Spartacist Canada No. 163
U.S./Canada/NATO Out of Afghanistan!
The Afghan presidential elections held on August 20 were never meant to be anything but a “democratic” veneer for the American-led imperialist occupation of Afghanistan. But within days of the elections, even the veneer disappeared amid a welter of charges and countercharges of ballot stuffing and vote rigging. President Hamid Karzai secured his second term by default after his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew from a runoff election saying that he could not get a fair vote, but the real rulers of Afghanistan are the mass murderers in the White House and Pentagon. On September 4, a NATO airstrike near Kunduz killed some 90 people, the latest in ongoing airstrikes that have slaughtered thousands in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan.
The more significant fact overshadowing the elections is that the U.S./NATO occupiers have been losing ground militarily. The Pashtun-based Taliban insurgency now covers an estimated 40 percent of the country’s districts. Southern Afghanistan is largely outside government control, while major cities like Kabul and Jalalabad are being squeezed. Obama’s troop “surge” has increased the fighting in southern Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold, with NATO military casualties at their highest levels in eight years of war and occupation.
The brutal military occupation by U.S., Canadian and other NATO forces, with its attendant atrocities, has fuelled bitter resentment especially among the Pashtun peoples, the largest ethnic grouping, which makes up about 42 percent of the population. Days after a sustained U.S. bombing attack on three villages in the western province of Farah on May 4-5 killed over 100 civilians, thousands of local villagers brought 15 newly discovered bodies to the house of the provincial governor, chanting, “Death to America” and “Death to the government.” Not surprisingly, many Pashtuns have increasingly joined forces with the re-emergent Taliban and others, both in Afghanistan and on the other side of the Pakistan border, an artificial boundary that carves up ethnic groups. U.S. air attacks in Pakistan have increased markedly under the Obama administration.
Now the Obama administration is preparing for massive reinforcements, up to 45,000 more troops on top of the 68,000 already committed. Obama recently assigned Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a “special ops” commander, to lead the U.S., Canadian and other NATO forces in Afghanistan. A 13 May Washington Post article described his “manhunter” credentials from commando operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan: “As commander of the military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) for nearly five years starting in 2003, McChrystal masterminded a campaign to perfect the art of tracking down enemies, and then capturing or killing them.” For the captured, the JSOC oversaw a special forces torture centre named Camp Nama near the Baghdad airport.
With opposition to the Afghanistan occupation growing, Obama, echoing his predecessor George W. Bush, invokes the “war on terror,” “national unity” and fear. Speaking to an audience of veterans on August 17, he declared: “This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans.”
Obama’s speech had little effect on public sentiment, as recent polls show that a majority of Americans disapprove of the war. Indeed, with support for the Afghan war among his Democratic base dwindling, Obama has increasingly turned to Congressional Republicans for support.
North of the border, less than half of the Canadian population supports the war. Two-thirds of people in Quebec oppose it outright. Now the Harper government has been rocked by the testimony of senior Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin to parliament’s Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan. Colvin stated that the Canadian army rounded up “a lot of innocent people” whom Afghan authorities then subjected to “beatings, whipping with power cables, and the use of electricity.” “Also common,” Colvin continued, “was sleep deprivation, use of temperature extremes, use of knives and open flames, and sexual abuse, that is, rape. Torture might be limited to the first days or it could go on for months.” Torture was “standard operating procedure,” testified Colvin, who as Canada’s former acting ambassador to Afghanistan was in a position to know. He further stated the Armed Forces, Foreign Affairs and the Department of Justice variously collaborated to censor his reports of the atrocities and threaten him with jail time.
Colvin’s testimony is hardly a revelation. After the initial accounts of torture emerged in 2006, we noted that “Prisoner abuse in Afghanistan is as intrinsic to the global imperialist ‘war on terror’ as the torture by U.S. troops in Iraq and the demonizing and repression of Muslims in the U.S., Canada and other Western countries.” Further:
“It is inconceivable that the Harper government did not know what was happening to the prisoners. Canada’s 2005 detainee transfer agreement with Afghanistan is no different than Washington’s ‘extraordinary rendition’ program, which similarly passes detainees on to be tortured. It is no different than the deportation of Maher Arar to a year of imprisonment and torture in Syria. Moreover, the Canadian military is deeply embedded within the Afghan regime, with a ‘Strategic Advisory Team,’ mainly composed of Canadian military personnel, operating inside government ministries.”
—Torture and the ‘War on Terror’,” SC No. 153, Summer 2007
The hue and cry of the opposition parties over detainee abuse is rank hypocrisy. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff is notorious for having publicly advocated torture during his previous career as a media columnist and ideologue. And it was the former Liberal government of Jean Chrétien that sent Canadian troops to Afghanistan and approved the original detainee transfer agreement. As for the social-democratic NDP, their opposition to the war is so paper thin that they cast it off last winter in exchange for the prospect of a few seats in a Liberal-run federal cabinet. Behind the opposition parties’ call for an inquiry into the treatment of Afghan prisoners is a cynical bid to garner votes and repackage the brutal war as “humanitarian.” That comes in the context of the Obama presidency providing a facelift for American imperialism at home and abroad.
As we warned during the U.S. election campaign, the Afghanistan occupation was “Obama’s preferred theatre of imperialist carnage” (“Fight for a Revolutionary Workers Party!” Workers Vanguard No. 924, 7 November 2008). Obama repeatedly said as a candidate that he would divert (not eliminate) troops from Iraq to pursue the “good” war in Afghanistan. And he’s kept his campaign promise. Unlike the reformist “socialists,” who gave open or backhanded support to Obama, we oppose on principle any political support to bourgeois politicians—whether Democrats or Republicans in the U.S., or Liberals, Conservatives, Greens or Bloc Québécois in Canada. We also oppose the NDP, a bourgeois workers party whose links to the working class through the trade union bureaucracy render it especially pernicious.
Our starting point is proletarian class opposition to the capitalist rulers and to the imperialist system as a whole. In the lead-up to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq we called for the military defense of these countries without giving any political support to the reactionary, woman-hating Taliban cutthroats or the capitalist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Today, insofar as the forces on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan aim their blows against the imperialist occupiers, we call for their military defense against imperialism without giving them any political support. All imperialist troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan now! Hands off Pakistan!
U.S. Antiwar Movement: Shill for Democrats
A New York Times (30 August) article, commenting on protests planned for October against the Afghanistan occupation, noted that the U.S. antiwar movement has been “largely dormant since the election of Barack Obama.” In fact, it has been largely comatose since the 2006 midterm elections, when the Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives. Now, as the article described, liberals have been especially loath to “challenge” the Democratic administration they helped elect. At desultory rallies in both the U.S. and Canada, the call for withdrawal of NATO troops from Iraq and Afghanistan has been packaged as a plea to Obama to fulfill his promise of “change.”
The Times article notes that a more recent liberal refrain is that the president “risks his entire domestic agenda” by getting bogged down in Afghanistan. Another antiwar organizer complained, “There are some who feel that powerful forces are pushing the president to stay on this course and that we have to build a more powerful movement to change that course.” In reality, the Afghanistan war is Obama’s war and his domestic agenda—bailing out the capitalists while shafting workers, blacks, immigrants and the poor—goes hand-in-hand with U.S. imperialist military depredations abroad.
The Times article confirms what we have said all along: the liberal/reformist-led antiwar movement has been nothing but a shill for the Democrats. In the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election, World Can’t Wait, run by the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), screamed, “Drive Out the Bush Regime.” Likewise, the ANSWER coalition, currently led by the Party for Socialism and Liberation, and the Troops Out Now Coalition, initiated by Workers World Party, both pushed the politics of “Anybody but Bush.”
An article on the CounterPunch website (4-6 September) by quirky radical-liberal columnist Alexander Cockburn reported that Socialist Action leader and West Coast antiwar coalition organizer Jeff Mackler recently cancelled an antiwar protest against Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi when it was learned that Pelosi’s appearance was sponsored by the San Francisco Labor Council. Cockburn quotes Labor Council chief Tim Paulson saying: “Our partners in the anti-war movement”—among which Paulson includes U.S. Labor Against the War and ANSWER—“have been calling me to say they are condemning this protest as irresponsible and divisive.” (For the sordid details, see “The Syphilitic Chain,” WV No. 945, 23 October 2009.)
Here in Canada, the remnants of the antiwar movement are grouped around the Canadian Peace Alliance (CPA), led in part by the International Socialists (I.S.). CPA’s demands include “redirecting funds from military spending to human needs; working toward global nuclear disarmament; making Canada a consistent leader for world peace.” The idea that the Canadian imperialists could be pressured into becoming a force for peace and justice is as vain as it is absurd. Canada long ago shed its “peacekeeping” pretense, which in any case always served the interests of its U.S. senior partners. The main purveyors of this nationalist-pacifist mythology today are the New Democrats and the reformist left groups that hang on their coattails.
Afghanistan and Soviet Intervention
For much of the reformist left, fealty to the bourgeoisie at home has long gone hand-in-hand with anti-Communism abroad. With few exceptions, these reformist “socialists” all howled with the imperialists in demanding Soviet troops out of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Washington started funnelling arms to Islamic mujahedin (holy warriors) from the moment the Soviet-allied People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) came to power in April 1978. As modernizing left-nationalists, the PDPA attempted to implement a program for redistributing land, lowering the bride price, educating women and freeing them from the burqa. In the context of backward, benighted Afghanistan, these relatively modest reforms were nothing short of revolutionary. When the huge Islamic hierarchy launched a fierce insurgency, the Soviet Union intervened in December 1979 after repeated requests by the embattled PDPA regime. Beginning with Democrat Jimmy Carter and continuing under Republican Ronald Reagan, the U.S. seized on the Red Army intervention to launch a renewed anti-Soviet offensive (Cold War II), in particular waging a proxy war aimed at killing Soviet soldiers and officers in Afghanistan.
For Marxists, there was no question which side working people and the oppressed the world over had in this conflict. The threat of a CIA-backed Islamic takeover on the USSR’s southern flank posed pointblank the need for unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union, a bureaucratically degenerated workers state. Moreover, the Soviet military intervention opened the possibility of social liberation for the Afghan masses, particularly women. We Trotskyists proclaimed: Hail Red Army! Extend social gains of October Revolution to Afghan peoples!
In contrast, the I.S. and their parent group in Britain, Tony Cliff’s Socialist Workers Party, demanded: “Troops Out of Afghanistan!” (Socialist Worker [Britain], 12 January 1980). To justify siding with the reactionary mujahedin and their imperialist patrons, the reformist left invoked the lie of “poor little Afghanistan” and screamed about the national rights of the country being trampled by “Soviet imperialism.” In fact, even if Afghanistan were a nation, the question of its national self-determination would have been subordinated to the overriding class and social questions—i.e., defense of the Soviet Union as well as the struggle for women’s rights and social progress in Afghanistan.
However, Afghanistan is not a nation but rather a patchwork of tribes and peoples, with a minuscule proletariat. There weren’t sufficient internal class forces to sustain the PDPA’s reforms, let alone a social revolution. Soviet military intervention, however, posed the overthrow of the landlords, tribal warlords and mullahs that dominated Afghan society and perpetuated its backwardness. The social progress potentially open to the Afghan peoples was visible in the stark contrast between Afghanistan’s impoverished backwardness and the huge advances in living standards, education and women’s rights just to the north in Soviet Central Asia, which once looked much like Afghanistan.
Under the Soviet military umbrella, the Afghan government began mass literacy campaigns and provided medical care. Over 300,000 peasants received land. By the late 1980s, half of all university students in Afghanistan were women, and women made up 40 percent of the country’s doctors, 70 percent of its teachers, and 30 percent of its civil servants. Women in the workforce had increased 50-fold, and 15,000 women served as soldiers and commanders in the Afghan army. The London Guardian online (30 September 2001) quoted Saira Noorani, a woman surgeon who left Kabul in 2001: “‘Life was good under the Soviets,’ Saira said. ‘Every girl could go to high school and university. We could go wherever we wanted and wear what we liked’.” She also said: “Since then everything has been a long dark night.”
Afghanistan and Imperialist Intervention
In a campaign to militarily and economically bleed the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the U.S. launched the largest CIA covert operation in history. But the Red Army was not defeated militarily in Afghanistan. A prominent commander of the Soviet Army in Afghanistan, Major General Alexander Liakhovsky, asserted in his book, Afghan: Tragedy and Valor (1995): “During the period of the ‘Afghan war’ they [Soviet soldiers] never once retreated and never surrendered their positions.” He added: “They did much for the good of the Afghan people in carrying out their peacekeeping functions (they provided medical aid to the population; they built roads, schools and hospitals; they provided humanitarian aid and so forth). For many long years, for example, they preserved from destruction Kabul and other major cities, which, as I have already stated, after the mujahedin came to power were reduced to battlefield arenas and now lie in ruins.”
It is not just this former Soviet general who recognizes that the Red Army was not militarily defeated. Even on the eve of the Soviet withdrawal, a writer for Soldier of Fortune magazine noted that the Soviet army could “still go wherever it wants to go in Afghanistan” (quoted in Diego Cordovez and Selig S. Harrison, Out of Afghanistan ).
The Soviet withdrawal in 1988-89 was a political betrayal by the Stalinist bureaucracy under Mikhail Gorbachev, opening the door to capitalist counterrevolution in the USSR itself in 1991-92. The Soviet intervention cut against the grain of the nationalist Stalinist dogma of “socialism in one country.” Gorbachev’s betrayal flowed from the whole outlook of the Stalinist bureaucracy, which subordinated the interests of the international proletariat in an attempt to defend its own privileged position as a parasitic layer resting on the collectivized economy, thus undermining the defense of the Soviet workers state itself. We fought for a proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy and return the Soviet Union to the Bolshevik internationalism of Lenin and Trotsky. We warned from the outset that the Kremlin bureaucracy, in its quest for “peaceful coexistence” with U.S. imperialism, might cut a deal at the expense of the Afghan peoples.
After the Soviet withdrawal, the Afghan government fought on valiantly for three years. The Partisan Defense Committee—a legal and social defense organization associated with the Spartacist League/U.S.—wrote to the PDPA government in 1989 offering “to organize an international brigade to fight to the death” against the forces of Islamic reaction. When that offer was turned down, the PDC, at the request of the Afghan government, launched an international fund drive to aid civilian victims of the mujahedin siege of Jalalabad, raising over $44,000.
When the mujahedin finally took Kabul in 1992, re-enslaving Afghan women, the various tribally based mujahedin militias carried out a vengeful war of mass murder, torture and rape of rival ethnic populations, which left at least 50,000 people dead in Kabul alone. The Taliban, recruiting from the historically dominant Pashtun ethnic population, emerged as the strongest of the mujahedin factions. Backed by the Pakistani government and supported by U.S. imperialism, the Taliban came to power in 1996.
The 2001 U.S.-led invasion that drove the Pashtun-based Taliban fundamentalists from power installed in its place a regime based largely on the coalition of former Islamic mujahedin militias—Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara—grouped in the Northern Alliance. Karzai was chosen by the U.S. as the Pashtun figurehead, while Northern Alliance warlords, mainly Tajik, filled key security and military posts. This remains, more or less, the reactionary regime overseen by the U.S. today. Karzai’s vice presidential running mate in the recent election, Muhammad Fahim, is one of the biggest drug lords in the country, while another of his supporters, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, was notorious for cutting off women’s breasts (Libération, 20 August). For his part, Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister under Karzai, was once an aid to Tajik mujahedin leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, a butcher who in 1993 ordered the massacre of hundreds of Hazara men, women and children, and destroyed the Hazara neighbourhood in Kabul, killing up to one thousand more.
While cynically decrying the plight of women under the deposed Taliban regime, Afghanistan’s U.S. overseers brokered a constitution in 2004 that effectively enshrined Islamic sharia law. Today, the average life expectancy for Afghan women, as well as men, is 44 years (24 years below the world average for women) and the literacy rate is 12.6 percent. Women are still forced to wear the head-to-toe burqa in public. According to the Afghan Education Ministry, as of early summer at least 478 schools, mostly for girls, had been destroyed, damaged or threatened out of existence by Islamist terror.
The U.S. fights its “war on terror” in order to impose its will on oppressed peoples around the world. The horrors produced by U.S. imperialism’s “holy war” against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, as well as the present occupation of the country, show once again that the capitalist system is a barrier to social progress and a breeding ground for barbaric reaction. Our purpose is the forging of a multiracial revolutionary workers party that fights for the defeat of U.S. imperialism and its Canadian junior partner through socialist revolution. As opposed to the Obama-enthralled reformists, we follow the proletarian, internationalist and revolutionary road of the Bolsheviks of Lenin and Trotsky.
—Adapted from Workers Vanguard No. 942, 11 September