map of afghanistan
Frankie Mancini / Gavel Media

The Workers' Struggle in Afghanistan

In light of the Taliban's lightning takeover of Afghanistan, it's worth going into what these events tell us about class struggle in the country for the foreseeable future. As is clear now, the neoconservative and neoliberal ‘nation-building’ project was a failure. The polls showing ‘overwhelming’ support for the U.S.-backed official government were clearly unrepresentative—how else could the Taliban literally walk into Kabul? Now, mainstream media outlets (e.g. CNN, NYT, Washington Post, etc.) and various State and Defense Department figures are up in arms, demanding immediate American re-invasion. All of this points to one simple fact: America has resoundingly lost this war in every conceivable respect. Put another way, we have returned to the status quo circa October 2001. However, there have been important changes in the past two decades, which greatly affect the course of socialism in Afghanistan. In particular, the Taliban has set the stage for vast expansion in mining industries, and thus have created an Afghan proletariat which will revolt and build a revolutionary society.

First, we need some background on the Taliban's organizational history. Despite common left narratives, the Taliban are not ex-Mujahideen [1] soldiers who've taken up arms again. Muj influence on the Taliban was and still is very faint. Instead, the Taliban arose out of Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, particularly the young Pashtun men and teenagers 'educated' in the Saudi-funded madrassas (literally “school” in Pashto) found across these camps [2]. This fundamentalist education fused with Pashtun culture in a grotesque way. Conventional peasant sexism (found in every past agrarian society) and historical Pashtun chauvinism (shameful but not murderous) morphed into the Taliban's infamous brand of violent misogyny and genocidal Pashtun nationalism. Their refugee camp origins also provided the kindling for a distinctly social revolutionary 'platform', most notable of which being land reform, destruction of the drug trade, and sweeping 'popular' justice. There are stories from the Afghan Civil War of Taliban fighters convincing local Pashtun peasants to join them with promises of land redistribution—and the Taliban actually maintaining these promises. There are many accounts of local landlords (most of whom allied with or themselves warlords) being murdered in their houses, with their lands given out to the peasants. Upon seizing government control, the Taliban instated their horrific regime of women's subjugation and anti-Hazara pogroms. What is less known is that they 'standardized' the overland smuggling routes which cut all across Afghanistan, eliminating the system of mass graft and bribes which reigned in favor of a single value-based tax per trip. Smugglers and the Taliban alike found this very amenable: the money rolled. Equally obscure is that such operations partially drove a wedge between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The latter intended to wage global holy war, while the former preferred to continue ruling over Afghanistan as a theocratic nationalist regime. 

This gets at something about which many self-professed socialists are extremely ignorant, namely the Taliban's distinctly lumpen/proletarian character [3]. They are not peasant reactionaries. They are an incredibly modern movement (as modern as laser-guided missiles), whose politics are fiercely anti (transnational) finance capital. They hate the World Trade Organization as much as the radical left does, perhaps even more. In short, the Taliban is a fascist organization, not in the obscenely racist 'Islamofascist' sense peddled by neocons, but in the sense argued by J. Sakai in 'Shock of Recognition'—to wit, a revolutionary anti-bourgeois but pro-capitalist organization, backed and controlled by an autonomous mass base of men [4]. This is crucial for understanding what the Taliban is, how it functions, and what it will do upon forming a government.

The Taliban has markedly changed since the initial U.S. invasion. For one, they have moderated on almost all of their previous positions, from violent Pashtun supremacy to raging sexism. They have also made significant inroads with Tajiks (in Afghanistan, often called ‘Persians’) and Uzbeks, so much so that many mid-level Taliban commanders hail from these ethnicities. According to locals, gender oppression takes more the form of segregation rather than violent subjugation. It is now apparently not uncommon for a woman to show herself unveiled so long as it is in women's spaces. The Taliban has also officially stated that they now support women in government, schooling, and the workforce—unthinkable two decades ago [5]. (It is always worth repeating that women’s position under Taliban rule will be appalling and that the fight for gender equality will be a core part of the struggle for worker’s revolution in Afghanistan.) What has remained largely unchanged, however, is virulent anti-Hazara racism, with pogroms continuing to the present day. And even this has a snag—the Taliban now has a Hazara commander in one region, which would have been impossible just a few years ago [6].

The winds of change are blowing, so unsurprisingly Taliban business operations have also shifted. In addition to smuggling, they are now heavily invested in mining (which there is great opportunity for in Afghanistan) from lapis lazuli to talc to copper and so much more. This provides for an enormous amount of the Taliban's funding and has assisted greatly in making inroads to previously anti-Taliban strongholds like the North. Take, for instance, Badakhshan, which during the Civil War was never under Taliban control, but is now one of their most reliable regions. What changed? The Taliban now owns the lapis mines. Locals prefer them over the government and other warlords because they ensure security, marginal wealth redistribution, steady tax collection, and contract enforcement. Indeed, many companies prefer to do business with them for these reasons. Based on one Taliban agreement, we can surmise that contracts work something like this: the mine is legally owned by the Taliban mining commission, which leases it to a contractor; this contractor operates at a certain mandatory minimum capacity and provides regular taxes, in exchange for which the Taliban provides security and labor enforcement. If either party reneges on their end, the contract is nullified. In short, the Taliban have implemented an effective system of resource exploitation and regional governance, leading to mining profits so large that they rival the official government's entire budget. The Badakhshan mine far exceeds the official government’s entire tax revenues from resource extraction. 

Moreover, where there is Capital, there is Labor, and these mines are no different. They are worked by men whose parents likely labored in farms, either as sharecroppers or small landholders, which points to increasing social dislocation in Afghan society. They dig into Afghanistan’s marvelous mineral wealth, which is then exported across the globe at vast profits, the bulk of which miners rarely see. The miners are aware of this apparent contradiction–they do the work but receive little benefit. Indeed, their work in the mines has given them valuable political insights. Already, they are beginning to question how their society is organized. One veteran miner put it plainly: “The mine belongs to the whole nation. It is for all of us.” A village elder made a similarly sharp observation: “This mine is itself a general... It will make people fight.” [7]. Such sentiments carry within them the basis for revolutionism and rebellion. This is the embryonic Afghan proletariat, [8] forged by machine and rock in the mountains of Afghanistan. Their efforts are already crucial for struggle in the nation and will become even more so in the future. 

Furthermore, the Taliban are not the only big mine operators in the country—Daesh (ISIS or so-called IS) is in on it too, perhaps with some backers. Daesh mining operations are smaller than those of the Taliban in absolute terms but much larger in relative terms. Their mines are known for having very modern machines and gear, which are allegedly provided by local businessmen. How have they managed to get this equipment in a country as backward and cut off as Afghanistan? Similar questions arise in regards to sourcing labor. Daesh are considered far worse than the Taliban because of their savage brutality. Local workers simply refuse to work at their mines because of abuses and the general regime of terror. This is in spite of high wages, which are allegedly better than those in Taliban mines. In response to labor shortages, Daesh hires outside workers, either imported from other Afghan provinces or even more shockingly, from neighboring Pakistan, including far-off provinces like Sindh which don't even border Afghanistan. There are even some reports of their hiring foreign engineers. We ask once more: how are they funding this? It isn't cheap to source and transport foreign labor, especially from and across places controlled by people hostile to you. It is worth noting that Daesh is the single most competent anti-Taliban force in the country. As a result of this fact and their mining operations, many locals strongly suspect that Daesh receives extensive outside backing, both militarily and financially. [9] 

China has made public overtures to the Taliban who have reciprocated since they stand to benefit as well. Afghanistan would make a strong contribution to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) alongside the Taliban's alleged promises to bar Uighur radicals from refuge and to police their borders with China. Moreover, China is one of the Taliban's biggest markets for mineral products, most notably lapis and lapis goods. There is a decent chance that Chinese businesses will invest heavily in Afghan mining operations once the country is secured. The Taliban would surely agree to this since they stand to only benefit. Indeed, they detest the sanctions imposed upon them by the U.S. and the West that interfere in their mineral trade. In practical terms, assuming that foreign investment (Chinese or otherwise) grows, major technical development in mining and auxiliary industries will ensue: the mines themselves will become more mechanically advanced; roads and railways will cart ore and minerals out of the mines; these will be sent to major sites of refining/manufacturing or at least to shipment hubs for further transport; and finally, the products will be shipped out of Afghanistan. How does this affect the Afghan working class? It means a mass expansion in a proper proletariat which will eat enormously into the peasantry. Countless will be torn off the land and stuffed down into the bellies of the earth. The main ethnicities which are likely to constitute this proletariat are Pashtuns, Uzbeks, and Tajiks—that is, those who live in the mountain ranges to be mined.

Old Russia is an illustrative but imperfect analogy here. The Afghan proletariat will be young, just getting onto its feet, and it will be a highly anomalous body of people among the Afghan citizenry. Just as in Russia, this will create the highly volatile situation of a small but extremely disciplined proletariat, forged in the most modern machinery amidst a sea of peasantry. Their abrupt transition out of rural mountain villages to modern settlements with advanced equipment will likely only accelerate their political development. There are two checkpoints for the development of the Afghan proletariat: (1) mass capital investment (birth of the class-in-itself), and (2) mass strike waves by Afghan workers (birth of the class-for-itself). We already have the embryos of both with the existence of these mines (1) and with the stubborn refusal of local workers to work for unfavorable bosses (2). They have many more lessons to learn and fights to lose before they become ready to take over Afghan society. However, there is reason to believe that the wait will not be very long. Just take a look at how fast the Old Russian and modern Iranian proletariats developed. [10] In the words of one revolutionary: “What could be more natural? After sorrow comes joy.” [11].

In conclusion, the Taliban takeover and the defeat of the murderous American occupation, for the moment, bring us one big step closer to a socialist revolution since they allow for stability and capital development, and therefore the creation of a proper proletariat in Afghanistan. Here, we are speaking strictly in the classical Marxist sense. “One step closer” is not to be confused even slightly with social progress of any kind. Taliban government and the resulting development of Capitalism in the country (funded by foreign investment) will be brutal for ordinary Afghans. Afghanistan will remain a super-exploited dependency of the imperialist core. [12] Indeed, the Taliban have already made overtures to western corporations, stating that they will happily do business with them. [13] Although not discussed in this article, we must remember that mining and related industries will cause enormous ecological destruction, something existentially dangerous in the already present state of the climate crisis. We must also not ignore cultural erasure: Mes Aynak, a magnificent ancient Buddhist site, is one potential mine; and only the heartless could forget the statues of Bamiyan. The Taliban are “useful” only insofar as they assist the creation of a revolutionary vehicle (the proletariat, leading the dispossessed peasantry) in Afghanistan by ensuring capital development. We use quotation marks since this is akin to the English enclosures: historically necessary but otherwise disastrous for ordinary people. (It is worth explicitly stating that in spite of the Taliban’s brutal regime, the western occupation was significantly worse.) [14] We should think as the Russian Marxists once did. They welcomed Capitalism in Russia because it could then be destroyed to build communism. Indeed, in struggles such as those of the Afghan people, we must remember a once-famous saying: a spark will kindle the flame—and there are many such sparks in Afghanistan. [15]

 

Addendum:

Although entirely unmentioned in the body of this piece, the present writer felt it necessary to briefly address the lengths to which Western governments are going to abandon fleeing Afghans to their fates. The U.S. and every other Western country occupying Afghanistan has departed without notifying its local Afghan staff and has refused to take calls or requests for assistance. Most shockingly, there is the sight of Afghans literally hanging onto a departing C-17A plane in a desperate attempt to escape. There are already videos of some of these brave souls plummeting to their deaths, which the reader is discouraged from watching. These countries have the bare minimum responsibility to welcome Afghans. [16] Despite despicable creatures like Dostum or Ghani [17], the vast majority of those who cooperated with western occupiers did so for justifiable reasons: outrage at the Taliban, simple self-preservation, etc. After twenty years of unspeakable crimes against the Afghan people, the U.S. and the West have an obligation to welcome any and all refugees from Afghanistan, providing full resettlement services and assistance. These countries are fully capable of such a task. To claim otherwise is an outright fabrication. 

Indeed, support for any kind of border regime other than open borders, particularly in powerful nations, is an assault upon the majority of mankind who lives outside these nations. It is also a self-defeating political strategy. Immigrant laborers make for ready radicals because of their experience at the bottom of the working class, predisposing them to some level of suspicion or hostility towards the ‘respectable’ society that exploits them. Organizing with them will only make them and us stronger; attacking them will only serve our oppressors, no matter the ‘wonderful’ privileges we may receive in exchange. Furthermore, this is not a modern lesson. It goes back over a hundred years. During one of this country’s many shameful episodes of raving Sinophobia, Chinese workers were subjected to a horrific campaign of pogroms and hatred, spearheaded by the white labor movement. One organization, the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies), defiantly refused to partake. In San Francisco, to welcome a ship of Chinese migrants, the Wobblies (many of whom white) stood at the dock with a banner, written in English and Chinese: “Chinese workers, welcome. Join the One Big Union of the Working Class!” Fighting for Afghan refugees would be our first step into that tradition. Fighting against them would be to swallow the poisonous bait of great nation nationalism—that is, privileges in exchange for servile loyalty to rulers who despise you. 

 

[1] The Mujahideen were a number of anticommunist Islamist guerrilla groups funded and militarily supported by the U.S., other prominent Western governments, and various Arab Gulf states to fight the Soviet occupation and socialist government of Afghanistan during the 1980s. Osama Bin Laden was one notable Muj fighter.

[2] Throughout the Islamic world, madrassas were and still are schools specifically dedicated to studying and memorizing the Quran. In South Asia in particular, these have historically been the homes and schools of the ultra-poor and orphans. It is not difficult to imagine their popularity in the squalid Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. It is also not difficult to imagine why they were such targets of fundamentalist infiltration on the part of Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states.

[3] The lumpen/proletariat is a notoriously difficult-to-define social group. Historically, it was defined as ‘social scum’ who live at the total margins of society e.g. the homeless, professional criminals, paupers, etc. Recently, some have defined it as a ‘non-class' of people who are unplugged, so to speak, from normal circuits of production and distribution of products, and live in parallel to such circuits. For further analysis of this class, see The “Dangerous Class” and Revolutionary Theory by J. Sakai.

[4] “Anti-bourgeois but pro-capitalist” implies a subtle but crucial distinction. The bourgeoisie (those who own property and exploit labor, cf. note 8) is the class that represents Capital, rather than being it as such. Capital acts according to its own compulsions and momentum, which the bourgeoisie must obey. It may be thought of as a headless puppeteer, controlling everything, but functioning through an unconscious logic, “known” only to itself. For further reading, Sakai’s magnificent analysis on fascism is highly illuminating: J. Sakai, “The Shock of Recognition” in Confronting Fascism, (Montreal: Kersplebedeb, 2003).

https://kersplebedeb.com/posts/the-shock-of-recognition/

[5] See:

https://apnews.com/article/technology-joe-biden-middle-east-kabul-taliban-1d4b052ccef113adc8dc94f965ff23c7

[6] The Hazara are a Shiite minority in Afghanistan who speak a dialect of Persian called "Hazaragi". They are said to be descended from the one thousand (‘hazar’ in Farsi, hence their name) Mongol soldiers who stayed behind after Genghis Khan’s conquest. For an account of the Hazara commander, see: 

https://thediplomat.com/2020/05/why-are-the-taliban-wooing-a-persecuted-afghanistan-minority-group/

[7] Both quotations cited in global witness, War in the Treasury of the People: Afghanistan, Lapis Lazuli, and the Battle for Mineral Wealth, globalwitness.org, June 2016.

[8] Due to spatial constraints, we must abbreviate our definition of the 'proletariat.' Sociologically, it is the class of people who live by performing labor that is exploited i.e. has a significant portion of its value expropriated by the employing class as surplus-value (profit). However, there are two different levels of description to this class: the 'class-for-itself' and the 'class-in-itself.' 

‘Class-for-itself’ refers to a relation of struggle, i.e. an antagonistic relationship towards capital—the sociological definition stated above is merely the "class-in-itself." When the worker simply labors, he/she is not proletarian, at least not yet. It is the radically antagonistic relationship against capital, and as such the conscious and collective political struggle which follows, that defines the proletariat. The following examples may prove illustrative. 

In the antebellum U.S., this class was enslaved Black people. In Imperial Russia, it was recently dispossessed peasants who had become factory laborers. In Old China, it was impoverished peasants (not just industrial workers). In modern Palestine (both within and without the Green Line), it is the Arab masses who labor in the lowest levels of the Israeli economy (whether industrial, agricultural, or mental). 

In short, the proletariat is the class that sustains capitalism and has become antagonistic towards capital. It is that class without which modern society literally could not exist. It is in the view of the present writer that the proletariat of Afghanistan is and will be ex-peasants who work in mining industries.

[9] For further reading on Daesh links with state powers, see Shadow Wars by Christopher Davidson.

[10] For an analysis of the Iranian proletariat and of the Islamic Republic of Iran in general, the reader is referred to the following excellent articles by Sam Salour and Nasrin:

https://www.tempestmag.org/2020/11/council-power-in-the-iranian-labor-movement/

https://www.tempestmag.org/2021/08/striking-echoes-in-iran/ 

[11] Guess who. Hint: The author was Vietnamese.

[12] The ‘super’ in ‘super-exploited’ must be taken literally. Labor exploitation (as defined in note 8) in the Global South (the ‘Third World’) is above and beyond exploitation in the Global North (the ‘First World’), and this creates ‘super-profits’ (profits far beyond those possible in a capitalist’s own country). ‘Dependency’ refers to those countries where labor is super-exploited and resources are extracted i.e. those countries upon which the North is dependent, hence the name. ‘Imperialist core’ is two concepts rolled into one: those countries which super-exploit others; and the Imperialist stage of Capitalism. Owing to spatial limitations, neither of these concepts can be discussed even briefly. The reader is instead referred to the following works by various authors: “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism” and Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, both by Ilyich Ulyanov; Unequal Exchange: A Study of the Imperialism of Trade by Arghiri Emmanuel; Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century by John Smith.

[13] See here: https://twitter.com/leninbertarian/status/1426879054326628358?s=20

[14] The accounts of Western military barbarity are too extensive to recount in full. The present writer felt it sufficient to list just four particularly monstrous cases: the “Kill Team” photos; the Australian special forces war crimes; the drone program; and the crimes of SEAL Team 6. The reader is referred to Rolling Stone for the first story, The Guardian for the second, and The Intercept for the last two. There are also numerous cases of soldiers branding explicitly fascist imagery such as SS bolts or the Nazi flag. If the reader has remaining doubts, they are welcomed to live in a nation occupied by American or other Western forces.

[15] Guess the reference. Hint: It was the epigraph to a radical newspaper. 

[16] The following thread shares some accounts of Western militaries abandoning their local Afghan staff:

https://twitter.com/nrg8000/status/1427151587651190786?s=21 

[17] The reader is referred to the following Jacobin article. It is worth stating that the subject matter (rape, torture, mutilation) is very extreme and may be found too distressing. It is provided only for reference on U.S.-backed forces in Afghanistan: 

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2021/08/afghanistan-taliban-corruption-war-human-rights-abuses 

Primary references:

https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/conflict-minerals/war-treasury-people-afghanistan-lapis-lazuli-and-battle-mineral-wealth/

https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/afghanistan/talc-everyday-mineral-funding-afghan-insurgents/

Secondary references:

https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/09/22/taliban-afghanistan-mining-peace-talks/

https://chinadialogue.net/en/business/9067-illegal-mining-for-chinese-market-fuels-taliban-in-afghanistan/

https://www.newsecuritybeat.org/2016/08/lapis-lazuli-turned-afghan-mining-town-taliban/

https://www.cnbc.com/2016/12/16/china-cleared-by-taliban-to-mine-for-copper-in-afghanistan.html

Further reading on Afghan and Taliban history:

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/05/afghanistan-saur-revolution-communists-soviet-intervention

http://isj.org.uk/afghanistan-the-case-against-the-good-war/

The Taliban Reader —– Alex Strick von Linschoten, Felix Kuehn

An Enemy We Created — idem

Poetry of the Taliban — idem

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