Crisis of the Occupation in Afghanistan

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From 2001-2007 the occupation of Afghanistan and a growing low-intensity war in Pakistan proceeded with little notice in the U.S. Dominated by the uprising in Iraq, the U.S. ruling class–the principle force guaranteeing the occupation and the most to lose from its failure–equally treated developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan with relative neglect. For the last two years this course has been slowly reversed, and the U.S. has not only attempted to deal with the growing resistance in Afghanistan, but has dramatically deepened its involvement inside Pakistan. Richard Holbrooke, one of the architects of Clinton’s Yugoslavia policy and now playing a similar role in Afghanistan and Pakistan under Obama, indicated this conceptual shift when he said U.S. imperialism is not facing an Afghanistan problem, but a AfPak problem.

With Iraq secured, the Bush administration put General David Petraeus in charge of Central Command who turned to Afghanistan and Pakistan, which was completely out of control. The neo-Taliban now functioned as a shadow state throughout the south and east of the country, advancing to the edges of Kabul that confined a collapsing and illegitimate U.S.-backed regime. More recently, the resistance has emerged in pockets around the north of the country. The promotion of Petraeus signaled the intention to replicate the Iraq strategy which involved destabilizing the resistance by incorporating its bourgeois elements into the state and, at the same time, carrying out total war against its popular bases of support–what Don Rumsfeld had called the El Salvador option. Further, the U.S. depended on sharpening divisions in Iraqi society and capitalizing on the decisive ideological failures within the resistance.

Obama appointed General Stanley McChrystal, chief Special Forces commander in Iraq, to implement a similar strategy in Afghanistan. As commander of JSOC, McChrystal was one of the central players in the “El Salvador option” inside Iraq. McChrystal was highly critical of military policy in Afghanistan and gave a grim assessment of the state of the occupation, which was subsequently made public. Faced with a classic guerrilla campaign, the historical problems of state building in Afghanistan, and increased inter-state and regional competition in central Asia, for example the recent expansion of the Shanghai Cooperative Organization, U.S. imperialism has endangered its own strategic positions throughout the region.

The bankruptcy of the occupation is rooted in its supposedly triumphant victory in 2001. The U.S. invasion led to a return of classic fragmentation and a weak state that have been characteristic features of Afghanistan for a century. The Northern Alliance, or the Shura-e-Nazar, consisting primarily of the old major mujahidin groups Jamiat-e-Islami, Jombesh, and the Shi’a Hazara party Hezb-e Wahdat–groups led by university educated Islamists–took control of Kabul headed by the American-installed Hamid Karzai, a man whose social origins were in the traditional elite, but educated in the U.S. As for most of the 1990s, power once again resided in the regions and cities that acted as the real power centers of the new Afghanistan where the old mujahidin parties have their base. At the same time, the situation is similar to the 1980s when the Soviet Union depended on the Stalinists in Kabul who had weak class links to Afghan society that did not stretch far beyond the Kabuli petit-bourgeoisie.

As a consequence the social and political conditions that led to the rise of the Taliban returned to the country–unchecked power of the commanders or warlords who used their access to the state to protect their positions admist Afghanistan’s fragmentation, massive corruption, crime, drug use and social decay–only this time backed by Nato and U.S. military might. Therefore, unlike in 1996 when the Taliban decisively ended the stalemate of the civil war that followed the end of the Soviet occupation and swept away the fractured mujahidin regime, the neo-Taliban could not win a conventional war but had to turn towards building a guerrilla movement.

Historically, the Afghan state has been highly dependent on imperialist and regional powers because it has developed as an expression of the weak links between the governing class and the large rural population. Although there have been attempts at modernization in Afghanistan–Amanullah in the 1920s, Daoud in the 1950s and the Stalinists in the 1970s–leading to successive class recompositions in Afghanistan, these have been carried out in ways that have only reinforced the urban and rural divide, and hampered capitalist development.

The ideological form of this modernization, for example Kemalist nationalism in the 1920s and Stalinism in the 1970s, reflected those of the reformist intellectuals and later the educated middle classes who not only had few organic links with the majority of the country, but were often deeply hostile to it. Because they saw the weak state as the engine for national capitalist development, they were dependent on and therefore trapped by the prerogatives of successive regional and imperialist powers–Britain, the Soviet Union, the U.S and Pakistan–that reinforced and deepened the regional, class, ethnic, and gender divisions within Afghan society. Successive classes have had to either incorporate, marginalize or eliminate other classes or sections of those classes in order to cement their hold on the state. The traditional elite, backed by a nascent bourgeoisie and modernizing intellectuals, had periodically tried all three with the tribal structure, the ulema, and the landlords.

However, it was only when the Stalinists and the Islamists emerged in the 1960s as a result of the spectacular growth of the urban economy and the consequent expansion of the university educated middle class that decisive attempts were made to deal with these classes and class fractions that now included the traditional elite itself. However, after the coup in 1978, Stalinism could only reproduce the politics of extreme uneven development in Afghanistan since it too understood modernization as centered within the state. The Stalinists may have theorized that the ulema or village mullahs were the obstacles to development to be replaced by middle class administrators from Kabul. But since they were incapable of organizing a popular base for their reforms–for example, unfunded land reform and women’s rights–they attempted to impose one class regime in place of another. Resistance to this new class regime often took shape within the most immediate institutions, such as traditional networks of social solidarity or the network of village mullahs who had skills a largely illiterate population did not. Therefore, resistance to the Soviet occupation was both popular and was represented by class fractions that the Kabuli regime wanted to eliminate. Therefore the Stalinists could not distinguish between the thousands of mullah and ulema they murdered and the tens of thousands of the broader masses the also killed. In contrast the Islamists fused with this process and therefore could displace or eliminate the landlords and begin to organize a national resistance to the Soviet occupation.

This history has important implications for the current occupation of Afghanistan and deepening involvement in Pakistan, and much of the Left’s apathy or critical support for this situation.

The neo-Taliban guerrilla war began in earnest at the end of 2002 and the beginning of 2003. What began as basic mortar attacks and ambushes has developed into a full-fledged alternative state, a higher level of coordination and even a kind of centralization unknown among the historical Taliban, along with new tactics in the use of suicide bombing and IED attacks. The U.S.military has severely underestimated the ability of the new guerilla movement to engage in combat with the most minimal of weapons.

But even more important has been the imperialist understanding of the sustainability of the resistance. It is not only the return of the conditions of the 1990s that have led to the illegitimacy of the Kabuli government, for instance its inevitable failure to bring economic development, but also the absence of Pashtun access to the state and the large civilian casualties inflicted by the occupation’s desperate reliance on U.S. airpower. Over a number of years a fully popular resistance has emerged to the point where a cadre of trained militants from the Pakistani camps has fused with a village-based resistance. A series of dramatic and deadly attacks involving hundreds of popular militia-men on French and American forward operating bases in the last year illustrate this point. This also means that the neo-Taliban movement is, in fact, a broader Pashtun “national” one, broader culturally and ideologically, since the old Taliban cadre cannot fully control what has become a widespread campaign, unable to institute its well-known Puritanical version of Sharia that, before the late 1990s was unknown in Afghanistan.

Therefore politics is a decisive factor in the struggle between the occupation and the resistance. McChrystal has implicitly recognized this, even if processed through the lens of colonial ideology. This is clear in several features of the new military policy meant to rescue the occupation. McChrystal has become the figure-head for the application of a “population centered” counter-insurgency doctrine advocated by John Nagl and other military intellectuals housed in the Center for a New American Security. Such an approach differs (theoretically) from “enemy centered” counter-insurgency in that it seeks to reduce casualties among civilians by avoiding the use of maximum force against resistance fighters, especially airpower, and instead trying to isolate the population from the resistance.

These theorists of pop-centric counter-insurgency want to break down what they think is a one-dimensional approach of isolating soldiers in forward operating bases from which to conduct search-and-destroy operations. Instead they imagine these soldiers more as friendly neighborhood police who will function as the transition to the complementary work of US AID functionaries, NGO professionals and anthropologists in the villages, supported by an Afghan army and police who supposedly will not be the arm of national and imperialist exploiters. The PBS show Frontline recently provided an enthusiastic showcase for this approach. However, one sequence was telling. While a marine officer is having a “meeting” with local Afghan men in a village under U.S. military occupation to discuss their “mutual” interest in getting rid of the resistance, the gathering quickly slides into thinly veiled threats against the men and the village if they do not cooperate. The scene is interspersed with an interview with a high-ranking officer back on base extolling the theoretical virtues of the new pop-centric counter-insurgency as a “democratic” approach.

In practice such approaches do not differ from similar strategies of imposing control on the population in Central America in the 1980s counter-insurgency wars with the implementation of “model villages” and in Vietnam with the Strategic Hamlets Program. This strategy is reflective of a broader reactionary program that reinforces some of the most backward social forces in Afghanistan. As in Iraq, the policy requires the building of militias and death squads, in the case of Afghanistan this is being carried out now in the east around tribal leadership and the landlords, both of whom have seen their power diminish over the decades of revolution and civil war.

To some extent the new approach reflects a return to the option favored by the State Department in 2001 of destabilization of the movement from within and incorporating the more “moderate” elements into a new power sharing arrangement–something also attempted by the Soviet Union during its occupation. However, this strategy is hamstrung by the fact that the Kabuli regime is not only not pro-Pakistani but, unlike Iraq, the state is historically weak while the educated class has become fragmented.

In Pakistan similar dynamics are occurring. U.S. imperialism must depend on and reproduce not only the military state, but also the feudal landlords, both of whom are the source of the “tribal” insurgency in the northwest territories and the poor peasant uprising in adjacent areas. Massive exploitation at the hands of the landlords and the lack of development by the predatory state, which has become the basis for enrichment of the weak comprador bourgeoisie, has laid the social basis for the insurgency and broader movements against the Pakistani ruling class and U.S. imperialism.

Therefore, while the U.S. may talk about the need for development they have only military solutions because they can only reinforce the political power of the military and the comprador bourgeoisie. This policy has created over a million internal refugees inside Pakistan, giving the PPP-led Zardari government 1.5 billion to attack Waziristan. Nothing better illustrates the culture of imperialism than the drone strategy conducted by the CIA Special Activities Division and JSOC. While drone attacks in Pakistan have dramatically been increased, killing a little more than a dozen al-Qa’ida and Pakistani Tehreek-e-Taliban leaders, more than 700 civilians have been killed as acceptable “collateral damage”. The drones are suicide bombers from the sky. This strategy is indicative of a deepening policy of expanding CIA, Special Forces and mercenary-led dirty war strategies and death squad activity inside Pakistan, corresponding with a massive expansion of the U.S. embassy in the country.

Finally, we come to the question of the Left and the U.S. occupation. The lack of an anti-war movement in the U.S. is a complex phenomenon that cannot be dealt with here and, increasingly, anti-war sentiments are being refracted and expressed through bubbling resistance to the current capitalist offensive amid the worst recession since the 1930s in the country. However, it cannot escape attention that the theoretical issues raised by the occupation are generally absent on much of the radical Left. This is a serious matter, not only because some of the social democratic Left have critical support for the occupation. But that the Middle East and central Asia are at the center of U.S. imperialism today, and that the strong resurgence of white supremacy in the U.S. and in Europe–whether in the form of white populism or fascism–is intimately tied to this fact. While there is a desperate need for a new people of color politics in the U.S. and in Europe (sometimes life-threatening need in the case of some places in Europe), the devastating effects of white supremacy on the possibility of a new broad working-class politics will haunt the radical Left. There is a direct and inverse relationship between the devastating role of U.S. imperialism abroad and the casualization of its ideological effects on everyday life and bourgeois politics at home.

This is equally a problem for the Left in Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly the social democratic Left that we are called on to support in opposition to the the conservative and reactionary policies of the neo-Taliban leadership. This Left has depended upon the same reactionary forces backed by U.S. and NATO imperialism. In Kabul it must rely on the decaying regime to protect its NGOs who have been part the overall process of the occupation. In Pakistan it depends on the Zardari-dominated PPP to “lead” the military to rid them of the neo-Taliban menace. In effect, they are supporting a war against a large section of the Pakistani masses that will only reinforce the rule of the military, the comprador bourgeoisie and the landlords whom the PPP represents. It is the same with the Awami National Party (ANP), the secular Pashtun party in the NWFP with its links on the Pakistani progressive left, that is in now in alliance with the PPP and de facto the military. Very similar dynamics are being played out by this same Left, representative of the dissatisfied sections of the weak middle classes, that occurred during the rebellion of 1967-1969 that overthrew the Ayub dictatorship. Unable to to chart a course based on the activity of the working classes and the peasantry during this period, they did all they could to channel this mass uprising into the PPP led by the landlord Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Their role in disarming the masse led directly to the ability of the military under general Zia Ul Haq to carry out a coup in 1977 and smash the Left and eventually prepare the ground for neo-liberal restructuring in Pakistan.

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