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.