AFGHANISTAN: A Potted Social History


I If the history of Afghanistan is about any one thing, it is about playing hard to get when capital turns on the charm: a mainly small-holding peasantry and artisanal population that spurns the joys of wage-slavery; saturated carpet bombings by external foes (sometimes in conjunction with the Afghani government) that fail to crush the smuggling operations of the mountain people; civil wars and the restricted nature of export crops making (non-drug related) industrial agriculture untenable; mountain bandits collecting taxes from all sides in return for protection, making the state's tax collectors green with envy; meticulous social engineering plans to divide the country into northern (oil, gas, and minerals) and southern (cheap labour) spheres of influence, overwhelmed by ethnic/tribal/religious complications. Like the Columbian communeros (common land), minga (festive labour and reciprocal labour exchange) and the Russian obshchina, the self-subsistence Afghani local jirga (now devoid of all its communitarian village structures) proves a formidable obstacle to 'progress'. Its strength is in inverse correlation to the power of the central government. In any case, the small amount of surplus secured by the state makes the seizure of power a dubious victory. Capital has almost given up creating modern structures of domination in Afghanistan, instead it tries to implant itself onto 'communitarian' traditions.


II If the history of Afghanistan is about any one thing, it is about the nauseating counter-revolutionary stitch up that is known as the "Congress of the Peoples of the East" (September 1920, Baku). Through the Congress, the subordination of proletarian interest to the capitalist Bolshevik state became entrenched. Essentially the circus intended to muster support (nutritional as well as military), amongst the region's proletariat, for the fledging Russian state. The Bolsheviks plummeted abysmal depths of opportunism during the Congress by calling for a holy jihad to save the USSR, whilst adopting the Koran as a political platform. The Shariat (Islamic law) was credited with promoting the common ownership of land and waqf (charitable endowments and at best an intra-classist mechanism of wealth distribution between the Muslim 'church' and state) hailed as a real gain for the poor. The few dissenting voices from this policy of class collaboration were fighting a losing battle. Narbutabekov stopped short of calling Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Radek imbeciles, and John Reed criticised Bolshevik demagogy. But perhaps M N Roy's attitude was the most clear-sighted. He saw the stitch up for what it was and simply refused to attend.


III If the history of Afghanistan is about any one thing, it is about Ibn Khaldun's distinction between asabiyya (tribal solidarity) and umma (the false Muslim community). From time to time an integrationist wave of rural Muslims storm the citadels of urban power, which has become 'weak' through corruption, laxity, and the loss of warrior spirit. Once the state's booty is divided amongst the victors, the city's rulers undergo a fresh cycle of decay until they in turn are overthrown by the next wave of puritanical 'incorruptibles'. As soon as victory over a common enemy (be it the USSR bourgeoisie or the Kabul elite) is in sight, all the tribal, ethnic and religious divisions resurface. Fragmentation ensues and the equilibrium re-establishes itself. The Taleban are today in precisely this phase of disintegration.


IV If the history of Afghanistan is about any one thing, it is about the dream of Sultan Galiev, a Muslim Tatar who joined the Bolsheviks in November 1917 and worked under Stalin's "People's Commissariat for the Nationalities". Galiev saw 'Muslim societies' as collectively oppressed (with the exception of a few big landlords and bourgeois elements). He, therefore, argued against fanning the flames of class war inside such societies. He envisioned a petty-bourgeois cadre leading his new Muslim Communist Party. He believed the Comintern's emphasis on the West as the engine of the world revolution was misplaced. Later he advocated a Communist Colonial International for non-industrial countries to counteract both the 'West' and Russian Chauvinism. Many of today's Mojahedin are more reactionary versions of Sultan Galiev. Once the Bolsheviks were finished using him against Koltchak, his unorthodox views became burdensome. He was probably killed around 1940 on Stalin's orders.


V If the history of Afghanistan is about any one thing, it is about the fact that in the 1980's Afghani mullahs could have come to an accommodation with the USSR bourgeoisie at any time (in fact many of them did just that!).In so far as some engaged in the 'anti-colonial' struggle, the ploy accomplished three aims: Firstly, the war had devastated craftsmen, textile makers, weavers and peasants. The mullah's traditional power base was both shrinking and spinning out of control. New cross-sectional alliances had to be forged to ensure the mullah's class privileges. Secondly, the anti-imperialist movement provided the perfect cover for liquidating competitors. Sufi pirs (elderly sages) with their Masonic matrix of patronage and favours mediating between devoted murids (disciples), landlords, village leaders, and government officials became the silent victims of various waves of Islamic integrationism.


 The Pashtun aristocracy had begun to lose its hegemony to the new elite of "Islamic intellectuals, mullahs, and small warlords inside Afghanistan", and in the 1990's this group in turn was marginalized by (mostly Pashtun) neo-fundamentalist intellectuals amongst the emigrants to Pakistan. The Taleban movement signified the victory of the US-Pakistan axis of emigrants over the US-Saudi axis of urban Islamic graduates. Ahmad Shah Masood's recent assassination completes this phase. And, thirdly, the anti-colonial jihad was waged to nip the risk of agrarian reform in the bud and to divert proletarian dissatisfaction into safer alternatives. The clergy emerged from the victory over USSR in a stronger position than before and were able to frustrate proletarian/peasants demands.


VI If the history of Afghanistan is about any one thing, it is about capital's preference for field-mines to fence off enclosures over the more traditional barbed wire (20-25 Afghani are killed/injured by land-mines daily).Oil producing Middle Eastern countries used their massive riches for rapid urbanisation. Soon they engineered two modes of capital domination– formal domination in rural areas and real domination in the cities. Deprived of easy 'petro-dollars' and faced with stiffer resistance to the development of productive forces, the Afghan state could only manage a precarious formal domination in some urban areas, whilst the inaccessible rural environment retained 'pre-capitalist' social relations. The war against the USSR forged a new entrepreneurial elite in the countryside, which ironically is more 'advanced' than its city counterpart (Osama Bin Laden is one such example). These 'old men of the mountain' are plugged into the international capital circuit overseeing the distribution of arms, subsidies, humanitarian aid and drugs. Moreover, during peacetime they turn their attention to real estate speculation (similar to the warlords' activities during the reconstruction of Beirut).


VII If the history of Afghanistan is about any one thing, it is about contending models of warfare: Tribal war, Jihad, and Modern warfare (and now post-modern warfare?).Tribal war is typified by a unity (admittedly hierarchical at times), which is directed against the formation of the state (political society). Troops are presented and paraded, confrontation and retreat are conducted within limits; most of the time battles are avoided altogether and if unavoidable then conducted at a specific time and with a minimum of casualties. The Jihad, on the other hand, is the expression of a civil society (camouflaged by a false religious unity) in pursuit of political power. Asabiyya (tribal solidarity) is broken up in favour of umma (Islamic false community). The tribal obsession with symmetry and balance no longer applies. Shariat and discipline are imposed through jihad. In Modern warfare civil society is temporarily suppressed (e.g., AFL-CIO have decided to postpone their demonstration in the USA and Bush has launched an attack on Non-Governmental Organizations accusing them of being terrorist fronts), in favour of a total mobilisation of political society.


Total war recognises no boundary, either in space, time, or between categories of the population. Afghanistan has proved itself a quagmire for such professional, disciplined armies, as the Russian and British states would attest. Pentagon strategists know this, which is why they are groping towards a new mode of warfare: post-modern warfare, which combines policing and commando raids with hi-tech intelligence and PR. The modern facet of the US military response found expression against the Taleban, whilst its post-modern facets were directed mostly against the rest of us in a cyber-war involving the latest tools of propaganda.


(Afghan Series, Number 1) 20.9.2001