What’s behind the worsening violence in Iraq and Afghanistan?

- Tim Bowron

from The Spark November 2006

As we go to press the country of Iraq, already suffering under a brutal Western occupation, is now teetering on the brink of an all out civil war between Sunni, Shi’a and Kurd. Meanwhile in Afghanistan a resurgent Taliban is waging a new offensive against the Western-backed government of Hamid Karzai in Kabul, with the fighting now at its bloodiest since the original US-led invasion nearly 5 years ago.  And yet at the same time the US and its NATO allies continue to peddle the line that the only solution to the worsening violence (which in the past year has claimed the lives of over 40 000 Iraqis and 2 800 Afghans) is greater Western military intervention.

In the newspapers and on the nightly television news the corporate media seeks to convince us that the peoples of the Middle East are incapable of living in peace with one another and of managing their own affairs.  They would have us believe that the only civilized response in this situation is for Western governments like New Zealand to take up once more the “white man’s burden” to help impose “stability” and “good governance” on the region.

Yet in actual fact the increasing “Balkanisation” of Iraq and Afghanistan which sees these communities fragment along ethnic and sectarian lines is due mainly not to some innate predisposition towards intolerance and violence on the part of the local population. Rather, it is due to the activities of the very same Western governments who now pose as their humanitarian saviours.

Since the nineteenth century first Britain and then the United States have deliberately stirred up communal divisions in the Middle East in a bid to prevent the formation of any united resistance to their plans for plundering the economic wealth of the region (after all, weak and divided states are far easier to manipulate than strong ones).

Until the advent of Britain as the world’s first capitalist superpower the Middle East was distinguished from the rest of the world by its relative peacefulness and stability - the two great empires of the Ottoman and Safavid dynasties enclosed a vast domain stretching from North Africa to the Caspian Sea which Muslim scholars referred to as the Dar al-Islam (the “house of submission/peace”).  Trade flourished and there was more or less completely free movement of peoples.  Despite most people speaking either Arabic or Persian though there was no sense of a particular Arab or Persian national identity - for example many of those who spoke Persian were in fact Turkic tribes such as the Tajiks and Pashtuns living in what is now Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

The creation of Afghanistan: sowing the seeds for communal bloodshed

Indeed, Afghanistan as it now exists was largely an artificial entity created by British imperialism to serve as a buffer state between Tsarist Russia and the British Raj in India.  Although a proto-Afghan Pashtun state had appeared briefly under the Durrani dynasty in the late 18th/early 19th century it was the British who established the actual borders of the modern Afghan nation.  In 1856 they incorporated the city of Herat (part of the Persian province of Khorasan) into Afghanistan but then soon afterwards sliced off the ethnic Pashtun areas south of the Khyber Pass to form part of British India as the North West Frontier Province.  Right from its inception therefore Afghanistan was divided against itself with a majority of Pashtuns (ethnic Afghans) being left outside the borders of Afghanistan, while a largely Tajik Persian speaking minority north and west of the Hindu Kush mountains (most notably around Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and in the Panjshir valley) was forcibly included along with smaller groups of Uzbeks and Hazara.

In the 1890s the British backed ruler of Afghanistan, the Pashtun emir Abdur Rahman Khan (known as the “Iron emir”) carried out a massacre of 60% of the Hazara people and forced the survivors to convert to Sunni Islam.  While supporting the Barakzai dynasty of Pashtun autocrats in Kabul, however, on the other side of the Durand Line in North West Frontier Province the British were from the 1920s onwards engaged in ruthlessly suppressing the Khudai Khidmatgar movement of Abdul Ghaffar Khan (also known as the “Red Shirts”) which based itself on the principles of Pashtun self-determination, social reform (including equality for women) and non-violence.  The Red Shirts were especially hated by the British as they opposed the sectarian strategy of Jinnah’s Muslim League and allied themselves with the revolutionary wing of the Indian National Congress in refusing support to Britain during World War II.

After World War II the United States replaced Britain as the number one imperialist power in the Middle East and South Asia (with Pakistan as its main client state and chief instrument for fighting communism in the region).  They continued the British policy of keeping Afghanistan as a feudal backward state, divided into warring tribes and ruled over by an autocratic monarch.  When Soviet-backed left wing regime took power in Afghanistan in 1978 the CIA funded and recruited an army of Islamic mujahideen fighters based in northwest Pakistan (a largely Pashtun area) to fight the Russians and their Afghan allies.  Notable mujahideen fighters included Osama bin Laden and the future Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

After the mujahideen finally took Kabul in the early 90s and set about fighting over who should have control of the government the US and its Pakistani ally actively sided with the Pashtun-based Taliban against the northern warlords Ahmed Shah Massoud and Abdul Rashid Dostum as the most effective instrument for ensuring their control over Afghanistan.  The existence of some 25 million Pashtuns living in northern Pakistan was seen as a factor which would draw the Taliban closer to the West and make them more reliable than the Tajik-dominated government of Burhanuddin Rabbani.  In 1996 US oil companies began negotiations with Taliban representatives for the construction of a gas pipeline running from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Arabian Sea.

Of course the US had not counted on the Taliban turning against them and since 9/11 has been forced to find a new proxy for their interests in the region.  Despite a brief interlude in 2001 in which Rabbani was allowed to come back as head of state the US has continued its preference for using Pashtun tribal leaders as their Afghan viceroys with the appointment of Hamid Karzai as president.  Under the rule of Karzai, an unabashed admirer of the last King of Afghanistan Zahir Shah, progress has been all but non-existent as the government tries to eradicate the opium poppies on which most farmers have become dependent for their livelihoods without providing any compensation or development aid to the agricultural sector.  In Bamiyan province where the New Zealand “Provincial Reconstruction Team” is based (an area populated by the minority Hazara group), millions of dollars have been spent on preserving what UNESCO calls “cultural landscapes and archaeological remains” (the famous “Bamiyan Buddhas”) yet there are still no proper roads connecting the province to the rest of the country.

Meanwhile the thousands of qualified Afghan teachers and medical professionals living abroad are forbidden by the Karzai administration from returning home as most of them have ties to the Soviet-backed PDPA regime in the 1980s (which despite failing to win any real support in the countryside presided over tremendous advances in education and healthcare as well as women’s rights).  With its cities lying empty and no working class or urban middle class to speak of, it is unsurprising that politics in Afghanistan continues to be dominated by religion and ethnicity and support for the Taliban is once again on the rise.

Iraq: an artificial creation of imperialism

The pattern of Western powers fostering communal divisions and armed conflict in order to further their own interests is replicated again perfectly in the history of Iraq.  Iraq as a country in fact never existed before 1918 - previously its inhabitants made up the three Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul.  Indeed, with the possible exception of the Kurds in Mosul and the small Arab bourgeoisie in Damascus there is no evidence that any of the people living in what are now the separate countries of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq had any conception of themselves as belonging to a particular nation - they were merely citizens of the Ottoman Empire who happened to speak Arabic and practise a wide variety of religious faiths.

However after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I the British and French imperialists were greatly worried about the possible emergence of a united Arab state capable of preventing them from carving up the region into their own separate economic “spheres of influence”.  Britain had already begun this process in the nineteenth century by splitting away Kuwait (historically part of Basra province) from the Ottoman Empire and declaring it to be a British “protectorate”.  Now with the connivance of the League of Nations they established separate “British mandates” across the rest of Mesopotamia and the Levant, throwing together communities which had no particular ethnic or religious homogeneity to form new nation states.

The Kurdish population of Mosul who did not want to become part of the new Iraqi nation and be cut off from their fellow Kurds in Eastern Anatolia rebelled in 1920 but were ruthlessly suppressed by British troops and the RAF.  The British Secretary of War at the time, Winston Churchill, authorised the RAF to use poison gas against Kurdish villages in the north noting that it was a tremendous “saving” both in terms of money and manpower and that gas had already been used to great effect against Bolshevik forces in Russia the year before.  Following some public criticism of this policy Churchill wrote:

“I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas…I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes…”

When a second Kurdish revolt broke out in 1923 the man chosen to command the RAF bombing campaign in northern Iraq was Arthur “Bomber” Harris, then auditioning for his future role in carrying out the fiery holocaust of Dresden in World War II.  He boasted that even using only conventional carpet bombing and machine gun fire “…within forty-five minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.”

Meanwhile the British also faced a wave of strikes and demonstrations throughout the rest of Iraq as the Arabs discovered that from being more or less equal citizens under the Ottoman Empire they were now to be treated as little better than slaves under the British.  In a cunning move calculated to assuage some of the discontent, the British offered to give the Arabs their own local administration, which they did by installing the Hashemite prince Faisal of Mecca as “King of Iraq”.

The British sought to provide a reliable platform for this administration by recruiting its civil servants almost exclusively from the Sunni Arab community - despite the population of central and southern Iraq being mainly Shi’a.  Because the Sunni Arabs were also given most of the important positions in the (British trained) Iraqi National Army and also because of their minority status in Iraq as a whole, this ensured that even after Britain relinquished formal control of the country the ruling elite would remain a reliable agent for Western interests.

In 1963 the Sunni officer caste in the Iraqi armed forces demonstrated this reliability by massacring over 5 000 members of the Iraqi Communist Party (at that time the largest CP in the Middle East and with a large following among both the Shi’a and Kurdish population), because it threatened to go beyond the narrow bourgeois nationalist aims of the 1958 revolution which had finally overthrown the monarchy.  This coup was spearheaded by members of the then still tiny Ba’ath Party (the party of Saddam Hussein), which was to take power five years later in 1968.

Despite drawing some criticism from the West for its nationalisation of the (mostly British owned) Iraq Petroleum Company in 1972 and for establishing closer diplomatic relations with Moscow, the Ba’ath regime was never reproached for its mass slaughter of Kurds and communists conducted during the same era.  Arms deals were still signed with Western governments such as France and Germany and then after the 1979 Iranian revolution and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war the United States entered the fray as the number one supplier of weapons to Saddam Hussein’s regime (these same US weapons were then also used to gas thousands of Kurds in northern Iraq in the late 80s).

Eventually the US was forced to turn on Saddam Hussein not because of his genocide against the Kurds or repression of domestic political opponents but because he went to war with another client state of theirs, namely Kuwait.  Now all of a sudden the American administration emerged as the champion of the oppressed Iraqi Kurds and Shi’a - although they did not intervene when both of these groups rose up in the early 1990s to try to overthrow Saddam.  Instead they waited until the population of Iraq had been starved and impoverished by the barbaric UN sanctions regime to the point where no opposition to the US independent of the corrupt Ba’ath regime was possible, before finally invading in 2003.

In conditions where the working class had been decimated and most of the educated urban professionals had fled abroad, the US found it easy to take control of Iraq’s oil resources safe in the knowledge that the only remaining political opposition consisted of reactionary Shi’a clerics and former Kurdish guerrilla leaders such as (current Iraqi president) Jalal Talabani, who have long since surrendered their anti-imperialist credentials in return for being allowed to rule over their own little feudal enclaves in northern Iraq.

While the US along with other Western governments may publicly deplore the mounting communal violence in Iraq that has now attained the dimensions of an unofficial civil war, the reality is that this is a situation entirely of their own making.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan Western governments have over the years deliberately promoted conditions of mass economic depravation and sponsored reactionary religion- and ethnic-based movements, because at the end of the day there is one thing that they fear far worse than Islamic radicals or political instability - a united front of all the workers and oppressed peoples of the region against imperialism.

That’s why we say workers in New Zealand and elsewhere should oppose all Western interference in the region. The control of the oil and other economic wealth that has been plundered should be returned to the people of the Middle East.  In this way the feudal warlords and Islamic clerics will be deprived of their main source of funding and weaponry and the workers’ movement in the region will at last have a chance to get back on its feet.

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