Afghanistan has been the victim of conspiracy and contention between the imperialists for more than a century. The term “the Great Game” was first used to describe the sparring between the British imperialists and Tsarist Russia over control of Afghanistan in the early part of the nineteenth century. One side of Afghanistan is the gate to central Asia and the other opens towards the Indian peninsula and to the open seas long coveted by Russia. The first Western colonialists to invade Afghanistan, the British occupied Kabul in 1839 in their rivalry with Russia.
The Afghan people drove the British out in three successive British-Afghan wars. These heroic struggles of the people could not liberate the country from colonialism and exploitation, and each time tribal chiefs and feudal lords traded the future of the people for small concessions from the colonialist overlords. Following the First World War and the victory of the proletariat led by the Bolshevik Party in Russia, which exhilarated the oppressed masses of the world, the third of these anti-colonialist wars succeeded in establishing independence under the rule of Amanullah Khan, ushering in a new era characterised by semi-feudalism and semi-colonialism.
The British continued to pursue their influence in Afghanistan, even more wary now given the existence of a socialist country to the north. Yet the British Empire was beginning to decline, overshadowed by the rising strength of US imperialism, through the aftermath of the Second World War. In the mid-1950s the new revisionist rulers in the Soviet Union, who had overthrown socialism, pushed to extend their influence by entering the “Great Game” in Afghanistan. The appetite of Soviet social-imperialism grew geometrically in the 1970s as contention with the US imperialists and their Western allies for controlling greater parts of the world intensified.
The Soviets used their economic leverage but also worked through pro-Soviet revisionist parties within Afghanistan. Between 1956 and 1973 they gave Afghanistan close to $3 billion in economic and military aid. A coup in 1978 brought one of the two main pro-Soviet revisionist groups, the Khalq Party, to power. The Soviets’ aim was to open the way towards the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf through its control of Afghanistan. Some forces opposed the coup, making it difficult for the revisionists to control the country on their own. So in an attempt to consolidate its hold, the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Afghanistan with their own troops and brought to power a new lackey from the other revisionist group, the Parcham Party.
The blood-soaked Soviet occupation of Afghanistan not only outraged the people and gave rise to fierce popular resistance but also represented a major challenge to the Western imperialist bloc. So Afghanistan became the focus of two of the most intense contradictions of the world. Revolutionary forces and masses all over the world supported the heroic struggle of the people of Afghanistan, whilst feudal and other reactionary forces directly or indirectly linked to the US and Western imperialists were also mobilising themselves on a world scale to defeat the Soviet social-imperialists’ threat to their global domination.
The US imperialists acted quickly. They poured in immense quantities of military and financial support to bolster the feudal and tribally-based warlord armies. They tried to mobilise the Islamic forces and regional reactionary regimes within their orbit to wage jihad against “godless communists”, as they liked to call the revisionist social-imperialists. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, with its intelligence service, the infamous ISI, as well as the new revisionists of Deng Xiao-ping’s China, backed the various mujahedeen and reactionary forces within the Afghanistani resistance. This devastating and merciless war lasted for a decade and claimed over 1.5 million lives. It left millions of wounded and handicapped, and uprooted a huge section of the population, one-third of whom became refugees in neighbouring countries and parts of the world.
When the last pro-Soviet regime, led by Najibullah, was overthrown in 1992, various mujahedeen groups then fought amongst themselves for the upper hand in ruling Afghanistan. From Massoud (favourite of the European imperialists), Rabbani and others from the Tajik minority, to Hekmatyar, darling of the ISI and CIA who was stronger in Pashtun areas, to the Shiite Muslims of the Vahdat Party from the Hazara area and central region, to Ismail Khan in the west and General Dostum in the Uzbek area, each of these warlords commanded his own region and ruthlessly oppressed people of other nationalities. The next few years was a period of feudal tribal-based warlordism and terror, with uncontrolled banditry and looting of the people, as well as the widespread rape of women. It was also the ugly reactionary playground for marauding regional interests – the major imperialist powers and reactionary neighbours, such as Pakistan, India and Iran – each deployed funding and arms to try to make use of the local warlords for their own interests. Commanders continually changed sides, “betraying” their clan for a higher bid elsewhere, fuelling the escalation of local conflicts.
More than 10,000 civilians were killed in the war between Hekmatyar, leading the main Pashtun force, Rabbani and Massoud. Kabul was destroyed by the attacks of the forces of Hekmatyar and Dostum.
Although the Soviets’ dream for a passage to South Asia and the seas failed and they were forced to withdraw as their own empire collapsed, Afghanistan nevertheless continued to be of strategic importance, due in large part to the discovery of new oil and natural gas fields in Central Asia and the Caspian Sea. Amidst sharpening inter-imperialist rivalry, oil was more than ever not just an object of plunder, but a strategic resource, control over which began to shape the conflict in the whole region. For the imperialists, denying their rivals access to energy supplies became as important as ensuring this access and control for themselves.
As the Soviets retreated in the early 1990s, the US imperialists thus embarked upon a policy to replace Soviet influence over the Central Asian countries with their own, to connect them into the world market and to break up the Russian monopoly over the pipelines to that market. They also set out to build an alternative to the Persian Gulf region as a key energy supply in order to reinforce the US’s dominant global position. One of the key aspects of this was, of course, preventing Russia from re-emerging as a major rival in the region. The pipeline the US needed had to cross through Afghanistan to Pakistan to the open seas in order to freely access the Western market.
Politically and financially weak after the collapse of its bloc, Russia attempted to protect its sphere of influence territorially in Central Asia and control the export of the oil and natural gas of the region by passing pipelines through its own country.
Iran, Turkey and Pakistan also became involved in the contention over the pipeline project in order to advance their own interests. At the same time, European imperialist powers were contending for influence in the area and often clashed with the US’s scheme for domination, whilst over the past decade oil companies from all over rushed to the battlefield to enter into the fray of constructing the pipeline.
The great instability of Afghanistan warlordism became totally unsuitable for the US imperialists’ new strategy in the region, and despite these fiefdoms’ long support by the CIA and ISI, it fell to Pakistan, the US’s most servile regional lackey, to organise the displacement of the warlords and put political power in the hands of a central, more unified regime.
Enter the Taliban
The Taliban represented primarily the Pashtun feudal classes and tribes. Most of them were born in Pakistan and, according to Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia, were educated in religious schools in Pakistan under the supervision of a fundamentalist named Molana Fazlul Rahman. Rahman in turn had ties to the Bhutto government in Pakistan and was the key figure in linking up the Pakistani army and the ISI with the Taliban leadership. The Taliban had little experience fighting the Soviets and only a few of their leaders had collaborated with the mujahedeen, mainly with one faction of the Islamic Party. Without the intelligence and military aid of the US and Pakistan, including the latter’s direct combat involvement, along with Saudi financial support, the Taliban would never have been able to defeat the warlords who had 10 years hard experience of fighting the Russian army and of civil war behind them. In November 1994, the Taliban gained control of Kandahar, and using Pakistani and Saudi help, attacked Kabul with missiles, killing and injuring thousands. On 26 September 1996, the Taliban seized Kabul, and set up a central power structure.
The Taliban’s extreme fundamentalism prevented the US from openly recognising its authority. Yet they maintained warm relations through Islamabad and began to prepare US oil companies to launch the pipeline project. When the harsh Islamic laws were put into force, when thousands of girls and women were shut out of the schools, sacked from their jobs and locked up in their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative, when massacres of non-Pashtun minorities took place, and hands and heads were being cut off in the name of Islamic justice, there was no US demagogy about democracy and freedom.
The US state welcomed the new relative stability once the Taliban succeeded in controlling two-thirds of the country, even if at times, pressured by public opinion, it tried to publicly distance itself from the Taliban. As late as May 2001 with Bush already in office, the US administration approved over $40 million in financial aid to the Taliban.