War, Islamists, and the Left


The US war machine continues to inflict untold miseries on the people of the world and particularly those of the Muslim faith.  Barack Obama, the first black president in the history of the United States, has repeatedly promised to repair some of the damage wreaked by his predecessor on the international stage.  But the new president’s overtures about turning over a new leaf in US relations with the Muslim world do not correspond to his record in the first few months.  Admittedly it is still early days but it is telling that since January when Obama took oath, there has been a noticeable upsurge in violence in Iraq.  The occupation continues to brutalize Iraqi society, and, notwithstanding numerous promises about American troop withdrawals both before and after the presidential election, American military men have clearly suggested that there is little chance of a substantial reduction in numbers of the almost 140,000 American soldiers in the country in the near future.  Meanwhile there is as yet no clear articulation of policy on Palestine.  Summits with Mahmoud Abbas and “suggestions” to Binyamin Netanyahu aside, Obama’s foreign policy team has distinguished itself on this high-profile front only by its regular resort to rhetoric.

To be fair, Obama signaled throughout his presidential campaign that he would redirect Washington’s foreign policy focus towards the “good war” in Afghanistan.  And true to form, the new administration has focused heavily on what it has started to call “Afpak.”  This euphemism for Afghanistan and Pakistan has been coined to emphasize the inextricable fortunes of the two countries and more specifically the fact that the insurgency is strongest in the nebulous border region which the Pakhtun ethnic group (the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan and a significant minority in Pakistan) inhabits.  Aside from a troop surge which will see an additional 21,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, the Obama administration has essentially twisted the arm of America’s long-standing ally, the Pakistani army, into launching a scorched-earth operation in the Malakand valley of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) followed by another assault in the South Waziristan tribal agency.  Malakand has been in the headlines for the past two years because it is the heartland of a self-styled Taliban movement whereas Waziristan is said to be the home base of al-Qaeda.  Despite notable differences between the “terrorists” in Malakand and Waziristan, it is said that they enjoy a symbiotic relationship.  The fallouts of the military campaign have included an unprecedented internal refugee crisis with more than 3.5 million people being displaced.  The Obama administration clearly believes that this is not too high a price to pay for the expansion of war.

It is telling that the Pakistani army is being called upon to come good on its commitments to “fighting terror.”  For the best part of George Bush’s time in office, the top brass was more or less given a blank cheque to rehabilitate elements of the (primarily Pakhtun) Taliban with whom Pakistan has enjoyed a deep, consensual relationship in exchange for the capture of “foreigners,” particularly Arabs who could be identified with the international, anti-American agenda of al-Qaeda.  On the face of it, the new administration has been keen to do away with this binary — hence the increased pressure on the military generals that dictate Pakistan’s strategic and foreign policies to clamp down on the militant elements within Pakistan’s territory.

That said, the American strategy of engagement within Afghanistan virtually since the start of the occupation in late 2001 has been a model of inconsistency itself.  Even after the troop surge, there will not be enough boots on ground to secure decisive control over all of Afghanistan’s territory.  Over the past year or so, Washington has very vocally admonished other NATO member countries for refusing to commit additional forces to the Afghan front.  It is unlikely that telling off the “coalition of the willing” will have much of an effect.  While it may be an exaggeration to suggest that Hamid Karzai is little more than the mayor of Kabul, it is nevertheless true that the pro-American regime has not been able to replace well-established regional fiefs and has relied on a mixture of confrontation and appeasement to maintain its nominal authority.  There is very little evidence that Afghanistan is closer to stability now than when the war started in 2001.  In effect, the Americans have vacillated as much as the Pakistanis, and there is more than a hint of desperation about the Obama administration’s attempts to make it appear as if the fundamental fault for the failing war lies with Islamabad.

As some commentators have noted, the spread of war into Pakistan bears more than a passing resemblance to the bombing of Cambodia in 1969-70 in the wake of years of futility in Vietnam.  Then, the US-backed Lon Nol regime was backed by the hyper elite in Phnom Penh and other major urban centers on account of the “communist threat” which was justification enough for the massacre of civilians.  On this occasion, Pakistan’s liberal elite has fully backed a massive military operation under the guise that the Taliban represent a grave threat to humanity. In short, the elite has completely bought into the media hype and acquiesced to the absurdity of displacing 3 million people in the name of fighting a few thousand insurgents.  This political stand is particularly stunning in light of the openly acknowledged fact that the Pakistani army remains unwilling to completely sever ties with religious militants who can be classified as “good Taliban” in contrast to the “bad Taliban” in Malakand.  In effect, the crimes of imperialism and its client Pakistani army are being forgiven in the name of confronting the enemy of civilization (some on the left have described the Taliban as the “principal contradiction” at the present time).

The refugees are described as “internally displaced people,” a typical example of the apolitical nature of development-speak.  They have been driven from their homes by the nexus of terror that is the Empire, its client Pakistani army, and the Taliban.  They want only to return to a genuine peace.  But what John Bellamy Foster, Hannah Holleman, and Robert W. McChesney have called the US Imperial Triangle, namely state-financed military production, media propaganda, and real/imagined economic-employment effects, ensures that the war continues with no end in sight.  Pakistan’s Pakhtuns are being forced into a corner just like their Afghan kin due to decades of uninterrupted and cynical war.  The Afghan Taliban came into power and obtained the de facto acceptance of the Afghan population because people were tired of war and wanted peace — however it was framed — at any cost.  The displacement of more than 3 million Pakistani Pakhtuns will provide another golden opportunity for the Taliban within Pakistan to genuinely deepen their presence within society.

Samir Amin, “Political Islam in the Service of Imperialism” (Monthly Review, 59.7, December 2007 ); Tariq Amin-Khan, “Analyzing Political Islam: A Critique of Traditional Historical Materialist Analytic” (Monthly Review, Commentary, March 2009); and Samir Amin, “Comments on Tariq Amin-Khan’s Text” (Monthly Review, Commentary, March 2009).

Here it is worth drawing attention to the debate between Samir Amin and Tariq Amin-Khan which was documented in recent editions of Monthly Review.  Both Amin and Amin-Khan concur that there is an urgent need for the left in the Muslim world to reflect on the rise of political Islam as a means of beginning the long and arduous task of rebuilding a progressive alternative that is genuinely anti-imperialist and possesses a workable political program.  Unless and until the left rehabilitates itself, it is the religious right which will continue to gain ground in the wake of the death and destruction caused by Washington’s imperial adventure in Muslim countries.  The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan are a perfect example of this.

Amin and Amin-Khan disagree on the extent to which the Taliban and others of their ilk are organic representatives of the popular classes and if a secular politics of the left should (or should not) be cognizant of the ideational power of Islam in Muslim societies.  These are important disagreements, although both agree that the religious right has come to acquire the mantle of anti-imperialism (even though the politics of the right is exclusively culturalist).  I believe it is important for the left (in Pakistan, the wider Muslim world, and even the western countries) to analyze deeply what is transpiring in Pakistan in the wake of the spread of war to provide an immediately relevant context to the debate between Amin and Amin-Khan.

First, a brief history of Islamist militancy in Pakistan and its links to Afghanistan is in order.  As Amin rightly points out, because of the very basis of the Pakistani state, the country’s ruling class has in the past instrumentalized, and will continue to instrumentalize in the future, Islam as official ideology.  This explains why the religious right has, for the most part, enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the state; throughout the cold war, the right was seen as a bulwark against left secular forces.  There were also clear foreign policy goals to be served by the sponsorship of political Islamists.  Pakistan has always been insecure about its geography due to the perceived hostility of India and Afghanistan.  Following Indian support to the secessionist movement in east Pakistan in 1971 that resulted in the break-up of the state, Islamabad initiated direct support for Pakhtun Islamists in Afghanistan, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Burhanuddin Rabbani, to weaken the pro-Indian and secular regime of King Daud.  When the Saur Revolution took place in 1977, Washington simply had to tap in to the already established supply line of mujahideen.

While the obvious effects of Islamist militancy were most visible in Afghanistan, Pakistani society was also deeply affected.  Throughout General Zia ul Haq’s 11 years in power (1977-88), secular and organic bases of politics such as trade and student unions, progressive intellectual for a, and even artists of all stripes were ruthlessly suppressed.  A whole new generation of young people was instead exposed to sectarianism and narrow ethnic nationalism while jihad in Afghanistan and against India in Kashmir was romanticized.  It is now well documented that thousands of religious schools were set up under state patronage and that modern, secular education was conspicuous by its absence.  A majority of these religious schools may never have actively supported jihadi groups, but they nonetheless contributed to the politicization of society along sectarian lines.

While left secular forces resisted this state onslaught, there is no doubt that the country’s political culture as a whole was dramatically transformed.  In the two decades since the end of the Zia dictatorship, the Islamization of politics has, if anything, become even more pronounced.  This is in large part due to the fact that the Pakistani state continued to pursue its strategic and foreign policy goals in Afghanistan and Kashmir through jihadi proxies.  Thus in 1996 the Pakistan-backed Taliban took power in Afghanistan.  A plethora of jihadi groups continue to operate in Kashmir as part of Islamabad’s long-term policy of bleeding India.

In sum, while Samir Amin is right that political Islam in Pakistan has been a project of the ruling class, it is now also true that state sponsorship over a long period of time has allowed Islamists to carve out not insignificant pockets of support within the wider society.  There is a steady supply of recruits for militant organizations, a large number of whom have not been clamped down upon by the government even after the onset of the “war on terror” because the Pakistani state wishes to maintain the option of employing jihadi proxies against hostile neighbors.  This essentially means that a highly complex situation has developed, especially following Washington’s insistence on the escalation of military operations against the Pakistani Taliban.

A brief digression is necessary here.  It is important to bear in mind that the idiom of jihad has featured prominently in modern Pakhtun history.  From the time of Mughal rule in India, various militant movements have emerged in Pakhtun areas to repel outside invaders under the guise of jihad.  This trend became very pronounced with the attempts of the British to establish their hegemony over the Pakhtun heartland which eventually resulted in the creation of modern Afghanistan and the separation of the Pakhtun nation through the drawing of the Durand Line.  As such, it was not an historical anomaly for jihad to become the rallying cry in the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.  There are of course innumerable differences between the historical notion of jihad and that which has become commonplace over the past three decade; however, what matters is that the Pakistani state and American imperialism clearly recognized the historical significance of jihad within Pakhtun society in framing their policy of proxy war against the Soviet Union.

Having instrumentalized the idiom of jihad, the Empire now faces obstacles in its attempts to secure hegemony over the Pakhtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  In the Malakand Valley, the Pakistani Taliban have emerged to spearhead a campaign for the ‘Islamization’ of the state whilst also claiming to be fighting against the agenda of infidel America.  For the best part of two years, the Pakistani military has turned a blind eye to the Pakistani Taliban’s activities, which has permitted the latter to slowly but surely cultivate pockets of support by invoking class hatred against landed scions and the oppressive state bureaucracy (there are also mercenary elements within the Taliban militias).  The Malakand Taliban were not a well-entrenched social movement before the current conjuncture and to a significant extent have benefited from the military’s ambivalence towards them.  However, the recent change in the military’s posture changes the equation altogether.

With the Americans forcing the Pakistani military’s hand, the Taliban’s numbers are likely to swell as the call to jihad takes on genuine meaning.  The hundreds of thousands languishing in refugee camps talk of the mortar shells that have destroyed their homes and killed their relatives.  They seethe with anger and warn the government that most Taliban fighters hail from the local population.  The longer the war continues — and it has only just begun in this region — the better the chances that the Taliban will be able to recruit from the refugees.  One recalls the story of Hamas’ rise from within the Palestinian refugee camps.  Unsurprisingly, religio-political organizations such as the Jamaa’t-e-Islami are the more prominent and efficient of all relief providers in the camps.

I agree with Samir Amin that the political Islamists, including the Taliban within Afghanistan and Pakistan, do not offer a meaningful alternative to capitalist imperialism. They romanticize the past and offer those who will die in their cause the promise of eternal salvation.  In the particular case of Pakistan, they remain the beneficiaries of the state’s ideological compulsions, even if many contradictions have emerged in the historical relationship between jihadis and the state as this latest phase of imperialist war has progressed.  Their project of permanent war against the infidels is in fact the mirror image of the “clash of civilizations” logic that Barack Obama has also bought into (as was in evidence during his address to the “Islamic” world in Cairo).  At the same time, as Amin insightfully points out, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan are just as likely to agree to compromise with the Americans and/or their Pakistani clients as they are to fight till the death.

But as Amin-Khan notes, there is something to be said for the fact that political Islamists have established connections with the popular classes and to some extent have come to represent the latter’s aspirations for dignity and freedom. The Taliban is the only obvious option for those who wish to resist the military onslaught taking place in Malakand at the present time.  This does not make them anti-imperialist per se or make their retrogressive ideology any less anti-people, but it does suggest that they will continue to be able to claim that they are anti-imperialists unless and until another political force emerges to take on the fight.  Thus it is in the realm of struggle, as Amin asserts, that the left must reorganize itself and prove its anti-imperialism in deeds rather than words.

While I agree that there is no question of the left allying with political Islamists (which in Pakistan, for example, is not an option in any case because the left is so weak), I do believe that it is important for the left to learn from the past and avoid alienating itself from the wider public in Muslim societies by depicting itself as anti-religious. Throughout the cold war and even afterwards, the secular left was victimized by the state and the right because it could be equated to a movement of atheists.  Needless to say, massive propaganda campaigns played their part, but there were also inopportune mistakes made by the left in the sense of a dismissive attitude towards religion that harmed the cause.

Indeed I think that there is great potential in employing religious symbols and idioms that further the struggle for socialism, as liberation theology has done in Latin America. For example there is a long established mystic tradition in the subcontinent that has much deeper cultural roots than the revivalism of political Islamists or Hindu supremacists in India and which has been very critical of both the latter.  This tradition is syncretic rather than narrowly religious and accords considerable space to the left.  It also crucially does not require any sort of compromise on what Amin has incisively described as the principle of radical secularism.

I believe the even in Pakistan, which Amin rightfully points out is less conducive to secular political traditions simply because of its peculiar genesis, political Islamists’ monopoly over the politics of anti-imperialism will not last.  The Imperial Triangle and the Islamists, as both Amin and Amin-Khan agree, feed off each other, and it will therefore be some time before the secular left again becomes a meaningful force in Pakistan (and other Muslim countries).  But it must not be forgotten that before the Islamists were foisted upon Muslim societies it was the secular left that represented the aspirations of the popular classes.  And ultimately it is only the secular left that can take the popular anti-imperialist project to its logical conclusion: socialism.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar is a political activist associated with the People’s Rights Movement (PRM), a confederation of working-class struggles.  He also teaches colonial history and political economy at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.