A theme is going around on the “left” that the fact that the Taliban “won” proves that they have popular support. One of the main “left” anti-war groups in the US – the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC), which also supports Assad – has written “ It has to be clear that the Taliban have a lot of support in Afghanistan because they took the entire country at lightning speed…. They have no Air Force, no advanced weaponry or intelligence. The Taliban are not from outside the country, they are a homegrown movement. So why do they have such support? The answer is that they have been the main force in the country that has been resisting the occupation of the US and its Western allies, and the Afghan people, like all people, do not like to be occupied.”
“Annybonneypirate” (whoever that is) writes “the Taliban have won because they have more popular support.”
Foreign Affairs Magazine
This theme pictures the Taliban as first and foremost the anti-imperialist force in the country and therefore people support them. It in effect makes some sort of defense of the Taliban. Not being in Afghanistan nor knowing people who are, it’s impossible to judge from here with any confidence. However, Foreign Affairs, journal of the Council on Foreign Relations and certainly no opponent of US imperialism, does give a somewhat different view. They write: “All the problems that allowed the Taliban to defeat the army so quickly in 2021 were on display in 2015, when the group temporarily seized Kunduz, a provincial capital in northern Afghanistan: poor morale, desertion, attrition, corruption, ethnic factionalism, bad logistics, and an overreliance on backup from Afghan special operations forces. And for years, it was no secret that ANDSF units were making deals with their supposed enemy—warning the Taliban of forthcoming offenses, refusing to fight, and selling the group weapons and equipment.
“In other words, the dramatic meltdown of Afghanistan’s army only exposes the rot that had been festering in Kabul’s halls of power for years.”
Another Foreign Affairs article explains how local warlords abandoned the national government in one region after another. This includes, “… Sheberghan, stronghold of former Vice President (and human rights violator) Abdul Rashid Dostum… Herat, previously under the sway of former mujahideen leader Ismail Khan … [and] Mazar-e Sharif, formerly run by Atta Nur.”
Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan
Most revealing is a 2019 interview with Samia Walid of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). She explains that RAWA had to work underground at that time. “The Jihadi leaders, warlords with bloody pasts of horrific crimes, are in control of the current government and parliament, and have their separate kingdoms in different parts of Afghanistan. Abdullah Abdullah, the CEO of Afghanistan, is one of these Jihadi leaders who belongs to the criminal gang of Shorae Nizar… these thugs [are] our biggest enemies…. All our members use pseudonyms for protection and we can never go public with our work. ” she says. She denounces all Islamic fundamentalists, making no distinction between those in the then-present government and the Taliban. RAWA, however, has no support for the Taliban either, as their Facebook page today proudly proclaims “The first spark of standing against the Taliban was again made by the brave Afghan woman.”
Epitomizing the just recently deposed Ghani government was the deal it made with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in September of 2016. That deal granted him and his followers a full pardon. Known as “the butcher of Kabul” for his previous role carrying out indiscrimate attacks against the residents of that city, Hekmatyar, prime minister of Afghanistan from 1993-4 and again briefly in 1996, known thief and opportunist, was also known for throwing acid in the faces of young women and other such atrocities.
The US government used the public role of some women under the previous government to pretend that it had made some real advances. Much of this was carried out through US/European-run Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Walid explains their real role: “NGOs are a major part of the backbone of imperialism in our country. NGO-ization, we believe, is almost as dangerous as the formation of the puppet government of Afghanistan. The NGOs… in Afghanistan are almost all [funded]… through the US and other Western powers. They are a hotbed for recruiting youth to form the future puppet governments of Afghanistan which will have the appearance of a modern, democratic government, but whose heads will be brainwashed to serve as much more loyal lackeys of these powers. NGOs are also used to suck… revolutionary struggle out of the heads of our youth by giving them huge salaries and lives abroad. It is well-established that none of these NGOs serve the people and women and are simply giving out slogans of ‘reconstruction’ and ‘aid for people’ to hide their true purposes.”
So, if these reports are even only half accurate, the previous government was a house of cards, built around totally corrupt warlords whose only loyalty was to themselves and their regional power. There was not the slightest reason for the masses to support it, especially the most revolutionary wing of those masses – the women. And the occupation of a foreign imperialist power lessened even further any potential reason for supporting that government.
Afghanis over 30 will remember the previous Taliban rule and those too young to remember will have heard stories. For women, those years were like a form of solitary confinement, a low grade but constant psychological torture. Barred from schooling and from most work places, prohibited from walking in the street without a male family member, prohibited from even standing on a balcony or in effect from gathering in any sort of groups, forced into physical isolation by the simple fact of having to wear total body and face covering in public (the burqa), women were also subjected to beatings, rape and murder at will by the Taliban torturers. It is impossible to imagine that the masses of Afghani women have even the slightest degree of “support” for the Taliban criminals.
Taliban spokesmen (and they are all men) now claim that they have changed, that they will rule differently this time. Indian activist and writer Rohini Hensman, however, explains: “Regardless of what they say, there are reports that they have destroyed schools, stopped women going out to university or work, and drawn up lists of girls above 12 and young unmarried women to become wives of fighters, i.e. sex slaves. They have already killed journalists and dissenters, and will carry on doing so.” Moreover, the general repression which the Taliban justify through sharia law will fall most harshly on the most oppressed sector of Afghani society – women.
It’s possible that the most blatant and extreme oppression of women will be slightly hidden under the “new and reformed” Taliban, especially in Kabul and maybe a few other major urban centers. Possibly there they will have a few schools for girls and maybe even young women. This will be used to prettify their rule, mainly for international consumption. At best, it will be like the old segregation in the US South, which the segregationists called “separate but equal”. In fact, it was kept separate exactly in order to ensure and facilitate inequality.
US & Taliban
Already, we can hear the hints of acceptance of Taliban rule here in the US. One example is NY Times columnist and mideast “expert” Thomas Friedman. The fact that he completely supported the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq should disqualify him from any supposed expertise, even in the eyes of the US capitalist class. Nevertheless, he continues to be trotted out to justify whatever strategy US capitalism may decide upon. In a recent column, Friedman in effect indicates that the US should be willing to work with the Taliban, as long as the Taliban can prettify and hide its oppression of women. Regarding getting US aid, Friedman wrote that the Taliban “might want to keep the White House phone number on speed dial.”
For this to happen, the (renewed) Taliban government will have to be legitimized in the eyes of capitalist rule globally. That process actually started when the US government (under Trump) opened negotiations with it in Doha starting in 2016. Neither Biden nor any other major Democratic Party figures denounced those negotiations. Since the Taliban took power, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained the Biden administration’s position: “A future Afghan government that upholds the basic rights of its people and that doesn’t harbor terrorists is a government we can work with and, recognize.” The Taliban is based on terrorizing the masses of the population in general and women in particular. On those scores, the leopard cannot and will not change its spots. So, what Blinken is saying is that as long as it has a fig leaf to cover over its subjugation of women and human rights abuses, the US will say it is “making progress” and will “work with” them if it doesn’t harbor terrorist groups that may launch new attacks on US interests. Why should we expect any different since the US government “worked with” that mass rapist and misogynist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as well as misogynistic regimes around the world, first and foremost that of Saudi Arabia?
“Arm the Women!”
When Oaklandsocialist first raised this slogan, several readers liked it but thought it was unrealistic. They should keep in mind this article in the Guardian newspaper, Armed Women Take to Streets in Show of Defiance Against the Taliban. The Guardian reports on July 7 that “women have taken up guns in northern and central Afghanistan, marching in the streets in their hundreds and sharing pictures of themselves with assault rifles on social media, in a show of defiance as the Taliban make sweeping gains nationwide.”
The question is around which class, meaning with what sort of leadership and program, can women be armed and mobilized? Again, Samia Walid explains the problems and indicates a possible alternative from the perspective of 2019: “Recently, a group of sell-out, power hungry women from ‘Women’s Network’ met with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as ‘representatives’ of Afghan women. Gulbuddin is one of the most bloodthirsty misogynist criminals who is well-known for throwing acid on the faces of women in his younger days and these women went to meet him to whitewash his misogynist Islamist party, all for fame, power and money…. These women ignore the flogging and stoning of women by the Taliban and point to their ‘good’ programs for women if they join the government! These women stand next to the ruling powers as traitors to our suffering women and have no ties or sympathies to the Afghanistan women.”
Walid explains the alternative: “RAWA believes that it can only turn into a powerful movement with the backing of the masses, and this backing comes by staying and working in Afghanistan, even if the situation is hell-like. People only trust revolutionary organizations that stand by them in practice and are active inside the country.”
In 2018 and 2019, women in neighbouring Iran staged widespread protests against mandatory wearing of head scarves. Today, Iran is awash in struggles of workers such as the oil workers strike and other struggles. (See this video.) With the Baluchi people living on either side of the Iran/Afghani border, and with many thousands of Afghani refugees inside Iran, the situation in Iran can play an important role in sparking a similar uprising in Afghanistan, as well as in the region as a whole. Based on mobilizing the Afghani masses, and most particularly the women among them, such a movement would make short shrift of the Taliban and would, in fact, radically transform the entire world situation. It would open the door to a more general uprising of the world working class, the formation of a mass global working class party, the real beginnings of a general struggle for socialism.
Update: The very day after this article was published, the NY Times reports protests against the Taliban’s rule in Kabul and elsewhere. So much for the Taliban’s “popularity”! Further, a CNN reporter who is in Kabul and witnessed (at least one of) these protests says the protesters were chanting “death to Pakistan”. Those in the US who claim the Taliban is popular base their claims on the hatred for an invading force (the US) in Afghanistan. But clearly the Taliban are also seen as representing a foreign force – Pakistan!
Never having been in Afghanistan and without direct contacts there, I have to be a bit cautious about the general views. Maybe there is an element of society – mainly rural males – who support the Taliban, but I find it extremely difficult to believe that this would not be just as much because they support male domination over women as because they oppose foreign troops in Afghanistan. It certainly seems in the cities that support is very small indeed. In other words, this means the attempt of a more rural and more reactionary layer of the population to dominate the more urban areas. In that sense, it’s not entirely different from what is happening in the United States. Here, we have a more rural, mainly white and mainly male layer being driven to dominate the urban population.
Categories: Asia, Uncategorized, United States, women
Excellent article John, very clarifying.
In general I like this a lot but I am afraid the ending falls a bit flat. Likening the urban-rural split in Afghanistan to the same split in the USA runs roughshod over some huge differences. We have to remember that there has been a war going on there for decades and this effects people in different parts of the country differently. There was an article in Harper’s last week that suggests that rural areas have born the brunt of US raids and airstrikes while not really benefiting at all from the few positive developments of the last twenty years, which have been more or less limited to Kabul. Besides, you have already noted that the people who were in charge in Afghanistan during the occupation were also by and large reactionary misogynists, so from the perspective of one of these rural conservative men that may not have been a decisive issue in whether or not to support the insurgency. Which, of course, does not mean that the Taliban reconquest is anything over than deeply depressing.
Thank you for your comments. No two situations are exactly alike, but there are some similarities. The final comparison was written to combat a tendency on the left here in the US that claims that the Taliban are some sort of national liberation fighters and that they have general support within Afghanistan on that basis. The more I read about Afghanistan, including the takeover by the Taliban in 1996, the more that seems highly unlikely to me. Of course, as I wrote, I have to be very cautious in judging the mood there since I have never been there, but I am deeply suspicious of that general indirect support for the Taliban here. The reason I made that comparison was to help people get a sense of what it may amount to. And the more I read about the Taliban, the more I am moving to conclude that at least in 1996 they were what amounted to an occupying army within the country, complete with carrying out near genocidal slaughter and all sorts of atrocities.
Yes, I sympathize absolutely with your ends in writing the piece. I find that kind of attitude among leftists both depressing and infuriating. From what I can tell–which is not much, as I have also never been there and don’t have any close contacts from the country–a lot of people see the Taliban as something of a Pakistani proxy. Some RAWA writings for instance take that stance. Still, things can never be quite so simple; I would be interested in knowing more about what kind of social base the various groups have within Afghanistan. That said, someone being local is not a sufficient condition for solidarity. “National liberation” has always been a double-edged sword and in this case it coincides with national enslavement.
I think you are right concerning Pakistan and the Taliban. See, for example, the video of the protest of Afghan Americans in San Francisco. Note some of the protest signs. This reflects the actual historic fact that the Taliban were in many ways a proxy for the Pakistani ISI (Pakistan’s equivalent of the CIA). Not only that, but in ethnically divided Afghanistan the Taliban had a particular ethnic base – the Durrani wing of the Pashtuns – which does not mean that all Pashtuns nor even all Durrani Pashtuns are responsible for the Taliban. A Pakistani-born and raised friend of mine who spent the last several years in Kabul (having just recently left there) said that he was advised to tell people he was originally from India. Such is the hostility to Pakistan among many.
When the Taliban ruled the country starting in 1996, they conquered and ruled other parts and cities such as Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif like a conquering foreign power. That includes mass brutality and ethnic cleansing. It is nearly impossible to imagine that people’s memories are so short that all this has been forgotten. In an article that we will publish later today or tomorrow, we will be explaining much of that.
Sadly, ruling over one’s own country like a conquering foreign power is all too common in the Middle East these days, even if the convergence of Pashtun nationalism and theocracy leads to a particularly extreme form of it. I look forward to reading the coming article you mention. Keep up the good work.