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Who backed the Taliban?

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The Taliban’s shock troops were the dispossessed youth of the refugee camps in Pakistan. But how did such a makeshift force win so many stunning victories in such a short time? Who backed the Taliban?

In the light of the west’s fulminations against the Taliban after 11 September the answer to this question will catch the unwary by surprise. The Taliban could not have won without the backing of the USA. Imperialism helped them to power and then kept them in power.

US involvement in Afghanistan began when the modernising but crisis-wracked regime of General Daud was overthrown in 1978 by the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The PDPA was based amongst primarily on the army and air force, but also on the small working class and intelligentsia. It was a Stalinist organisation and its seizure of power was via a coup, not a revolution.

The PDPA was, however, desperate to modernise and unite the nation, turn it into a pro-Soviet state and smash the feudal rule of the khans. The problem was, it chose to do this purely from above. It issued decrees abolishing peasant debt and reforming the land. It carried through a literacy programme and it tried to eradicate the worst aspects of women’s oppression.

But it did all of this in a highly bureaucratic fashion, using repression rather than trying to mobilise the masses. Moreover, it was itself deeply divided. The Parcham wing of the PDPA under Taraki favoured concessions to the landlords and clerics and draped itself in the Green Flag of Islam. The Khalq wing, under Amin, was a kind of extreme third period Stalinist sect – waging brutal war against its opponents, including within the regime.

In the autumn of 1979 the Khalq leader, Amin, overthrew Taraki and killed him. Amin then threw himself into the war against the Mujahedin (based on the tribal warlords) that had already organised a Jihad (holy war) against what it saw as the communist infidels in Kabul.

The USSR, which had poured billions into Afghanistan to keep it friendly, saw the danger of Amin blowing up its entire project. In 1979 it invaded the country, killed Amin and installed Babrak Karmal, whose first television appearance included an appeal to his fellow Muslims. The Soviet plan was to score quick victories against the Mujahedin and then effect a reconciliation with the Islamic opposition. It backfired badly and the USSR was to pay a heavy price, retreating in 1988-9 defeated, demoralised and wracked by internal crises that culminated in its collapse.

Washington saw its chance to engage the USSR in a proxy war.

Even before the Soviet invasion, the CIA had commenced a secret operation to support the Mujahedin. After the invasion, that support continued and intensified. Officially, more than $6 billion was given to the Islamic fighters. Unofficially it amounted to a lot more. The victories of the Islamic fundamentalist came courtesy of Washington.

The National Security Adviser to the Carter regime at the time, Zbigniew Brzezinski, commented in 1998: “We didn’t push the Russians to intervene but we consciously increased the probability that they would do so. This secret operation was an excellent idea. It drew the Russians into the Afghan trap.”

Carter’s successors, Reagan and Bush senior then prosecuted the proxy war with a vengeance and on the day Kabul fell to the Islamic reactionaries there were raucous celebrations at CIA headquarters. All the money, the training of Afghan guerrillas at US rifle clubs and CIA camps, the political support and the provision of the Stingers had paid off. The USSR had suffered a catastrophic defeat.

Initially, the USA was disinterested in what happened next. But when Clinton came to power, Afghanistan was still engulfed in civil war. The conflict was between the PDPA and the Islamic forces and then, from 1992 onwards, between rival Islamic warlords. In these conditions, the US decided to back the emerging Taliban movement as a force for stability. It did this by directly involving its regional agent, Pakistan. The Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, with CIA backing, armed and equipped the growing Taliban movement and began to transport large numbers of its supporters from the refugee camps into Afghanistan.

The Taliban launched its offensive in 1994 to bring to an end the civil war that was raging inside Afghanistan. Its successes were spectacular as warlord after warlord fell. When it captured Kabul in 1996 the west heaved a sigh of relief. Not only would the Taliban bring order but, eventually, they would become an ally in the US war on drugs (Afghanistan supplies most of the world’s opium).

Indeed George W Bush last May – that’s a mere six months ago- indicated his support for the Taliban by granting it a $43 million dollar aid package. That made the US the single largest sponsor of the Taliban regime in the world.

It hoped to woo the regime into handing over its guest, Osama bin Laden, and secure recognition for it beyond its only open supporters, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Moreover the multinational oil company Unocal was now pushing for a settlement with the Taliban so that it could outflank its rivals in its bid to gain control of the planned oil and gas pipelines across the country and into Central Asia. The stakes had become high and Bush was willing to pay the Taliban to seal the deal.

Unocal received State Department backing and was given regular CIA briefings. The remaining opposition to the Taliban – the reactionary Northern Alliance – openly complained that the Taliban was being backed by the US because of Unocal’s interests in the area.

So the USA bears direct responsibility for securing the victory of the Taliban, ably assisted by Pakistan.

Despite being sponsored by the US, however, the Taliban is not a creation of the US. Its emergence does owe something to the failure of the post PDPA regime to secure peace in Afghanistan.

Between 1992 and 1994 Afghanistan was in a state of perpetual chaos. For the traders – the trucking companies who constitute a mafia in Afghanistan – the ending of the chaos was essential. Only with a new order could their trade begin to pay real dividends. Moreover this Mafia had powerful friends in Pakistan who promised to build and repair roads if only order could be established and tolls minimised.

This section of Afghan society poured money into the Taliban once it was convinced that they were determined to pacify the country. In this sense the Taliban did have the backing of an important wing of the small Afghan bourgeoisie within the country. This wing was happy to use the militia so that it could resume its lucrative trading operations (of contraband like drugs, as well as official commodities like fuel).

Imperialist backing, support from the trucking bosses and an army of enraged lumpen youth – these were the potent factors that contributed to the Taliban’s success. This did not, however, mean that the Taliban was a US agent.

The mullahs had their own agenda, their own reactionary goals and, to use CIA parlance, were always capable of delivering a “blowback” – turning on their paymasters.

On September 11 this appears to be what happened. The Taliban placed Pashtun hospitality (and probably support) for Osama bin Laden, above everything and now find themselves about to face the wrath of the “crusaders”.

What next for Afghanistan?

Out of this conflict imperialism will try to piece together some new alliance – based around the aged king (in exile since 1973), the reactionary Islamic Northern Alliance or possibly even dissident elements within the Taliban. But for the people of Afghanistan the outcome will mean more misery. Refugees, already numbering millions, will freeze and die in the camps. Peasants will starve as drought and war exact their deadly toll on the land. The tiny working class and urban intelligentsia will once again see their historic cities reduced to rubble.

Afghanistan’s agony can only be ended when a force is built, not only in that country but in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan, which can rally the people around a project of modernisation that directly benefits them and involves them directly and democratically. Until a socialist federation of the near east is created, however, the agony will continue.