Afghanistan: the case against the “good war”

Issue: 120
Posted: 2 October 08

Jonathan Neale

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries on earth. More than a million Afghans have died in 30 years of war, and almost everyone has lost someone close to them. Now George Bush, John McCain, Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy, and even Barack Obama, call for more troops to be sent, more planes and more death.

In every country in Europe majorities in opinion polls are against participation in the Afghan war. Yet the media still present it as a good war. Iraq, they now admit, was a crime or wrong or maybe just a mistake. But Afghanistan is a war on terrorists, we are told; on fanatics, jihadis, sexists, savages; on people who are not “modern” and therefore deserve to die.

This article will argue differently. My central points are these:

  • First, there was almost no resistance when the Americans first invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and for the three years afterwards. The resistance has been produced by the occupation.
  • Second, that resistance is led by the right wing Taliban because they are the only organised force who have been root and branch opposed to the occupation. It is also because back in the 1980s Communists and feminists supported another invasion, by the Soviet Union. Soviet troops killed between half a million and a million Afghans, and discredited the left and feminists for at least a generation.
  • Third, the resistance is spreading, growing and winning. As a result, the occupying powers are coming under intense pressure to launch a massive air war against villagers and to invade Pakistan.
  • Fourth, there are no easy outcomes for Afghans in this situation, but the best one is a victory for the resistance.1

The origins of the 30 years war

I will begin with the Communists.2 One afternoon in the autumn of 1971 I stood on the side of the unpaved main street in Lashkargah, the capital of Helmand province, and watched a protest by high school boys who took turns standing on a wooden box. They didn’t give speeches. The boy on the box would just shout a slogan loudly, and his mates would cheer. Most of the boys who took a turn had only one slogan: “Death to the khans.”

These children were brave. Khan is the Pushtu word for the man who is a big landowner and local power. These boys were not calling for the end to an abstract social category. They were calling for the physical killing of the men who held power in their villages, who ruled the lives of their fathers and mothers. Only 30 boys, or a bit fewer, had the courage to stand in that crowd. But around the edges of the street many adult men stood and watched, silently, never looking away, betraying nothing on their faces. There were a couple of policemen watching. More important, the secret police were in every urban crowd, and feared for good reason. There were informers in every village too. If you lived in a village and knew people, a flicker across their faces would tell you when one of the local informers entered the room.

No one said anything. No one smiled. If they did, the khan would know. But the silence spoke approval.

Those boys were part of a national movement of students and educated people led by the Communists. They had good reasons to want to overthrow the established order.3 Until 1974 Afghanistan was ruled by a king, Zahir Shah. There was a parliament and elections, but more dictatorship than democracy. Real power lay in the hands of the big landowners with mud forts in the countryside and their own armed retainers. The central government largely did their bidding and not the other way round.

These khans4 ruled through fear and force. Central power was weak. Judges ruled for whoever gave the largest bribe. Land ownership was partly a matter of tradition—”This is my land because everyone knows we have always had it.” But when a family looked weak, the strong would move in and take what they had. The best of the khans tried to be fair, but many were murderers several times over. Everyone had guns, and it was good to have several brothers.

Indeed in a situation where tenure and justice were so fragile, and where power came from force, it paid to demonstrate that force from time to time. And there were always potential challengers to every khan—men who could and would take his power if they could. But by 1970 the central government had chosen and backed one leading khan in most valleys of the country, and that gave people some stability. It also meant that the state was a joint enterprise between those men, the king and the army.

Afghanistan was a desperately poor country. There were, and are, no reliable statistics. The land was arid, often mountain or desert. Only about 2 percent could be farmed with irrigation. The main exports were hash, raisins and lambskin hats. Roughly 90 percent of people lived in the villages. Below the khans were small landowners, who worked their own land. More than half of villagers did not have enough land or animals of their own and had to make at least some of their income from sharecropping or herding. Exploitation was fierce. A sharecropper took between a fifth and a third of the crop, the landlord all the rest. Shepherds made a similar income.

Most families made just enough to eat. Across the country in 1972 the wage for a day’s labour was 20 afghanis and for a month 500 afghanis. Twenty afghanis would buy ten nan breads a day—three for the father, three for the mother and two each for two children. That was enough to live, but there was no money left over for other food, or anything else.

Most poor people—and most people were poor—lived at a similar level. I did two years of fieldwork as an anthropologist from 1971 to 1973, and the people I knew best were poor pastoralists who had lost their flocks and now made yoghurt. Their lives were not unrepresentative. Most of them got two sets of adult clothes in their lives—one when they first grew up and one when they married. A bicycle was a sign of moderate wealth. Out of 30 households in the camp, three were wealthy enough to afford to offer me a fried egg in hospitality. And they reminded me of it: “You ate his egg,” they said to me. Out of 30 households, 29 ate meat once a year. An average household had one teapot and one cup.

People talked much of modesty, and the books will tell you that Afghans secluded their women. But in an average village of, say, 200 households usually only three or four families could afford that. The other 196 or 197 houses needed the labour of their women in the fields, with the animals and to fetch water. People also talked much of the feud and Pushtun traditional law. Khans could and did feud, for they could afford to hide behind the walls of a fort and only venture out with bodyguards. The vast majority of men had to work in the fields and could not afford enemies.

The books, and the rich, said the lives of Afghans were ruled by honour. I heard the poor people I knew use the word for honour only once and the word for shame every day.

The government and the society were rotten, and everyone knew it. The first time I entered Afghanistan I watched a woman and a customs officer bargain at the top of their voices about the level of bribe she would pay him. The doctors and nurses stole the medicines and sold them in the bazaar.

I used my status to find a bed for a poor friend in the only TB hospital in Kabul, a public institution. When I visited the other patients, men from every group in the country crowded round his bed and chatted. My friend told me his family had to bribe the nurses to give him the food the government had paid for. I asked if they all had to do this.

“Yes,” they said.

“Why?” I asked.

One patient said, “Afghanistan, Zulumistan”—in English, “Afghanistan, Tyrannistan”—and they all laughed.

Everyone hated the government. My poor friends, who were Pushtuns, were proud that the king and the generals were Pushtuns, but they still hated the government. So did the Communists

The royal government relied on foreign aid from the US and the Soviet Union to cover two thirds of the budget. The king and the khans did not want economic development—that would threaten their power. In any case, the prevailing corruption made it very difficult.5 So the foreign money was spent mainly on education, an expanded civil service with nothing to do and the army. This spending created a new class of educated people. This was a small class. There were about 20,000 university graduates in a population of 15 million in 1978. But the old elite had been so small that most of the new educated class came from middle peasant families. They were not the landless poor, but they were often the first child in the family to finish high school. They brought with them to the city their parents’ hatred of the khans and the government. Their education gave them a desperation about the country’s poverty and a yearning for “modernisation”.

There were two political wings of this new class. The Communists looked to ideas from the Soviet Union. The Islamists looked to the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and not to the more mystical and laid back traditions of Afghan Islam. They saw tradition as the problem, education as the answer, and revolutionary change as a necessity. In the early 1970s the Communists and the Islamists fought each other at Kabul University and in the city high schools. The Communists won because they had far more support, and the Islamist student leaders fled to exile in Pakistan.

Geography and ethnicity

Let’s pause for a moment to look at the geography and ethnic make-up of Afghanistan. I did not start with ethnicity, because it has never been as important as class. Social organisation is broadly similar in all ethnic groups, and the key traditional division is between the landowner who took 67 to 80 percent of the crop and the sharecropper who did the work.


However, ethnicity, language and geography do matter in the story that follows. Reliable statistics do not exist. But 40 to 50 percent of the population are Pushtuns. They speak Pushtu and live in the south and east. Kandahar is their largest city. In the central mountains live the Hazaras, the poorest of Afghan farmers and the most likely to migrate to the cities for work. They speak Farsi (Persian), are mostly Shiah and are about a tenth of the population. Another tenth are Uzbeks, who speak a Turkic language and live in the plains of the north east. About a fifth of the population are Tajiks, largely in the west around Herat and in the north east. Tajiks are not an ethnic group as such and have never united politically. The word simply means a Farsi speaking villager with no other ethnic loyalty.

Kabul, the capital, is a mixed city. Many in the upper reaches of government have traditionally been Pushtun. But Farsi is the dominant language in Kabul and widely regarded as more cultured than Pushtu.6

Afghan politics, though, was not organised around ethnic lines. The key dividing lines were religion, Communism and attitudes to the royal family. There were many from each ethnic group on every side.

Revolution from above

In 1972 a devastating famine swept the north and centre of the country. The king’s government did nothing, and senior officials stole the food aid. So when the king’s cousin Mohammed Daoud staged a coup in 1974 to create an Islamic socialist republic, no one fought for the old order. At first Daoud’s dictatorship leaned towards the Soviet Union in foreign policy and the Communists supported him. By early 1978, though, Daoud was swinging back towards the US and he had the main Communist leaders arrested.

The Communists immediately launched a coup based on army and air force officers, many of them trained in the Soviet Union. Like the other Communists, most of the officers were educated men from modest backgrounds. Hardly anyone was willing to die for Daoud, the royal family or the old order. But this absence of resistance was not the same as support for the coup. The new Communist government had support in the cities but very little in the countryside, where 90 percent of Afghans lived. Afghanistan had conscription, and the enlisted ranks were a mirror of the country. The Communists did not even try to build among ordinary soldiers. This was to prove their fatal weakness.

The Communists were, however, revolutionaries. They wanted to change everything, to break the power of the landowners and to liberate women. Their first decrees on land reform and women’s rights were largely symbolic, but no one was in any doubt what the symbolism meant.

Small rural uprisings began, at first in places where government power had always been tenuous such as Nuristan in the east and Pakhtia in the south east. These uprisings spread. They were usually led by local village mullahs rather than by educated Islamists. The mullahs argued that the Communists were atheists, tools of the Russians, and wanted to destroy the modesty of women.

Because the Communists did not have real support in the countryside, their first step was to send educated government officials in Western dress down to the villages in jeeps. The villagers saw them as the same sort of men as the old oppressive government. When sending officials failed, the answer was arrests and torture. This was cruel but could be targeted. However, arrest, torture and executions only stoked hatred and further resistance. The next step for the government was bombing from the air, an indiscriminate attack on all the peasants. That in turn only widened the revolt. Within 18 months the rebellions covered much of the countryside. Everyone knew the Communist government would fall soon.

The Communists were brave and dedicated men and women. They wanted to end the old oppression and to free women. Indeed many of them were women and, like the men, they were prepared to die. But they had tried to make a revolution from the top down, not from the bottom up, and they were paying for that. They went for a coup from the top because the prevailing idea on the left internationally in the 1960s and 1970s was that socialism meant dictatorship. To be a Communist in those days was to believe that poor countries needed a dictatorship to develop. Sometimes the dictator was brutal, like Joseph Stalin, and sometimes relatively gentle, like Fidel Castro. But Communism was dictatorship: top-down rule.

Many of the Afghan Communists had been educated, in part, in the Soviet Union. For them it was simple. They wanted a modern, developed, civilised country like the Soviet Union. And that meant, obviously, the sort of dictatorship they saw there. Some Afghan Communists had lived elsewhere. Taraki, the first Communist president, had worked in India. Amin, the second, had studied at Columbia University in New York. In both places, as in Europe and Latin America, most radicals felt that Communism meant dictatorship. This was also widely believed in Third World nationalist circles, where dictatorship was again largely taken for granted. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Castro and Sukarno were widely admired dictators.

There were socialists who believed in democracy and revolution from the bottom up, and who said that this had been the politics of Marx and Lenin. This journal comes from that tradition. But we were a small voice on the global left then, hardly heard in the poorest countries.

The Afghan Communists, though, were digging their own grave. It is sometimes possible to stage a coup with minority support and to rule with a minority. But it is another thing to change the whole structure of a society—the major economic relationships and the family. Change on that scale requires a passionate majority. So within 18 months the ring was closing around Kabul and the Communists.

As they lost popular support, the Communists began killing each other. There had always been two factions in Afghan Communism. The Khalk (People) group were more radical. They wanted to push the revolution, land reform and women’s liberation to the end. They were by and large from poorer rural backgrounds, and most spoke Pushtu. The Parcham (Flag) group were from richer homes, more often from the cities, and more likely to speak Farsi. They wanted to hold back the revolution and negotiate with the mullahs.

What made the disagreement between the People and Flag groups bitter was that neither had a solution. The Flag were right that pushing the revolution to the end without popular support would accomplish nothing. The People were right that the rebellion would not be fooled by concessions. Without any solutions, their hopes drowning in cruelty, the two factions turned on each other. The People purged the Flag, arresting, torturing and executing many thousands. Then the People split and began to kill each other. The Communist terror concentrated on Communists.

Occupation and resistance

On Christmas Day 1979 Soviet tanks began rolling over the border.7 The reasons for the invasion were, for the Soviet Union, clear and compelling. Afghanistan was a Muslim country with a Communist government. It lay just south of the majority Muslim republics of the Soviet Union with their immense oil wealth. If the Communist government of Afghanistan fell to a Muslim uprising, the example might easily spread north. Moreover, many of the Soviet elite thought they could negotiate with tribal elders and moderate forces. In their eyes the trouble with the Afghan Communists was that they were revolutionaries—they wanted to change everything. The Soviet elite were conservative men of power.

The Soviet tanks and planes quickly secured the cities. They deposed the People faction and installed Babrak Karmal from the Flag faction. The Flag police began rounding up the People leaders. Some men and women left prison, and others filled their cells.

The mullahs had been saying that the Communists were Russian puppets. Now everyone could see that this was true. The Communists lost the majority of their support in the cities. The urban demonstrations started in Farsi speaking, Iranian influenced, Herat in the east. Men and boys climbed onto their roofs at night and shouted, all across the city together, “God is Great”. No one dared shoot or bomb them for that.8

The shouting protests spread to Pushtu speaking Kandahar in the south and then to Farsi speaking Kabul. The civil servants, long a Communist base, went on strike against the Soviet occupation. The students at the girl’s high school in Kabul had been at the forefront of the fight for women’s rights. Now they massed in the playground, afraid to demonstrate on the streets, and shouted, as women had when the British invaded in 1878, calling upon the men of Afghanistan to show that they were men and not girls.

The Communists were deeply torn. Their revolution was at an end. The Soviet “advisers” took control of every ministry and stopped all reforms. The Communists faced a choice of collaborating with the invader or giving in to bloody “Islamist” reaction. Some simply left, but most decided to go with the Russians.

The Soviet war lasted for the next seven years. The Soviet armed forces held the cities and patrolled the highways with tanks. But in the countryside they came under sustained attack. Here their main tactics were land mines, helicopter gunships, bombers and free fire zones. There are no reliable numbers for the Afghan dead. The usual figure of one million is probably too high. It may only have been half a million from a population of 15 million.9 Roughly another million were wounded and disabled for life. Four million became refugees in Pakistan, another two million in Iran, and at least another two million fled to the relative safety of the Afghan cities. In other words, about two thirds of the population were killed, wounded or forced to flee.

To put this into comparative perspective, it is as if Britain in the 1980s had suffered two million dead, four million badly wounded and 32 million refugees. Imagine for a moment that this devastation was due to foreign invasion, and that the socialists and feminists had almost all supported the invasion. How popular do you think feminism or socialism would be in Britain?

In Afghanistan too, feminist and socialist politics don’t get much support even a generation later. The key thing to remember is that this is not because Afghans have always been right wing and patriarchal. After all, the Communists won every seat in Kabul in an election in the 1960s. It is because of what the left did to ordinary Afghans.

The resistance to the Russians was unlike any of the armed national liberation movements of the 20th century. The movements in Vietnam, Algeria, Angola and the rest were all led by a political party and had a more or less integrated army. The Afghan resistance was a whole people in revolt. But they fought local community by local community (qaum in Pushtu and Farsi). Sometimes that community was a village or a few villages together in a valley; sometimes it was an ethnic group or a faction, only part of a village. Each qaum fought on its own.10 If a main road ran through the village or valley of the qaum, then they attacked Russian convoys and saw terrible fighting. While the men, women and children of the community might walk hundreds of miles to Pakistan to find refuge or get weapons, they rarely walked far to fight.

The ideas of the resistance were the ideas of Afghan Islam. These were different from the ideas the Islamist students had imported from Egypt. Instead people knew they fought for god and religion. They also knew that the Afghans had fought and won three wars against the British in the name of Islam: the First Afghan War (1838-42), the Second Afghan War (1878_80), and the Third Afghan War (1919). The cruelty of the occupation, the torture and the bombing did the rest.

The resistance called themselves the mujahedin, those who do jihad. This did not make them fanatics. It meant they were resisting a foreign invasion.

The situation was complicated, however, by the existence of seven Islamist political parties based in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s largely Pushtun North West Frontier Province. These seven parties were all funded and armed by an alliance of the CIA, Saudi intelligence and the Pakistan armed forces Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). The CIA and the Saudis provided money and weapons. The Pakistani ISI kept tight control of distribution and favoured some of the exiled parties over others.11 For the US government and the CIA, the motive was partly to bleed the Soviet Union and partly revenge for Vietnam. For Saudi intelligence, it was keeping Communism at bay. Pakistan in the 1980s was a military dictatorship under General Zia. In return for supporting the Afghan resistance, Zia got American support, essential to continuing his regime. The ISI and Saudi intelligence were also supportive of Islamism. The CIA was not, but could not find anyone else to work through in Afghanistan.

The leaders of the seven parties all took a hefty personal cut and then sent some of the money and more of the weapons on to the resistance inside Afghanistan. The largest share of the money went to the most radical party, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Pushtun who had been a student of engineering at Kabul University. The other big party was led by Rabbani, a former professor of theology at Kabul University, and Massoud, a student Islamist. Both men were Tajiks.12 There were also three smaller Islamist parties, and two small parties that represented the old elite of landowners and the royal family.

Inside Afghanistan each community allied itself to one of the seven parties in Peshawar. These allegiances were not primarily ideological or ethnic. The leader of one community was often a rival (not an enemy) of the leaders of the neighbouring communities. So he would ally himself to a different political party from them. As alliances shifted within the country, moreover, people would shift their allegiances from one party to another. This produced a sort of patchwork quilt pattern of allegiances.

In other words, the Afghan resistance was both a people in revolt and a group of American clients. But the fact of revolt was more important. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans died in the war, and they did not give their lives for American hegemony. And the relationship between the Islamists and the CIA was always an uneasy alliance. On a global level, the US was opposed to Islamism—in the 1980s Iran was a major enemy. In one telling incident, plans to bring the leaders of the seven parties to Washington had to be cancelled because Hekmatyar refused to shake President Reagan’s hand.

During the seven-year war against the Soviets—the Fourth Afghan War—class relations in the villages were transformed. The old Afghan elite, the big landlords and their allies in the cities, simply fled and never returned. Many had the money and contacts to become Afghan-Americans. This left a vacuum in the cities. There a new class of educated people was taking power, a new bourgeoisie. Both the Communists and the Islamists belonged to this class. The question was which wing of this class would win.

In the countryside the changes were equally profound but different. The old landlords left and have never come back. Many poorer families also fled as refugees. But often a household would leave one man, even in very dangerous circumstances, to hold onto their land, because suddenly no one really knew who had a valid claim over much of the land. There were new strongmen—the local “commanders” of the resistance in each community. In some ways these men modelled themselves on the old khans. They were different in that their legitimacy came from their leadership in the resistance. But their claim to land was also weaker because newer. Moreover, there were no courts at all. So like the khans before them the commandants had to demonstrate their power over land by using violence against the weak and against anyone who challenged them. Precisely because everything was in flux, these demonstrations of power had to be more brutal. Some ethnic groups and communities had also fled from particular areas, and some had been pushed out. Here too a clear threat of violence was necessary to hold the new claims.

The CIA and the Pakistani ISI also encouraged a massive expansion of opium and heroin production in Afghanistan. The crops helped Afghan farmers survive, and selling the drugs raised money for the political parties. But since then the drug trade has thrived in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. This makes both countries more unsafe and chaotic places, and regional leaders compete for drug money. In Pakistan drug money has also corrupted the main political parties, the army and the intelligence service. And it is one thing to live under a state where politicians take bribes. It is another to live in a state where secret policemen and generals are narcotics bosses.13

Then in 1988 the mujahedin won. The Russians left Afghanistan. Within a year the old order would begin to crumble in the Soviet Union, and the Afghan resistance had helped bring that about. Crucially for the present situation, the mujahedin had defeated the Soviet invasion. The Afghans had won the Fourth Afghan War, like the previous three. Moreover, they had done so under the banner of Islam. The Afghan peasants had paid an enormous price, but they had won. Among other things, this means that most Afghans now believe they can defeat the Americans if they have to, but the cost will be very high.

As soon as the Soviet tanks left, the CIA and Washington dumped the seven parties based in Peshawar, and cut off all money and weapons. The result was chaos. The Russians had left behind a compromise regime led by Mohammad Najibullah, the former head of the Communist secret police. The seven Islamist political parties all moved to take control of the cities. But the mujahedin had fought to defend their own communities, and were not about to march on Kabul, while many of the city dwellers who had rejected the Soviet occupation now found Najibullah preferable to the Islamist parties. After Kabul did eventually fall in 1992, there was no central authority. The Islamist political parties covered themselves in shame. It became clear that they were only interested in fighting each other for power. One party would ally with another, then change sides, betraying their old friends, and then change sides and betray again. Kabul had survived the Soviet occupation without being bombed. Now the city was flattened as competing Islamist parties shelled the working class areas. Kabul looked like a German or Japanese city after the Second World War.

On a local level the Islamist commandants replicated what was happening at the national level. Only force could demonstrate power, but that force had to be continually demonstrated. For ordinary Afghans this was a time of deep insecurity and demoralisation. Many had been prepared to fight and die for Communism. Many more had been prepared to fight the invaders and die in the name of Islam. But as people watched the Islamists, there was nothing left to believe in beyond a person’s own family and their own relationship with god. Any larger morality was a con. And people lived in deep insecurity as national war and local conflicts swept back and forth over their homes. Moreover, the Islamists, their local followers or the local commandants could at any moment come and take your land, your shop, your husband, your son or your daughter. People lived continuously in fear and uncertainty, and in bitter disillusion.

The rise of the Taliban

The Taliban were a consequence of seven years of war against the Soviets and seven years of civil war among the mujahedin. They are often described as a bunch of medieval fanatics. They are “traditional”, we are told, and the current regime in Kabul is, by contrast, “modernising”. But there has never been a regime like the Taliban in any Muslim country anywhere in the world, ever. They are something new, a product of the modern world.14

The Taliban came into being in 1994 under the patronage of the ISI in Pakistan, and with the quiet support of the US. The Pakistani military had found the Islamist parties useless in gaining control of Afghanistan. The US wanted law and order in a united Afghanistan so they could run an oil pipeline down from Central Asia, without having to route it through Iran or Russia.

The Taliban began as an army. They attacked Afghanistan from Pakistan. Many of their officers had served in the Pakistani army.15 The soldiers were boys from the religious schools in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. Taliban simply means “the students”. The boys had spent most of their lives not in traditional villages but in that very 20th century institution, the refugee camp.

The leadership of the Taliban were different again. They were Afghan village mullahs, men with limited formal education. They had never attended university and did not come from big landowning families; they were men of low social status and had little in common with the educated Islamists. They did have a deep hatred of foreign Christians, but there was nothing medieval about that hatred. It was learned in a long war with bomber planes and helicopter gunships. And in no Muslim country, at any point in history, had men like these mullahs ever run a government.

Their religious strictness was not traditional in Afghanistan—nor were their long beards. When I lived in rural Afghanistan in the 1970s I had a short, trimmed beard. Every other man with a beard was either a white haired elder or a mullah, and all of them trimmed their beards neat and short. I was regularly ridiculed in public for my beard, which was immodest and un-Islamic, and it would have been quite unacceptable to grow it long.

At first the Taliban seemed to sweep all before them. They promised law and order, peace and honesty. After 16 years of war and insecurity many Afghans were willing to accept that promise, all the more so because they were known to have American and Pakistani support, and so might be able to deliver peace. But the Taliban also had two other organising bases to their ideology. One was an Islam that concentrated on enforcing the law and modesty. Modesty meant keeping women in seclusion in the cities—most rural women still had to work in the fields. It meant keeping girls out of school in the cities, though in the Pushtun areas villagers insisted on educating their daughters. Crucially, the Taliban promised that their leaders and soldiers would not molest boys and girls as the mujahedin commanders had often done.

The Taliban were driven to emphasise their Islamic credentials partly because everyone knew they were in fact clients of the Pakistani and American governments. Their public executions in football stadiums were barbaric but also welcome to many Afghans. The Taliban enforced law and order, they were more honest than the commanders and people hoped for security. Their odd and un-Afghan Islam went too far for most people. So they had little passionate support but a good deal of toleration in Pushtun areas from people who felt they were better than the alternatives.

However, the central ideology of the Taliban was Pushtun chauvinism. The Taliban were exclusively Pushtun. Since the 1920s Afghan politics had always been polarised on religious and class grounds. The Communists, for instance, had always included Pushtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and people from other groups, and so had the Islamists. The various factions, too, had been mixed. Ethnicity was not trivial, but it was not the main basis of politics. Now that Communist and Islamist politics had betrayed people, ethnicity was all that was left for political organising.

The Taliban took the Pushtun south and east, and even Kabul, within two years. When they tried to take Mazar, the main city in the north, the Hazaras there rose up against them. The Hazaras were the poorest, most oppressed group and provided a large proportion of urban workers. They had also had a century of fights with Pushtun herders over land. The Taliban eventually re-established control, but their grip on the north was never firm after that. This ended their appeal to the Americans, who needed a secure government for the pipeline they wanted to put through the north west of the country. The Americans withdrew support. And Osama Bin Laden came home.

The Bin Laden family were a dominant presence in the construction industry in Saudi Arabia. In the 1980s Osama had worked in Pakistan coordinating foreign volunteers and aid for Saudi government intelligence. He often crossed the border into Afghanistan and in a sense went native, adopting the Afghan cause as his own. This did not make him a nationalist—it made him a radical Islamist.

With the Soviet withdrawal Bin Laden left Afghanistan. But then, almost immediately, came the First Gulf War. Bin Laden’s first instinct was to support the alliance of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the US against Iraq. Two things changed his mind. One was the stationing of US troops in Saudi Arabia itself, which looked too much like a Christian occupation of the Holy Land. The other was the sheer cruelty of the US bombing of Iraq and massacres of soldiers. Bin Laden came to the conclusion that there was no fundamental difference between the Soviet forces in Afghanistan and the American forces in the Middle East.

After 1992 Osama began building a loose network of Islamists opposed to the Saudi royal family and American power, and using individual terrorism as their tactic. He went into exile in Sudan and then moved to Afghanistan. While the Taliban did not precisely welcome him, they did tolerate him.

The second occupation

9/11 was a humiliation for American power. US global power has always relied on a mixture of fear and consent. In the Middle East, in particular, consent has been limited and fear therefore more important. People would have to die, and in far greater numbers than in New York, to restore that fear. Within minutes of seeing the World Trade Centre burning on the television, I knew the Afghans would suffer dearly. Washington also had other motives for war. The oil corporations and the neocons in government had long wanted to take back control of Iraqi and, eventually, Iranian oil. Moreover, successful wars on Afghanistan and Iraq could establish the United States as an overwhelmingly dominant economic and political power not just in the Middle East, but across the globe.

So from 9/12, Day Two, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were agitating to invade Iraq. The shock of 9/11 gave them their opportunity. From the Vietnam War on, ordinary Americans had been deeply reluctant to let their sons and daughters die in foreign wars. Now that reluctance was gone.16 But an immediate jump to an Iraqi invasion was too large a step. And, of course, there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. However, something had to be done; someone had to pay. Afghanistan was fit for purpose. There was no poorer country. The people had lived through 23 years of war and the Taliban had little popular support. Afghanistan was weak enough to make invasion possible. Because Afghans had suffered so long and so much, they would now suffer more.

The official explanation was that the US government wanted to hunt down Bin Laden. It would later become clear that this was not important—after all, they didn’t get him and didn’t worry much about that. But it provided an excuse Americans could believe.

The Taliban government, cornered and anxious, looked for a way out. They could not simply hand over Bin Laden and keep any legitimacy. They offered to turn him over for trial in any Muslim country. This offer was no good to Washington. For one thing, they had no evidence at that point against Bin Laden that could be produced in court. For another, Bin Laden would dominate any trial and turn it into a propaganda victory. Washington wanted him dead, not in court.

The US launched an invasion. But the American public was still not prepared for a major ground war. So the US sent in small teams of special forces, and supplied arms, money and uniforms to the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance grouped together the militia of one of the old Islamist parties, now based largely in Tajik areas of the north, along with the former Communist Uzbek militia of General Dostum. The US Air Force began serious bombing and a strange thing happened: the Afghans would not fight. Almost no one fought for the Taliban, including their own soldiers. The soldiers of the Northern Alliance did not fight either. Afghans had had enough war.

The Americans did not trust the Islamists in the Northern Alliance and did not want them to push on to Kabul. The Pakistani ISI and army were trying to hold back the Taliban so they could continue their own alliance with the Americans. So the bombing continued, but there was no fighting. The troops of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban looked at each other across no man’s land. This lasted for weeks, and became a serious embarrassment for Washington. Then the Pakistani ISI, the Americans and the Taliban negotiated a deal. The Taliban agreed to evacuate Kabul. The Americans would get a public military victory. In return, Taliban leaders would be allowed to go home to their villages in the south or to take refuge in the Pushtun border areas of Pakistan. They would not be harassed.17

This agreement was honoured. All but one of the senior Taliban leaders was left unharmed. None of them ended up in Guantanamo.

The US installed Hamid Karzai as dictator. Karzai was an Afghan born Puhstun, a CIA agent, and had been an official in the Taliban government in the early days. He was an American client but not simply a puppet. His government relied on three real sources of power. One was the US army. The other was the Northern Alliance, who were willing to put up with the Americans but expected them to leave eventually. The third was a certain degree of popular support in Pushtun areas.

Then another strange thing happened, something that is very important but has been hardly remarked upon: there was no resistance to the Americans. Afghanistan was not Iraq. There was resistance in Baghdad from the first week. Indeed there had been Afghan resistance to the Russian invasion from the first week. But this time there was nothing—no shooting, no rocket-propelled grenades, no car bombs. For the next two years there was almost no resistance at all; in the third year very little. And then it began to build.

The explanation for the lack of resistance is simple. Afghans had endured 23 years of war. That meant death but also desperate insecurity, a life of all against all. There was little passionate support for the Taliban or the Islamists. People were willing to settle for almost anything not to live in perpetual fear. Afghans also thought the Americans would provide money for reconstruction and economic development. The millions who were still living in the refugee camps could finally come home. And they began to come. Even in Kandahar, the strongest base of the Taliban, people were prepared to wait and see, and the longing for peace and prosperity was stronger than any hatred of foreign domination.18

The elections in 2004 were a clear demonstration of the willingness to give peace a chance. The Americans forbade any credible candidate from running against Karzai for president. But Afghans turned out in very large numbers to vote for him and for parliamentary representatives. The Taliban had the sense not to attack any of the voters at polling stations—people would have been furious. This did not mean people supported Karzai. It meant they supported peace and elections.

Then it all came apart.

The roots of resistance

To understand why the same Afghans who had accepted the American presence rose against them from 2004 onwards we have to begin with reconstruction.19 It was not only the Afghans who expected American reconstruction. Almost everyone in Europe also assumed there would be substantial aid. I know, because in 2002 I was telling everyone in Britain who would listen there would be no reconstruction. No one believed me, not even anyone in the Stop the War movement. It seemed obvious to them, and to Afghans, that it was in Washington’s interest to rebuild the country.

In fact, the US government had done nothing whatsoever to rebuild Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia or Panama. Somalia and Haiti had been permanently laid waste. As the world was to see in Iraq, the American government don’t do nation building.

Part of the reason for this was simply to make a permanent example of those who would defy US power. But another reason was that the US government had turned away from social assistance at home. As we saw in 2005, they treated New Orleans like Baghdad. They could not mount the kind of social programmes abroad they would not mount at home. For instance, Saddam Hussein had run a programme to supply rations of food sufficient to feed every Iraqi family. When the US invaded, their first instinct was to cancel this programme. It was explained to them that would mean general uprising of a starving people. So the US government has continued to feed all Iraqis regular rations. But this has been kept a complete secret from the American people, who would be outraged because so many American children go to bed hungry.

So there was very little development assistance to Afghanistan, except for feeding the two million people in Kabul. Crucially, what development assistance does arrive is then pillaged by the NGOs. The Afghan government machinery has been largely defunct since the late 1980s. The basic work of government—keeping the roads open, moving food, providing some healthcare and education—has been largely done by foreign NGOs since then. Under the Taliban the government took care of law and order, and Islam; the NGOs did the rest. Under Karzai there has been some growth in the government machine but foreign NGOs dominate.

The NGOs pillage the aid in two ways. The first comes from salaries and allowances. For instance, in Kabul the average rent for a house suitable for a foreign NGO worker—with a wall, a watchman and a defended garage—is $2,000 to $10,000 a month. The average income per person in Afghanistan is less than $30 a month. This is in a city where the housing stock was largely destroyed by war between the Islamist parties in the 1980s, and has not been rebuilt.20 Senior NGO workers of all kinds are making far more than an Afghan cabinet minister. In an NGO office in Kabul the wage bill for one foreign worker will be larger than that for 20 Afghans working in the same office. That’s not counting their car and driver. Moreover, of course, the Afghans are often highly trained, usually more experienced and they speak the language. But to justify the insane salary difference foreign NGO workers treat their Afghan colleagues as stupid.

Afghans also insist that the senior personnel in foreign NGOs are stealing money and taking bribes. Experienced development workers with radical politics say, yes, this is probably the case. But it is possible that Afghans exaggerate the corruption. After all, what they expect is American aid, and what they see is impossibly bloated NGO lifestyles. The NGOs have also been part of a wildly increased inequality in urban Afghanistan, and a culture of waste, drink, partying and desperate alienation that includes both expatriates and Afghans. There has always been prostitution in Afghanistan but with the NGOs has come widespread middle class prostitution. So when some American soldiers ran their vehicle into pedestrians in Kabul, killing them, and then opened fire on an angry crowd in 2006, rioting spread and the rioters attacked and burned NGO offices all across Kabul.21

One of the great strengths of the Taliban has been that they do not engage in bomb attacks against Afghan civilians, and on the rare occasions when these happen the Taliban issue a public statement denying involvement. Killings of foreign NGO workers, however, are not embarrassing. The NGOs are hated. People had hoped for economic development and have received nothing.

The second main cause of increasing resistance is the behaviour of the occupying troops. Johnny Rico served in the American army in Uruzgan province. His book Blood Makes the Grass Grow Green describes what happened in his unit, and his account fits with other more fragmentary press reports.22 Rico’s unit were young men who were trained and told to be ready for war. They were told there was an “enemy” out there and sent to patrol for them. They were also eager to see “combat” and be men, although they were appalled by real war when they encountered it. They began by patrolling, knocking down doors, treating people roughly and looking for a fight. When someone finally shot at them, they called in air strikes. When the aggrieved families and neighbours then attacked in the coming weeks, they called down more air strikes. Finally enraged civilians became “Taliban”, the valley was turned over to the Special Forces who had no limits on their rules of engagement and the villages burned. Then the American forces left the valley. This pattern seems to have been repeated across the Pushtun areas in much of the south and east. In a sense, the Pushtuns became the resistance because they had been defined as the villages that needed patrolling.

The third factor feeding the resistance was insecurity. I have argued that Afghans accepted American rule in part because they were desperate for basic security. But the occupying troops perform no police duties and deliver no justice. Indeed, they are themselves an important random, unpredictable danger. Moreover, there are no government courts or functioning police in most of the country. With the American invasion, and the return of many refugees, land title is even more unclear. That means the new big landowners have to demonstrate their power, as before.

The neo-Taliban

So people are poor, frightened and angry, and since 2004 they have begun to fight back. The resistance grew first in the Pushtun areas of the south and east. As far as I can tell, these again look like local communities in revolt, although there is some regional coordination. Most of the rebels, when asked, say they owe allegiance to the Taliban, or sometimes to Hekmatyar, the leader of the biggest Islamist party in the 1980s. Both the Taliban and Hekmatyar had limited support in 2001. Now they, and especially the Taliban, have quite general support in Pushtun areas. The reason is simple: they were the only people calling for outright resistance and no cooperation with the occupation from the beginning. When villagers were forced into resistance they looked to the leaders who called for that resistance.

The Taliban have also learned, changed their strategy and displayed considerable political intelligence.23 They do not bomb civilians. They never mention Pushtun chauvinism and constantly emphasise that all Muslims should fight together. In power they banned music and videos. Now they produce propaganda videos and cassettes of Taliban music.

Moreover, although Afghan politics were split on ethnic lines in 2001, the usual occupation strategy of divide and rule has not worked as it has in Iraq. The Northern Alliance troops and police from the north do not enter the Pushtun areas to fight for the Americans, nor do they take on the Taliban around Kabul. If the occupying forces want to fight the resistance, they do so very largely on their own. There is, for now, no fighting between ethnic groups.

From 2006 the resistance began to spread outwards from the Pushtun areas. The NGOs drew up maps showing their personnel where it was safe to travel. Early in 2006 almost the entire centre, north and west were safe. By 2008 almost all of the country was unsafe. Nuristan in the north east, not a Pushtun area, became the first fully independent province in the summer of 2008 when enraged villagers avenged an air strike in the Waigal Valley by killing 11 US soldiers and forcing an American retreat. By late August of 2008 the Taliban had control of the roads from Kabul to Kandahar in the south and Pakistan in the east. They will soon cut off the road from the north. At that point the resistance will be able to cut off food and fuel from the capital. The Americans are not capable of airlifting food and supplies for two million people for any length of time. The occupation is close to serious defeat. In 2006 a British base in Sangin in Helmand was cut off for three weeks, with helicopter pilots too afraid to resupply. The base came within a day of running out of ammunition, which would have been followed by the death of the whole unit. The Americans in Waigal lost 11 dead but many more wounded, and came close to losing everyone. The French lost ten men in one go in Sarobi, a town on the main road from Kabul to the Khyber Pass and Pakistan. In Kandahar the Taliban were able to take the main prison in the second largest city in the country and release 450 political prisoners. It is only a matter of time before a whole garrison is wiped out somewhere in the country. Imagine if Britain, Canada, France, the Netherlands or the US lost 40 or 50 soldiers in a day. There would be terrible death rained down on the local villages, but also strong political pressure at home to withdraw support.

Afghans now believe that the Americans will be defeated. They believe this because they defeated the British three times and the Russians within living memory. But they are also well aware that the butcher’s bill will be severe.

One friend last month told me her whole family, who live just north of Kabul, none of them Taliban supporters or Pushtuns, knew the war was coming to them soon. Within two years, she said, it will not just be the Pushtuns. We will all fight. She and her family do not welcome this. They fear it. But they know it has to be done.

Karzai’s government is being forced to turn against the Americans. Parliament is elected, and Karzai is dependent on the support of the leading figures in the Northern Alliance, in the west around Herat, and in the Pushtun south. This means the government has been forced to speak out against the bombing of civilians. Foreign news crews and UN inspectors are taken to the devastated villages, and in some cases there are now detailed and accurate counts of the dead. Karzai has had to say publicly that the US cannot bomb villages without his case by case approval. This is impossible for the American armed forces to accept, as their only tactic and only defence is massive bombing of villages. Moreover, the Northern Alliance, Dostum and his Uzbek militia around Mazar, and Ismael Khan’s organisation around Herat in the west can see what way the wind is blowing. In simple political terms, it will soon be time for them to desert the American alliance.

Within Afghanistan almost all the feminists have collaborated with the occupation, or the NGOs or Karzai’s government. So have most former Communists, the returned Afghan-Americans, the “modernisers” and the “secular” liberals. Many of these people supported the Russian occupation, which is why feminism and socialism disappeared for a generation. Now almost all of them support the occupation. Some former Communists and Maoists, like Rawa (the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan), call for the Americans to leave but for all the other occupying forces to remain as the United Nations. This would change nothing, is not a serious position and amounts to choosing the occupation over the resistance.

Some socialists, secularists or feminists in the West are wary of the resistance because it is right wing and Muslim, which indeed it is. But this is to see things the wrong way round. The resistance is right wing and Muslim because the people who are left wing and secular have sided with the occupation. Now that ordinary Afghans have opted for resistance they are perforce supporting those people who lead the resistance. The tragic stupidity of the Soviet years is being repeated by people with less passion, less courage and fewer principles.

There is a way out of this vicious circle. It lies not in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan, which is being drawn into the war.

The Pakistan dimension

The government of Pakistan’s military ruler Pervez Musharraf was persuaded by US pressure and the bribe of a large debt reduction to break with the Taliban and throw his weight behind the US occupation. But now the occupation is adding to deep instability in Pakistan itself. Two Pakistani provinces border Afghanistan—Baluchistan and the largely Pushtun North West Frontier Province. The people in these by and large welcomed and sympathised with the Afghan refugees in the 1980s, and they have sympathised with the Afghan resistance against the Americans this time round.

The plains areas of Pushtun Pakistan are under central government control. But millions of people live in the mountain areas along the border. These are called “tribal” areas in English and “free” areas in Pushtu. They were never conquered by the British when they held India, and the Pakistani army has until recently never tried to conquer them either. For more than a century they have been, in effect, self-governing. It is to these areas that Osama Bin Laden and many of the fleeing Taliban came in 2001 and 2002. Local militants in these areas, along with people in refugee camps, also built “local Taliban” militias after 2002, and provided safe havens and refuges for the Afghan Taliban. As resistance built in Afghanistan, the Americans put increasing pressure on the Pakistani army to attack the “local Taliban”.

Then in September 2006 the Pakistani army and government signed a formal written peace agreement with the local Taliban in North Waziristan district along the border after the Pakistani army had lost 400 dead in fighting with them. The peace agreement specified that the Pakistani army would withdraw to barracks and the local Taliban would control all checkpoints on roads and border crossings to Afghanistan. All Taliban prisoners would be released, and any confiscated weapons and vehicles returned to them. The families of fighters and civilians killed by the army would be compensated and so would anyone who had lost their house to government artillery or bombs. Any foreigners (by which they meant Al Qaida) could live in Waziristan if they had the consent of the local tribal elders.

It was a nearly complete victory for the local Taliban. The Afghan Taliban now had a refuge, space for camps and an opportunity to recruit volunteers among the half a million people of the area. The agreement was hardly reported in the US, but the American military and the Bush administration were outraged. They insisted that General Musharraf had to launch a serious offensive against the Pushtun border areas. Musharraf was very reluctant to do this. Any serious offensive would involve aerial bombing and many thousands of civilian dead. No government in the world is eager to go to war with a major section of its own population, and it was by no means clear the army would fight, since 30 percent of both officers and enlisted men in the Pakistani army are Pushtuns.

To make it easier, the American government brokered a deal between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, under which she would return from exile to become prime minister, while Musharraf would remain president. Musharraf then launched an armed assault against an Islamist mosque and girls school in the capital, Islamabad, and unleashed the army and air force on the free border areas. Heavy bombing of villages in South Waziristan, in particular, killed large numbers. On her return Bhutto called repeatedly for an intensification of the bombings of villages, an end to any peace agreements and support for the Americans. The Islamists, she said, were the major danger facing Pakistan.

The American plans rapidly unravelled. A Pakistani army unit of over 200 men surrendered to the local Taliban in South Waziristan and were released a few days later. In effect, they had refused to fight. The second largest city in Swat, a Pushtun but not a tribal area and some distance from the border, fell to the Taliban when the Pakistani garrison retreated without a shot being fired. Then Bhutto was assassinated. Her family accused the army of complicity. It is not possible to know for sure but the more likely explanation was that she was killed by suicide bombers from Waziristan avenging the dead in the bombed villages.

All this happened at the same time as the bitter protest campaign by lawyers over Musharraf’s sacking of Chief Justice Chaudhuri of the supreme court. Chaudhuri, a fair and honest judge, looked likely to rule that Musharraf’s election as president was invalid. Equally seriously, Pakistani intelligence had been cooperating with the US in lifting and disappearing hundreds of suspected jihadis across Pakistan. Chaudhuri was insisting that habeas corpus and Magna Carta still apply in Pakistani courts, and that the disappeared had to be produced in his court. The barristers, solicitors and judges of Pakistan were outraged at Musharraf’s final insult to the law and to an honest man in a soiled system. They marched, shouted and challenged the police, wearing their suits and robes. And they had enormous popular support, because they were doing what Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and the unions should have been doing. They were standing up for another Pakistan.

The lawyers’ protests, the death of Bhutto and the refusal of the army to fight came together in a perfect storm at the time of the election in February 2008. Musharraf and the Americans had to let the election go ahead. The US has now been forced to acquiesce in Musharraf’s removal as president, but stability has not returned to the country. Inflation is soaring, hitting the poor particularly hard. The majority of the population wants an end to poverty and to the American alliance. In effect, they have been represented by no one. Meanwhile, the government and the local Taliban are making peace all along the border. This is a catastrophic situation for the American military. Safe areas are key to any guerrilla insurgency. The Taliban now have an enormous safe area. The American generals are arguing strongly that in order to hold Afghanistan they will have to be able to attack the Taliban in Pakistan.24 They are already flying large numbers of unmanned drones over Pakistan, and using them to bomb Pakistani villages. In July the American forces repeatedly attacked a Pakistani army post along the border and killed all 11 soldiers at the post. The head of the Pakistani general staff went on television to say that this was a deliberate attack on the Pakistani army, which of course it was.

If American soldiers go into Pakistan in any numbers, the Pakistani military could split and there could be civil war. In that war the majority of the armed forces and a large majority of the population would be opposed to the Americans. Pakistan is not Iraq or Afghanistan. It has a population of 175 million, and almost 20 million of them live in Karachi. The resistance inside Pakistan would dwarf that in Iraq or Afghanistan. Moreover, Pakistan has the bomb, which the Americans would have to try to seize control of and which the Pakistan military might be tempted to use.

To mention all these problems is to underline the madness of current American policy. The American military are beginning to face a stark choice. They can go for mass terror bombing of Afghan villages, but that would destroy Karzai’s government and lose them all their allies. They can attack Pakistan with worse consequences. They can hold on and hope something turns up, while increasing the kill level and wasting the lives of American and European soldiers. Or they can negotiate and leave. The EU and Karzai have negotiated with the Taliban, and Karzai is still keeping lines open to the resistance. The Americans must also be talking to them through back channels. The Taliban are willing to accept a coalition government once all foreign troops leave. Indeed it is now impossible to imagine peace unless they all leave. If any stay, some Afghans will fight them and the war will resume.

A coalition government would not be a good solution. The neighbouring countries would still support their longstanding Afghan clients: Uzbekistan and Russia have Dostum, India has the Tajiks Islamists, Pakistan has the Taliban and Iran has Ishmael Khan in Herat. It would still be a bitterly poor, heavily mined country with brutal landlords. Moreover, the various forces within Afghanistan would be likely to fight, if only to test their relative power. And it would be a right wing government because all the major players are right wing.

It would still be much better than the hell that is coming to Afghanistan if the Americans, the British and the rest try to hang on. Nor should we forget that every British, American, Canadian or French soldier who goes there now is being sent to the meat grinder for no other reason than to buy time.

A negotiated settlement and withdrawal, however, would effectively mean the end of the “war on terror”, marked by an American defeat. The consequences for American power around the world would be shattering. For a generation after Vietnam ordinary Americans were able to refuse to fight overseas. After Afghanistan it would be the same. That would mean the end of American global dominance.

The American strategy of simply waiting, however, is looking less and less clever. As the resistance grows, events are moving with increasing speed and the US forces are losing control of their choices. It is impossible to predict the timing. But in the first week in September this year US ground troops crossed the border and killed 20 civilians in a village in Waziristan. American military sources told the New York Times that this was the first of many planned incursions and that there have been many exchanges of fire across the border between American and Pakistani troops.25 Pressures are escalating.

In this situation many on the left, and in the peace movement, in North America, Europe, India and Pakistan don’t want the Americans to actually leave. They want some kind of controlled settlement that excludes the Taliban. This is a fantasy. The Taliban have walked the walk and earned their place at the table. It is also self-deception. Afghanistan is one of the few places in the world where progressives and the left have consistently lined up with brutal imperial mass murder. That is why the right wing is strong in Afghanistan.

The solution is to learn. Military coups and helicopter gunships are no road to liberation. Top-down, undemocratic dictatorship is not just wrong—it destroys the left. We need a new kind of socialism, or rather a return to the traditions of democratic, liberation socialism. And we need a peace movement that argues for peace, not for modified occupation.

None of this can be built inside Afghanistan in the near future. The country is simply too poor, too betrayed and too full of suffering. But it is possible to build democratic socialism and a peace movement in Europe. And crucially for Afghanistan, it is possible to do that in Pakistan. Most of the established political forces refuse to confront the Americans but public opinion is strong and clear. For too long most of the left in Pakistan has identified the jihadis and the Taliban as the main enemy. There is likely to be a moment of rebellion against the Americans in Pakistan in the next few months or years. When that comes, if the left is strong and passionate and enraged on the streets, that could change politics in Afghanistan too.

I hope the Afghans defeat this occupation, as they have defeated occupations before. And I wish them peace as soon as possible. They have suffered enough.


1: This article is based on several sources: my fieldwork in Afghanistan from 1971 to 1973; wide reading since then; many conversations over the past 13 years with Nancy (Tapper) Lindisfarne; and many conversations with Afghans over the years. Most good books and articles on Afghanistan rely heavily on such conversations, which cannot be footnoted, and so do I. Where I assert something without a reference, that is where it comes from. Many of the topics covered here are dealt with in more detail in Neale, 1981, 1988, 2001 and 2003.

2: The best book on the Afghan Communists is Anwar, 1988. Male, 1982, Emadi, 1990, Bradsher, 1985, and Cordovez and Harrison, 1995, are also very useful.

3: The best sources on Afghan society in the 1960s and 1970s are the ethnographies by anthropologists, particularly Doubleday, 1988, Canfield, 1973, Shahrani, 1979, Azoy, 1982, Jones, 1974, and Barfield, 1981, and especially Tapper, 1991, which is also the essential book for understanding gender in Afghan society.

4: These powerful landlords were also called beg, arbab, malik, padshah and other names in different parts of the country.

5: For the structural limits of development in the 1970s, see Fry, 1974.

6: Farsi is also sometimes referred to as Dari in official settings, in order to pretend it is not the same language spoken in Iran.

7: Nowadays it is difficult to find anyone from the old Soviet elite who admits to responsibility for the invasion of Afghanistan or sees any reason for it. They all blame it on Leonid Brezhnev and say they warned against the invasion. And indeed the experts on Afghanistan and the military probably did make such warnings. See Cordovez and Harrison, 1995.

8: Kakar, 1992, has a good description of these demonstrations, in which he participated.

9: The most careful work on the numbers of dead is Khalidi, 1991.

10: Of the many books on the Afghan resistance to the Soviet Union, start with Dorronsoro, 2005, Roy, 1986, and Bonner, 1987.

11: The best source on the CIA role is Crile, 2003.

12: There were also several more parties, many with Iranian links, active in the central mountains of the Hazarajat.

13: For Pakistan see Asad and Harris, 2003, a brave, wise and important book, and for Afghanistan, MacDonald, 2007.

14: A point made strongly by Dorronsoro, 2005, the best history of Afghanistan over the past 30 years. For the Taliban see also Rashid, 2002, Rubin, 2002, Marsden, 1998, Maley, 1998, and Griffin, 1998.

15: At first quite a number were also former Khalk Communist army officers, but these were soon purged.

16: See, among many sources telling this story, Suskind, 2004.

17: There are no written sources for this deal, but it is widely known in Afghanistan.

18: As can be seen by a careful reading of Chayes, 2007. Johnson and Leslie, 2004, are very good on how hard it is to live in permanent insecurity. Klaits and Gulmanadove-Klaits, 2006, is very moving, and the best way to understand the experience of ordinary Afghans over the past 20 years.

19: The account of Afghanistan under the occupation that follows is based mainly on conversations with Afghans and foreign NGO workers, and the press coverage on the British TV station Channel 4, the International Herald Tribune, the Guardian, the Independent, the Financial Times, Dawn, Frontline and Socialist Worker. Also particularly useful are Dorronsoro, 2005, Giustozzi, 2007, Ali, 2008, Rostami-Povey, 2007, Rico, 2007, and Rodriguez, 2007.

20: For elite housing in Kabul see Fontenot and Maiwandi, 2007.

21: See Rodriguez, 2007, which is also very good on the world of the NGOs and the social degradation of middle class Kabulis.

22: Rico, 2007.

23: For the changes in the neo-Taliban, see Giustozzi, 2007.

24: This discussion relies particularly on coverage in the Herald Tribune, but also the Financial Times, Independent, Socialist Worker and Channel 4 News.

25: International Herald Tribune, 6 September 2008.


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