Workers Hammer No. 219
US/British/NATO troops out now!
Afghanistan: women under imperialist occupation
We said: Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!
The following article has been adapted from Workers Vanguard no 998, 16 March 2012.
On 6 March, two days before International Women’s Day, Washington’s Afghan puppet president Hamid Karzai announced that he had approved a new “code of conduct” issued by the Ulema Council of senior Muslim clerics. This edict legally confines women to their homes, barring them from going out without a male guardian or mingling with men in schools, offices or markets. It also officially condones wife-beating. “Men are fundamental and women are secondary”, said the statement, which Karzai saluted as “the sharia law of all Muslims and all Afghans”.
Throughout the past ten years of imperialist occupation, Afghanistan has been a living hell for women. To sell their predatory war in retribution for the September 11 attacks, the US, Britain and their NATO allies pointed to the crimes against women under the then ruling Taliban, pledging that an American-led takeover would bring liberation. In 2002, George W Bush proclaimed that “today, women are free”. In reality, the imperialists merely handed power to another wing of the anti-woman fundamentalist forces that they had backed against the Soviet Union and the leftist regime of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) from the late 1970s to the early ’90s.
In Afghanistan today, women are forced to wear the suffocating head-to-toe burqa almost everywhere. The sight of women begging for money to feed their starving families is commonplace on the streets of Kabul, the capital city. To survive or pay off debts, families sell their daughters in marriage or to the many brothels servicing imperialist troops and contractors. More than half of all girls are forced into marriage before the age of 16.
There is a saying in Afghanistan that a woman belongs either to her husband’s house or to her grave. Half of the inmates at the Badam Bagh women’s prison in Kabul have been imprisoned for years for refusing to marry or for fleeing abusive husbands. Returned runaways are often shot or stabbed by family members in “honour killings”. Other women are jailed for being victims of rape or assault. For a woman in Afghanistan, any sex outside marriage is considered a crime — including when she is raped. The rapist, meanwhile, almost always goes unpunished.
Barely a quarter of Afghan girls go to school. Religious fanatics attack those who do, including by spraying acid in their faces, as happened at a school in Kandahar in 2008. The following year, the education ministry reported that nearly 500 schools, mostly schools for girls, had been destroyed, damaged or forced to close. Between March and October 2010, at least 126 students and teachers were killed. The literacy rate for women is twelve per cent, while their average life expectancy is 44, some 24 years below the world average. To escape their unbearable lives, many women turn to suicide. Even according to official Afghan statistics, some 2300 women and girls kill themselves every year — more than six each day. The most common method is self-immolation with cooking oil.
The atrocities endured by Afghan women are not in the main the actions of rogue elements breaking the law. In 2004, the US overseers brokered a constitution that enshrined Islamic sharia law. Despite the token presence of women in the constituent assembly and a claim that women have “equal rights”, the constitution states that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam”. In 2006, Karzai’s cabinet reestablished the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which was notorious under the Taliban for its brutal imposition of sharia, including stoning to death women who defied its edicts.
Calling Afghanistan “the good war”, in 2009 the Obama administration reinforced the occupation with another 30,000 troops. The imperialist troops, full of racist contempt, continue to massacre untold numbers of civilians. Soldiers have murdered Afghans for sport, cut off their fingers as trophies and urinated on their dead bodies. Marine snipers have posed for photos with a flag bearing the Nazi SS insignia. Soldiers regularly stage night raids in which they go after suspected opponents of the Afghan regime at private homes and shoot dead whoever opens the door. The explosion of anger that followed the revelation that the US military had burned copies of the Koran last month shows the depth of resentment that has built up among the Afghan peoples. In the latest atrocity, a US Army staff sergeant went door-to-door in a village in southern Afghanistan overnight on 11 March, gunning down at least 16 civilians, including nine children.
After repeated instances of Afghan forces turning their guns on NATO soldiers, the Obama administration announced last month that it was moving up the timetable for ending US troops’ “combat role” to some time next year and withdrawing them in 2014. The US is looking to open negotiations with the Taliban, which continues to control large parts of the country. Karzai’s approval of the clerics’ woman-hating “code of conduct” is widely seen to be an overture to the Taliban on the part of his regime.
As Marxists, our starting point in opposing the occupation is proletarian class opposition to the imperialist rulers and their predations. In the lead-up to the 2001 invasion, we called for the military defence of Afghanistan against the US and allied forces without giving any support to the Taliban reactionaries.
The Spartacist League/Britain published a statement on 14 November 2001 in response to the bombing of Afghanistan led by US president George W Bush and Labour prime minister Tony Blair, titled “For class struggle against British capitalism and its Labour government! Defend Afghanistan against imperialist attack!” The statement noted:
“Tony Blair has been circling the world drumming up support for the bloody US-led war against Afghanistan. This is the naked face of British imperialism, administered by ‘Her Majesty’s Labour Party’, stripped of its veneer of parliamentary ‘democracy’. While playing the role of junior partners and cheerleaders for US imperialism, Labour ministers are also representing the interests of British imperialism — the City of London, the financial centre of Europe and centre for exploitation of the whole world.”
— Workers Hammer no 179, Winter 2001-2002
In the face of the ongoing occupation, we emphasise that every blow struck against the blood-soaked imperialist occupiers is a blow against the chief enemy of working people and the oppressed around the world. All US/British/NATO troops out of Afghanistan now!
Afghanistan: front line of the anti-Soviet war drive
The imperialists have never had any compunction about siding with the most retrograde social forces. It is impossible to comprehend the current plight of Afghan women without examining Washington’s role in backing the forces of Islamic reaction against the Soviet Union and its PDPA allies starting in 1978.
Many of the modernising left nationalists who led the PDPA were educated and trained in the Soviet Union, which they rightly saw as a source of social progress. The Soviet Union was a workers state that embodied key social gains of the October 1917 Russian Revolution, centrally a planned economy and collectivised property, despite its subsequent degeneration under a nationalist Stalinist bureaucracy. Progressive-minded activists in Afghanistan in the 1970s looked at the example of Soviet Central Asia, just across the border, which was a modern society where women went unveiled, were educated and participated in public life and where everyone had access to free education and healthcare.
On coming to power in April 1978, the PDPA began to implement serious reforms favouring women and poor peasants, such as redistributing the land, lowering the bride price, educating women and freeing them from the burqa. In the context of this cruelly backward country, which had far more mullahs than industrial workers, such reforms had an explosive impact. They fuelled a revolt by reactionary traditionalists who sought to maintain the old society, including its all-encompassing degradation of women. When the Muslim insurgency threatened the PDPA’s hold on power, the government made repeated requests for Soviet assistance, until the Soviets finally dispatched tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan in December 1979.
This was the only war in modern history fought centrally over women’s rights. From the start, the US imperialists, determined to strike a blow against the Soviet Union, took the side of benighted reaction. Democratic president Jimmy Carter and his successor, Republican Ronald Reagan, backed the mujahedin holy warriors to the hilt in the biggest covert CIA operation in history. Billions of dollars in aid went to an array of Islamist groups based in Peshawar, Pakistan, and to that country’s ISI intelligence service. The CIA used the ISI and the Egyptian and Saudi intelligence services to create, train, finance and arm a network of 70,000 Islamists (including Osama bin Laden) from more than 50 countries to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, giving a huge boost to Muslim fundamentalist movements the world over.
Like the US rulers, the British government fully backed the Islamic reactionaries. Within weeks of the Soviet intervention against the mujahedin, then cabinet secretary Sir Robert Armstrong argued in a memorandum to prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the foreign secretary and the head of MI6 that they should “encourage and support resistance”, saying: “The existence of a guerrilla movement in Afghanistan would be a focus of Islamic resistance which we should be wanting to continue to stimulate” (Guardian, 30 December 2010).
We wrote at the time of the Soviet intervention: “For revolutionary socialists there is nothing tricky, nothing ambiguous about the war in Afghanistan. The Soviet Army and its left-nationalist allies are fighting an anti-communist, anti-democratic mélange of landlords, money lenders, tribal chiefs and mullahs committed to mass illiteracy.... The gut-level response of every radical leftist should be fullest solidarity with the Soviet Red Army” (Spartacist [English-language edition] no 29, Summer 1980). The threat of a CIA-backed Islamic takeover on the USSR’s southern flank posed directly the need for unconditional military defence of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the extended Soviet presence opened the possibility of social liberation for the Afghan masses, particularly women. We proclaimed: Hail Red Army! Extend social gains of the October Revolution to the Afghan peoples!
In contrast, the bulk of the left internationally, with few exceptions, eagerly joined the imperialist chorus against the Soviet Union and whitewashed the mujahedin. The International Socialist Organization and its then ally in Britain, Tony Cliff’s Socialist Workers Party (SWP), stood foursquare with the imperialists. The 12 January 1980 issue of the SWP’s Socialist Worker blared, “Troops Out of Afghanistan!” In 1981, the then fake-Trotskyist United Secretariat of Ernest Mandel called for “stopping Soviet occupation in Afghanistan”. In howling with the imperialist wolves against the Soviet intervention, these groups made common cause with the worst enemies of the rights of women and all the oppressed.
Huge gains for Afghan women under Soviet presence
Freeing Afghan women from purdah (seclusion) and giving land to the peasants required ending the domination of the mullahs and tribal khans and overturning the country’s entire social structure. But the popular base of support for such moves within Afghanistan was very narrow. The country utterly lacked a proletariat with any social weight. Its tiny manufacturing workforce of some 35,000 was dwarfed by the quarter million Islamic clerics. Those elements in the cities aspiring to progress were surrounded by a sea of nomadic herdsmen and landless peasants beholden to the khans and the landlords. Thus, the presence of the Red Army, together with substantial Soviet aid, was essential to social progress.
Afghan women made unprecedented gains under the Soviet umbrella. While the 1964 constitution had declared women equal to men, equality largely remained on paper except for a few women in the upper strata of urban society. A thin layer of women had taken off the burqa and obtained education and employment outside the home, but even in Kabul, the main urban centre, half of all women still wore the full veil in the late 1970s. Throughout the country, 98 per cent of women were totally illiterate. In the 1980s, in contrast, there were vast opportunities for women to escape at least the strictest restraints of purdah. Many thousands became university students, workers, professionals and leftist activists.
Suraya Parlika, a founder of the PDPA-affiliated Democratic Women’s Organisation, recounted some of these accomplishments in the 2007 documentary Afghan Women: A History of Struggle: “Women worked very hard to get their rights. They formed childcare centers in their workplaces to make it easier for women to work. Maternity leave was extended to three months from six weeks and they were still getting their salary.” The Afghan government also began mass literacy campaigns and provided free medical care.
By the late 1980s, women made up 40 per cent of the country’s doctors (women doctors were in high demand, especially in rural areas, where women were still strictly secluded and barred from consulting male doctors). Sixty per cent of the instructors at Kabul University and 65 per cent of the student body were women. Family courts, in some cases presided over by female judges, had replaced the mullahs’ sharia courts. The number of working women increased 50-fold. By 1987, there were an estimated 245,000 women working in fields ranging from construction, printing and food processing to radio and TV journalism and especially teaching, where they made up 70 per cent of the workforce.
In a 1994 PhD thesis, Educated Afghan Women in Search of Their Identities, the Afghan-born academic Sharifa Sharif reported on her 1987 interviews with 30 women workers in Kabul, undertaken as part of a survey for the United Nations Development Program. The sharp increase in women’s participation in economic life was partly due to the war, which had taken away many men and brought women from the countryside into Kabul. But it was also the result of greater legal rights, supportive government policies and economic development, including the construction of new homes, factories, schools and hospitals.
The transformation of these women from backward traditionalist areas into skilled workers gives a glimpse of what might have been achieved if Afghanistan had been able to continue its Soviet-assisted development. While initially encountering fierce resistance from their families, women workers were exposed to technology, education and literacy. They took pride in acquiring job skills and becoming ustad (expert masters) in their fields. Some were sent for training to the Soviet Union. At a construction site, Sharif interviewed a 23-year-old widow and mother of two children, who was one of three female crane operators, a job never before done by a woman in Afghanistan.
Many women took up arms against the mujahedin threat. Four of seven military commanders appointed in 1986 were women. By 1989, the regime reported having armed some 15,000 women. The same year, all female members of the PDPA received military training and arms. The arming of unveiled women with Kalashnikovs symbolised the social transformation then under way in Afghanistan. As early as 1984, Indian journalist Patricia Sethi reported encountering 15-year-old girls carrying rifles who were members of a civilian brigade in a village near Kabul: “They spoke fervently and passionately about their revolution and what it meant for young women in Afghanistan: it meant ‘an education, freedom from the veil, freedom from feudalists who want to keep us down,’ said Khalida. ‘We do not want to become the fourth wife of a 60-year-old man, existing solely for his whim and pleasure’” (India Today, 31 July 1984).
Soviet withdrawal betrayed Afghan women
The Soviet military presence posed the possibility not only of defeating the imperialist-backed Islamists but also of incorporating Afghanistan into the Soviet system. In the 1920s, Soviet Central Asia looked remarkably like Afghanistan in the 1970s — a miserably backward and desolate place where women were bought and sold. Every step towards emancipation taken by the Soviet regime was met with fierce resistance from the khans, mullahs and their armed gangs of basmachi (the mujahedin of the time), including the wholesale murder of Communist agitators and women who rejected the veil.
The imposition of Soviet power under the umbrella of the Red Army created the conditions for dismantling centuries-old tribal/clerical domination and developing the region’s vast natural resources. Once the Soviet Army got the upper hand against the basmachi in 1922, Bolshevik women activists were sent in to work among the horribly oppressed women, who stood to benefit most from the extension of the gains of the October Revolution. Under Lenin’s guidance, they set out to gradually undermine the power and authority of the khans’ and mullahs’ institutions through legal and administrative measures, demonstrating that the Communists were the foremost fighters for the oppressed.
Beginning with the Stalinist political counterrevolution in 1923-24, the USSR underwent a qualitative bureaucratic degeneration in which the working class was deprived of political power. Even after this, however, the necessities of industrialisation and economic planning continued to produce particularly huge benefits for Central Asia. As the USSR was transformed from a largely peasant country into an industrial power starting in the late 1920s and early ’30s, Soviet women were increasingly mobilised to work in industry. In Central Asia, women entered the industrial workforce in large numbers during World War II, when many Soviet factories were relocated to the region away from the front lines of the war.
Had the Soviet leadership been determined to see the war in Afghanistan through to victory, the country could have undergone similarly immense social progress through the construction of a modern infrastructure, the creation of a significant urban proletariat and the institution of economic planning. But the Stalinist bureaucrats in the Kremlin did not pursue this course. Instead, the regime of Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew the Red Army in 1988-89.
This was not because it faced military defeat; to the end, the Soviet Army had the upper hand militarily. The Soviet withdrawal was a political decision by the Stalinist bureaucracy in Moscow carried out with the fatuous aim of appeasing US imperialism. It was a betrayal of the Afghan masses, especially women, that helped pave the way for capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union itself in 1991-92.
The Stalinist bureaucracy was a contradictory caste whose nationalist outlook subordinated the interests of the world proletariat to the defence of its own privileged position as a parasitic layer resting on the collectivised economy. The 1979 Red Army intervention was a decent and progressive act, even if it was carried out by the corrupt and conservative regime of Leonid Brezhnev. Of course, the bureaucrats in the Kremlin did not send 100,000 troops into Afghanistan to effect a social revolution, but rather to make secure an unstable, strategically-placed client state. We warned from the outset that the bureaucracy might cut a deal at the expense of the Afghan peoples as part of its quest for “peaceful coexistence” with Washington. We fought for a proletarian political revolution to oust the treacherous Stalinist bureaucracy and return the Soviet Union to the Bolshevik internationalism of Lenin and Trotsky.
After the Soviet withdrawal, the Afghan government fought on valiantly for three years. The Partisan Defense Committee — a class-struggle legal and social defence organisation associated with the Spartacist League/US — wrote to the PDPA government in 1989 offering to organise an international brigade to help fight the forces of Islamic reaction. When that offer was turned down, the PDC, at the request of the Afghan government, launched an international fund drive to aid civilian victims of the mujahedin siege of the city of Jalalabad, raising over $44,000. The Afghan forces were able to repel this attack.
When the mujahedin finally took Kabul in 1992, re-enslaving Afghan women, the various tribally-based militias carried out a vengeful war of mass murder, torture and rape of rival ethnic populations, which left at least 50,000 people dead in Kabul alone. This led to four years of horror under the rule of various warring fundamentalist factions which brought the city to the point of famine and total devastation.
A recent New York Times article (“In Afghanistan, a Soviet Past Lies in Ruins”, 11 February) captured some of the destruction wrought by these imperialist-backed cut-throats. The article notes that in the Soviet House of Science and Culture during the 1980s, “Soviets and Afghans gathered for lectures, films and the propagation of modernizing ideas that for a while refashioned Kabul, including a time when women could work outside the home in Western clothing.” It continued:
“But during the civil war of 1992-96, the House of Science and Culture was occupied by one faction and wrecked as another lobbed shells down from a nearby hill. Today, the auditoriums are littered with rubble; cold air comes in through rocket holes; and once-bold Soviet murals of men and women, Afghans and Russians, are hidden in the squalid darkness near cartoon images depicting a Taliban fighter instructing children to become suicide bombers.”
Eventually the Taliban, recruiting from the historically dominant Pashtun ethnic population, emerged as the strongest of the mujahedin factions. Backed by Pakistan and supported by the US, it came to power in 1996. A year later, an American diplomat declared: “The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis did. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that” (quoted in Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia ). Only when the US rulers realised that there would be no Aramco (or any other oil company) and no pipelines did they start talking about the Taliban’s barbaric treatment of women.
Many of the CIA-financed fundamentalists who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s turned against their former paymasters over the following decade. This was the case with the September 11, 2001 attacks carried out by Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network, which led in turn to the invasion of Afghanistan. After ousting the Taliban, the Bush administration installed a regime based largely on the same mujahedin warlords who devastated the country from 1992-96.
The impact of counterrevolution in the USSR
The counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union has fed the bonfires of social reaction on a global scale. In many countries, women’s rights and social progress in general have been thrown back by generations. For working people in the ex-Soviet Union and the former deformed workers states of Eastern and Central Europe, the return of capitalism has been a calamity measured in unemployment, homelessness, collapsing life expectancy and intercommunal violence.
In ex-Soviet Central Asia, while the effects of more than seven decades of socialised economic development did not permit a quick and easy victory for the Islamic fundamentalists, millions of women have found themselves again trapped under veils and classified as second-class citizens. Fewer and fewer girls attend secondary schools. In much of the region, women can no longer initiate a divorce. The resurgence of nationalism has led to interethnic strife, as in Tajikistan in 1992-97 and more recently in Kyrgyzstan. The region remains a powder keg, where ethnic clashes continue to rage.
The horrors produced by imperialism’s “holy war” against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, as well as its present occupation of the country, underline how the capitalist system is a barrier to social progress and a breeding ground for re-action. As in Afghanistan, occupation forces devastated Iraq during their occupation of that country, fuelling sectarian massacres and throwing back the rights of women and other oppressed.
Through its “war on terror”, US imperialism aims to impose its will on oppressed peoples around the world. The despotic bourgeoisies of the neocolonies subjugate and plunder their “own” people for their own profit and that of the imperialists to whom they are beholden. There is plenty of hatred among the masses for these parasites and their overlords, however the aspirations of the downtrodden have increasingly been channelled into religious reaction. Islamist forces continue to grow in influence throughout North Africa and the Near East, from Egypt to Gaza to Turkey and beyond.
The only way forward is the struggle for an internationalist revolutionary leadership dedicated to the fight for workers revolutions in both the neocolonies and the heartlands of world imperialism. While this may seem a distant prospect in this very reactionary political period, the bitter truth is that no other road can put an end to ethnic and national oppression, the oppression of women and the exploitation of working people.
The purpose of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) is to forge revolutionary Marxist parties modelled after Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolshevik party that led the October Revolution. Only the working class has the social power and objective interest to sweep away the deeply irrational and inhumane capitalist system through socialist revolution, replacing it with a planned economy in which production is based on the human needs of all, rather than profits for the few.
Particularly in the neocolonial world, where women’s oppression is so acute, women workers will be in the front ranks of such parties. The overthrow of the imperialist-dominated world order will lay a material basis to free women from age-old family servitude and reorganise society in the interest of all. The social functions of the family — housework, child rearing, preparation of food, etc — will be replaced by collectivised institutions. When the bloody rule of capital is swept away by the workers of the world, the veil, the bride price, purdah, “honour killings” and the social degradation of women in all its forms will become but bitter memories of a barbaric past.