Friend Rahul Mahajan and I had an extended correspondence on some of the issues I’d raised in my post on the anti-US demonstrations in Afghanistan. Our discussion centered mostly on where one draws the line between accepting fundamentalist religious popular movements as valid expressions of anti-imperialist struggle, despite their reactionary qualities; and criticizing them openly. After this discussion, copied below, and some feedback from the folks at ZNet, I submitted a revised version of the post as an article, which is now online.
Given the continuing horror of what the US troops are doing in Afghanistan, it is now more clear to me than ever that the US military needs to leave the country, to be replaced by non-US peacekeepers from countries chosen by the Afghan Parliament (if, of course, the Parliament decides that it wants the foreign peacekeepers when it is elected–I’m assuming it will based on Karzai’s ad hoc tribal counsel). The foreign troops should be used mainly to help disarm Afghan warlord armies (who were funded mostly by outside governments in the first place). Once the Afghan army is strong enough, all foreign troops should get out. While this is happening, massive reparations should be paid to Afghanistan by the countries that sponsored the 1980s/1990s wars (the US, Russia, Pakistan, UK, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran, India, China, Israel, France) .
Rahul Mahajan Responds to my post
First, I think you bring really good in-depth info and analytical perspective to the question of what’s actually happening with the demonstrations. This kind of analysis is very important. My only quibble there would be at the end where you say the mujaheddin factions didn’t have popular support. Of course, it’s true they didn’t have village-level organizing cadres, etc., like the PDPA. Nor, I suppose, could they match membership numbers — although note that in South Vietnam the NLF always had far fewer military members than the ARVN — it’s in the nature of non-state guerrilla organizations.
On the other hand, the reason they were able to operate at all is that they were acting as the expression of views with obvious mass legitimacy among the Afghan people — opposition to any attempts to change or challenge their religious practice and opposition to occupation by foreign atheists. (Note: By legitimacy, I don’t mean legitimacy according to some normative standard, but rather in the sense of popular legitimacy, credence with the public, …) But we’re really in no position to judge, with such laughably little experience in real political struggles, and little understanding of the physical, political, and psychological difficulties they pose. And any mass resistance was inevitably going to be Islamist (of course, once the mujaheddin factions started fighting each other instead of trying to provide public order, then I imagine they lost a great deal of support — this is unfortunately in what seems to be the least documented period since the 78 revolution, so I’ve read less about it).
Have you read Olivier Roy’s “Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan,” which came out in 86? While he does come across as a severe anticommunist, he really understands his subject. I think my sense of popular sentiment in Afghanistan during the 80’s comes more from Roy than others, although several other sources give hints as well.
The biggest question, however, is elsewhere. I don’t agree with the narrative that goes “they’re not secular, left, progressive forces, so we shouldn’t support them.” There are two basic problems with it:
1. Usually, there isn’t a choice. People resist imperial occupation in the idiom that is most readily to hand, which is determined largely by background ideology and to some extent by organization (so that, with prodigies of organization, Communists could sometimes overcome the handicap of an ideology not rooted in their people’s experience — even there, however, they had to accommodate and build bridges if they wanted to be successful). Now and in the foreseeable future, in the Islamic world, that will be Islam. Since this will also remain one of the most, perhaps the most, important loci of anti-imperialist struggle, we need something better than sitting on the sidelines.
2. This kind of analysis tends to reinforce our own paralyzing sense of purist superiority, which stands in the way of our ever being effective. The fact is, we engage in activities so far removed from political power that the muddiness, the crimes, and the compromises, of real movements never really come up. Che Guevara sometimes shot men for desertion. As did the Spanish anarchists. Possibly in individual cases those acts were wrong as well. But we’re really in no position to judge, with such laughably little experience in real political struggles, and little understanding of the physical, political, and psychological difficulties they pose. One thing we do know, however, from studying history: mass movements always have highly unpalatable components of their ideology and almost always commit acts we would deplore. The exceptions mostly occur in imperialist states that, for a variety of reasons, guarantee certain civil liberties. Afghanistan and Iraq under occupation are very far from such a state, obviously. Even here at home, although violence is not an issue that’s in any meaningful way on the table, questions of the exercise of power very much are. A purist anarchist “we’re against power” approach leads only to permanent ineffectuality. Trying to wield power here will involve compromises against some of the movement’s fundamental principles as well. So in a way this kind of analysis, applied to resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan, weakens us as a movement here.
But where does that leave us? You know I criticize the Iraq “resistance” a lot. In fact, I’ve started using the word “insurgents,” because I don’t think of sectarian warfare as resistance to occupation. And I haven’t written about the “support the resistance” question, primarily because I don’t see why we should go out of our way to help make the rest of the country believe the left is nuts (for even taking up the question).
I guess I would just suggest a slight difference of tone in a post like this. The analysis is good, as I said, and needed. No reason at all to give people false notions about what’s actually going on. To the degree possible, I think even Islamist fanatics should be humanized; in a way, I think even George Bush should be humanized. After all, the amazing thing is that we are all human and work through things in ways that have more similarities than differences. And Americans need to understand, not that Afghans or Iraqis or Venezuelans are better people than them, but simply that things go both ways: if many things that seem sane to Iraqis seem insane to Americans, the reverse is also true.
In addition, the contradictions between U.S. rhetoric and results should be stressed. This can be done not only by talking about the policies implemented through U.S. power but also about the kind of resistance it creates. Here I think you’ve done a good job.
The last sentence — “It is important to see the anti-US protests as symptomatic of a real resentment, but without strengthening democratic forces, that resentment is likely to be channeled by reactionary forces, the warlords, drug lords, and the Taliban.” — is a good summing up.
I guess I would mostly have removed passages which sound like “we” (as if “we” really are an entity) are in a position to pass any kind of judgment on political movements.
PS I’m not as sure that the warlords want the US gone. Not only has it mostly been US policy to back them, they know very well that with the US gone any international money will dry up. It seems more likely there is an ambivalence, coupled with the need to assert their Islamic credentials by occasionally calling for the US to leave.
Jim Ingalls responds
Thanks for reading the piece and taking the time to comment on it in depth. I really appreciate the feedback. I haven’t read Roy’s book, but I will try to dig it up.
For my part I would recommend Barnett Rubin’s “The Fragmentation of Afghanistan,” which makes the case that the decisions made in the USSR, the US, and Pakistan led to the collapse of the secular national state of Afghanistan and had little to do with what the people wanted or what would have happened in the absence of such interference. I’m not saying you disagree with this, but I wrote this piece because I sense from US leftists the beginnings of an argument that sounds like “these guys were bad when the US backed them, but now they’re the best chance of fighting US imperialism.” Tariq Ali has already said words to the effect that the warlords have popular support so we can’t criticize them. It will be interesting to see if the Worker’s World, who supported the Soviet invasion and the PDPA, at some point see their former opposition as worthy of support!
This is not to say that Islamist rebels in Afghanistan were not supported by the majority of the people in the 1980s. When we were there in February we met a man who fought in the Jihad with one of the factions, but dropped out after they started assaulting Kabul. He has since become a delegate fromFarah province to both Loya Jirgas and is now a secular candidate for parliament. RAWA also worked in the jihad in their own way, although Meena warned that support for the most extreme groups was going to backfire. When I said, “the United States empowered extremists with little popular support,” that is exactly what I meant. Most of the leaders with any popular support, even those with extremist values, did not get funding from the US (this is partly because of the policy of the ISI to work with people they could control, and partly because the US didn’t care). Hekmatyar was in exile in Pakistan and would have been nothing without foreign backing. Sayyaf was nothing without Saudi Arabia. The most secular of the Peshawar-based groups, the one headed by Gailani (a sufi cleric), got hardly any US backing. Until the early 90s Massoud got no US backing but was nevertheless quite effective in battle because he had popular support in Panjsher. Most of the Peshawar exiles had major problems with the king, except Gailani, but polls among refugees in the 1980s overwhelmingly supported his return (the guy who conducted the poll was then killed by Hekmatyar).
I see what you’re saying about not taking a judgemental “we” tone. I had a lot of difficulty with that, and I don’t think I tried hard enough to give the Islamist movement its due weight as a popular current, and to portray it as understandable and sensible from the point of view of many Afghans. And perhaps it is even the only approach in the end capable of wresting control of Afghanistan from the US. But will the result be in line with most of the Afghan people’s wishes? I will reserve judgement on that for now.
Your point on a paralyzing sense of purist superiority is well taken (nice phrase). At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to me to adopt the knee-jerk tone of “anybody fighting the US who has a popular base deserves support,” just so we can be “effective.” The question is: effective towards what ends? And by what means? If the ends are always purely anti-imperialist, does Bin Laden’s movement deserve support? The Taliban were anti-imperialist, right? (Except against Pakistani imperialism.) I agree that we should try to understand the Islamist movement in Afghanistan, and perhaps even respect it, and it may even do a lot of good indirectly, but I won’t support it. The Islamist movement in Afghanistan is not like the Islamist movement in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is a police state that suppresses Islamic behavior; Afghanistan is a pseudo-Islamist pseudo-democracy beholden to warlords who were propped up by the US to get rid of the Taliban. The Islamist movement in Afghanistan is likely to stem from those warlords, or be co-opted by them. You would probably answer, “the secular democracy movement is likely to stem from the US and be co-opted by *it*,” and you would be right. That is why this is such a difficult problem with no easy options, eh? At this point, however, my solidarity is with the secularists, who would be crushed if the warlords were allowed free reign. Unfortunately that means a strategic acceptance of Karzai and foreign troops; to me this is a better option, albeit incrementally so.
You’re right, there is a “real world” that we need to work within, and usually the options available are not the ones we might wish for. But I disagree with the choice most people on the left appear to be making. It’s almost like US activists are buying the Bush et al. representation that the only options in Afghanistan available are (1) the US and Karzai and (2) their vocal opposition, which happens to be religious conservatives. Based on discussions with Afghans we met on our trip, I have come to disagree with this dichotomy. There is a silent but large portion of the population that wants the warlords to lose their power (given to them by the US). Have you seen the “Call for Justice” by the AIHRC? (Unfortunately the “reconciliation” process is unlikely to have positive results, since it’s being run by Sebghatullah Mojadedi, who wants to give amnesty to Hekmatyar and Omar.)
A lot of Afghans we talked to made the strategic decision to back Karzai (about 80% of registered voters voted and he got 60% of the vote) because he hinted that he was going to crack down on the warlords (which he didn’t do). Some people we met want nothing more than to throw Karzai out on his ass, but have concluded that they cannot kick him and the US out before the warlords are disarmed and secular democratic movements are able to build strength and credibility. RAWA is scathing in their critiques of Karzai and the US, yet they too have this understanding of the practical realities.
PS. On your ps: The Northern Alliance has almost always been against the presence of foreign troops. True, after 9/11 they they were brought back to power by the US and depended on them, but after examining news reports around the 2001 Bonn meetings for our book, I’ve noticed that almost right after the fall of the Taliban the Alliance called for a drastically reduced international troop presence in the countryside. UN proposals went as high as about 18,000, but in contrast, Qanooni wanted no more than 200 ISAF troops. (Rumsfeld agreed with the Alliance partly because he thought they would actually provide “security” and partly because the ISAF would hamper the US “war on terrorism”.) In the end, the 6000 ISAF troops were forced to stay in Kabul. Everybody we talked to, in and out of Kabul, was relieved that ISAF was there anyway, and wanted them to expand. The alliance does not get direct aid anymore from the US (that I know of), unless it comes through the central government first. Ismail Khan was stealing import duties, and many other warlords profit off the drug trade.
PPS.You mention Che Guevara. He had virtually no popular backing in Bolivia, where he was killed, yet I would not begrudge him what he tried to do, especially given the movements in Bolivia today which arguably have been inspired by him.
Rahul Mahajan responds
I have read Barnett Rubin, but have probably forgotten his basic take. I do recall that both Rubin and Roy seemed to really understand their subject, even though writing from “mainstream” perspectives. But Roy seemed to understand the Mujaheddin better.
Good point on extremists. Yes, Hekmatyar and Sayyaf had no popular support worth the name. But Rabbani, Mojadeddi, Gailani, Abdul Haq, and, of course, Ahmed Shah Massoud, did have important support bases and/or general legitimacy. But readers of your blog post are not aware you are making that distinction; you should clarify. Also, the legitimacy of resistance based on Islam is hard to convey to a non-Islamic people; yet even employees of the PDPA government would often help the Mujaheddin on the sly.
You bring up very difficult questions. Parts of the answer are easy. We shouldn’t support anti-imperialism that is a cure worse than the disease. This includes bin Laden and, frankly, even more so the wahhabi groups in Iraq right now. Trying to ignite a Sunni-Shia bloodbath is far more dangerous than the kind of rare, episodic, and horrible attacks al-Qaeda can carry out.
But even something like the taliban is a difficult question. Many people concerned about Afghans wanted the US war. Operationally, the choices were US war to destroy the Taliban, US subversion to destroy the Taliban, and letting the Taliban remain in power. Difficult to figure which of the choices was worse for the Afghans. And frankly not that easy to figure which was the worst for the rest of us.
When I say this, I take into account that the Taliban were limited to Afghanistan. Obviously, talibanizing the world would be worse than US imperialism. But bin Laden and the extremist groups in Iraq are internationalist, unlike the Taliban.
I guess the only hard and fast rule I can give is that one should avoid “problematizing” these incredibly difficult problems without also simultaneously problematizing our subject position as “the movement.”
btw, linked to your post.