I is for Infidel: US Imperialism in Afghanistan

I is for Infidel.

J is for Jihad.

K is for Kalashnikov.

This special jihad-themed alphabet was part of a US-designed military training manual for mujahedeens in Afghanistan fighting soviet invaders back in the 1980s. Following the formula that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the US funded and armed conservative Afghan mullahs who were then billed as “freedom fighters” against the “Evil Empire.” Today the US is facing these very same mujahedeens in its global “War on Terror.”

Kathy Gannon’s I is for Infidel: From Holy War to Holy Terror, 18 Years Inside Afghanistan brings ironies such as these to light in a wide-ranging yet concise account of Afghanistan’s recent history. Alongside the larger political fabric, the clash of contending social forces, and behind the scenes insights, Gannon shows us snapshots of the Afghani people, their everyday life and sufferings in a land ravaged by decades of war.

We are acquainted with the social-imperialism of the former Soviet Union at its worse. Its pretensions of exporting revolution in the world cannot hide the real motive of creating satellite countries that it can depend on as sources of raw materials and dumping ground for its manufactures. The brutal manner in which it conduct its wars of aggression, as exemplified in the case of Afghanistan, is the best negation of whatever “socialist” rhetoric it mouths.

As the end of the soviet occupation of Afghanistan approached, its troops began to apply more desperate measures, one of which include the planting colorful landmines in the desert. These are visible to adults who can readily avoid stepping on them. But its targets are children whose peasant families are forced to go the city for hospitalization and hence remove potential or actual supporters of the mujahedeens from the countryside.

The anti-soviet islamic fighters gained an overwhelming advantage against the soviet military juggernaut when the US provided them with the stinger missiles. Soviet air support were compelled to fly higher to avoid getting hit by an improved antiaircraft capability, thus giving more mobility to the mujahedeens for ambushes against soviet columns, sabotage, and organizing support for the jihad in the villages.

With the eventual withdrawal of soviet troops, the collapse of the soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan followed soon afterwards. The various warring factions of the mujahedeen (later to be collectively known as the Northern Alliance because its bailiwicks are in the northern provinces), backed by the US and Pakistani military establishments, would march to the capital city Kabul and take power in 1992. Recalling this time, Gannon comments:

mujahedeen factions established areas of control based mostly on their ethnic background. They dealt in drugs and precious stones, and killed each other if their territory was threatened. Each of the seven big mujahedeen factions had hundreds of local commanders who imposed their own rules in their own area, like little fiefdoms.

Many neighborhoods were littered with landmines placed by rival mujahedeen factions, with as many as 50 people a week dying or getting maimed by landmine explosions. Most of the victims were children who were scavenging for scrap to sell or who were sent back to retrieve items that were left behind in their homes during sudden eruptions of violence.

One front line between mujahedeen groups ran right outside the Kabul Zoo, which in another lifetime had been the best in Asia. The mujahedeen devastated it. They frightened or killed the animals, taking sadistic potshots at the elephants and bears in their compounds, and even at the caged animals. One black bear limped balefully after a chunk of shrapnel had been lodged in his burly paw. Rockets periodically slammed into the zoo buildings, into the cages, into the watering holes.

Another story situated in the Kabul Zoo is that of the Lion Marjan who mauled a bored mujahedeen to death and survived agrenade attack by the dead mujahedeen’s brother.

The randomness of the violence was appalling. I visited a small boy no more than eight years old in the hospital in Kabul. He had been playing ball in his yard when a rocket smashed into the ground nearby, slicing off his hand at the wrist. Seconds before the rocket hit, he had reached out to catch the ball, and his hand was in midair when a razor-sharp piece of shrapnel sliced it off.

It is in the backdrop of this chaos to it that the Taliban movement took power on an extreme Islamist platform that promised to bring peace and social order along the lines set by its interpretation of strict Islamic law. “For Mullah Omar,” writes Gannon, “his Taliban were the means by which he could bring security to his deeply anarchic country, disarm and disband the unruly and lawless muhajedeen.”

For all the bad publicity heaped on the Taliban, one good thing that did come off it is the destruction of the drug trade in Afghanistan. Gannon observes: “The Taliban had wiped out Afghanistan’s production of poppies, which supply the international trade in heroin. Afghanistan became the first country in the entire world to get rid of its narcotic trade in a single year, without any deaths. Afghanistan went from producing 4,000 tons of opium to zero.”

Like the Northern Alliance regime before it, the Taliban regime also became cozy with Osama Bin Laden and the jihadist network coddled by Pakistan. Like its predecessor, it also set up training camps for jihadis from all over the world: “Bin Laden used the Taliban to entice new recruits to al Qaeda and to his battle against the West. He presented the example of the Taliban as a purely Islamic regime that was loather by the West because of the purity of its devotion.”

One of the Taliban’s strongest supporters were the Pakistani mullahs and military establishment: “behind them, propping them up with money and weapons were Pakistan’s military and its secret service, which had been using the students and their Islamic fervor to wage Pakistan’s proxy wars ever since the young Jihadis had emerged as a force during the resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afhganistan.”

In 2001, the United States justified its war of aggression against the people of Afghanistan on the grounds that the Taliban hosted Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda. But then again, the “Northern Alliance” that the US made its junior partners for the conquest of Afghanistan are precisely the same warlords who fought with Osama Bin Laden against the soviets and who invited him over to the country before they were overthrown by the Taliban in 1996.

In fact, the name of the Abu Sayyaf bandit group based in southern Philippines was inspired by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the notorious mujahedeen who trained with Abu Sayyaf leader Janjalani back in the 1980s.

Another rationale was the humanitarian concern for the status of women under the Taliban. But when the Taliban first came to power, the US and its allies largely ignored their status because they thought the Taliban would end the lawlessness of the warring mujahedeen factions. In the words of United Nations special envoy Norbert Hall: “Women? Don’t talk to me about women. I don’t mention women. That is a cultural issue. I am trying to negotiate peace.”

As Gannon points out, “It’s ironic that opposition to the Taliban would eventually become almost a feminist issue with the burqa as its symbol, despite the fact that the mujahedeen government the Taliban were fighting, including many of those same leaders the United States would later return to power, were strong advocates of burqa.”

“The only time girls really prospered in Afghanistan,” Gannon notes with irony, “was during the Communist regime, the regime that the West sought to overthrow by using the Islamic fervor of militant Muslims.”

Patching up all the images conjured by Gannon in her journalistic work, we can strongly conclude that Afghanistan is one the worst-hit victims of the imperialist system. The Taliban as an extremist movement is both a reaction to oppression and injustice as well as a reactionary current that actually preserves the oppressive and unjust system rather than dismantle it.

Instead of providing a progressive alternative, it simply attempts to bring back the past:

Mullah Omar’s idea of perfection was a world of simple truths that resembled Islam in the seventh century. The five years he ruled Afghanistan had been characterized by an attempt to go back in time. This regime banned recycled paper for fear Qurans had been destroyed and recycled into paper bags, banned women from wearing white socks because it was considered provocative, and relied mostly on radios to communicate.

Gannon thus describes the Taliban stronghold Surmad:

But for the fact that the guards carried rifles instead of bows and arrows, it might well have been the Middle Ages. The centuries seemed to have slipped past unnoticed in Surmad. Men wore the traditional dress and turbans of their ancestors. Women were neither seen nor heard. There was only one main street and it had never seen pavement. The buildings were a strange mix of cement and mud baked in the blistering sun.

Clearly, the US ruling elites are tolerant to both the Taliban (when it still did not function as the US establishment’s easiest scapegoat and justification for its military adventures) and the mujahedeens (in spite of its virtual destruction of Kabul). Beyond their liberal rhetoric, they are the main sponsors of racism, religious extremism and other reactionary trends in order to mystify the roots of crisis and thwart the success of real radical alternatives to the system.

So in the face of the upsurge of ethnic and religious hatred, the solution is not the liberal injunction for tolerance. Rather, as even the charlatan Slavoj Zizek rightly points out: “on the contrary, what we need is even more hatred, but proper political hatred: hatred directed at the common political enemy.” What is needed is the building of more secular, class-based social movements that pose genuine threats to imperialist hegemony.



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