The crimes of the US occupation of Afghanistan should not blind us with nostalgia for the country’s previous occupiers, argues Jonathan Neale
I went to see the movie Charlie Wilson’s War to review it for Socialist Worker. I really liked it – but many readers of this paper and Stop the War activists will hate the film.
So I’m not going to recommend this very good film. Don’t go see it. You won’t like it. (Unless you’re Afghan, in which case you’ll probably think it’s funny and accurate – apart from the bits set in the refugee camp.)
Instead of a review, I’m going to write about some political confusions about Afghanistan. I’ve talked on Afghanistan recently at Stop the War meetings. I’ve been surprised by how many people in the audience say they find it quite hard to make the argument for withdrawing the troops from Afghanistan.
That’s surprising, because the opinion polls steadily report that over 60 percent of the public are in favour of getting out of Afghanistan. By that, I’m sure they mean get the troops out and let the Afghans sort it out. And if the Taliban or the “warlords” win, so be it.
But I think the left activists find the argument hard because they are often not talking to that majority, but to other leftists and peace activists. And one big reason many of those people are unsure is because of what happened in the 1980s.
In 1978 the Afghan Communists took power in a coup led by army officers. The Communists were progressives, and moved quickly to support land reform and women’s rights. But they didn’t have majority support. Uprisings, led by mullahs and Islamist students, spread across the rural areas.
In December 1979 the Russian army invaded Afghanistan to prop up the government. At that point the majority of city people also turned against the Communists. As an invading force without the support of the majority, the Russians had no alternative but to try to break the population.
Afghanistan had a population of about 20 million. The Russian forces tortured tens of thousands, killed roughly one million, maimed another million, and drove six million into exile as refugees. This terror united most Afghan people behind the resistance.
Before the invasion the two main political groups in Afghanistan had been the Communists and some pretty hardcore Islamists. So it was no surprise the Islamists led the resistance, though on the ground it was a popular resistance, with each village fighting for its own land.
But the Cold War framed the wider picture. The CIA and General Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship in Pakistan put together an alliance of Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, the US and Saudi Arabia to fund and arm the Afghan resistance.
And 40 percent of US aid went to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Islamist resistance leader who is now one of the key leaders of the resistance to the US.
Right through the 1980s a debate raged in the US over whether to give the Afghan resistance surface-to-air missiles to shoot down helicopters. If they did, the Russians would lose. On the other hand, the Afghan leaders were a lot more hardcore than the US’s Islamist enemies in Iran next door.
Charlie Wilson, a Texas congressman, campaigned for giving the Afghans the missiles. By 1986 he had won the argument, and by 1988 the Afghan resistance had shot down 300 helicopters and planes and defeated the Russians.
Most of this history is laid out accurately in the film – from Charlie Wilson’s point of view. (The book, by George Crile, is much better.)
Many on the left now look back to Communist-run Afghanistan with nostalgia. This is partly because they hate US domination of the world, and at least, they say, Russia was a countervailing force. But this nostalgia ignores the Russian invasion and the torture and mass murder that followed.
There is now another popular uprising in Afghanistan, but it was not automatic.When the US invaded in 2001, Afghans were not willing to fight for either the invaders or the Taliban. They had had enough of 23 years of war. But three years on, the experience of occupation drove many to pick up the gun again.
That new resistance now looks to the Taliban and Hekmatyar – not because of fanaticism, but because they have been the only serious political forces in Afghanistan completely opposed to the occupation from the beginning.
That has a lesson for today. If the left allies with the invader, the eventual resistance will hate the left. Feminism is now very weak in Afghanistan because in the 1980s Afghan feminist women supported the Russians and their violent occupation.
Many leftists in rich countries think of themselves as offering solidarity to “progressive” resistance movements in the poor countries. But for me the politics of the resistance is not the key.
I lived with Afghans once, and ate their bread. My solidarity is not with their politics, it’s with them – the people who work, farm and herd their sheep.
As a socialist, my solidarity was with their resistance to invasion in the 1980s, for all the same reasons it is with their resistance to occupation now.
In the long term, the only way to create a progressive movement in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or anywhere else, is to oppose invasion, occupation and the helicopters.
Jonathan Neale did anthropological fieldwork with nomads in Afghanistan in the 1970s