By Kumar David –
There are common dimensions to power struggles in earth-shattering scenarios or in more modest cases. Scale and significance may differ between the great and the puny but some features are similar. Between the early 1960s and to this day, sometimes intensely and at others peripherally I have been a party to a long history of what people call the “internal struggle” in the LSSP-Vama-NSSP and in the Left involving the JVP, CP, Shan’s Maoists and Vijaya Kumaratunga. (The Bala-Edmund breakaway fizzled away quickly). The way I think about Afghanistan-Taliban is influenced by these experiences. I wondered whether others may find it interesting and decided to share some thoughts.
First let me admit the gigantic difference in scale and significance, both global and domestic, between the two stories. But on the other hand, both involve ideological differences, factions, power struggles, outside pressures, interventions, leaders and ambitions. It is interesting to hold a mirror as it were to history. For example, outsiders will be surprised to learn that there was a substantial international side to our ‘internal struggles’. There was intercession by four international Trotskyite ‘Internationals’, Indian Marxists and Social Democrats. Russia and China influenced the CP, JVP and Shan. Many personages visited the LSSP-Vama-NSSP many times, our comrades participated in conferences overseas and there were other levels of support for factions that took this side or that. Most of the factions that split away to form five or six parties (some just insignificant little sects) that issued out of these experiences were local branches of these “Internationals”. The impact of global influences in Afghanistan-Taliban is a two-orders of magnitude mightier ballgame of course but ideological, institutional, factional and personal aspects are analogous.
The second point I wish to emphasise is that ideology is critical. For the Taliban, its visions of Islamic society, the Caliphate and Sunni-Shia imaginings of Islam. In the left it’s about the road to socialism, class collaboration, the role of the party and of course what Marx and others in the pantheon said or didn’t say. During the internal debates in the LSSP fat tomes and erudite quotations from Marx, Lenin and Trotsky were flourished about. If you comb through all 150 or so volumes that the complete works of these worthies span, it is impossible not to find contradictions. The quotations wars were sometimes hilarious like Biblical verbal abuses Christins hurled at each other in internecine wars. (I am a Marxist but I am an intelligent one. What if young Marx, drunk as a lord, was chased down Tottenham Court Road by irate coppers?).
How the internal factional and ideological conflict sorts itself out will be crucial. The Taliban is riddled with internal tendencies; there is IS(K) or Islamic State (Khorosan) and there are the infiltrators Pakistan is injecting across the border. There are powerful figures associated with previous US aligned administrations and power-brokers, though it is not yet clear what strategy the Biden Administration will pursue after the dust settles. There are reformists (dare I call them modernists?) and hardcore conservatives within and around the Taliban. The worst of the jihadist extremists are in IS(K) but where is the border between Taliban and IS? Where was the border between constitutional scholar par excellence, social democrat and darling of the working-class NM, and the Bolshevik flanks of the LSSP and of Vama?
I have repeatedly said in my previous columns that the way the women’s issue plays out is the true weather vane of how the wind is blowing. But that outcome will not be decided by relative factional strength alone. It will also depend on personalities and on the aid provided by the rest of the world (China, the Middle East and even the IMF-USA). The more the world stabilises the new Taliban government the more reformist and moderate it will be. Turkey has de-facto recognised the Taliban. Erdogan said he is mulling a deal for running Kabul airport and told a news conference: “Taliban says ‘You operate but give security to us.’ How can we do that. How will we explain if another bomb goes off? It’s not an easy job”. Qatar too has said it will help to reopen and run the airport.
Though a very cornucopia of arms has fallen into its hands, Taliban needs pilot training and antimissile defences to tame IS(K). America says its concern is whether Afghanistan will become a witches-brew spewing terrorism abroad. Stabilising the new government instead of driving the country into chaos is the first requirement for that. Can the Biden Administration grow up, accept defeat and recognise that if it is to have leverage it must stay engaged, fund, provide professional support and stabilise the government? Americans who wish Afghanistan well have to work out a deal rather than cut their noses to spite their faces. Most Americans wanted to get out of Afghanistan but now feel humiliated by the debacle. They must relax into the inevitable. In Washington the Republicans are baying for Biden’s blood.
I will not burden you with names because some people in the running may not make it to powerful positions in the new government. Just four names are worth remembering in these early days.
* Akhundzada: A Komenei like mullah who will be supreme leader.
* Abdul Ghani Badar, likely prime minister and point-man for Taliban dealings with the West.
* Mohammad Yaqoob son of one-eyed Taleban founder Mullah Omar.
* And controversial Kalil Haqqani.
From a faction-fight point of view the important people to watch are Badar and Haqqani. The rise and fall of Badar will be a barometer of how well the reformist and not-anti-Western faction is faring. The ascendency of this faction may be good news for women and may keep the lid on extremism and terrorism. Kalil Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani Network, classified as a terrorist by the US, is a brother of the late Jalaluddin Haqqani, famed fighter against the Soviets. Kalil is also the father of Anasi Haqqani who smooth talks the international community. An involuted and complicated fruit salad you could say. The Haqqani Network is a link between the Taliban and IS(K) but there is a substantial radical presence, in its own right, within Taliban. Recall the organic “Bolshevik” radical presence in the NM-Colvin-Leslie-Bernard outfit.
This setting I grasp well thanks to my experience of factional-ideological-personnel disputes in Lanka’s Left. I can again hear declamations on the podium, hoots of dissent, the odour in the corridors and the burning of midnight oil. Ted Grant used to say “You guys are crazy; you argue till 1 a.m., then wake up at six and go on as if there had been no night in-between!”. Taliban Factions are manifestations of deeper rifts; there are peripheral and there are deeper than peripheral connections between independent radicals, pro-IS(K) radicals and IS proper. There is the third-party connection via the Haqqani Network. For these reasons and because sympathies in the country at large are complex and diffuse I place greater emphasis than other analysts, strategists and commentators (have they got anything right?) on how the internal differences within Taliban and Afghanistan will resolve themselves. Everything will go on from how that turns out.
Unlike bourgeois-parties corruption plays little role in left-party internecine wars and it is the same in Taliban. NM, Colvin, Dr Wicks or Peiter could not have been bought by American dollars or maharajah gold, mansions and dancing girls. (NM had rather too many of the last anyway). The Taliban as is customary in such organisations will not tolerate corruption or treachery. Pity a squad doesn’t come over here and sort out our MPs and politicos by summarily relieving them of their nuts. Conflicts within Taliban will not be resolved by what these chaps think the Prophet decreed or denied, but rather by how to stabilise the regime and make the country prosperous, though subliminally couched in ideological vestments. Ideology is the garment in which real struggles are fought and serve to cloak reality from the protagonists themselves. Yes, I’m a hard materialist on today’s Taliban imbroglio.
One outlier in the ongoing process is the Panjshir Valley; long, deep and 100 miles north of Kabul, well defended by the surrounding Hindu Kush mountains. It is populated by Tajiks holding out for greater autonomy instead of simple participation in an all-inclusive government as the Taliban have offered. The valley, under its leader Ahmad Shah Massoud the “The Lion of Panjshir”, never fell to the Soviets. The Taliban have surrounded the Valley and are poised to attack, eventually they will win but it would be wiser to reach a settlement.
The new governments deep financial difficulties continue. The IMF, US and the Europeans have frozen $ 9 billion Afghan money whose release depends on international recognition of the government. Afghanistan is rich in natural resources “copper, gold, oil, natural gas, uranium, bauxite, coal, iron ore, rare earths, lithium, chromium, lead, zinc, gemstones, talc, sulphur, travertine, gypsum and marble” (according to Reuters Natural Resources Fact Box – 19 August 2021). Its Lithium deposits alone are valued at $ 2 trillion says a CNN analyst. The odds are on that stability will be achieved in the end but I am apprehensive that there will much anxiety before that.