Frontline Index





Afghanistan: bloody toll of imperialism

With the death toll of Afghan civilians reaching tens of thousands and more than one hundred British troops killed in 2009 alone Bill Bonnar looks at the evolution of British policy in Afghanistan.

It is all going so terribly badly. Every scrap of evidence coming from Afghanistan notwithstanding the obvious army/government propaganda, is of a war which is being lost. The British Government are now looking for the least humiliating exit strategy in the face of domestic opposition, an increasing body count and failure to project what a victory in this war would actually look like. The idea that we are fighting to establish democracy is now in tatters given the flagrant rigging of the recent presidential election. The claim that Britain is fighting a war in Afghanistan in order to stop terrorist attacks on the streets on London is a carefully contrived though not very convincing lie. Just like weapons of mass destruction in Iraq it is used to justify the war to an increasingly sceptical public who can’t quite get their heads around the picture of an Afghan insurgent in a remote valley in Helmand Province pouring over a map of London in search of bomb targets.

Civil War

Britain and the United States are fighting a war but it is a very different war from that which is being projected. This war is being fought at two levels. On the one hand there is a war fought by insurgents, collectively known as the Taliban, against foreign invaders. From the Taliban’s point of view these invaders occupy their lands, side with their enemies in the north and despite claims to the contrary show scant regard for the local civilian population. It is this invasion and occupation which is fuelling the insurgency and given the recent Soviet experience is almost certainly doomed to failure. On the other hand, Afghanistan has been gripped by a civil war since the fall of the Soviet backed government in 1992 between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. The interesting aspect of this is how similar the two sides are. Both represent extreme forms of Islamic fundamentalism, both have an appalling human rights record, both regard all women as the spawn of the devil and treat them accordingly and both want to drag the country back into a kind of medieval barbarism. The only difference is that the Northern Alliance are less ideological, a lot more corrupt and therefore more susceptible to doing deals with western interests as long as they can have local control and a slice of the action. Since 1992 the United States and Britain have actively intervened on the side of the Northern Alliance helping them to power in 1996 and are in the forefront of the war against their enemies, the Taliban.

The government of President Karzai is widely held to be weak, dependent and corrupt and answerable only to its two powerful clients. One of them is the Northern Alliance who in return for patronage and a share in power deliver the requisite number of votes necessary for Karzai to win elections. It was the corrupt nature of this vote which so discredited the recent election. The other client is the United States. Karzai is very much their man in Kabul; completely dependent on American aid and military power and governing the country on their behalf.


Afghanistan has been a country griped by war and foreign invasion for more than 30 years. In 1978 the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) led by Barbrak Karmel seized power in a military coup. The PDPA were a marxist-led movement with close ties to the neighbouring Soviet Union. With widespread support in the capital, Kabul,and among the officer corp of the army, they set out a bold vision for transforming Afghanistan into a modern state. In the words of Barbrak Karmal; ‘we want to take Afghanistan from the middle ages into the twentieth century’. The country was redefined as a secular state, now called the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and an ambitious programme of social and economic reforms announced; in particular, a radical project for land reform. However, at the heart of the government’s programme was to transform the position of women. Hitherto, women were a completely oppressed section of society. Regarded as no more than the property of men the concept of women’s rights was alien to most of society. . What emerged was an ambitious programme of women’s rights summed up by the statement of one of the leaders of the new Revolutionary Council, Anahita Ratebzad; the first woman ever to hold high office in Afghanistan; ‘Women by right, must have equal access to education, job security, health services and free time to raise a healthy generation for building the future of the country. Educating and enlightening women is now a priority for the government’.

Interestingly, it was their policies on women that fuelled much of the revolt against the government following their coming to power. While the new government had plenty of support in the capital most of the population lived in the countryside and followed a deeply conservative brand of Islam; largely unchanged from the middle ages. The government’s programme on women was a bit like a group of marxists seizing power in 18th century southern United States and unilaterally announcing that they were going to free all the slaves. What would have followed would have been a ferociously violent reaction and that is what happened in Afghanistan.

Soviet Invasion

Within a year of coming to power the government was facing a major insurgency in the south supported by Pakistan and the United States and a lesser insurgency from warlords in the North. Their response was to make repeated appeals to the Soviet Union for support and these were answered in December 1979 with a massive Soviet invasion. However, what was meant to be an initial intervention to deal with an immediate crisis turned into the decade long occupation of the country and a bloody stalemate. Soviet military strength was enough to keep the government in power in Kabul and in other cities and prevent the Taliban and Northern Alliance from taking power but it was not strong enough to defeat the insurgents in the countryside; especially in the south. The effect of the war was devastating. Somewhere between 600,000 and 2 million Afghans were killed and 5 millions driven into exile. The economy was destroyed and most of the original progressive aims of the revolution discarded in a grim struggle for survival. For the Soviet Union the war became a devastating drain on resources and in 1989 they withdrew.

The government held on for another four years helped in part by divisions among the insurgents; but in April 1992 fell. However, these divisions immediately created the conditions for a new war between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. In 1996, the Taliban emerged victorious and relaunched the country as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan; a medieval incarnation.

US Invasion

Following the September 11th attack on New York in 2001 the United States launched an attack on the country, driving the Taliban from Kabul and bringing the Northern Alliance to power. Since 2001 the country has been gripped by a continuation of this civil war only now with the United States as the occupying power.

Left Response

How should the Left respond the situation in Afghanistan? The starting point must be the demand for a withdrawal of United States dominated occupying force. The argument that this force is there to defeat terrorism and support the democratic process needs to be exposed for the lie that it is. This force is there to prop up their client president in Kabul and to ensure victory for his Northern Alliance allies. Even in terms of military strategy and the need to defeat the Taliban insurgency; it is a strategy which has palpably failed and is in fact the single most important factor in fuelling this insurgency.

From this, international efforts must be put in place to broker a settlement between the different warring factions. This will not be easy given a generation of conflict and a society in which blood price is part of the culture but given the war weariness on all sides it may be easier to achieve than at first glance.

Of course this will still leave a thoroughly reactionary coalition in power in charge of a war shattered country and collapsed economy but is the essential first step in what for Afghanistan would be a ‘normalisation’ process. This can then create the conditions for putting the kind of agenda first outlined by the PDPA back on the table. This would include; the creation of a secular state, the promotion of women’s rights and social and economic actions to tackle appalling levels of poverty and deprivation.

If the years of conflict and intervention tell us anything it is that only the Afghan people who can resolve their own problems. The task for the Left in Britain and internationally is to campaign to end foreign military intervention.