The Lesson of Afghanistan? Anti-communism is a poison in the veins of the US working class.
For the last two decades a prominent and recurring theme in the US Left’s response to the US government’s phony war on terror has been to expose the role that the US CIA played creating the Taliban in Afghanistan. The US role in financing, arming, and training the warlords that evolved into the Taliban is — correctly — identified as a development that not only led to those forces taking power in Afghanistan but to the proliferation of other extremist groups, including Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Not surprisingly, that theme has often been repeated in recent weeks in response to the quick and utter collapse of the US proxy government in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of US troops. What is generally missing from that discussion, however, is the role that the Left itself, including leading players (individuals and organizations) in the peace movement and in Left political parties and groups played in enabling the US role in Afghanistan. If we are going to point out the real role played by the CIA in fomenting violence and destroying nations, then we should also be prepared to discuss the ways in which the US Left has failed to challenge that role. In particular, we should be looking at the ways that nationalism and ultra-leftism led to severe political errors, and the ways in which those errors undermined domestic opposition to imperialism. Overall, the lesson should be that anti-communism continues to be a poison in the bloodstream of the working class in the US.
In 1978, the government of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan asked its neighbor, the USSR, for military assistance in resisting attacks by rural warlords. Critics will point out that the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan came into power through a political coup, and that within the government the period before and after Soviet military intervention was one fraught with internal dissent and factionalism. What is undeniable, however, is that the PDPA was committed to protecting the rights of women, including through land reform, reform of marriage laws, and universal education.
The US CIA responded to the situation in Afghanistan through a covert program called Operation Cyclone, which, in collusion with the UK, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan provided vast amounts of money, arms, and training to the rural warlords. All of the leadership of what would later become the Taliban emerged from the groups that were supported by the CIA.
Operation Cyclone was not a secret. In the US, the movement of Soviet troops into Afghanistan at the request of the Afghan government was universally described in the news media as an “invasion.” The forces fighting the central government in Afghanistan were referred to in the West as “freedom fighters” and praised for their heroic opposition to the Soviet military. The US talked of a boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games to protest the Soviet role in Afghanistan.
This should have been the moment when leftists in the US and the West generally pointed out the sheer hypocrisy of the US criticizing the USSR for interfering in a neighboring nation. Following the principle that the US Left was fighting “in the belly of the beast” against US imperialism, there should have been universal Left opposition to Operation Cyclone, skepticism (at least) about the so-called Afghan Rebels, and at the very least some perception that the Afghan government represented a progressive force under siege.
Not only did the Left fail in this regard, but it actually went in the other direction: joining in the ruling class condemnation of the USSR and even romanticizing the warlords. Never mind that Vietnam had depended on the USSR to win its war against US imperialism. Never mind that the Cuban Revolution continued to exist and thrive because of trade relations with the USSR and the East European socialist countries. Never mind that the USSR was an important force supporting the liberation of the Southern African countries from apartheid. Any semblance of critical thinking or nuance was lost.
There were two expressions of that misdirection that, for me, stand out as most typical of the thinking on the Left at that time:
One was the popularity in the US of the song Washington Bullets by The Clash, a popular UK band that was praised by US leftists for its politics. In the final verse of a song that praised the revolutions in Cuba and Nicaragua for resisting “Washington bullets,” they expressed their support for the rebels fighting “Moscow bullets”:
’N’ if you can find a Afghan rebel
That the Moscow bullets missed
Ask him what he thinks of voting Communist…
The implication that the USSR was “just as bad” as the US internationally should have been regarded as ridiculous. Instead, many leftists regarded it as self-evident.
The second expression of anti-Soviet sentiment didn’t just come from a song lyric. It reflected a political position that was held by almost everyone on the Left that I knew (yes, myself included). A far-left Trotskyist organization called the Spartacist League was, among us “sane” socialists, regarded as the most sectarian and extreme of just about any group on the Left at that time. So SL was universally ridiculed when its newspaper ran the headline “Victory to the Soviet Army in Afghanistan!”
We all rolled with laughter at that one. The idea of actually praising the Soviet Union for invading Afghanistan, of actually hoping that it would win against the Afghan “freedom fighters” was something so far out and bizarre that most all of us, from social democrats to maoists to trotskyists, could join together in mocking it.
Of course, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan ultimately failed. Just as the US was delighted to give profitable contracts to nuclear weapons manufacturers in order to bankrupt the USSR, the CIA was happy to provide plenty of guns and money to extremists in Afghanistan to keep the Soviet Army busy, wasting lives and money keeping a tiny nation from regressing into the 14th century.
Finally, in 1991 a coup ended the Soviet Union’s almost 75 year socialist experiment. And the year after the USSR fell, what remained of the Afghan government fell as well. It would soon be replaced by the Taliban, which made short work of the social reforms of the “Soviet puppet state” and promptly began to purge Afghan society of leftists, democrats, intellectuals, artists and — especially — of any women that held public roles, from politicians to college professors to doctors.
So, yes, it’s true. The CIA helped fund the Afghan warlords who would later become the Taliban. The CIA didn’t care what its clients thought about the rights of women or of religious minorities. It was interested in only one thing: will they kill commies for us. So long as they did, they got paid.
And in the US, as 1979 turned into 1980 and Ronald Reagan was elected president, the Left in the US reaped what it had sown. Within the first few years of the first Reagan administration many of the most “revolutionary” organizations on the US Left had dissolved or were utterly marginalized. Most of us had become so good at being anti-communist that we had declared ourselves obsolete. For the next forty years, for an activist to say in public “I am a communist” would be regarded as a guarantee that they would be either shunned, laughed at, or simply ignored.
If there is a single lesson that we MUST learn from the history of the US in Afghanistan is that US imperialism is NEVER on the side of the people. It NEVER represents humanitarian or democratic goals. We are still — and have been all along — living in the belly of the beast. While it may not always be the case that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, we can never afford to forget that US capitalism and US imperialism ARE the enemy.