Afghanistan, internationalism and the Left: an interview with Terry Glavin
Platypus Review 10 | February 2009
The following interview was conducted as an email exchange between Andony Melathopoulos and Terry Glavin in December 2008. Terry Glavin is a Canadian journalist, an outspoken critic of the anti-war movement's call to withdrawal foreign troops from Afghanistan and a founder of the Afghanistan Canada Solidarity Committee (afghanistan-canada-solidarity.org).
Andony Melathopoulos: You just returned from a trip to Afghanistan and have been busy writing about your experience in the Canadian news media and, most recently, in an online piece in Democratiya ("Afghanistan: A Choice of Comrades," Winter (15), 2008). What are the main points you are trying to convey in your writing?
Terry Glavin: If I'm trying to convey any position of my own about Afghanistan, specifically, it arises from the one firm conviction I have reached in my investigations over the years, which was confirmed over and over again in Afghanistan. And it's this: What we in the "West" say to ourselves about Afghanistan - the way we talk about Afghanistan - really matters. And the implications of the "troops out" position - the spectre that this position might actually succeed, has an enormously corrosive impact on Afghan society.
It's why I'm convinced that the worst threat Afghanistan faces is not the threat of "re-Talibanization" by the theocratic fascists who like to say to the West, "You have all the clocks, but we have all the time." It's from the clock-watching West, and the "international community," which should be saying, unequivocally: "We're staying as long as we're needed and wanted, period. We won't abandon Afghanistan again, ever."
AM: Like you, Fred Halliday and Christopher Hitchens have taken unpopular stands against the anti-war movement. This has been in response to their former comrades in the New Left Review and the Nation for crawling "in bed with the forces of reaction" (Hitchens). Is the Canadian "Left" bedding down with these same forces? Was forming the Afghanistan Canada Solidarity Committee an attempt to provide a positive internationalist response to the anti-war movement?
TG: When the Solidarity Committee came together, we were all in agreement that rather than contribute to an already infantilized conversation, we wanted to try to change the public conversation, and we've seen real successes in doing that. We wanted to provide space for Afghan-Canadian voices, and to make the "progressive" case for engagement in Afghanistan. Our founders were mainly from the left, but we were more than happy to welcome Liberals and even Conservatives, especially of the old "Red Tory" kind. In that way, it's a pretty classic popular-front approach. Our founders included women's rights activists and several left-wing writers and academics, but also a former federal Liberal cabinet minister and two former federal Conservative cabinet ministers. What surprised me, quite frankly, was just how much support there was for the sort of position we were staking out, across the board.
Perhaps less like the U.S, but certainly much like the case in Britain, Canada's "anti-war" movement has indeed crawled into bed with the forces of reaction. I mean this not in some oblique or metaphorical way, but quite specifically. The main "anti-war" organizations in Canada have nurtured fraternal ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, with Hezbollah and Hamas. You can look it up for yourself. When the head of the Canadian Labour Congress refers to the Taliban as the Afghan "resistance" and the New Democratic Party (social democrats) fields "star" candidates who call the Taliban mere "dissidents," you know that something rather unusually toxic is at work.
As for Fred Halliday's analysis, let's remember what his invocation of Spain in the 1930s, in the Afghan context, is about. I don't cite the cause of the international brigades in Spain merely as a spirited call to arms, but rather in the light that Halliday casts on the current situation. Just as Spain served as a proving ground and a crucible of the horrors that were to follow, Afghanistan has provided a training ground and a crucible for a kind of fascism that has been unleashed throughout Central Asia, the Maghreb, and the Levant, to say nothing of the relatively minor horrors it unleashed on New York, Washington, Madrid, and London.
I am offering the observation that history has repeated itself, and is repeating itself, and there is no shortage of isolationist "pacifists" and Little Englanders on the left, and no shortage of Charles Lindberghs, animating the "anti-war" movement today.
AM: How did you first become interested in Afghanistan? Is there a defining moment or incident that drew your attention there?
TG: A few years ago, when I was still writing my column for the Georgia Straight - which claims to be North America's oldest "alternative newsweekly" - I found that the conventional left-wing polemics on the question of Afghanistan simply couldn't be sustained by resort to facts or argument from anything vaguely resembling a working-class, internationalist standpoint.
Most importantly, I started talking to Afghan emigres, and to women who had done progressive work in Afghanistan, and soon realized that the entire "Left" argument was, in a word, a fraud.
I dealt with this rather gingerly at first, writing only about the obvious challenges Afghanistan presented in a Canadian context, and relying on Afghan emigres to provide whatever opinions were necessarily asserted in whatever I wrote. But I quickly understood that even in this, I had transgressed into the heretical.
What I began to see quite clearly - and it was the Afghanistan debate that allowed me to see it, was that in the main, the "Left," on such an epochal question - and related as it was to the rising challenge of Islamist barbarism throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia - was simply not on the side of progress, was not on the side of emancipation, was not on the side of "peace", even. Not in the matter of Afghanistan, obviously and certainly. The "Left" had retreated into a sort of parochial isolationism, and there was no role for a journalist like me except to reassure the "Left" of its virtue, assist in the construction of comforting falsehoods, and otherwise engage in the regurgitation of platitudes and pieties.
AM: Clearly the anti-war movement is a different kind of Left than the one you have in mind. Can you tell me a little about where your politics come from? How did you come to the Left in the first place?
TG: When I was a kid I was quite intensely informed by the Irish republican politics in the community, and the Chile solidarity work after Allende was killed, and I was drawn to the Revolutionary Marxist Group and the League for Socialist Action and such Trotskyist groups. But when I got older I noticed it was the old Communist Party warhorses who were always doing the heavy lifting. Not the dizzy ideologues from the universities or the Soviet apologists, but the party's union men and women. You could count on them. For anything. The party was a disgrace, but the partisans were good people. It was like the church in that way. Nobody takes the Pope seriously but when you get in a jam it's the Knights of Columbus you'll be wanting, and they're always there for you. And that's what's really got working people to the point we'd reached by the time I came of age, with all the relative comforts that were available only to the wealthy just a century before.
One of the things you notice about the international volunteers in the Spanish war, for instance, perhaps especially in the enormous Canadian contingent, was a distaste bordering on outright hostility to ideological and party-line considerations, and a searing, gut-felt duty to one's comrades in struggle. The precipice where most people in the world stand today, in so many respects - natural-resource exhaustion, food scarcity and famine, failed states, the implosion of capital markets, entrenched tyranny, slavery, and so on - is no less all-devouring than the abyss the Spanish people faced. Where much of the "Left" appears to be encumbered by a sense of nostalgia or parent-envy, standing in the shadows of its predecessors, I tend to see the conditions humanity faces today as every bit as daunting and terrifying as the conditions faced by our parents' and grandparents' generations, and requiring a stiffness of resolve no less martial. I don't know why we would expect anything less of ourselves today than our predecessors gave of themselves in Spain all those years ago. But the "Left" today calls us to much less. The most charitable thing one can say of the so-called anti-imperialist "Left" is that it summons us to neutrality, to indifference, to the antisocial pathology of "minding our own business."
AM: I am uneasy with the idea that the problems of the "Left" can be solved by simply developing a stomach for getting our hands dirty. Maybe the problems with the "so-called anti-imperialist 'Left' " are not primarily that they lack duty or stomach, but rather, their theory is inadequate, or frozen in the past. Isn't the pragmatism that you deem to be a necessity only so because there is no workers' movement and because there is no theory to navigate even a nascent movement?
TG: I think I might be uneasy with it as well, because developing a stomach for dirty hands alone won't help the Left, and I don't say it will. I'm not in the least bit uneasy about placing a good degree of trust in the basic instincts of ordinary people when they are committed to coming to the aid of their fellow human beings.
I don't know that I simply assign "pragmatism" in the place that I would prefer to see, say, a robust proletarian internationalism, but neither am I certain that a revivified global consciousness needs to wait for a "new" or rearticulated theory, or that any of us need to wait for a revivified democratic-socialist internationalism in order to be able to think clearly or act as effectively as our means allow. At the same time, action without something at least approaching a theory by which to navigate is just as useless. The "anti-globalization" movement might be the most vivid example of such uselessness, although I'm not even sure that its global pow-wow circuit antic-making can be considered "action" except in the symbolic sense. So maybe that's not the best example. The World Social Forum, then. There you go. There was a kind of "theory" that animated its proceedings. Where did that get us?
So rather than simply retreating into theory, maybe the best use intellectuals of the "Left" can make of themselves on this aimless voyage is to strip away and jettison all the ideational-package flotsam from the anti-imperialist, anti-globalization, anti-war, and counterculture "Left", and see if anything remains.
AM: I am sympathetic with your characterisation of the theory of the "Left" as incoherent and its practice as powerless. You don't, however, seem prepared to "jettison" the example of the Canadian volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. Why does this hold a key to a revived internationalism for you? Doesn't the persistence of this historical imagination only prove that the "Left" has never really been able to overcome, or work through, the failed Popular Front tactics of the 1930s? Doesn't this just emphasize how the "Left" is both afraid of taking power and of working for common goals - and by common goals I mean creating a common ideology?
TG: I think I've dealt with the business of "ideology" as far as I'm comfortable in doing, but I am not prepared to simply "jettison" the instructive example of the Canadian volunteers in the Spanish War. I don't know that I'd go so far as to say it holds the "key" to a revived internationalism, but it certainly does set a standard, and a similar popular-front strategy is not doomed to failure at all. In the 1930s, Western armies were not arrayed against Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. Today, the US, NATO and ISAF is in the fight in Afghanistan, and with the exception of the Americans' disgraceful appeasements of the Pakistan military and intelligence complex, the armies of the West are, in fact, on the right side. I really think it's important to acknowledge that, to get over it. The Taliban are not the Vietcong. The Sixties are over. It actually is possible for the American military to be on the right side of a struggle, and as some wag said, "It would be lovely if the Nelson Mandela Appreciation Society had the means to take on the job, but until that happens, I'm afraid we're going to have to settle for the 101st Airborne Division."
AM: In your Democratiya piece you describe the forthcoming Obama presidency as articulating the words that Afghans want to hear most: "We will not leave you. We will not betray you. We will not abandon you". What is it about Obama's approach that makes you think that the U.S. will finally make a serious sustained effort to rebuild Afghanistan?
TG: America's conduct has been far more callous and filthy and duplicitous and disgraceful and foolish than we have time or space to consider here, and yes, in a perfect world, perhaps Donald Rumsfeld would be brought before an American court, tried before an American judge, and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in an American prison. But we're living in the here and the now, in the real world, and all I have to go on as far as the new American president is concerned is his word. I have no cause to doubt what little he has actually said on the subject because it is in America's interests to proceed as Obama has given the world to believe he will proceed. I haven't heard him say America will "finally make a serious sustained effort to rebuild Afghanistan," in such a direct way. And this is what we do have cause to worry about.
Afghans need to believe they will not be abandoned again. They have to be convinced it is true, otherwise they will have all the fight and the hope drained out of them, and they are already reeling from enough dashed hopes. Look at how it came to pass that America returned to Afghanistan in the autumn months of 2001 and you will see why so many Afghans rejoiced just as we did here in Canada, especially here on the west coast, in December of 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. There was jubilation up and down the coast, and there were bonfires. We celebrated, but not because of the terrible thing that had happened to America, but because after two years allied with the British, fighting the Axis powers in Europe, Canadians knew that at long last, America was in the fight. It had become in American interests to join the fight.
You don't need to consult your Hegel to know that from contingency comes opportunity, and after September 11th, Americans were drawn back into the fight in Afghanistan, and anyone who imagines that this was a bad thing simply hasn't been paying attention, and anyone who would wonder why so many Afghans rejoiced has not been paying attention.
Here's what we have cause to be worried about. It is precisely that President-elect Obama will fulfill his promises to the American people efficiently and cost-effectively by striking some sordid arrangement with the three main chains of command within the Taliban in order to get at al Qaeda. 'Give us al Qaeda and we'll cut you loose,' an Obama White House might well propose. And where is the American Left that could prevent or forestall such a squalid betrayal, or mount even a minor protest rally about it? There is no such American Left. It doesn't exist.
With millions of Afghan refugees fleeing to Iran and Pakistan and Tajikistan, and all the schools shut down and the newspapers and radio stations shuttered and looted, the American "Left" would experience something of a frisson. Noam Chomsky would trace the consistent trajectory of American conduct in the region. Cindy Sheehan would mumble something about maybe not challenging Nancy Pelosi again four years down the road. Amy Goodman conduct some brain numbing interview with Tariq Ali, and in the pages of The Nation, Tom Hayden and Naomi Klein might write opposing essays. Klein could gloat over the front-row view we've all been given of American capitalism's true face revealing itself in Afghanistan. Hayden could take the contrary opinion: No, Obama is one of us, he's bringing the troops home, let's get high.
So, for now at least, we're left with all this "hope" and "change" stuff. For now, it will have to do.
AM: You make a distinction between the intervention in Iraq and the intervention in Afghanistan. You only support the intervention in Afghanistan. Why?
TG: Because the distinctions and differences abound. To be painfully specific, the way I would prefer to put my answer to your question is that I wholeheartedly support "intervention" but not necessarily "the intervention" in Afghanistan, and I would have preferred to at least cautiously support an intervention in Iraq, but certainly not "the intervention" as it was conceived and prosecuted.
In the case of Iraq, I found myself on the "no war" side in a specifically Canadian context, or maybe I should say a not-American context, and for reasons that are different from the main anti-war justifications and arguments abroad in 2003. By this I mean two things.
Firstly, I wouldn't have opposed American intervention owing to any squeamishness at the prospect of Americans coming home in body bags from Fallujah, for instance. After all, why shouldn't they be the bodies of Americans? I know this sounds cold, but if any soldiers had to die in the "liberation" of the Iraqi people, it would be hard to argue, given the history of American complicity with the entrenchment of the Baathist regime, that it should not be American soldiers.
Secondly, in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the debates and arguments really counted, the nature of the decision facing Canadians was wholly different than the decision facing Americans. For Canadians, the questions were: Why should we sign up as a junior partner in a very risky, largely unilateral war, a war of such a massive scale? Why would we sign up with the Americans in the invasion and overthrow of a UN member state, without a clear UN mandate, with world opinion mainly against the idea? Why would we join in an Anglo-American war on evidence that was at best shaky, for purposes that were at best shadowy, and in the absence of any framework for multilateral consideration about which tyranny to invade in the world, and when, and under what agreed-upon grounds?
Afghanistan is almost a mirror-image opposite of the circumstances and trajectory that have prevailed in Iraq. To begin with, Afghanistan re-entered the public consciousness in 2001 as a thoroughly rogue state, with diplomatic recognition only from the Taliban's sponsor (Pakistan) and the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates (the home states of the deranged oil millionaires who helped bankroll them). Afghanistan's seat at the UN was occupied by the Taliban's arch-enemies, the Northern Alliance. The country had been cleaved in half by war and savagery, and every year, the territory under Taliban control was churning out thousands of Chechen, Filipino, Kashmiri, Algerian and Moroccan jihadists to be dispatched to their assignments around the world from well-funded training camps. A quarter of the population was scattered to the ends of the earth as refugees. Almost a third of the unfortunates who remained in the country were on the verge of starvation. The Taliban were hated by the people, the entire, war-blasted place was a humanitarian disaster of the first order. Deposing the Taliban was going to be like a walk in the park. Intervention? What took you so long? What's not to like?
As I have persisted in noticing, for some years, what the Afghan people have been very clear about in respect of what they actually want, and what the "Left" has been arguing for in the rich countries of the world, are diametrically opposed. What the "Left" has been saying, among other absurd things, is troops out. In a baker's dozen's worth of polls I am aware of, the Afghan people consistently and overwhelmingly say they want democracy, peace, security, and jobs, and they want and need international forces to help them achieve these things. Troops in.
So I am forced to decide. And I've made my decision.
AM: This decision seems an accommodation to the fact that an international Left does not exist. Is the decision for one intervention over another any more a decision than the anti-war movement's "decision" to end either war; are not all these "decisions" ultimately determined by the realities of U.S. power? You suggest multilateral actors (e.g. 39-nation ISAF) and the U.N. are capable of overcoming this reality but this doesn't seem consistent with the example of Afghanistan, where the desired U.N. and multilateral attention occurred only after it was in the U.S.'s interest (i.e. following a direct attack). Moreover, I am unsure why you think that multilateral actors and the U.N. are a desirable counterweight to the U.S. Do you think they are agents of the Left? Do you think they are able to pose a challenge to the present system of global capital? Do you think they are a vehicle for developing a worker-based internationalism that can meaningfully challenge and overcome U.S. power?
TG: I don't think any of these things. But I do think that contingency produces opportunity, you work with the cards you're dealt, and sometimes, history will happen to deal you a decent hand. Helplessness and powerlessness are the worst kinds of illusions, and here's how Afghanistan is not like Spain: we don't need to arm civilian volunteers and get them there. Our soldiers are there already. They're well-trained, and fairly well-paid. In Afghanistan, teaching a single girl how to read her own name is a revolutionary act, and $1,500 in Yankee currency employs a teacher for an entire year. Is the "Left" so bankrupt that it can't even do this?
To more directly answer your question, I would go so far as to suggest that, with some "ifs" engaged, then yes, we could even be deciding which military interventions were necessary and useful to the cause of human progress, and which ones were not. It is quite easy to imagine circumstances like that as being well within the realm of possibility. But in order to wield that degree of influence in democratic societies, it would at least help somewhat if we rededicated ourselves to universal human progress, democratic egalitarianism, and freedom from slavery, misogyny, illiteracy and obscurantism. If these things are possible, then yes, "multilateral actors" and the UN could indeed be agents of the Left," and even US power could be harnessed in the cause of the historic mission of the Left, and the irrational occupation with overcoming "US power" might be seen for the irrelevant distraction that it usually is.
I will concede to you, and to Platypus, that in order to even imagine such things, it may first be necessary to give in to "the desire for a tabula rasa, for a start from scratch," as the Platypus statement of purpose puts it. I would further concede that this may well require that the living dead of the "Left" as we now know it should be put down, eliminated, rejected, and jettisoned.
Fine by me. Avante. Allons-y. Let's go. |P