of Ali Bhutto, ran the Pakistani government in coalition with the Jamiat Ulema-i- Islami (JUI), a small fundamentalist party which was particularly prominent for its radical activism. It was during this period that the regime's interior minister, general Babar, organised the recruitment of the future Taliban into the Koranic schools run by the JUI and also their training by the Pakistani army. By that time, US military aid to Pakistan had been officially stopped as a result of the "Pressler amendment" against "illegal" nuclear programmes. But Pakistan still received US economic aid. And there were plenty of American political and military advisers in the country, so it is doubtful that the long-standing links between the US and Pakistani military had been severed. It is, therefore, inconceivable that a wide-ranging initiative such as the organisation of the Taliban army could have been taken by the Pakistani authority without the agreement, if not the direct involvement, of the USA.

In any case, when the Taliban occupied Kabul, in September 1996, the US authorities hailed the event as heralding the long- awaited return to law and order in the country. So did the oil multinationals, of course. Unocal, the main participant in the trans-Afghanistan pipeline project, congratulated the new regime and promised international financial aid as a reward for the return to political stability.

By January 1997, many months after the imposition by the Taliban of the Sharia law and their unleashing of medieval repression against the population as a whole, and more specifically against women, a US diplomat based in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, had these cynical words to say in an interview: "The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis did. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that." US diplomats and imperialist multinationals could live with that, of course, but how about the Afghan population? The fact is that the fate of this population just does not count in the power games of imperialism, neither yesterday, nor today.

Besides, for the imperialist leaders, the Taliban meant more than just political stability and enormous profits for the oil companies. As the US daily Washington Post reported in an editorial, in 1996, the Taliban were seen as "anti- modern rather than anti-Western" and "bent on restoring a traditional society in Afghanistan, rather than exporting an Islamic revolution" - meaning that the Taliban provided imperialism with a "harmless" counter-weight to Iranian fundamentalism.

Five years on, judging by the accusations levelled today by the US leaders, it seems that this "harmless" instrument whose production they encouraged, if not engineered, finally exploded in their hands on September 11th. But the victims of the World Trade Centre paid the price, just as, today, the Afghan population is paying the same price a second time, with the US bombing.

A political settlement? Squaring the circle.

Five years after the Taliban victory, the US leaders finally chose to declare war against their former protégés. Just as in 1979, when their aim was to end the Soviet Union's influence over Afghanistan surreptitiously, they turned to Pakistan. And just as in 1979 with general Zia, they chose to forget about the economic sanctions imposed on general Musharraf's dictatorship following his military coup in October 1999. Three weeks after the bombing of Afghanistan had begun, a number of bilateral and multilateral loans to Pakistan were already announced. Officially, US military aid remains frozen. However the Pakistani papers sing a different tune. For instance they reported the delivery of US helicopters to the Pakistani army for... "humanitarian missions".

For the imperialist leaders, the real problem today is how to find a viable political settlement in Afghanistan when, as a result of their policy, the Afghan political scene is occupied by warlords whose influence is based on combining military force with ethnic and fundamentalist demagogy. The US leaders can pull the former king Zahir Shah out of their bag, but they still have to find forces on the ground which are willing to accept him, if not as their leader, at least as an arbiter. But which forces?

Certainly not the few hundred exiled traditional chiefs who gathered recently in Pakistan to vote a motion calling for the return of the former king - they have been cut off from the country for much too long.

The Northern Alliance then? But what does this opposition to the Taliban really amount to? Its full name is the United National Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan. It is an uneasy alliance of mostly fundamentalist non-Pashtun warlords, each claiming to represent some particular ethnic group or even clan - the same warlords whose struggle for power plunged the country into a bloody civil war before 1996. They may have fought the Taliban, but this was mainly thanks to the weapons they got from Russia and Iran. Their main objective is to gain a leading position in any future ruling coalition on the grounds that, taken together, they claim to represent the majority of the country's population. However, given its past record, this Northern Alliance seems unlikely to be able to guarantee political stability. Moreover it is hostile to Pakistan, imperialism's regional representative (just as Pakistan is hostile to the Northern Alliance) and, above all, it has proved unable to make significant gains on the ground against the Taliban over the past years. From imperialism's point of view this, in and of itself, is a major failure. While the US leaders want to see political stability in Afghanistan, there is no question for them of enforcing this stability by leaving troops behind permanently in order to allow a weak regime to remain in power. Others have already experienced the Afghan quagmire and imperialism is determined not to go down that road.

So, for the time being, the USA are seeking forces which would enjoy a minimum level of support among the Pashtuns. However, while there is no shortage of clan leaders in Pakistan's border towns and around Zahir Shah, their number does not mean they have any support on the ground. As a result the US leaders seem to be looking towards the Taliban themselves, who are more acceptable to Pakistan, both from a political and an ethnic point of view.

But what makes a "good" Taliban? His willingness to become an ally of the US, out of interest or fear? For the time being it seems that neither the US nor Pakistan have been able to find a large enough number of such "good" Taliban. And their search is certainly not helped by the fact that the only exiled Pashtun warlord who had the guts to go back in order to rally support was caught and executed by the Taliban within days - which, in passing, shows that the Taliban are more effective at finding their enemies than the US forces at finding bin Laden!

As a result the US leaders are maintaining their military pressure in the hope that their bombs will weaken the resistance of the upper layers of the Taliban hierarchy and, eventually, cause some defections. Meanwhile the Afghan population is made to pay with its blood for a hypothetical political settlement of which there is still no sign whatsoever. The worst aspect of this situation is that whatever happens, whether there is indeed a political settlement or just a continuation of the present status quo, this population will be made to pay once again. Indeed, whoever they may be, the leaders who will be eventually imposed on the country will be reactionary warlords for whom racketeering against the population is a way of life.

A threat for the whole region

Although it is the worst affected for the time being, the Afghan population is not the only one which has had to pay for the past two decades of imperialist policy. Every country in the region is also affected one way or another.

In India, for instance, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the neighbouring countries was echoed, in the 1990s, by a parallel rise of Hindu fundamentalism.

From 1991 onwards, this resulted in a wave of anti-Muslim pogroms, whose victims were also non-Muslim inhabitants of Muslim-dominated areas. Officially these pogroms caused thousands of casualties, and probably a lot more in reality. Against this background, the increasing poverty of the population and the corruption of the main political parties paved the way for the rise of the BJP, the political wing of Hindu fundamentalism. From being a marginal party, with only half-a-dozen seats in the federal parliament in the early 1990s, the BJP was able to form a ruling coalition in 1998. And it has remained in power ever since. Of course, the BJP's regime is not comparable to the Taliban's. The BJP leaders are rich capitalists and respectable personalities. But behind this respectable facade, the BJP can rely on the armed RSS militias - with several hundred thousand members even before the BJP came to power and probably a lot more today - and regional auxiliaries such as Shiv Sena in Bombay, which police the population on a day-to-day basis (including through comprehensive "protection" rackets) and could intervene physically in the event of a political crisis.

It is in Pakistan, however, that the situation is most worrying. One can see today the large demonstrations organised by the fundamentalist parties in this country. In practice these organisations control the streets. But this is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Despite its origins, Pakistan was not initially a religious state. It took nine years for the regime to declare the country an Islamic state, in 1956. This was a concession made by the civilian government to woo the country's traditional forces in the face of rising left-wing mobilisation in East Pakistan (today's Bangladesh). But even at the time, this label did not affect the country's legislation nor the way of life of its population. It was only later, under Ali Bhutto's "Islamic socialism" that official language began to take a more overtly religious tone.

But the real turn came under the dictatorship of general Zia. Small fundamentalist groups emerged under his rule, mostly among the commercial petty-bourgeoisie of the main towns. Most of these groups had links with the army which provided the only possible career for the youth coming from this petty-bourgeois milieu. This allowed them to benefit from the flow of imperialist dollars targeted at the Afghan "resistance". In many cases, these groups were given the task of policing the Afghan refugee camps by the ISI - and by the same token they were able to racketeer the refugees under the pretext of collecting funds for the "resistance".

Increasingly the Pakistani army used these fundamentalist groups to carry out guerilla or terrorist operations against the Indian forces in Kashmir. As a result, by the end of Zia's rule, in 1988, the Kashmiri nationalist movement, which had so far been dominated by secular currents fighting for the reunification of Kashmir and its self-determination, came under the control of a fundamentalist group, Hizb ul-Mujahidin, whose members often came from the Afghan refugee camps of Peshawar and Quetta, if not from Punjabi universities, and whose cadres had fought in the ranks of the Afghan "resistance". It was this fundamentalist front which, after the start of the bombing in Afghanistan, embarked on a campaign of spectacular terrorist attacks in Indian Kashmir - one of which left 38 dead in the Kashmiri capital, Srinagar.

The civilian regimes which followed Zia's death until Musharraf's military coup, in 1999, did nothing to contain the rising influence of the fundamentalist groups. From an electoral point of view, these groups had little influence. They only managed to secure a few seats in the federal parliament and a few more in the regional parliaments. But in many towns, their were increasingly becoming the law on the streets. They used terrorist methods against working class activists. They attacked anything that could be seen as a symbol of liberalism or secularism - from maternity clinics to literacy centres for women in the poor districts. Not only did the governments do nothing to contain the reactionary activism of these groups, but as part of their on-going politicking, they made concessions to their demagogy, and even, in the case of Benazir Bhutto, offered them a platform by inviting them to join a government coalition.

However these groups do not limit their activities to terrorising the population. They also take advantage of its dramatic poverty and the catastrophic state of all social infrastructure. So, for instance, both the JI (the party which used to back Zia and is today the largest fundamentalist group) and the JUI (the second largest today) increased their social base among the poor by organising soup kitchens or helping slum dwellers to salvage houses which had been destroyed by floods. And, in a country where all schooling has to be paid for, they organised "madrassas" (Koranic schools) which, for many children in the poorest districts, are the only way to learn how to read and write - except that the only thing they learn in these schools is the content of the Koran and the idea that the only worthwhile future for them is to die for their religion.

It was these madrassas which trained not only the Taliban who entered Afghanistan in 1994, but also probably many of those 10,000 volunteers who are said to be waiting on the border between the two countries, ready to go and get themselves killed by the US bombs in the name of the medieval beliefs that have re- emerged out of the detritus of the imperialist world.

What is dramatic about the situation in Pakistan is that, today, in front of these tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of youth who have been turned into fanatics by the fundamentalists, there is no alternative. All the traditional parties have aligned themselves with Musharraf's support for imperialism. Only a few trade-unions and the tiny far-left oppose this policy. However, either they do not have the political will to express their opposition or their voice is inaudible. So those who want to demonstrate their anger against the crimes of imperialism in Afghanistan and their determination to fight it, have no choice other than to follow the fundamentalists.

Once again, therefore, imperialism is facilitating the rise of fundamentalism. Among the Pakistani Pashtuns and the Afghan refugees, this rise is further compounded by a sense of ethnic solidarity which turns the whole of north west Pakistan into a powderkeg waiting to explode.

The convoluted manoeuvres of imperialism to consolidate its grip on the region have already created a catastrophic situation in Afghanistan itself. Today, Washington's attempts at correcting its past "errors" may result in another catastrophe, this time on an even larger scale, in Pakistan, whose population is six times larger than that of Afghanistan, with the additional risk that the contagion spreads indirectly to India or even further.

Imperialism's state terrorism and the greed of the multinationals which causes it are producing chain reactions across the planet. By dragging on, in its present state of decadence, imperialism produces increasingly intolerable situations, which are becoming more and more dangerous for the future of mankind.

3 November 2001