Taliban: Bitter Fruit of U.S. Imperialisms Anti-Soviet War
Women Enslaved by Islamic Reaction
Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 756, 13 April 2001.
We print below a forum given recently in San Francisco, Vancouver and Chicago by comrade Kathy Ibsen, slightly edited for publication.
Its Afghanistan in 1988: 15,000 women serve as soldiers and commanders in the army; there are 245,000 women workers. Women are 40 percent of the doctors and 60 percent of the teachers at the University of Kabul; 440,000 female students are enrolled in educational institutions and 80,000 more participate in literacy programs. The All-Afghanistan Womens Council has 150,000 members. Western dress is common in the cities and women enjoy some real measure of freedom from the veil and subjugation, for the first time in Afghanistans history.
What made this possible? It was the Soviet Union sending 100,000 troops, mainly from Soviet Central Asia, into Afghanistan, which bordered the USSR, in December 1979 in order to stem a mujahedin insurgency against the left-nationalist, pro-Soviet government. Our party, uniquely on the left, forthrightly declared, Hail Red Army in Afghanistan! Extend social gains of October Revolution to Afghan peoples! This expressed our recognition that, despite its degeneration under a Stalinist bureaucratic caste, the Soviet Union remained a workers state and continued to embody historic gains of the October 1917 Russian workers revolution, not least for women and the historically Islamic peoples of Soviet Central Asia. Within weeks of the Soviet troops going in, the international Spartacist tendency (now the International Communist League) held demonstrations internationally calling for defense of the USSR and victory to the Red Army.
When the Soviet forces completed their pullout from Afghanistan in early 1989, paving the way for a bloody onslaught against Afghan workers, women and leftists, we bitterly denounced this betrayal. In an attempt to placate U.S. imperialism, the Kremlin Stalinists handed over hundreds of thousands of Afghans to be tortured, flayed alive, beheaded and dismembered as infidels by the CIA-funded mullahs, tribal khans and feudal landlords. In solidarity with the Afghan masses, who were waging a bitter struggle for survival in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal, we formally proposed to the Afghan government, in a letter dated 7 February 1989, the following: To organize an international brigade to fight to the death to defend the right of women to read, freedom from the veil, freedom from the tyranny of the mullahs and the landlords, the introduction of medical care and the right of all to an education.
Though this offer was declined, at the request of the government, the Partisan Defense Committee (the class-struggle legal and social defense organization associated with the SL/U.S.) and the PDCs fraternal organizations around the world raised over $44,000 in two months. The money went to aid the civilian victims of the all-out mujahedin offensive that year against Jalalabad, the Afghan city closest to the CIAs guerrilla bases in Pakistan. The attack was soundly defeated for a time. At our literature table at the back are photos and articles from our ICL correspondent in Afghanistan at the time.
In 1996, after four years of the horrific rule of a shifting coalition of warring factions of the reactionary Islamic mujahedin, who had already brought Kabul to the point of famine and devastation, the capital of Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic militia. One of the Talibans first acts was to grab the former president and Soviet ally, Najibullah. He was castrated and then hanged from a lamppost in downtown Kabul for three days. The Taliban killers proceeded to wreak bloody vengeance against any remaining vestige of social progress, adding the finishing touches to the program of social reaction implemented by the U.S.-sponsored, CIA-funded mujahedin cutthroats who took power in 1992. Anti-Communism was the bond between U.S. imperialism and the mullahs in Afghanistan.
Enslavement of Women
Today, under the Talibans savage and backward regime, women are not allowed out of their homes unless escorted by a male relative. They must wear a head to toe covering, called the burqa. A dense, mesh-covered, three-inch square opening around the eyes provides the only means to see. In 1979, prior to the Soviet intervention, we said that the sun never shines on Afghan women. This is literally trueveiled women dont see the sun, they breathe the dust that swirls underneath the burqas 30 yards of opaque muslin, which will again lead, as then, to a high level of tuberculosis.
There is nothing progressive or anti-imperialist about being shrouded in the veil. Nor is it, as some liberals would maintain, a quaint cultural attribute. You wouldnt think you would have to be a communist to see that wrapping a woman in a veil and secluding her in the home is a hideous oppression crying out to be wiped from the face of the earth! The veil is a physical symbol of the submission of women to men and the imposed affirmation of their inferior status. The bride price and the veil are concrete manifestations of the material oppression of women. In Afghanistan today, women are property economically, socially and legally. They occupy a subordinate status rooted in the oppressive institution of the family.
As part of the total seclusion of women, known as purdah, the windows of their homes have been painted black so they cant be seen. They must wear silent shoes, so they arent heard. They must speak quietly and are not supposed to laugh. Women are prohibited from attending school and have been forced to leave their jobs since the Taliban issued edicts forbidding women to work outside the home. This is a matter of life and death for the 30,000 widows in Kabul and elsewhere in the country, who are the sole providers for their families. Medical services are essentially unavailable to women, since only a small number of women medical workers are allowed to practice and male doctors are prohibited from touching women. This has led, and will continue to lead to countless unnecessary deaths.
The teenage thugs in the Talibans Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice roam the streets meting out regular, brutal beatings using broken-off car antennas and metal cablesfor such offenses as baring an ankle or wrist. Depression is widespread and the suicide rate among women has increased significantly. Though women are the main recipients of the Talibans savagery, they are not the only ones. In Kabuls soccer stadium, thousands of men cheer as thieves hands and feet are surgically amputated, as women are flogged or stoned to death. The most grotesquely bizarre method of execution is used against homosexuals sentenced to death by the Taliban. First they are partially buried in the ground and then a brick wall is pushed over them by a bulldozer.
For three years running, drought has destroyed the possibility of even subsisting off the land. More than 700,000 people (4 percent of the population) are desperately fleeing to the cities in search of food and shelter. Even by UN figures, more than 1 million people are at risk of starving to death this year. The Taliban is also destroying every statue in the country, using a combination of U.S.-provided hand-held missiles and stone hammers. Foremost among the treasures being destroyed are two 1,000-year-old Buddha statues carved into the stone cliffs in Bamiyan, on the Silk Road from China to the Middle East. Numerous articles in the bourgeois press decry the destruction of the statues but barely mention the devastation of the country and its women.
Defense of the Soviet Union and Cold War II
So what happened in Afghanistan that has resulted in unspeakably hellish conditions for women? Why did almost every leftist and feminist group oppose the Soviet intervention which alone raised the possibility of social liberation in this wretchedly backward country? Uniquely in modern history, the rights of women were a central issue in the civil war which raged in Afghanistan from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Some of the blood of every unveiled woman butchered by the Afghan fundamentalists is on the hands of every leftist and feminist organization internationally that lined up behind U.S. imperialisms anti-Soviet dirty war in Afghanistan. They did their small part to contribute to the horror which is today being inflicted upon Afghan women.
To see what sparked the Soviet intervention in 1979, you have to go back to the April revolution in 1978 when the Soviet-backed left-nationalist Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistanthe PDPAcame to power. The PDPAs base consisted overwhelmingly of the educated petty bourgeoisie, schoolteachers, students and Soviet-trained army officers. Many of them were educated in the Soviet Union, where they saw the advances of their ethnic cousins in Soviet Central Asia. With this direct comparative experience to show them how truly backward their own country was, many in these petty-bourgeois strata began to push for significant modernization. When the PDPA came to power, the Western press raised cries of a Communist coup. In fact, this was a left-wing officers coup, based mainly on the army.
At the time, Afghanistan was one of the most primitive, tradition-bound countries on earth. In 1978, only 35,000 people were employed in manufacturingout of a population of 17 to 20 million. Their numbers were dwarfed by the Islamic clergy. There were a quarter of a million mullahs, an enormous parasitic caste sucking the blood from a desperately poor people. There was virtually no industryno railroad tracks, very few highways, primitive sanitation and widespread malnutrition. The average life expectancy was 40 years, infant mortality was at least 25 percent and half of all children died before age five. The rate of illiteracy was more than 90 percent for men and 98 percent for women. Almost all women, save members of a tiny Westernized urban middle class, were imprisoned in the veil and sold like chattel under the bride price system. Most people lived in nomadic tribes or as impoverished farmers in mud villages. There were a multitude of tribes over which no previous government had ever completely established its authority. Life was scarcely different from many centuries earlier.
While not repudiating Islam, the PDPA regime sought to give the country a secular, progressive image. One of the more popular measures was to cancel the debt that poor and landless peasants owed to the powerful moneylenders. The landlords and tribal khans held the power of life and death over the mass of peasants, controlling 42 percent of cultivable land and the associated irrigation systems. Though the PDPA government proposed a sweeping land reform program, they were stopped in their tracks by landlord economic sabotage and terror combined with a mass reactionary insurgency.
But what drove the mullahs into a frenzy and to take up arms were the limited measures of equality for women introduced by the governmentreducing the traditional bride price to a nominal sum and introducing compulsory education for girls and voluntary literacy programs for adult women. Even the New York Times in February 1980 admitted: It was the Kabul revolutionary Gov-ernments granting of new rights to women that pushed Orthodox Moslem men in the Pashtoon villages of eastern Afghanistan into picking up their guns. With social development somewhere between tribalism and feudalism, there was no internal social base for the relatively minimal reforms pursued by the PDPA, much less for proletarian revolution.
The institution of the family takes different forms according to the demands of the social systema point that was perhaps most eloquently captured in a statement by the utopian socialist Fourier, which Marx often liked to quote. That is that the status of women in any given society reflects the general level of human emancipation and human freedom. In areas such as Central Asia, there was a strategic relationship between the bride price and polygamy, primitive agricultural production, sheep-herding, land and water rights.
Women were their fathers means of exchange and their husbands chattel; the right to control and inherit property rested on men. Most variants of local law gave a man access to land and water rights only if he married; more than one wife meant more land and water. On the other hand, marriage was so expensive (because of the bride price) that many poor men never married at alland others turned to abduction and rape to get a wife.
There was a lot going on in the world and in the region in 1978-79. The Soviet high command watched as Iran slipped into near-total chaos after the U.S.-supported Shah was overthrown; as U.S. aircraft carriers lined up in the Arabian Sea; as the Soviet-allied Kabul government was threatened by a reactionary Islamic jihad (holy war). Seeing the U.S. at an impasse in Iran, the Kremlin bureaucrats seized the time to quell the uprising by the Afghan mullahs and khans, deployed thousands of Soviet troops into Afghanistan, and in the process extended their defense perimeter by several hundred miles around the eastern flank of Iran. The USSR was rightly worried about hostile Islamic fundamentalist governments on their border. As we wrote in Spartacist in the summer of 1980: Afghanistan is a flash of lightning which illuminates the real contours of the world political landscape. It has exploded the last illusions of détente to reveal the implacable hostility of U.S. imperialism to the Soviet degenerated workers state.
Lashing out against so-called Soviet expansionism, Democratic Party president and born-again Christian Jimmy Carter launched Cold War II against the Soviet Union. Like Cold War I in the 1950s, this anti-Soviet war drive was accompanied by a massive increase in military spending, in this case a five-year, trillion-dollar program. At the same time, millions of U.S. dollars began flowing to the reactionary Islamic fundamentalists via the CIA.
The lengthy civil war was a decisive event in the history of the region. When opponents of the Soviet intervention cried crocodile tears about the so-called Afghan right to self-determination and the trampled rights of the Afghan nation, we pointed out that in fact there is no Afghan nation. We didnt discover this. As historian Louis Dupree observed in his book Afghanistan in 1980: Afghanistan is an artificial country, created out of tribal kingdoms as a buffer state by the British and Russians in the nineteenth century. There was no common language or nationality. Afghanistan was composed of many different nationalities, tribal and ethnic groupings and languagesPushtuns, Tadzhiks, Uzbeks, Turkomans, Baluchis and others.
In the 1920s, the British sought to foster Afghanistan as an anti-Soviet force in the area after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. As colonialists, the British had long cultivated backward layers in the administration of their empire, backed up by their army, of course. Leon Trotsky, in a speech to the Communist University of the Toilers of the East in Moscow in April 1924, said:
Afghanistan is at present the scene of truly dramatic events: the Great Britain of Ramsay MacDonald is fighting there against the left national-bourgeois wing, which aims at the Europeanization of an independent Afghanistan. It endeavors to place in power in that country the most unenlightened and reactionary elements, imbued with the worst prejudices of pan-Islamism, of the caliphate.
If you substitute the U.S. for Britain in this quote, this could have been written in 1979.
The Russian Revolution inspired the only attempt at significant social reforms in Afghanistan prior to 1978. The national-bourgeois wing referred to by Trotsky was led by Amir Amanullah Khan, who took the throne in 1919 and attempted to implement a broad range of reforms like Kemal Atatürk did in Turkey. The British continued to bolster the power of the Islamic clergy and sanctioned the shariat courts that ruled on questions of family, sex, inheritance and so on, as supports for their colonial rule. They supplied arms to the rebels and infested the area with their agents and spies. In 1929, Khan was overthrown and tribal and clerical traditionalism was restored to its position of power. Had the Red Army of Lenin and Trotsky been in a position to go into Afghanistan in 1921, Afghanistan could have been incorporated into Soviet Central Asia, which would have brought Afghanistan rapidly into the 20th century.
As the leading imperialist power after World War II, the U.S., following in Britains footsteps, consciously manipulated and cynically reinforced religious fundamentalism and pre-feudal reaction as an organized force for counterrevolution. Cold Warrior John Foster Dulles wrote in 1950: The religions of the East are deeply rooted and have many precious values. Their spiritual beliefs cannot be reconciled with Communist atheism and materialism. That creates a common bond between us.
When the Soviet Red Army entered Kabul in 1979, U.S. imperialism was still smarting from its defeat by the heroic Vietnamese four years earlier. While the U.S. was bogged down in that losing war, the USSR gained nuclear parity with the U.S. Seeking to bury the Vietnam syndromethe mass perception among working people and youth that the U.S. government and military tops were a bunch of liars and baby-killersJimmy Carter launched a hypocritical human rights campaign against the Soviet Union. The U.S. imposed a grain embargo so the people of the USSR could suffer for human rights and boycotted the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. Part of this anti-Soviet war drive was the biggest military buildup in human history, including a massive increase in nuclear weaponry aimed at the Soviet Union. The goal: the destruction of the Soviet workers state itself. Afghanistan, where American-supplied weapons were being used to kill Red Army soldiers, was the hottest hot spot of Cold War II.
The U.S. governments Afghan war was totally bipartisan. In 1984, under Republican president Ronald Reagan, the Democratic Congress tripled Reagans proposed appropriations for the Afghan reactionaries. One House Democrat from Texas said: There were 58,000 [Amercan] dead in Vietnam and we owe the Russians one. By the time the Soviets left Afghanistan, the CIAs Afghan freedom fighters (as Reagan fondly called them) had received, by official estimates, more than $2 billion in military hardware, a figure reportedly matched by Saudi Arabia and supplemented by other U.S. allies like Egypt. At the height of the U.S. proxy war against the USSR, the mujahedin were receiving up to 65,000 tons of war materiel annually. This was to become the biggest CIA operation in history! Various estimates indicate that anywhere from 25 to 75 percent of the CIAs military aid was skimmed off by the rebel leaders and Pakistani officials and sold for huge profits.
To give you an idea of the ferocity of the CIAs freedom fighters, according to Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II: A favorite tactic of the Afghan freedom fighters was to torture victims [often Russians] by first cutting off their noses, ears, and genitals, then removing one slice of skin after another, producing a slow, very painful death. Flinging acid in the faces of unveiled women and flaying alive Communist schoolteachers for teaching girls to read were also favorite tactics.
From the beginning of the war, the mujahedin reserved its worst treatment for Soviet soldiers. The U.S. government had confirmed reports that the mullahs had drugged and tortured 50 to 200 Soviet soldiers, imprisoning them like animals in cages, where they lived lives of indescribable horror. Another account, by a reporter from the conservative Far Eastern Economic Review in 1984, said: One [Soviet] group was killed, skinned and hung up in a butchers shop. One captive found himself the centre of attraction in a game of buzkashi, that rough and tumble form of Afghan polo in which a headless goat is usually the ball. The captive was used instead. Alive. He was literally torn to pieces. For those who have never witnessed the game of buzkashi, Id recommend the 1975 movie starring Sean Connery, The Man Who Would Be King, based on a story by Rudyard Kipling, the well-known propounder of British colonial rule.
Leftist Opponents of Revolutionary Marxism
All organizations claiming to stand for revolutionary Marxism were put to the test over Afghanistan: For or against the defense of the Soviet Union? For or against imperialist-sponsored counterrevolution? For or against the fight for womens liberation from the veil, isolation and illiteracy? For revolutionary Marxists, there is nothing tricky or ambiguous about the war. The Soviet army and its left-nationalist allies were fighting a CIA-backed, anti-communist, anti-democratic mélange of landlords, moneylenders, tribal chiefs and mullahs committed to mass illiteracy and the subjugation of women. The gut-level response of every radical leftist should have been fullest solidarity with the Soviet Red Army. Not so.
Only those leftists poisoned by anti-Communism and bourgeois nationalism could deny that a social revolution such as the transformation of Soviet Central Asia after the Bolshevik Revolution, although imposed from without and bureaucratically deformed from the outset, would have an enormously liberating effect for the Afghan masses. The difference in social progress and economic development between Soviet Central Asia and Afghanistan was measured not in decades but in centuries. For example, neighboring Soviet Uzbekistan had a nearly 100 percent literacy rate; the average life expectancy was 70 years. 45 percent of legislators and 18 percent of judges were women (as compared to 3 percent in the U.S.). There was one doctor for every 380 people, compared to one doctor for every 20,000 in Afghanistan.
A number of the left groups from the time no longer exist, particularly the various Maoist groups who, along with China, supported the mujahedin as part of an anti-Soviet alliance with U.S. imperialism originally consummated in 1972. We warned then that Chinaa deformed workers statewould be the next target on the imperialists hit list after the Soviet Union. Since the destruction of the Soviet workers state through capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92, the U.S. imperialists aim to reconquer and exploit China, the most populous country on earth. We fight for unconditional military defense of China against imperialist attack and internal attempts at counterrevolution.
Socialist Action did not yet exist; its members were still in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Initially, the SWP tried to pretend that the Russian question was not posed in Afghanistan, declaring in February 1980: So the issue is not Soviet intervention, but a growing U.S. interventionaimed at taking back the gains won by the Afghan massesthat finally forced the Soviet Union to respond. It didnt take them long to figure out that their line would alienate the bourgeois liberal milieu with which these respectable socialists have sought to ingratiate themselves since the Vietnam antiwar movement, as they and Socialist Action continue to do to this day. They made an about-face and called for Soviet withdrawal. Even if it meant disagreeing with Fidel Castro, these social democrats couldnt resist the pressure of the U.S. imperialists anti-Soviet propaganda/military campaign.
The Cliffitesthe International Socialist Organization in the U.S. and the British Socialist Workers Party (who have recently split)both known for their anti-Communism, eagerly joined the imperialist chorus calling for Soviet troops out and whitewashed the mujahedin. The British Cliffites made a real contribution to the imperialists anti-Soviet war drive by making common cause with the right-wing Tories. In 1980, SWP leader Paul Foot, writing in his column in the bourgeois Daily Mirror, attacked the virulently anti-communist Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from the right, decrying the possibility that British meat exports to the Soviet Union might be going to Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan.
When the Soviet bureaucracy said they were pulling out in 1988, the ISO wrote in Socialist Worker (May 1988): Just as socialists welcomed the defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam, we welcome the defeat of the Russians in Afghanistan. It will give heart to all those inside the USSR and in Eastern Europe who want to break the rule of Stalins heirs. How disgusting to compare the U.S. genocidal war to smash the Vietnamese social revolution with the USSR fighting on the side of social progress! In lockstep with imperialism, the Cliffites openly called for capitalist counterrevolution in the USSR and East Europe. Indeed, the essence of the Cliffite tendency had always been to ally with their own imperialist rulers against the Soviet Union.
When the Taliban came to power in 1996, the ISO wrote: But Talibans success comes from popular disenchantment with the leaders who oppose itthe forces guarding Kabul melted away last week. Tragically, the Taliban has no answer to the terrible crisis of the country either. Would you say that Hitler had no answer for the crisis in Germany either, except for the destruction of all workers organizations and the extermination of the Jews? Today the Cliffites insist that Islamic fundamentalism plays a progressive anti-imperialist role around the world. The SWP proclaimed (International Socialism, August 1994): Islamists have now replaced socialists and the left in terms of being in the frontline against the state in many countries.
In Britain, during the uproar over Afghanistan in 1979, a grouping called Workers Power that had split from the Cliffites made a step to the left. They formally adopted the Trotskyist position that the Soviet Union was a bureaucratically degenerated workers statebut on the ground, faced with a virulent anti-Soviet war drive, they denounced the Soviet intervention as counterrevolutionary. (A decade later, ever-willing to denounce the USSR, they condemned the withdrawal of the Soviet troops as counterrevolutionary.)
Of all the groups that laid claim to Trotskyism at the time, the Bolshevik Faction (BF) of Nahuel Moreno had the most grotesque position. In addition to demanding the immediate withdrawal of the Soviet troops, they called for extending Khomeini-brand Islamic counterrevolution into the Soviet Union itself. In this country today, remnants of the BF are ensconced in the reformist Socialist Alternative.
The Bolshevik Tendency (BT), a motley group of embittered ex-members of the SL who found our Soviet defensism too hot to handle, fled during Cold War II. After insisting that they agreed with our line on Afghanistan, they showed their true colors by capitulating to the anti-Soviet hysteria. Disappearing the contradictory nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy, a leading member of the BT declared, Trotskyists never hail Stalinist traitors or their state.... The slogan Hail Red Army is not a Trotskyist slogan. As a matter of fact, Trotskyists did hail the Red Army when they intervened on the side of progressfor example, in World War II when the Red Army smashed German fascism, freed Jews from concentration camps and took Berlin.
In a sense Carters human rights propaganda campaign worked, since most of the self-described left and almost all liberals supported the U.S. against the Soviet Union. And in the case of Afghanistan, this meant support for U.S.-armed, CIA-supported Islamic fundamentalists. All these self-styled socialists contributed to bringing about the horror which is today being inflicted on Afghan women!
Marxism vs. Feminism
There is a wide historical gulf between Marxism and feminism. However, I do want to address the differences because various feminist organizations and campus womens groups now profess concern over the plight of Afghan women. The Marxist understanding of womens oppression as rooted materially in class society is diametrically opposed to the outlook of feminism, which is fundamentally a variant of bourgeois ideology, positing the main social division as one of sex and not class. Feminists see womens oppression as a set of bad ideas and policies stemming from male supremacy, not as something integral to class-divided society. Most feminists supported U.S. imperialism against the Soviet Union no matter what the consequences were for Afghan women.
In 1996, at a time when the U.S. had declared an anti-Islamic holy war against terrorism, the Feminist Majority Foundation started circulating a petition calling for sanctions against the Taliban to be imposed by the same U.S. imperialists that armed the Islamic reactionaries in the first place! In February at Madison Square Garden, a benefit performance aiming to call attention to violence against women was organized by playwright Eve Ensler around readings from her Vagina Monologues. Featuring dozens of stars like Jane Fonda and Oprah Winfrey, the show was sponsored by Hearst Magazines and Liz Claiborne, among others, with ticket prices topped out at $1,000 a seat.
Winfrey performed Under the Burqa, which according to my daughter who saw it performed in San Francisco is a powerful description of the life of misery for veiled women. Thousands signed petitions for the Feminist Majoritys Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan and wore burqa swatches as a symbol of remembrance for Afghan women and girls. One group speaking at the event and sharing in the funds raised was the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) which toured the U.S. last summer. The CIA-supported Voice of America broadcast reports from their demonstrations and interviews with RAWA members in Pakistan and the U.S.
Founded in 1977, this well-connected group is fiercely anti-communist, though even they admit that the present conditions are even worse than those of the Soviet occupation period. RAWA also calls for UN intervention and hopes for the return of the king who was overthrown in 1973. They advocate education and employment for women, while remaining in the Islamic fold. Though they dont insist on women wearing the burqa, they do expect women to conform to an appropriately decorous form of dress.
Though Feminist Majority propaganda lists the gains for women in Afghanistan prior to the rule of the Taliban, there isnt one word about how this came aboutwhich was through the extension of social reforms by the Soviet-backed government. In fact, some feminists grossly claim that communism was actually responsible for womens oppression in Afghanistan. For example, a Ms. magazine interview with Sima Wali, a self-described Afghan human rights activist and anti-communist, proclaimed (May/ June 1997):
When the Communists took over, Afghan women were jailed, they were subjected to torture, especially the women who had ties to the Afghan resistance that took root in Pakistan. This was unheard of in Afghan history.... The Afghan Communists basically had a laissez-faire attitude toward Afghan women. The schools were not closed, they did not institute the veil, and they did introduce reforms. But they focused so much on the war that they did not actively upgrade the status of women.
Wali fled to Pakistan as soon as the Soviet Army entered Kabul. The Afghan resistance shes referring to is the CIA-backed mullahs. In the same interview, Wali called on former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to take on the issue as a woman. Our youth comrades at UC Berkeley did the right thing last spring when they shouted down Albright as the Butcher of the Balkans. Albright represents the capitalist class; she is not our ally in the fight for womens liberation.
But how dare these bourgeois feminists, who regularly sponsor FBI and military tables at NOW conferences, posture as allies of the women of Afghanistan! Their appointed goddess and founder of Ms. magazine, Gloria Steinem, knowingly took CIA money as director of the Independent Research Service, which actively recruited and paid hundreds of young Americans to attend and harass leftists at the communist-leaning World Youth Festivals in Vienna in 1959 and in Helsinki in 1962. Steinem said of the CIA agents with whom she collaborated: I found them liberal and farsighted and open (Washington Post, 18 February 1967).
Bourgeois feminists were perfectly aware of the social changes that were benefiting women in Afghanistan during the ten years of the Soviet intervention. When we kicked off our Jalalabad campaign on April 4, 1989 at the huge NOW-sponsored abortion rights demo in Washington, D.C., NOW goons tried to shut down all socialist literature tables and unleashed the park cops on militants, like ourselves, who declined to be segregated from the main rally in NOWs demeaning penned-in ghetto for left groups. Despite these attempts to censor communists, we distributed more than 25,000 leaflets for Jalalabad, as we marched with our banner proclaiming No to the Veil! Defend Afghan Women! Support Jalalabad Victims of CIA Cutthroats!
There were exceptions. One bourgeois feminist, Mary Williams Walsh, who was the Wall Street Journals principal correspondent covering Afghanistan and Pakistan, managed to slip some truth into her column in January 1989. In spite of her support of the mujahedin, she suggested that womens liberation was involved when she said:
The plight of Kabuls women is a poignant reminder that the Wests vicarious victory over communist expansion here isnt without its ambiguities. In a backward country where the female peasantry still toils like medieval serfs, Kabuli women have managed to hold on to many 20th-century freedoms.... Instead of staying at home behind purdah walls, they emerge each day and work in offices, hospitals and schools.
But in 1990, when Walsh attempted to break the story that Dan Rather and CBS had broadcast fake TV footage about Afghanistan, the Journal refused to publish her article. Soon vicious, slanderous rumors began circulating to undermine her credibility, including that she was sleeping with communist generals in Afghanistan. In a rare show of journalistic integrity, Walsh resigned.
No Illusions in Bloody U.S. Imperialism!
Besides showering the mujahedin with millions of dollars of military equipment, the CIAs disinformation machine at Langley, Virginia cranked out the most blatant lies about Afghanistan. Dutifully, the U.S. mass media snapped to attention, churning out government-sponsored, imperialist war propaganda. Bloodthirsty tribesmen who skinned Communist teachers alive for the crime of teaching little girls to read and write were passed off as freedom fighters.
Shots purportedly showing a Soviet jet bombing an Afghan village turned out to be of a Pakistani jet. And a shiny red toy bomb supposedly planted by the evil Soviets to lure Afghan children to their deaths was created by the same freelance photographer who had earlier provided faked battle scenes that Dan Rather aired. Ronald Reagan made numerous speeches accusing the Soviets of spraying yellow rain over Afghanistan, Laos and Cambodia, causing over ten thousand deaths. Dutifully, reams of press copy were produced asserting that the USSR was using chemical warfarethis was later revealed to be pollen-laden bee excrement which, of course, had caused no deaths!
Like many other CIA clients, the Afghan rebels were financed as well by drug trafficking. In 1995, the estimated output provided one-third to one-half of the heroin used in the U.S. and three-quarters of that used in Western Europe. Profits from heroin have provided one of the largest sources of income for the Taliban. Despite the thoroughly unsavory image of the Taliban, last October Dan Rather, up to his old tricks, ran a special report for CBS called Inside Afghanistan, in which the Taliban freedom fighters are depicted as heroically trying to rebuild their country. The report whitewashes the Talibans vicious treatment of women as necessary to protect women and offer them peace and security.
The Feminist Majority recently claimed a victory when the U.S. imposed sanctions against the Taliban. In reality, the ongoing sanctions by the U.S. are aimed at pressuring the Taliban to hand over Saudi fundamentalist Osama bin Laden. Four of his alleged associates are currently on trial in a federal courtroom in Manhattan, where they face the death penalty or life imprisonment for an alleged terrorist conspiracy over the last ten years, including the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Washington responded to these acts by carrying out missile strikes against Afghanistan and devastating a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. Its notable that the terrorism charges against bin Laden only go back ten years. Thats because his network was armed, trained and financed by the CIA as part of the proxy war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union.
In an article entitled Bin Laden Comes Home to Roost, from the MSNBC Web site in 1998, bin Ladens unclassified CIA biography states that he ran a front organization known as Maktab al-Khidamarthe MAKwhich funneled money, arms and fighters to Afghanistan. MAK was nurtured by Pakistans state security services, the main CIA conduit for the covert war against the USSR in Afghanistan. The article quotes Republican Orrin Hatch, senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, saying that he would make the same call today knowing what bin Laden would do subsequently: It was worth it, he said. Those were very important, pivotal matters that played an important role in the downfall of the Soviet Union.
U.S. imperialism is the biggest terrorist in the world, from the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to the murderous campaigns carried out by the CIAs Nicaraguan contras and Cuban gusanos, to the 1999 U.S./UN war of annihilation against the Serbian people which bombed that country back to the Stone Age, to the terror bombing of Iraq and never-ending starvation blockade that has led to at least 1.5 million deathsto just name a few. Imperialism is not a bad policy that can be changed through mass pressure to be more humane, as the liberals, feminists and reformists contend. It is an organic outgrowth of the profit system and the highest stage of capitalism, as Lenin defined it. Calling on bloody U.S. imperialism, NATO or the UN to intervene for human rights is a dangerous trap that builds illusions in this bloody imperialist system which enforces capitalist exploitation, mass poverty and national oppression the world over.
Ever since the 1979 Soviet intervention, the Western media labeled the civil war in Afghanistan Russias Vietnam, a characterization that is still used today. Mikhail Gorbachev, who came to power in the USSR in 1985, took up this insidious lie for his regimes own reasons. As Marxists, we judge what side we take based on what advances the interests of the working class and the oppressed. In Vietnam, the U.S. fought a genocidal war to smash a social revolution and was soundly defeated on the battlefield. We said, Victory to the Vietnamese RevolutionDefeat U.S. Imperialism! The Soviet Army in Afghanistan fought on the side of social progress to stop the reactionary onslaught which imperiled not only the Afghan masses but the USSR itself. Thats why we said, Hail the Red Army in Afghanistan.
But the Soviet bureaucracy didnt fight to win. From the outset of the war the Kremlin tops always held open the possibility of withdrawal as a bargaining chip in dealing with Western imperialism. Nonetheless, by 1984 the Soviet and PDPA forces had practically won the war. The CIAs holy warriors were shattered and demoralized. And the governments modest reforms, although scaled back from even the moderate program first offered by the PDPA, were winning support in the countryside.
When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he faced economic stagnation aggravated by the intensified military pressure from the U.S. that had accelerated under President Ronald Reagan. Gorbachev pushed a series of policy changes: restructuring (perestroika) of the Soviet economy, openness (glasnost) in Soviet society and new thinking in international affairs. This new thinking amounted to Soviet retreat on a global scale: the cutoff of arms to leftist guerrillas in El Salvador, aid cutbacks for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and one-sided nuclear arms reductions by the USSR. As part of this strategy of surrender in the hopes of striking a peace deal with Reagan, Gorbachevs Politburo decided in November 1986 to abandon Afghanistan within two years.
The withdrawal was completed on 15 February 1989. The Washington Post reported, At CIA headquarters in Langley, operations officers and analysts drank champagne. The withdrawal of the Red Army was a cold-blooded betrayal of the Afghan and the Soviet peoples. Gorbachevs treacherous pullout of Afghanistan burnt out a whole generation of youth in the Soviet Union who did their internationalist duty serving in Afghanistan. One young Russian told our comrades in 1994 that he had fought in Afghanistan in 1986 when he was 18, to fight for internationalism, but when he returned home he was reviled and said that he was called a rapist by the same people who sent [him] there. Another Soviet veteran said in March 1988: Our sacrifices were not for nothing. We have after all brought there the achievements of the civilized world.
We honored the Soviet veterans of the Afghan war who justly viewed themselves as fighters for revolutionary internationalism. The Soviet bureaucracys attempt to trade Afghan blood for good will in Washington only whetted the appetites of the imperialists, intent upon the counterrevolutionary destruction of the entire Soviet Union. Inside the USSR, this move strengthened pro-capitalist forces. The Red Army pullout was directly linked to the final collapse of the USSR itself, a historic defeat for the working class and oppressed internationally. Gorbachevs foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, later said: The decision to leave Afghanistan was the first and most difficult step. Everything else flowed from that (Washington Post, 16 November 1992).
The Afghanistan intervention testified to the persistenceeven after some six decades of Stalinist repression, lies and selloutsof the contradiction between the collectivized foundations of the Soviet state and the parasitic bureaucracy which rested on top. It was the last time the bureaucracy ruling the Soviet degenerated workers state undertook a progressive act. Although undertaken purely for defensive geopolitical reasons, it did go against the grain of the Stalinists abject pursuit of peaceful coexistence with imperialism.
In the 1930s and heading into World War II, Leon Trotsky analyzed the character of the Soviet degenerated workers state and put forward the program of proletarian political revolution, noting that if the working class did not throw out the bureaucracy, the bureaucracy would strangle the workers state. Though it took longer than Trotsky anticipated, the final dissolution of Stalinist rule under the military and economic pressure of imperialist encirclement of the Soviet Union conformed very precisely to his analysis. I would recommend, for those who havent read it, our pamphlet StalinismGravedigger of the Revolution: How the Soviet Workers State Was Strangled.
Withdrawal from Afghanistan was followed by counterrevolution in East Europe: Solidarność-led capitalist counterrevolution in Poland in 1990, the capitalist reunification of Germany in 1990, Boris Yeltsins 1991 pro-capitalist countercoup in Moscow. This, in turn, led to a total cutoff of aid to Kabul, spelling doom for the fragile Afghan economy and central government. In April of 1992, the Kabul government, headed by Najibullah, fell to the feudalist reactionaries. The warring mullah factions then subjected the entire populace to a reign of terror and plunder.
The horrors being played out in Afghanistan today are the starkest expression of the choice which has been posed, with increasing sharpness and urgency, over the past century: socialism or barbarism. Young fighters against social oppression must study and learn the lessons of past struggles and defeats, including the world-historic defeat represented by the destruction of the remaining gains of the October Revolution, if they are to go forward to win new victories. We of the International Communist League fight for new Octobers, both in the U.S. and around the world. And we here in the U.S., in the belly of the beast, have a special responsibility to smash U.S. imperialism through workers revolution.
We fight to forge Bolshevik parties internationally to lead the workersstanding at the head of all the oppressedto power and to a society in which capitalist oppression and enslavement of women are relics of a barbaric past. Women will be in the front ranks of such a revolutionary movement, understanding that their interests cannot go forward without a working-class perspective, and the workers movement cannot go forward without taking up the fight for womens liberation. I want to end with a quote from Trotsky in 1924 about the Muslim women of the Soviet East:
The Eastern woman, who is the most paralyzed in life, in her habits, and in creativity, the slave of slaves...she, having at the demand of the new economic relations taken off her cloak, will at once feel herself lacking any sort of religious buttress. She will have a passionate thirst to gain new ideas and new consciousness which will permit her to appreciate her new position in society. And there will be no better communist in the East, no better fighter for the ideas of the Revolution and for the ideas of communism, than the awakened woman worker.