Friday, 26 October 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 26 October 2001

Call me obsessed with the arguments of past if you like, but I've been struck over the past few days by the number of otherwise sensible people on the left who absolve the former Soviet Union from any blame for the rise of psychotic Islamist fundamentalism in Afghanistan.

The spark was a piece by Julie Burchill – who is, of course, far from sensible – in last Saturday's Guardian. In it she declared that she felt vindicated at last for pleading in the 1980s for western support for the Soviets in Afghanistan, "the forces of civilisation against the forces of barbarism", to "stop the Islamofascists in their tracks as surely as the democracies could have stopped the forces of fascism proper in Spain if only they hadn't looked the other way".

How preposterous, I thought – and said so that evening in the pub to a bunch of leftie mates, none of whom I'd previously suspected of harbouring lingering admiration for the Red Army's murderous exploits in the Hindu Kush.

Oh no, they all said. She's right. At least the communists let women go out without the veil. At least girls could go to school. At least they made a start on land reform ...

Somewhat surprised by this response, I asked other liberal and left-wing friends what they thought – and with a couple of exceptions they were of much the same opinion.

The Soviet intervention might have been crude, their argument went, but the real villains of the piece were the fundamentalist mujahedin, who would have got nowhere without the material backing of the west. Which shows that La Burchill strikes a chord with my generation even now – but also that few on the left in Britain paid very much attention to Afghanistan when it last dominated the news.

Because the truth is that the Soviets intervened in 1979 not to defend a decent moderate secular modernising socialist regime but to topple a bunch of wannabe Pol Pots whose dictatorship had alienated most of the country's population and now faced imminent collapse in the face of popular insurgency. The Kremlin engineered a coup and sent in the troops to avert the end of Soviet hegemony in a territory it wanted as part of its bloc.

The regime installed by the Russians, though certainly a little more reasonable in its administration of everyday life than what had gone immediately before, had no popular support outside Kabul and a few big towns. It was utterly intolerant of dissent and completely dependent on Soviet backing. And the Soviet occupation force soon distinguished itself by launching a bloody counter-insurgency war, indiscriminately targeting civilians, that makes the current American assault on the Taliban look a model of restraint.

Unsurprisingly, this had the effect of recruiting thousands to the ranks of the mujahedin, who at this point were neither particularly fundamentalist – during the early 1980s the Afghan resistance was predominantly on the moderate end of Islamism and by no means committed to international jihad without end – nor, before 1981, the beneficiaries of significant western material support.

They weren't particularly effective either, though they did enough to keep the Red Army busy, and by the 1983-84 there were signs that they were tiring and prepared to parley. Had Moscow and Kabul then offered them a peace deal and a government of national reconcilliation, it is unlikely that most of them would have refused. Instead, the Soviets stuck pig-headedly to the pursuit of the unwinnable counter-insurgency war until well into 1986, and the die was cast for disaster.

This is not to exonerate the west for its despicable role in what subsequently ensued. America decided to bankroll and arm the most fanatical diehard mujahedin faction from 1981-82; and after the Soviets withdrew, humiliated, from Afghanistan in 1989, it ensured there was no peace agreement between the more moderate mujahedin and the beleaguered regime the Russians left behind in Kabul. During the protracted civil war that raged through Afghanistan in the 1990s, the west looked the other way.

The root cause of the Afghan catastrophe was, however, Soviet imperialism. Had Moscow resisted the temptation to intervene in 1979 or opened talks with the mujahedin in 1984, the "Islamofascists" would indeed have been stopped in their tracks.

Which is perhaps not much help to anyone looking for guidance as to what to do today. But it's always a good thing to get your facts right.

Friday, 12 October 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 12 October 2001

So the phoney war is over. As I write, American forces have launched bombing and missile attacks on targets in Afghanistan for two nights running, backed by the British on day one. For better or worse, what appears to be a major battle has begun — and, for better or worse, the British left has to decide where it stands.

During the phoney war, it was relatively easy. As I said in my last column, apart from a few morons who rushed into print to tell the world that America had it coming on September 11, the left was united both by its horror at the outrages in New York and Washington and in urging the US not to do anything stupid in response.

That, however, kept open all sorts of possibilities — at least in the imagination — that are now closed for ever. As soon as the raids started, “Hang on for a moment” stopped being a tenable position, however credible it might have been a week or even a day before. The options now, to put it brutally, are “Victory to the heroic Islamic anti-imperialist fighters”, “Stop this madness at once” or “Let’s hope it works”.

The first of these options is easy enough to dismiss, although I’m afraid there are a few Leninists still loyal enough to the memory of old Vladimir Ilyich (and stupid enough) to embrace it. A victory for the Taliban and Bin Laden — and for Bin Laden it would be victory simply to evade death or capture or for his organisation to survive to commit further outrages — would be a disaster for everyone else.

“Revolutionary defeatism”, the Leninist injunction to work for the defeat of one’s own side in “imperialist” war and then turn defeat into insurgency against one’s own ruling class, was never other than a mendacious recipe for terror, bloodshed and dictatorship. Its “successful” application in current circumstances would mean civil war raging through the Arab and Muslim worlds with Islamist fascist terror running rampant.

Not least because this is a plausible worst-case scenario, many on the left argue for the hostilities to cease at once. The evidence against Bin Laden and the Taliban is inconclusive, they say. And if the objectives of the attacks on Afghanistan are to capture or kill Bin Laden or to topple the Taliban regime, there are grounds to be sceptical about the likelihood of success, particularly with winter only a month away. Moreover, continuing with the assault means that thousands of innocent civilians might die (in part because it makes impossible the relief of the famine that was gripping the country long before September 11).

Even if civilian casualties are minimal, the attacks have already provoked a wave of anger throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, and it is not difficult to imagine what this might portend: a surge of Islamist militancy, the collapse of this or that regime, a bloody showdown in the Occupied Territories. Surely it makes sense for the US and its allies to think again and stop the military action right now?

Well, in our dreams perhaps. In reality, we have to face the fact that they are not going to do it, at least in part for good reason. Now the US has opted for military action, its withdrawal would be celebrated by Bin Laden and the Taliban as a stunning victory. And the consequences of that are — see above — too dire to contemplate.

It is because of this that I find myself reluctantly in the “Let’s hope it works” camp. I am not an enthusiast for raining bombs and missiles on poor defenceless civilians or for subjecting them to slow death by starvation. Nor do I believe the United States — or the developed west as a whole — has the right to impose its will as it chooses throughout the world.

I share the anti-war lobby’s doubts about the unintended consequences of the attacks. But I am persuaded of the guilt of Bin Laden’s Al-Qaida network for September 11 and of the Taliban regime’s reliance upon and support for him. And now limited military action against both Bin Laden and the Taliban has begun, there is no credible alternative to continuing with it.

It needs, however, to be accompanied by a radical recasting of western, particularly US, policy towards the Arab and Muslim worlds if it is to have a chance of success. It will not be enough merely to destroy the Taliban and capture or kill Bin Laden— difficult as either may prove.

The US and its allies will also have to ensure the establishment of a decent democratic Afghan regime and provide it with the means of rebuilding after more than two decades of civil war. They will have to make it clear that the age-old policy of propping up corrupt oligarchies in most Arab states is at an end. And, most important of all, they will have to show the world that they are serious about forcing Israel to give up the Occupied Territories to a Palestinian state.