Imperialism, and the US state, damn care about the moral arguments of some liberals and leftists. Neither do the Pakistani state or the Taliban care. They are concerned with their interests
Pervez Hoodbhoy has recently written an article expressing sadness over the departure of the US from Afghanistan. The article raises several points, but there are two fundamental questions that we must address. One is the moral and theoretical question about modernity and progress opposed to tradition and backwardness that underlies his approach. The other is a straightforward tactical and strategic question for leftists, what stance should we take? What course of action should we take? Let us deal with the second first.
Imperialism, and the US state, damn care about the moral arguments of some liberals and leftists. Neither do the Pakistani state or the Taliban care. They are concerned with their interests, and their interests are primarily geopolitical and economic. If the US can secure its geopolitical and economic interests without having to fight the Taliban, then all well and good, they will do exactly that. If they feel their interests are best served by murdering the people of FATA, then they will do exactly that.
For this reason, seeing the US as motivated by some kind of humanitarian, or “relatively enlightened” impulse is ridiculous. The US state has never shied away from killing, maiming, drugging or bribing as many people as is necessary to achieve its goals, inside its borders or outside of it. If that is hard to believe, just look at Iraq.
It matters not an iota what Prof. Hoodbhoy or any other left or liberal intellectual thinks. The reason for that is that we have no reach among masses to be able to mobilize and organize them to take a stance for or against imperialism, for or against the Taliban. (To some degree, political Islamists can mobilize sections of the masses, particularly petty bourgeois elements, to their anti-imperialism. They often do it effectively.)
How can leftists build this kind of reach? By organizing and agitating amongst the masses. On what issues? On the issues of whether or not Americans should stay in Afghanistan? Please, have some sense. It is the moral, political and human duty of leftists to organize people on their immediate needs, and to link these with an ideology of broader social transformation.
You have to begin there. It is what Mao Tse-tung called “mass line” and “serve the people” politics. Serve the people politics necessitates mobilizing the masses to self-provision the services that the government does not, and that the NGOs barely do in depoliticized yet neoliberal ways that make the masses more dependent and indebted to the micropolitics of imperialism. Mass line politics is to take the most progressive ideas of the masses and to refine them and agitate amongst the masses with those advanced ideas. Combined, serve the people and mass line politics form bases for the self-organization of working peoples.
If we consider this task honestly then we will first have to go out amongst the people, especially the most marginalized and neglected—and yes, among people who are being dominated by Taliban—and learn what is actually going on there at the micro level. What are the needs of the people? How are these needs being served, or not being served? What sections of the masses are supporting reactionary groups and why? How do people view their problems, what lens do they interpret their lives through? How can we work with people to organize positively and in progressive ways?
This kind of an approach requires a lot of patience and a lot of careful preparation and hard work. It makes many questions moot. When we recognize that we cannot sway US imperialism to do our bidding (hilarious concept, really), then we can start focusing on how people can wield power over those issues that affect them the most immediately. From there we can build up.
In the meanwhile, if Prof. Hoodbhoy wants to convince the US to stay in Afghanistan, why not mobilize a mass rally of a hundred thousand people—like Sindhi nationalists?
He will not, because he cannot. The greater sections of the masses have correctly identified US imperialism as a serious problem to the autonomous development of Pakistan. His answer to this is to condemn the stupidity of the masses: they have been mentally brainwashed by Islamic backwardness and extremism, Prof. Hoodbhoy argues elsewhere. But all of this reveals an elitist, self-serving political view.
The only people who see imperialism as a saviour are those who have no faith in the masses. I don’t mean this in the sense of a mythology of the working class, I mean they have no interest in organizing and mobilizing amongst the masses systematically to build a real alternative to both the US and the Taliban. They would rather spend their time writing op-eds for foreign newspapers hoping someone in policy-making circles in London or Washington will be persuaded by their desire for the US to keep bombing away in FATA and Afghanistan.
Let us then turn to this moral and theoretical question. It is posed as such: “What is better for the people of Pakistan, is it the US or is it the Taliban? Pick one, you must pick one. And if you are a modern, progressive person then you must pick the US.”
Why? “Because regardless of how many people the US invasion in Afghanistan has killed, they are still better than the Taliban. The Taliban banned music and sports! (It is telling that of a long list of atrocities, this—music and sports—comes first.) They oppressed women. They systematically murdered members of minority communities. The Taliban are the very opposite of modernity and progress, they are retrograde and stuck in the middle ages, and if you do not believe it, just watch the streaming videos they have uploaded to the Internet.”
But let us be clear here, the Taliban are modern. They are not a relic of the past. It is dishonest to suggest that there is some war between modernity and medievalism going on here. It’s a war between two aspects of modernity. To suggest that the US imperialism is better because it is more modern is absurd—as I have noted, the US has no problem supporting the most reactionary laws, the most reactionary groups, it has no problems killing, destroying, plundering, raping, inside or outside of its borders.
In Afghanistan, Hoodbhoy says, whatever the US has done pales to what the Taliban has done. Why? How many people did the Taliban kill in their years of rule? 10,000? 20,000? 30,000? How many deaths has the US invasion of Afghanistan caused? Do we even know? “We don’t do body counts” is the mantra of the US imperialists. They simply don’t care. How many people have been displaced? Who is dealing with them? Is it the imperialists who are welcoming hundreds of thousands of Afghans into their modern, progressive, democratic countries with open arms? No, it is Iran and Pakistan who are absorbing the masses of refugees. How many people have become drug addicts? Who knows? Who cares.
Imperialism for the “immediate good,” Hoodbhoy argues. He says we should look at the human development indicators and the GDP in Afghanistan, they have gone up. The GDP and human development index may have increased, but their benefits flow not to the masses but to imperialism and its rich and powerful lackeys. The corruption, venality, and conspicuous consumption of the rich has gone forward, indeed. The masses live on in misery. In some places women live better lives than they did ten years ago, he says, returning to that old imperialist mantra: “We do it for the women!” In most of Afghanistan violence against women has just gotten worse and the personal lives of women—outside of Kabul—are ruled by laws as retrograde and reactionary as those under the Taliban and imposed under warlords hardly different.
No doubt, certain things may have improved. But no doubt, many things have even gotten worse. And where the improvements have been concentrated is amongst those who are better off anyway. Imperialism has never undertaken an initiative in the interests of the masses.
There is a group of intellectuals in Pakistan who believe the most immediate and dramatic problem is that of Islamic extremism. Of course, this is a pressing problem in many parts of the country. However, the most immediate problems of the people are poverty, underemployment, sanitation, women’s oppression, national oppression, and generalized penury. It is the task of leftists to organize around these issues, and the yields will be great. It is not the task of leftists to go begging at the feet of imperialism. For that, we have liberals.