Early History of Afghanistan and the Origins of the Taliban

Now that US troops have pulled out of Afghanistan, the US media will be putting that country in the rearview mirror at best. It will be moving on to the next sensationalist story. That means that the overwhelming majority of the US population – including on the left – will be forgetting all about that country. Before it does so, it’s important to try to develop something of an understanding of what happened there and why. Here is a contribution towards that effort. It doesn’t pretend to be the “final word”. How could it be? But hopefully it will contribute to an important discussion.

I suspect both the mountainous nature of the country and the fact that it’s landlocked, are related to the fact that capitalism has never really developed there, not even to the extent that it has in other parts of the colonial world. For example, whereas 56% of the world population is urban, and even in Pakistan that figure is 37%, in Afghanistan only 25% of the population live in urban areas. Until recently it was down around 15%.

Contrary to the view that many Europeans and Americans may hold, there were centers of tremendous cultural achievement in what is now Afghanistan. Exactly because what is now Afghanistan is centrally located (the flip side of the coin from being land-locked) and because of the fact that 75% of the country is mountainous, the centers of what trade routes that did exist were extremely developed. Cities like Herat, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif were famous for tremendous architecture, art and poetry. Also agriculture flourished, in many cases through highly developed irrigation systems. Ahmad

The Herat Citadel. The city was a center of culture and knowledge.

Rashid (Taliban) describes ancient Herat, for example: “Herat, the heart of medieval Islam in the earlier Islamic region, was a city of mosques and madrassas, but it had an ancient, liberal Islamic tradition. It was the home of Islamic arts and crafts, miniature painting, music, dance, carpet-making and numerous stories about its redoubtable and beautiful women.” It was also known as the breadbasket of central Asia. In the early 15th century it was ruled over by Queen Gowhar Shad.

Rashid also gives similar descriptions of Kandahar in the south and Mazar-e-Sharif in the north.

The people of historic Afghanistan also practiced religious tolearance, with traditions of Buddhism, Judaism, Sufiism and also Zoroastrianism existing peacefully together. According to Rashid, (p. 83) “84% of Afghanis belong to the Sunni Hanafi sect [which is] the most liberal of the four Sunni schools of thought.”


Earlier Colonial History
Although different emperors/kings ruled much of what is Afghanistan in ancient times, Afghanistan is more fragmented into different ethnic/tribal groups even than many other countries in the underdeveloped world. The Pashtuns are the largest tribal group, but even they are divided between the Durrani and the Ghilzai. (According to Rashid, the central ethnic base for the Taliban is among the Durrani in Southern Afghanistan in a region that is generally poorest and least socially developed in the entire country.) In addition, the Pashtun traditional territory spans the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Then there are the Baluchi, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and others. So there is a potential for Afghanistan to fragment, with the Uzbeks, for example, to move towards making their traditional territory part of Uzbekistan. As for the Hazaras, their majority is traditionally Shia and may at some point look towards Iran.

In what follows, we point out the ethnic base of the Taliban among the Durrani Pashtuns. This in no way means blaming that ethnic group of the crimes of the Taliban – no more than all Germans can be blamed for the crimes of the Nazis or all Iranians for the crimes of that regime in Syria. We simply point it out to show the narrow ethnic base of the Taliban.

The situation of the Pashtun complicates the entire region. The Pakistani regime has an incentive to encourage what could be called Islamic nationalism – that is, identity as Muslims vs. Pashtun identity. That’s because the latter could threaten to lead to a movement for a “Pashtunistan” – a Pashtun state, similar to what many Kurdish people want in that part of the world. That would threaten the territorial integrity of Pakistan.

In North Africa-Western Asia many of the borders to the different countries were drawn up – meaning imposed – by the British and French colonialists after WW I through the Sykes-Picot Accord. These two colonial powers decided between themselves which parts of that part of the world which of the powers would get to plunder. The borders did not develop in an organic way, based on the real history and conditions of the people of the region. Something similar

The Durand Line. True to their nature, the British colonialists left a ticking time bomb.

was imposed on what are now Pakistan and Afghanistan, whose border is known as the Durand Line, named after the British colonial representative Mortimer Durand, who imposed that border in 1893. It artificially divided the Pashtuns.

One other general point should be made before considering some of the general history of Afghanistan. That is the “land” question:

Land Ownership and Disputes
In almost all of the former colonial world land distribution is a huge issue. In Pakistan, for example, according to europe-solidaire 5% of large landholders own 64% of total farm land and 65% of small farmers own 15% of such land. I have been unable to find similar statistics for Afghanistan, but it does seem that land ownership is not nearly as monopolized by a small landlord class.

That doesn’t mean that land disputes aren’t an issue. On the contrary, it seems they are a huge issue, but in a different way: Ownership of which small parcel of land is not clear. The reasons seem to be several, the main one being that formal legal deeds often don’t exist. That, in turn, seems to be due to several reasons, including low literacy rates and a practically non-existent national government which could formalize things. In fact, in many cases there have not even been maps of land ownership based on GPS coordinates. Then there is the history of war and civil war. In many cases, if such documents did exist, they were destroyed in fire.

The other central point about land ownership is the fact that it was passed down through the male side of the family. That meant that in a situation of general poverty men and even boys had a material interest in keeping women subjugated. (This confirms Frederick Engels theory on the subjugation of women, as explained in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.) There were attempts to lessen the subjugation of women at times, but without changing this fact, such attempts were bound to fail. And in order to change this a general social revolution would have been necessary.

Political Structure
So there never was much of either a landlord nor a capitalist class in Afghanistan. Power tended to rest in the hands of various warlords. Similar in some ways to feudal lords in ancient Europe, the warlords’ power was and is based on their control over an armed body of men – regional and ethnic-based armies. Among other things, this inhibited both the development of capitalism as well as capitalist political structures. In some ways, it could be considered as regional strong-man or “bonapartist” rulers.

One result was that political parties hardly existed. Power, after all, was simply determined by whose army happened to have the advantage at any particular time and place.

Despite its relative isolation, Afghanistan could not totally wall itself off from world economic, social and political developments.

One aspect of Kabul in the 1970s

By the 1970s, for example, Afghanistan’s principle city – Kabul – was experiencing social transformation, especially among women, and especially among middle class women. They were going to universities, getting careers, smoking in public and enjoying a night life. Maybe as an outgrowth of this, a “communist” party developed, determined to modernize all of Afghanistan. It called itself the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The name itself indicates the disastrous Stalinist tradition of trying to modernize the former colonial world through trying to establish capitalist democracy. It also carried on in some of the other traditions of Stalinism – attempting to impose its rule from above. In any case, that would have been necessary since it never was anything even close to a mass party, existing almost exclusively in Kabul alone, and with a base in the Kandahari petit bourgeoisie.

In 1978 the PDPA took power through a coup. The fact that this tiny party, existing on the outermost fringes of Afghan traditions, was able to seize power indicates the complete political vacuum that existed. The PDPA government sought to modernize Afghanistan from above. They banned some of the Muslim traditions such as the wearing of beards and promoted state atheism. They also tried to institute reforms for women such as the banning of child marriages.

Can you imagine the hubris, if nothing else, of a tiny party of at best a few thousand (some say merely just some hundreds), located almost entirely in one city, trying to force its views on a fragmented and divided and largely rural population of nearly 15 million? Anybody who didn’t think that utter disaster would be the inevitable result would have to have been living in a dream world.

This necessarily also meant severe repression in the “best” of Stalinist traditions. According to Wikipedia the PDPA regime killed up to 27,000 people and imprisoned up to 20,000 more. It also used the torture. “By spring 1979 unrests had reached 24 out of 28 Afghan provinces including major urban areas. Over half of the Afghan army would either desert or join the insurrection,” writes Wikipedia. So, the Soviet dictatorship intervened, sending tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan. According to all reports, these troops acted like a typical invading force, raping, looting and murdering. According to Rashid, some 1.5 million Afghanis – about 10% of the population – lost their lives in the war that followed. (Wikipedia puts the figure at 2 million.)

Soviet troops invade Afghanistan. Their invasion was brutal and destructive.

The Soviet troops also destroyed much of traditional Afghan society. The southern city of Kandahar, for example, had long been famous for its fruit orchards. When the soviets occupied that city they uprooted the fruit trees in order to prevent Afghani fighters (the Mujahideen) from hiding in the trees.

On the other side, two major capitalist forces intervened. One was the reactionary capitalist sheiks and mullahs of the Arab world. Bin Laden was a prime example. They sent money and men to fight the Soviets in a religious war. The other was US capitalism, which funneled millions through the Pakistani “Inter-Services Intelligence” or ISI. That is the equivalent of the US CIA and operates almost as a law unto itself within the Pakistani government. They, too, helped build up the religious-based war against the Soviet invasion.

In February of 1989 the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan. That, however, did not resolve the situation for ordinary Afghanis as civil war between the various warlords followed. Finally, in 1994, Mullah Mohammed Rabbani was able to establish some semblance of a national government. But it was a shadow of a national government. Different warlords would set up a chain across whatever roadway existed in their territory and charge a toll for any truck wanting to transport goods. Young girls were kidnapped and raped or forced into “marriage”. Throughout the country, chaos ruled more than did Rabbani and his regime.

A madrassa in Pakistan. Often war orphans at that time, these boys grew up in a totally male environment.

Along both sides of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan – the Durand Line – another force had been developing. These were the young men – often war orphans – who’d been living and studying at the religious schools, the madrassas. These schools, often financed by the reactionary Arab mullahs, taught their severe Wahabbi brand of Islam. They were often run by people who were barely literate themselves and were really unschooled in the real traditions of Islam. Their students – taliban, the plural of talib or “student”, in the Pashto language – started to become a force unto themselves. Rashid calls them the Afghan lumpen proletariat. That is a useful concept, as these taliban were cut off from production and any real class relations. They’d been traumatized by the war itself. Also, and this was critical, they’d grown up in an all-male environment. Many had never lived around women or girls – not sisters, aunts or mothers never mind women outside the family.

The Taliban move into Kabul in 1996. Rashid considers them to be an Afghan lumpenproletariat.

Such a layer of society – the lumpen – when it becomes an independent political force, often turns to a particular political tradition: fascism. That along with a layer of the petit bourgeoisie (small shopkeepers, etc.) was the class basis for Nazism, for example. Fascism also is based on mass repression and even terrorizing of some specially oppressed groups. In Nazi Germany it was the Jews, plus the Gypsies, gays and others. In Afghanistan, it was women in the main, although gay people were also brutally repressed as were the Shia.

The Taliban were based on the Durrani wing of the Pashtun, mainly in and around Kandahar. They gained a reputation, ironically enough, rescuing some young girls who had been kidnapped. They also opened up some roadways to free transport from the local warlords who were charging tolls. This earned them the support of what Rashid calls the “transport mafia” plus the drug – poppy/heroin- dealers. The two forces must have acted in consort.

Just as anti-Semitism was central to the Nazis, just as they could not have developed without that ideological cloak, so hatred of women (misogyny) is central to the Taliban. But there is also an economic base to it. In traditional Afghan society, land ownership is passed down through the male. (This confirms once again the explanation for male domination that Engels advanced in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.) So, especially in conditions of general poverty, male landowning peasants would have an economic interest in maintaining patriarchy.

From 1994 to 1996, the Taliban fought a civil war in Afghanistan to conquer the country. Based as they were on the Durrani wing of the Pashtun, and given their fascist politics, they acted just as brutally as had the Soviet army. In August of 1995, for example, they conquered the western city of Herat, killing hundreds. That entire region is largely Shia Muslim (like in neighboring Iran) and their native language is Persian. Their culture and traditions are very different from that of the Durrani Pashtun. Yet when the Taliban conquered Herat, the administration that it set up was entirely Taliban/Pashtun. Many of the administrators didn’t even speak Persian. Despite the fairly liberal traditions of Herat with respect to educating girls and women in general, the Taliban immediately closed all girls schools. Despite the rich cultural life in Herat, the Taliban banned music, dancing, etc.

The Taliban fought the warlords where they had to. They also became higly skilled in the art of bribing warlords to switch sides. With a practically non-existent national government, and with various warlord-run regional and ethnic based armies divided, the Taliban represented the only force that truly believed in anything. As such, by 1996 they were able to capture central power when they rolled into Kabul.

One of their first acts was to seize President Najibullah, beat him, castrate him, kill him by dragging him behind a vehicle, and then hang his corpse from a post.

The Taliban’s terrorism against the female population of Kabul and the country in general are well known and it is unnecessary to recount them here in any detail.

When they seized Rabbani, he had been sheltering at the UN compound, which was supposed to provide him with diplomatic protection. The Taliban did not hesitate to violate this rule of international diplomacy. In doing so, they were announcing their disregard for relations with other capitalist powers. Their concern was domination over the population of Kabul. That and that alone. Similar to how they ruled Herat, the six man council they set up to rule Kabul had not a single Kabul resident on it. As Rashid wrote, “Kabul was treated as an occupied city.”

There was one international relationship which was important to the Taliban. That was the non-state relationship with the layer of reactionary Arab mullahs and sheiks. Foremost among them, and representing that relationship, was Osama Bin Laden, the younger son of an Arab construction baron who’d been involved in the war against the Soviets, had returned to Saudi Arabia, moved to Sudan after running afoul of the Saudi regime, and then returned to Afghanistan after being expelled from Sudan. It was through this that the Taliban provided Bin Laden with space to build a base in Afghanistan. After all, because al Qaeda and similar groups are non-state actors, they need a secure base of operations in some country or another.

Mullah Omar. Like many Taliban leaders, he suffered war wounds, in his case the loss of one eye.

Although the Taliban were a national government of sorts (ruled over by Mullah Omar, who during those years never left the central base of the Durrani Pashtuns – Kandahar – except once), their rule was unstable and they continued to fight battles with different warlords into 1997. In May of that year, they moved on the Uzbek army in the north of the country. This was a war that was a “bloody drama of betrayals, counter-betrayals and inter-ethnic gloodshed which was astounding even by Afghan standards,” writes Rashid. A popular revolt in Mazar-e-Sharif led to the immediate death of 600 Taliban troops and in the battles that followed over 3,000 Taliban were killed or wounded. Thousands of Taliban prisoners were killed by leaving them to roast and or suffocate in shipping containers. In a counter attack the Taliban committed atrocities of their own, including killing some 70 villagers in Qazil Abad by slitting the throats of some while skinning others alive. Nevertheless, they were driven out of Mazar-e-Sharif and weren’t able to retake the city until August of 1998. When they did so, they carried out a four day slaughter of everything that moved – humans, dogs, everything. After the first day of general massacre, they concentrated on the Hazara population in an act of ethnic cleansing that rivalled anything done in the former Yugoslavia.

Because of the continued revolts, the Taliban was forced to institute forced conscription including for the first time the of non-Durrani Pashtuns. This led to further revolts in villages. In Kabul, the only government function that really functioned was the religious police, used primarily but not exclusively against women. In effect locked up in their homes, women were subject to what amounted to low grade torture of forced isolation. This, of course, was central to the generally repressive atmosphere the Taliban instituted in Kabul.

Glyn Davies, spokesman for the US State Department under Bush. He originally said the US government found “nothing objectionable” about the Taliban’s rule.

US capitalism was of a mixed mind regarding the conquest of power by the Taliban. Despite their anti-”Western” (“west” of where?) rhetoric, the Taliban were seen as a force that might reduce the chaos in that important country. This was important as the US-based Unocal had developed plans to build a gas pipeline through Afghanistan. The chaotic and war-torn situation made those plans impossible. Immediately upon the Taliban’s seizing power, the US recognized their government. Then-President Bush’s state department said it found “nothing objectionable” in the Taliban’s instituting sharia law. Reuters news service (10/1/1996) also reported that the US was pleased because the Taliban’s government would further isolate Iran. The US government only retreated from this position after an outcry from numerous women’s groups in the US.

How can the rise of this strange fascist force be explained?

Rashid compares it to the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and explains it as a breakdown of all the old social structures – the traditional tribal structures, for example. On top of that, there was the war ravaged nation. But also, class structure never was very strong in Afghanistan and rule almost always was based on simple military strength rather than the domination of one class over society as a whole.

Marxism explains that bonapartism is a form of rule in which a strong man dictator, often but not necessarily based on the military, rises up above her or his class and rules over society as a somewhat independent force. Exactly because such a ruler lacks a mass base, there are some limits to how far they can go. This describes the local warlords. In other words, Afghanistan had been ruled largely by local or regional bonapartist dictators.

As opposed to bonapartism, fascism has something of a mass base and can therefore go a lot further. That is what the Taliban had, based on the many thousands of “lumpen” madrassa students and former students. It was this far wider base that enabled – in fact – required the Taliban to go further than anything that the warlords did.

One additional point about the Afghan economy under the Taliban should be considered: the continued rise of the poppy-heroin industry. The cultivation of poppies had become extremely prevalent in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban had originated. They always based themselves economically on collecting taxes from this industry. It was only when a massive drought struck Afghanistan, devastating the poppy crop for a year, that the Taliban banned its cultivation. That was because they had turned to international financial agencies to seek financial aid. They had to legitimize themselves by appearing to oppose this crop.

One other point about this previous history:

The origins of Islamic nationalism. Some object to that term because Islam is a religion not a nation. We use it in broadest sense – a political approach that seeks to unite all people along a particular line other than class line. Under these ideologies, the capitalist class of that group will inevitably dominate. What is called Christian fundamentalism in many ways tries to do the same as does the Hindu nationalism of the BJP and India’s Modi regime. There are also some strong similarities (along with big differences) with Jewish nationalism, also known as Zionism. Zionism arose out of the crisis of capitalism plus the criminal roles of both Stalinism and social democracy. (See: The New Apartheid.) This role was what led to the historic defeat of the German working class. Similarly (although not identically), Islamic nationalism/Islamic fundamentalism arose from the impasse that the Arab nationalist movements faced in the 1967s and onwards. This led to the rise of neoliberal economic attacks by these same nationalist governments, such as that of Assad jr. in Syria and Mubarak in Egypt. This form of religious nationalism also took sway because of the criminal role of Stalinism in the region as well as that of social democracy internationally.

This is the first of a two-part series.
Also see The Women of Afghanistan vs. the United States and the Taliban

Update: We have just come across this article from Afghan on labor struggles in Afghanistan in the 1960s. It is detailed enough that it seems to be at least mainly accurate. If so, then this modifies but doesn’t fundamentally change the general view explained above.

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