Commentary about overlapping oppressions

Harry’s Place carries a story about Afgahn women and girls defying Taliban acid-attacks and continuing to attend school. I link there for two reasons. Firstly, the story itself deserves to be publicised – it is, as they say, inspiring. The second one is to comment on the discourse that they develop around the story, fitting into the ongoing feud between the ‘decent left’ and the ‘anti-imperialist’ left.

For those who don’t keep up with lefty politics, the basic issue is this: when the armed might of the most powerful countries in the world is deployed to bomb the hell out of some third-world country so as to remove a bunch of unhinged hate-filled maniacs who reside there, who should be ‘supported’, who is the ‘lesser of two evils’?

Broadly speaking, the far-left folks, especially Trotskyists and that sort, say that the former, ‘imperialism’, is the more serious threat, simply because it is so powerful that the most important issue for most of the world’s people is to resist it. Consequently they tend to oppose the occupations of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, and support those fighting them. Again speaking broadly, the near-left, usually liberals rather than socialists, say that imperialism should be supported in its crusade against hate-filled maniacs because hate-filled maniacs are really really bad, by any definition, whereas the badness of the US armed forces is more mixed. They often use the term ‘fascism’ to describe said reactionaries. They typically support US, Israeli and coalition forces of occupation, and oppose Islamism. As this summary suggests, the argumentative focus tends to be on the middle east and nearby areas.

The commentary at Harry’s Place, a bastion of the ‘decent left‘, tries to present the courage of the girls resisting the Taliban as an argument against the anti-imperialist side. The thought runs, anti-imperialists oppose the US occupation and so they support the Taliban; these girls are resisting the Taliban, therefore anti-imperialists are opposed to them.

As is often the case with the positions of one’s enemies, this position is so horrible that one can’t understand how anyone could hold it. Of course no-one does. The best that can be mustered as an example of Leftists ‘glorifying’ the Taliban is the following very measured judgement by an Socialist Worker’s Party writer: “there are no easy outcomes for Afghans in this situation, but the best one is a victory for the resistance”

Now, the position there looks pretty clear to me. It starts from the position that there are no easy outcomes, precisely because the ideal agent, a powerful left-wing movement, feminist, democratic, socialist, and so forth, does not exist. Only two forces capable of taking power in Afghanistan exist: the US occupation and those forces affiliated to it, and the Taliban and those forces affiliated to it. The claim is simply that given this, the US is a more destructive force than the Taliban.

Now this may not be correct – there may in fact be a third force, or it may be that the Taliban are more destructive than the US. But it’s not a claim that the Taliban are nice people, or their ideas correct, or anything like that: simply that one destructive force is better than another, which is not an obviously despicable thing to say. Indeed I happen to think it is true, although I’m open to being persuaded otherwise.

I don’t however think it’s especially relevant that the acid the Taliban throw is able to specifically target one female civilian, whereas the bombs that the US drops are able only to maim a random collection of civilians, nor that the ideas in the head of one are different from the ideas in the head of the other (and bear in mind that far-right racist groups in the US actively encourage their members to join the US and go kill nonwhites, so what’s in whose head may not be so clear).

So what does that mean for these school girls? While obviously they deserve unreserved support, and we can only hope that they continue their struggle, and gain as much wider support as possible, we should ask ourselves why the Taliban has been able, against the world’s most powerful army, to regain control of so much of the country. It may well be that they (and not feminists, socialists, or liberals) have always opposed the occupations (both Soviet and American), and so everyone who has lost a relative or a limb to trigger-happy US soldiers or their ‘targetted’ bombs will turn to them. Recall also that the Taliban emerged after the similarly destructive USSR invasion.

If that analysis is correct, then the occupying powers are not really able to do much to help female schoolgirls, because the more direct support and protection they give them, the more they identify them with the hated oppressor. This is the basic fact about imperialism – if you are operating in a society where you do not have popular legitimacy, then your attempts to do anything other than deploy violence will be doomed from the start.The fact that the Taliban has sufficient popular support to ban female education is itself related to the fact that female education is so promoted by the occupying forces/ their local allies.

7 Responses to “Commentary about overlapping oppressions”

  1. Gabriel Says:

    But is not the obvious point that were the Taliban and all other resistance factions to lay down their arms, America would cease bombing (and in all likelihood leave altogether), wheras if America was to get lost the Taliban would continue to throw acid in the faces of women and, in fact, do so more?

    The general point would seem to be this. All the problems of U.S. imperialism come from people resisting it and the U.S. fighting that resistance. Sure, the U.S. may do most of the killing (though in neither Iraq or Afghanistan is this remotely true), but they wouldn’t be doing it if there was no resistance. This is to say the problem isn’t imperialism, it is unsuccessful imperialism and resultant war.

    So wouldn’t the best possible (because, as you say, there is not third force) thing for Iraq and Afghanistan be for the U.S. to comprehensively defeat all its enemies and get on with imperialism? Obviously, this wouldn’t be the best thing for your plans for a new global order free of U.S. imperialism, but, if that is the issue, you should say so and not claim that what you want is the best available option for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, because it isn’t.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “were the Taliban and all other resistance factions to lay down their arms, America would cease bombing”

    If there were no resistance of any sort, then yes, there would be no bombing. What there would be instead is unopposed colonial control, the designing of the economies of imperialised countries around the needs of the economy of imperial countries, and an ever-growing gap between their respective levels of wealth, probably resulting in periodic famines, possibly accompanied by progressive chucking-out of natives from the best land as it was taken by settlers on a ‘civilising’ mission, and no doubt with some residual level of violence just from the impunity given to the imperial administrators to indulge their sadism.

    “This is to say the problem isn’t imperialism, it is unsuccessful imperialism and resultant war.”

    Your argument strikes me as similar to ‘if an abused husband or wife does everything his/her spouse demands, has dinner ready when they want it, never goes out on their own with other people, etc., then they beatings will stop.’ It misses out that 1) violence serves to defend a project of domination, and 2) it’s absurd to imagination that project somehow never producing resistance that will demand crushing.

    “if America was to get lost the Taliban would continue to throw acid in the faces of women and, in fact, do so more?”

    I think if there had been no Soviet or US invasions, spouting feminist ideas, progressive ideas wouldn’t be as unpopular as they now are. No doubt there would be a struggle against various sorts of conservative bigots (the Taliban may be bigots but they are not conservative), just as there is and has been in every other country, to acheive progress grounded in grass-roots support. But having this imposed by foreigners with guns and bombs doesn’t really do that struggle any good (as can be seen by observing the anti-feminism of the current parliament, and indeed of almost all the forces that the US is having to win over in order to have any stable social base) – or rather, it does that struggle only as much as is useful to undermine the Taliban (which is not much).

    Of course it’s true that, given the thirty years or so of imperial invasion and civil war, a Taliban victory would be a detestable regime in many ways. It would be a good while before feminist ideas and a women’s movement would be able to assert themselves. But the withdrawl of imperial influence is, I believe, vital for an end to civil war (I say this on the understanding that the Taliban currently have very widespread and growing popular support and are consequently able to fight the US/government forces effectively and control most of the countryside – if this is not true then my views would be different), and an end to civil war is vital for feminist progress rooted in actual people’s beliefs and changing culture.

  3. Gabriel Says:

    Your argument to me sounds like this “If someone is slapping his wife around, it would be a sensible idea for said wife to survey the local prison for crazed psychos, find a really mental one, set him loose on the husband and the get married to him”.

    Well, actually, it doesn’t really, but it does illustrate a rather tedious and unhelpful mode of argument.

    Annyway, back to basics. You pointed out that, given there is no third force there are 2 options in Afghanistan:
    1) Taliban victory
    2) U.S. victory.
    I pointed out that actually there are three possibilities
    1) Taliban victory
    2) U.S. victory
    3) war between the U.S. and the taliban.

    Granted these are in continuum, rather than being strcitly discrete.
    Now, we know the bad consequences of (3) (air raids and dead children, taliban attaks and dead children etc.) We know the bad consequences of (1) (acid meets girl’s face etc.). So what are the bad consequences of (2)? You appear to be suggesting that this will involve white settlers colonising Afghanistan. This isn’t happening at all, indeed the U.S. from the off has demonstrated a rather unseemly ambition to get a government up and running as fast as possible in order to GTFO. Are you saying that if they were more militarily successful this is what they would be doing? What is the evidence for this claim?

    I’ll make the obvious comparison. Iraq 4 years ago was definitely in the equivalent of scenario (3), now it’s much more like (2). Previously civilian casualties were running at 2000 a month (way above that of the Gaza war for example), now they are not. This would seem to me a clear advantage. What disadvantages can you produce? (N.B. Using a lot of jargon to say “imperalism is bad because it is imperialism”, doesn’t count).

    P.S. I’m genuinely interested. Which of these would you say is most close to the truth?
    (i) Imperalism inspires resistance because it is wrong.
    (ii) Imperalism is wrong because it inspires resistance.
    (iii) Imperalism is wrong and it inspires resistance, but these are logically un-connected.

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “So what are the bad consequences of (2)?”

    Firstly, the easier the US finds it to invade Afghanistan, the more able and willing they’re likely to be to invade anywhere else.

    Secondly, the longer the US (or people who are in power because of US backing) stay, the longer reactionaries and would-be dictators will be able to find people happy to support them because of their claims to oppose them, and the longer it will take for grass-roots progressive movements to build up strength.

    Thirdly, to the extent that the US are able to establish a stable support base, they are likely to do so by making deals and concessions to various local holders of power and authority, which will often mean making concessions to holding back women’s rights (observe the startling feminism of the current Afghan parliament).

    Fourthly, I think the continued presence of the US is likely to increase political instability, because it introduces a very large and very unpredictable force into everyone’s power-calculations (unpredictable because it’s basis lies across the atlantic, rather than in local relations).

    Fifthly, given that, as I say, there is such widespread hostility to the US, I suspect pro-US forces will be able to maintain order only at the cost of continuing to make war in various areas of the country (as Pakistan is having to do in its north-west).

    “You appear to be suggesting that this will involve white settlers colonising Afghanistan.”
    Obviously that’s not happening in Afghanistan, but the reason it’s so unfeasible nowadays is largely because of anti-imperial resistance in the past. I apologise for putting in a rather unclear way.

    “This would seem to me a clear advantage.”
    It’s true that an end to civil war is a big advantage.

    “Which of these would you say is most close to the truth?”

    I suppose those are all true to some extent. Imperialism is wrong principally because it produces instability and conflict, and the resistance it inspires is often part of that (though not always: resistance can be uniting, democratic, stabilising, etc.), and the fact that it inspires resistance is partly because it tends to bring disorder, but also partly because it’s an expression of power (i.e. sometimes the local head bigwig is just pissed off at foreign bigwiggers).

  5. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Oh I forgot about how pro-Imperial leaders can rely on imperial backing to stay in power in spite of massive corruption or incompetence.

  6. Gabriel Says:

    Right then, in order.

    1) At the beginning I said “this wouldn’t be the best thing for your plans for a world free of U.S. imperialism” because I rather suspected that your desire to see a U.S. defeat in Afghanistan is grounded on reasons that have precious little to do with Afghanistan. Now, perhaps it’s just co-incidence, but when pushed for a downside to a U.S. victory relative to either stalemate or Taliban victory, your first thought is this.

    2) You mean reactionaries and would-be dictators in Afghanistan? There is a common argument, which states that the only way to defuse resistance movements is to let them take over, screw up and then “genuine progressive movements” can take over. The problem is that their screwing up can and often does entail famine, civil war ad genocide. In the alternative scenario, where the U.S. wins, it can just imprison enough of them to make the others shut up. It’s simply not true that resistance movements in general, or that Islamist ones in particular, always get stronger by being repressed. Ask the gangsters in Damascus.

    3) If you mean that most Afghani women will be cooking and looking after the kids rather than slowly grinding their soul away in a cubicle, you’re probably right. If you mean that the U.S. will be forced into making deals with psychotic mysogynists (redundant I know), then I suspect you’re wrong. I’m not a feminist, so as long as women aren’t being habitually used as targets for the cruelty of defective males, I guess I’m OK with there being broadly differentiated gender roles. After all, it’s their society. Of course, we haven’t managed to end spousal abuse in this country and I doubt we will their eiher. I tend to think the explanation in this lies in Augustine rather than the structural make up of patriarchy.

    4) Unpredictable to who? People who can’t go on the NYT website? Perhaps the U.S. is more unpredictable than domestic actors in Afghanistan because it’s currently in the process of a rather vulgar messianic religious revival, but because it’s far away? Really?

    5) This is the strongest argument. If you will permit me to re-phrase in my idiom, you’re saying that actually only (1) and (3) are practically possible, in which case (1) is preferable. Because of the nature of Afghanistan (though not the nature of imperial relations generally), you may be correct. I certainly hope not, because nothing said here has made me waver one bit in the belief that, of the logically possible scenarios, (2) is by far the best.

    **
    As regarding white settlement in Afghanistan. Are you saying that resistance in the past prevents it happening now, or prevented it happening then. Are we talking settlement on the levels of colonial India or Australia?

    As to your last point, no political system insulates us from gross incompetence. Often grossly incompetent political leaders rely on the stupidity, gullibility and bribability of domestic populations to stay in power, like in this country for example.

  7. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “It’s simply not true that resistance movements in general, or that Islamist ones in particular, always get stronger by being repressed.”

    It’s not so much whether they get stronger, it’s whether the pro-imperial vs. anti-imperial faultline continues to distort political affiliations. Mugabe for example has clearly not got weaker by not being in jail – but the discourse that helps him to maintain what support he ever had is an anti-imperial one, i.e. a consequence of the imperialism everywhere. I think that the less of it there is, the less that kind of thing is possible.

    “no political system insulates us from gross incompetence. Often grossly incompetent political leaders rely on the stupidity, gullibility and bribability of domestic populations”
    Taking away one more prop forces them to rely more on the stupidity and gullibility of their own populations, which nevertheless means relying on them. The more dependent they are the better.

    “Perhaps the U.S. is more unpredictable than domestic actors in Afghanistan because it’s currently in the
    process of a rather vulgar messianic religious revival, but because it’s far away?”

    Yes. The US is so independent of local power balances that it can quite easily shift its support from one side of a meaningless local feud to the other. It can start by backing Hamas to weaken Fatah, then start supporting Fatah to weaken Hamas. It can start by supporting the Tutsis to keep down the Hutus, then switch to backing the Hutus to keep down the Tutsis. Etc. This means that if I’m some local actor, where previously I might have sized up my rival and thought ‘it’s gonna be crap if we fight, let’s see how we can compromise’, now I think ‘if I can get the US on my side I definitely win – but if I leave that bastard with any power, he might get the US on his side, and then I’ll definitely lose.’ If something makes the average local actor both more confident and more scared, it’s likely to increase instability.

    “Are you saying that resistance in the past prevents it happening now, or prevented it happening then.”
    It was a general comment to gesture towards what happens when imperialism is successful and finds no resistance. Quite possibly it would not have happened in Afghanistan in any case.


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