I want to begin my contribution to this blog on anthropology and counter-insurgency by reproducing a short review of Charlie Wilson’s War, a film closely based on George Crile’s book about the CIA and American government decisions which led to the US arming the Afghan resistance against Soviet imperialism and the Soviet occupation. The review was written by Jonathan Neale. Like me, Jonathan did anthropological fieldwork with nomads in Afghanistan in the 1970s. Jonathan and I have talked a great deal in our effort to understand the last thirty years of war in Afghanistan. His account is a clear illustration of how important it is to locate an understanding of resistance in a particular history. It also points to a deep political confusion on the left about imperial resistance, and hence also about ‘counter-insurgency’ – it is a confusion which I think lurks behind some of the discussions here.
I went to see the movie Charlie Wilson’s War to review it for Socialist Worker. I really liked it – but many readers of this paper and Stop the War activists will hate the film. So I’m not going to recommend this very good film. Don’t go see it. You won’t like it. (Unless you’re Afghan, in which case you’ll probably think it’s funny and accurate – apart from the bits set in the refugee camp.)
Instead of a review, I’m going to write about some political confusions about Afghanistan. I’ve talked on Afghanistan recently at Stop the War meetings. I’ve been surprised by how many people in the audience say they find it quite hard to make the argument for withdrawing the troops from Afghanistan. That’s surprising, because the opinion polls steadily report that over 60 percent of the public are in favour of getting out of Afghanistan. By that, I’m sure they mean get the troops out and let the Afghans sort it out. And if the Taliban or the “warlords” win, so be it.
But I think the left activists find the argument hard because they are often not talking to that majority, but to other leftists and peace activists. And one big reason many of those people are unsure is because of what happened in the 1980s.
In 1978 the Afghan Communists took power in a coup led by army officers. The Communists were progressives, and moved quickly to support land reform and women’s rights. But they didn’t have majority support. Uprisings, led by mullahs and Islamist students, spread across the rural areas. In December 1979 the Russian army invaded Afghanistan to prop up the government. At that point the majority of city people also turned against the Communists. As an invading force without the support of the majority, the Russians had no alternative but to try to break the population. Afghanistan had a population of about 20 million. The Russian forces tortured tens of thousands, killed roughly one million, maimed another million, and drove six million into exile as refugees. This terror united most Afghan people behind the resistance.
Before the invasion the two main political groups in Afghanistan had been the Communists and some pretty hardcore Islamists. So it was no surprise the Islamists led the resistance, though on the ground it was a popular resistance, with each village fighting for its own land. But the Cold War framed the wider picture. The CIA and General Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship in Pakistan put together an alliance of Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, the US and Saudi Arabia to fund and arm the Afghan resistance. And 40 percent of US aid went to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Islamist resistance leader who is now one of the key leaders of the resistance to the US.
Right through the 1980s a debate raged in the US over whether to give the Afghan resistance surface-to-air missiles to shoot down helicopters. If they did, the Russians would lose. On the other hand, the Afghan leaders were a lot more hardcore than the US’s Islamist enemies in Iran next door. Charlie Wilson, a Texas congressman, campaigned for giving the Afghans the missiles. By 1986 he had won the argument, and by 1988 the Afghan resistance had shot down 300 helicopters and planes and defeated the Russians. Most of this history is laid out accurately in the film – from Charlie Wilson’s point of view. (The book, by George Crile, is much better.)
Many on the left now look back to Communist-run Afghanistan with nostalgia. This is partly because they hate US domination of the world, and at least, they say, Russia was a countervailing force. But this nostalgia ignores the Russian invasion and the torture and mass murder that followed.
There is now another popular uprising in Afghanistan, but it was not automatic. When the US invaded in 2001, Afghans were not willing to fight for either the invaders or the Taliban. They had had enough of 23 years of war. But three years on, the experience of occupation drove many to pick up the gun again. That new resistance now looks to the Taliban and Hekmatyar – not because of fanaticism, but because they have been the only serious political forces in Afghanistan completely opposed to the occupation from the beginning.
That has a lesson for today. If the left allies with the invader, the eventual resistance will hate the left. Feminism is now very weak in Afghanistan because in the 1980s Afghan feminist women supported the Russians and their violent occupation.
Many leftists in rich countries think of themselves as offering solidarity to “progressive” resistance movements in the poor countries. But for me the politics of the resistance is not the key. I lived with Afghans once, and ate their bread. My solidarity is not with their politics, it’s with them – the people who work, farm and herd their sheep. As a socialist, my solidarity was with their resistance to invasion in the 1980s, for all the same reasons it is with their resistance to occupation now. In the long term, the only way to create a progressive movement in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or anywhere else, is to oppose invasion, occupation and the helicopters. (Jonathan Neale, Socialist Worker, 10/1/08, p.12)
For me, Jonathan’s review raises three key issues that deserve our attention if we are to be wise about the involvement of anthropologists in covert government sponsored counter-insurgency: the relation between politics and anthropology, the nature of imperialism, and effective resistance to imperial power.
While I strongly agree with the comments of David, John, and others about the relation between anthropology as a professional disciplinary practice and real politics in the world, my agreement stems from my personal politics, not from anthropology per se. Indeed, I am uncomfortable when broader discussions of global politics are framed and funnelled through the lens of anthropology. Anthropological thought and practice cannot, in themselves, provide the scope for such debate. Nor are there uncontested disciplinary imperatives which prefigure the relationship between anthropology, anthropologists and politics. So, for example, it is important to remember that the ‘handmaiden of imperialism’ arguments need to be balanced by the fiercely and explicitly anti-imperialist stands taken by both Malinowski and Boas. Indeed, it is likely that today a majority of anthropologists are left-leaning, but this is not inevitable.
Anthropologists come in all political stripes. And yet, because most anthropology professionals are well-meaning and dedicated, they have a tendency to project their personal politics onto the discipline and treat their anthropology as a moral compass in a frightening world. Some even make a leap of faith from their anthropology to political belief. This may be a way of dealing with cognitive dissonance at a personal level or even calculatingly self-serving, but it skates round deeper moral questions about war and peace, inequality and resistance. It also means that anthropologists, as anthropologists, don’t necessarily have cogent or compelling explanations of the global economic and political system that are more accurate, or more moral, than other, competing explanations.
So while I completely support the admirable pledge of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, I am unsettled when discussions of global politics are looped back, and anchored into our knowledge and experience of anthropology. The anthropological lens can, I think, truncate and blur our vision and limit the clarity of our politics.
I am a socialist and an anthropologist. I am glad there are many anthropologists who are exercised about any and all anthropological input into covert government sponsored counter-insurgency. But to understand the wider issues, we anthropologists on the left will always need to locate our concerns more broadly. And as people of the left, we need to decide very clearly whose side we’re on. And that is not always easy.
I think we need to go well beyond the ‘liberal imperial’ rhetoric and include an analysis of imperialism which forefronts the process of centralization fundamental to capitalism, and the increasing militarization of competition between rival centres of capital accumulation. This puts the oil politics of the American empire is at the centre of the analysis: as a project to monopolize control of the world economic system – including natural resources, human labour, and markets. And such an imperial project inevitably creates and sustains resistance.
Resistance to American, and rival, imperialisms takes many forms – from anthropologists who sign the pledge against counter-insurgency, to the activists fighting Coke and the Narmada Dam in India, the thousands of Chinese who are fighting forced homelessness in the run up to the Olympics, Chechen fighters and the Taliban and Iraqis who have resisted occupation so strongly that the US is losing in both these wars.
Counter-insurgency is about resistance. It is counter to insurgency. We cannot understand the one without understanding the other.
Along with ordinary people, and activists around the world, our concern as left-leaning anthropologists should be to understand which kinds of resistance work, and which don’t, according the changing balance of power in any struggle. And only then, does it become possible to consider how we can intervene with efficacy– as leftists, and perhaps even as professional anthropologists, if our credentials can be used to make a difference. But conflating our liberal anthropology with socialist politics can lead to a deep confusion which we must do our best to avoid if we want to help the world a better place to live.