Palestine 2018 proved the futility of anticolonial nonviolence

There is no case of nonviolent anticolonial struggle

The US struggle for civil rights, remembered as the nonviolent movement of Martin Luther King, was also the movement of the Deacons for Defense in Louisiana, the movement of the Mississipi Regional Council of Negro Leadership which could “speedily mobilize substantial and deadly firepower” including E.W. Steptoe who had “guns all over the house, under pillows, under chairs”, of Robert Williams of Monroe, North Carolina’s NAACP who said in 1959 that “we must be willing to kill if necessary”, the movement of a night-long battle with police in Albany, Georgia in 1962 and in Birmingham, Georgia in 1963, when “every day of riots was worth a year of civil rights demonstrations”. 

The Indian Freedom struggle, remembered as the nonviolent movement of MK Gandhi, was also the movement of the Hindustan Republican Army, of Chandrasekhar Azad and of Bhagat Singh, of the Telengana Uprising of 1946, of the Tamil Nadu anti-feudal struggle of 1943, of the underground guerrilla struggles after Quit India in Odisha, West Bengal, Bangalore and elsewhere, of the Toofan Sena in Maharashtra, of Indian National Army of Subhas Chandra Bose, and of the Naval Mutiny of 1946. 

The two most iconic tales of the deployment of strategic nonviolence turn out, upon historical examination, to have been armed struggles, replete with violence.

Through an analysis of the work of Gene Sharp (“Gene Sharp’s Neoliberal Nonviolence” part 1 and part 2), writer and academic Marcie Smith has revealed the existence of a sort of “nonviolence industrial complex”, a network of institutions linked to the US foreign policy establishment, dedicated to two things: 1. steering opposition to US-backed states and projects in nonviolent directions, and 2. to using methods of nonviolent insurgency as a part of a set of tactics (including covert, violent action) to destabilize US targets. 

The jewels in the narrative crown of this nonviolence network are the US civil rights movement and the Indian Freedom Struggle, which is why I devoted the two previous articles in this series to showing that these were in fact armed struggles. 

The narrators of the nonviolence network have one other weapon: quantitative analysis. But this weapon too, turns out to be a plastic replica. 

In their book Why Civil Resistance Works, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan claim to have proven through statistical analysis that nonviolence is more effective than violence. Their analysis is worth detailed examination since it claims to have the authority of a huge dataset and logistic regression proving the chances of success are higher with nonviolence. 

But what did they actually do? They made a list of several hundred revolutions from the 20th century (nearly all of which were in fact violent), coded some struggles as violent and others not, coded some struggles as successful and others not (in fact many of the successes delivered the countries and their economies directly over for imperialist plunder), and then after a quantitative assessment which amounts to counting the number of successful cases of each type, found that their “nonviolent” coded struggles had a higher chance of success. These nonviolent-coded struggles include: 

  • the South African struggle (including its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe); 
  • and the many East European color revolutions. 
  • the Palestinian Intifada;

A quick skim of any of these histories show that these were all violent struggles. The data reveal the conclusion the authors believed at the outset and for which they coded their data. Why Civil Resistance Works is historical falsification covered with a quantitative mystique. 

To determine the veracity of their analysis we need examine only those events coded as both nonviolent and successful. Nonviolent failures are of no interest, since they do not bolster the nonviolence narrative. Neither violent successes nor failures are of interest either, since to the nonviolence industry armed struggles are already failures. 

The database published with the book contains 57 nonviolent successes. There are two types of movements analyzed in the database: movements for regime change and movements for secession. There are no nonviolent successes for secession movements: all 57 nonviolent successes are regime change successes. There are only 4 secession successes out of 46 attempts in the database (Croatia, Tigray, Bangladesh, and Aceh from Indonesia starting in 1976-2005). All of these were violent.

Philosophers of science know that there is a complicated set of human decisions that go into the translation of things occurring in nature into statistical data. Even such decisive phenomena as birth and death can only be entered in a spreadsheet as “0” and “1” by the declaration of a doctor. Of all the types of data to translate into “0”s and “1”s on a spreadsheet, historical data is the worst. Was the French Revolution a success, a failure, or is it too early to tell? In history, some failures are necessary prerequisites for future success; some processes simply cannot be classified as one or the other (Chenoweth and Stephan include a “limited success” category to try to capture these). 

The relevant point here is that the coding of these 57 events as both “nonviolent” and “successful” ranges from deeply problematic to utterly preposterous. 

Going through them: 

In this database, the Palestinian liberation struggle apparently started in 1973, was violent, and a failure. The Intifada, 1987-1990, is considered a nonviolent partial success. The 1979 overthrow of the Shah of Iran, which I won’t dispute was successful, is coded as a nonviolent process – which would be a surprise to the guerrilla fighters and defectors who fought the Shah’s soldiers in the streets. The 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon is coded as a success, but it did not change the regime and Lebanon’s political system continued as before. 

The Cedar Revolution is not the only “color revolution” (short-hand for a US-backed regime change operation in a US enemy country led by US-trained political and media cadres) coded as a nonviolent success. Indeed a good part (14 of the 57) of the nonviolent successes are East Europe color revolutions: 1989 Germany, 1981 Poland, 1989 Hungary, 1989 Czech, 1989 Slovakia, 1989 Bulgaria, 1990 Russia, 1989 Estonia, 1989 Latvia, 1989 Lithuania, 2001 Ukraine, 2003 Georgia, 1989 Kyrgystan, 2005 Kyrgistan. In the background of all of these color revolutions was the threat of US-led NATO expansion and US nuclear war, as well as the fact of US violent covert operations. Three more of these East Europe nonviolent successes – 1999 Croatia, 2000 Yugoslavia, 1989 Slovenia – are from the incredibly violent US-led dismembering of Yugoslavia in a series of civil wars (described in, e.g., Michael Parenti’s book To Kill a Nation and Diana Johnstone’s book Fool’s Crusade). 

Operation Allied Force: The NATO Bombing Of Yugoslavia
NATO bombed bridge in dismembered Yugoslavia, 1999, one of the nonviolent successes in the database.

In Africa, in addition to coding the South African anti-apartheid struggle as nonviolent (which would be news to umKhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress), and the Ghanaian, Zambian, and Malawi Independence struggles as nonviolent (they were not), the majority of African nonviolent successes in the database were mass mobilizations to press for elections. These were: 1989 Mali, 2000 Ghana, 1993 Nigeria, 2001 Zambia, 1992 Malawi, 1991 Madagascar, 2002 Madagascar, 1985 Sudan (in active civil war at the time).

In East Asia, the 1960 April Revolution in Korea (in which 186 people were killed) is coded as a nonviolent success, as is the 1986 People Power Revolution in the Philippines (after decades of guerrilla struggle and notable defections from the military). East Timor, widely recognized to have suffered a genocide from the 1970s to the 1990s, is coded as having had a nonviolent success in 1988, despite Independence coming in 1999 after a long guerrilla war. A 1973 popular uprising in Thailand, that had bomb explosions and dozens of deaths in riots, is coded as a nonviolent success. So, too, in Thailand, a long-running political crisis in 2005 that culminated in a military coup in 2006, is coded as a nonviolent success. 

In the Americas, the database includes as nonviolent successes a 1931 naval mutiny in Chile, a 1944 armed revolution in Guatemala, 1958 Venezuela (which featured attacks on security services headquarters and resulted in the awful Punto Fijo pact), a clear failure to overthrow the system in Mexico in 1987, and struggles against dictatorships in Argentina (1977 and 1986), Uruguay (1984), and Chile (1983), all of which had prominent guerrilla movements. The database cites 2002 in Venezuela as a nonviolent success, but there were two things that happened in April 2002 in Venezuela: a violent coup against Chavez and its reversal when the army refused to endorse the coup: the coup failed, the the successful reversal of the coup involved military moves. 

In Europe, a 1974 military coup in Portugal is coded as a nonviolent success. Of the churning conflicts, revolutions, and civil wars in Germany in the 1920s that culminated in the rise of Nazism in the 1930s and the most violent events in human history so far, 1923 in Germany is coded as a nonviolent success. 

There is, however, a specific type of conflict coded as a nonviolent success in the database that recurs in different parts of the world, in which a spent dictatorship gives way, in the face of a basically nonviolent popular movement, to an election. About eight of the 57 nonviolent successes belong to this pattern: 1963 and 1974 in Greece, 1977 in Bolivia, 1984 in Brazil, 1985 in Haiti (which led to a military coup and additional years of mobilization until Aristide was elected, then violently overthrown again…), 1990 Guyana, 2000 Peru, and 2001 in the Philippines. This particular set of eight cases (five of which took place in the Americas) could be used as evidence for the argument that, under the right circumstances, largely nonviolent popular mobilization can reverse a stolen election or force a weakened government to agree to elections. It does not prove at all that nonviolent movements have a better chance of success than violent ones. But even in these cases, the threat of violence existed. 

There is value in analyzing and comparing movements of resistance in history. There may even be value in coding them and calculating probabilities. But there is no value to be had in building a model for probability of success based on violence and nonviolence by miscoding failures as successes and armed struggles as nonviolent. 

We never needed a database to tell us that under some circumstances a social and political struggle can be kept on the nonviolent plane. The key factor is the investment elites have in maintaining the policy that is being challenged. Union struggles can often succeed in winning wage and working conditions improvements nonviolently. Every election where the loser congratulates the winner and there is a peaceful transfer of power is an example of a successful nonviolent struggle. But colonialism, struggles over land, in which oppressors have racial ideas of superiority over the oppressed? In these cases, whether it succeeds or fails, armed struggle alone has a chance. Only by wielding falsified histories and models can the nonviolence storytellers argue otherwise.

Palestine 2018: the final proof of the uselessness of nonviolence in anticolonial struggle

And so we turn to Palestine, a colonial struggle over land, in which the oppressors have racial ideas of superiority over the oppressed and are, since 2023, engaging in active genocide. Palestine has been an area of focus for the nonviolence industry for decades. 

A February 2024 paper by the Center for Constitutional Rights has shown that US anti-terror legislation was “driven by anti-Palestinian agendas from the beginning.” The nonviolence industry has had a similar Palestine focus from the beginnings of Gene Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institute. The 1987-1989 Intifada was an object of fascination for Sharp and for the nonviolence industry. Sharp’s Journal of Palestine Studies article in 1989, “The Intifadah and Nonviolent Struggle”, identifies him as the author of the 1973 book The Politics of Nonviolent Action as well as the author of Almuqawama Bila Ounf (Nonviolent Resistance), published in Jerusalem by the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence in 1986. In the article, Sharp argues – quantitatively again – that 85% of the intifada has been nonviolent. He simply asserts that armed struggle and nonviolent struggle are “not easily mixed to advantage” – and so the Palestinians should go from 85% to 100% nonviolent. After the usual arguments absolving Israelis of responsibility for the violence they mete out on Palestinians and the normal nonviolence argument that the the colonial repression faced by the victims is their fault for provoking their oppressors, Sharp suggests Palestinians go on a 21-day hunger strike, followed by “whistling or wailing at night, especially in dark streets” and “having the youths standing peacefully, not fleeing, holding small Palestinian flags, their right hands outstretched in a gesture of friendship.” Sharp dangles recognition before well-behaved Palestinians: “The shift to fully nonviolent struggle would also make possible more active support for Palestinian independence in Western Europe and the United States.”

After months of genocide, starvation, and the gleeful mass murder of tens of thousands of children, all filmed and celebrated across Israeli society and by Israel’s supporters in the West, Sharp’s arguments are striking for their absurdity as well as their vulgarity. 

But Sharp was not alone. 

Pakistani activist and academic Eqbal Ahmed made the argument to Palestinians numerous times. He reported to journalist David Barsamian in 1996 (published in the 2000 book Confronting Empire) that he’d told a group of Arab students in the US after the 1967 war that “armed struggle was supremely unsuited to the Palestinian condition,” that “Israel’s fundamental contradiction was that it was founded as a symbol of the suffering of humanity at the expense of another people who were innocent of guilt,” and that “you don’t bring (the contradiction) out by armed struggle. In fact you suppress this contradiction by armed struggle.” He told them in 1968 that 

“This is a moment to fit ships in Lebanon and say, ‘we’re not going to destroy Israel. That is not our intent. We just want to go home.’ Reverse the symbols of Exodus. See if the Israelis are in a mood to sink some ships. They probably will. Let them do so. Some of us will die. Let us die.” Eqbal Ahmed imagined if Arafat were to “take on the role of a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King and announce tomorrow, ‘I must stop these settlements. They violate the spirit of Oslo. We are committed to peace. You are making war. We do not want to use violence against you. Peacefully we will march against you. We will sit in. We will clog the roads, start a full-scale movement, and discipline the Palestinians not even to throw stones, intifada-style, because Israelis will use and justify bullets against stones. They will use soldiers against children. Don’t even give them that.’ Israel will divide. It will divide as a society the way America divided. I would keep it divided until it makes peace.” 

But Eqbal Ahmed, despite being an  insightful anti-colonial strategist, was wrong about the histories he cited (Gandhi and Martin Luther King) and wrong about what would happen in the face of Palestinian non-violence, which did not divide Israel but incited Israel to ever-more intense racism. 

Norman Finkelstein wrote a whole book (What Gandhi Says) trying to assimilate lessons from Gandhi to the Palestinian struggle. His conclusions are ambivalent to say the least, since at times he writes things like “it might fairly be said that Gandhi fostered a death cult.” The book ends up being a presentation of the self-contradictory politics in Gandhi’s writing, not the practical manual of civil resistance Finkelstein may have hoped to create when he picked up Gandhi’s 100 volumes of writing as an aid for the US-based academic and activist “to think through a nonviolent strategy for ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.” 

Palestinians took up these ideas in good faith for years – in better faith than the method deserves. Hundreds of Palestinians died trying to do nonviolent struggle. So too did a handful of friends of Palestine, including Rachel Corrie, Tom Hurndall, and others in the International Solidarity Movement.

Eqbal had suggested finding out “if the Israelis were in the mood to sink some ships.” They were – they already had been in 1967, if we count the USS Liberty –  but in 2010 a nonviolent flotilla tried to go to Gaza*. Israel boarded the ships, killed some of the activists, and arrested, mistreated, and deported the rest. 

'The Marmara raid wasn't a failure' -
Israelis attacked the Mavi Marmara as it tried to break the blockade on Gaza in 2010

But the culmination of the nonviolent vision, the maximum horizon of all nonviolence, the controlled scientific experiment of perfect nonviolence, occurred in the Great March of Return in Gaza in 2018. It proved that nonviolence does not work. From a scientific standpoint, the nonviolence debate ended in 2018. 

As Gene Sharp’s article on the First Intifada opened the debate on nonviolence in Palestine, Jehad Abusalim’s article, “The Great March of Return: An Organizer’s Perspective”, in the same journal, closed the debate on the topic. 

The Great March of Return started, Abusalim reports, with a facebook post by Abu Artema on January 7, 2018. Abu Artema asked, “What could the occupation bristling with arms do to a mass of human beings advancing peacefully? Kill ten, twenty, or fifty of them? And then what? What could it do in the face of an unwavering mass peacefully marching?” Abu Artema and others worked to make it happen and organized for months, calling for a date in March: 

“To the surprise of all concerned, an estimated 30,000–45,000 people showed up on the first day of the Great March of Return. And on that day, Israeli snipers shot dead 17 Palestinians and injured some 1,400 others.32 The mainstream international media instantaneously referred to the carnage as “rioting” and “clashes” but to those on the ground in Gaza, it was beyond shocking: how could nonviolent protests unleash such fury as to cause Israel to kill 17 peaceful protesters and maim or injure another 1,400? That is how, from the very first day, bloodshed came to define the protest.” 

By the end of the protest, cold-blooded Israeli snipers had killed 226 Palestinians and methodically injured 30,000. For the Israelis, it was sport. The Western media fluidly and easily lied about the march, its nature, and the murderous Israeli response. Neither Israel nor its sponsors faced any crisis or internal division about what they were doing to the Palestinians. Neither Israel nor the West paid any cost for inflicting these tens of thousands of Palestinian casualties. 

Abu Artema, the protest organizer interviewed by Abusalim in the article, seems bereft of ideas at the end – he feels that more international mobilization is needed, some tool that prevents Israel from “targeting Palestinians in such a horrific way” and to “prevent the occupation from using propaganda to prime the public for slaughtering us.” The nonviolence industry was unable to come up with any such tools: the slaughter of Palestinians at the Great March of Return was not the fault of the nonviolent protesters any more than the genocide in 2023-24 was the fault of the Palestinian armed groups. Israel is a genocidal state: then as now, it is doing what it is organized to do. 

Six years later, Palestinians are waging an armed struggle against the Israeli military in Gaza and the West Bank. The Israeli military has chosen to accept military casualties and defeats on the battlefield (including the methodical destruction of its armored vehicles and groups of soldiers) to focus entirely on conducting a genocide against Palestinian civilians, with the central goal being the destruction of all of Gaza’s hospitals and educational institutions and the murder of patients and medical personnel, while blocking food and water from reaching people. Palestinians’ allies in Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen are all engaging militarily with Israel and its Western sponsors. In the region, for the time being, the nonviolence case is closed. 

Back in America though, in the solidarity movement, with the expansion of campus protests in April 2024, along with police repression all over the US, the nonviolence debate will rise again.

anti-genocide students face the cavalry in Texas

Anti-genocide students demand universities – which turned out, to the surprise of the students and faculty, to be investment banks that sometimes teach classes – divest from the military industry feeding the genocidal state. The pro-genocide establishment has called the police to crush the protests. What will be the outcome? Nonviolent or violent? Success or failure? 

*As I write this, another nonviolent international flotilla is planning to leave from Turkey to Gaza.

The Myth That India’s Freedom Was Won Nonviolently Is Holding Back Progress

Some struggles can be kept nonviolent, but decolonization never has been—certainly not in India

[This article is the second in what I believe will be a series of 3 articles. The first one talked about the armed elements in the supposedly “nonviolent” struggle for civil rights in the US South, and showed that that struggle was not, in fact, a “nonviolent” struggle. The current article does the same, but for the supposedly “nonviolent” struggle for Indian Independence. The third will talk about Palestine.]

If there is a single false claim to “nonviolent” struggle that has most powerfully captured the imagination of the world, it is the claim that India, under Gandhi’s leadership, defeated the mighty British Empire and won her independence through the nonviolent method.

India’s independence struggle was a process replete with violence. The nonviolent myth was imposed afterward. It is time to get back to reality. Using recent works on the role of violence in the Indian freedom struggle, it’s possible to compile a chronology of the independence movement in which armed struggle played a decisive role. Some of these sources: Palagummi Sainath’s The Last Heroes, Kama Maclean’s A Revolutionary History of Interwar India, Durba Ghosh’s Gentlemanly Terrorists, Pramod Kapoor’s 1946 Royal Indian Navy Mutiny: Last War of Independence, Vijay Prashad’s edited book, The 1921 Uprising in Malabar, and Anita Anand’s The Patient Assassin.

Nonviolence could never defeat a colonial power that had conquered the subcontinent through nearly unimaginable levels of violence. India was conquered step by step by the British East India Company in a series of wars. While the British East India Company had incorporated in 1599, the tide turned against India’s independence in 1757 at the battle of Plassey. A century of encroaching Company rule followed—covered in William Dalrymple’s book The Anarchy—with Company policy and enforced famines murdering tens of millions of people.

In 1857, Indian soldiers working for the Company rose up with some of the few remaining independent Indian rulers who had not yet been dispossessed—to try to oust the British. In response, the British murdered an estimated (by Amaresh Mishra, in the book War of Civilisations) 10 million people.

The British government took over from the Company and proceeded to rule India directly for another 90 years. 

From 1757 to 1947, in addition to the ten million killed in the 1857 war alone, another 30-plus million were killed in enforced famines, per figures presented by Indian politician Shashi Tharoor in the 2016 book Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India.

A 2022 study estimated another 100 million excess deaths in India due to British imperialism from 1880 to 1920 alone. Doctors like Mubin Syed believethat these famines were so great and over such a long period of time that they exerted selective pressure on the genes of South Asian populations, increasing their risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other diseases that arise when abundant calories are available because South Asian bodies have become famine-adapted.

By the end, the independence struggle against the British included all of the methods characteristic of armed struggle: clandestine organization, punishment of collaborators, assassinations, sabotage, attacks on police stations, military mutinies, and even the development of autonomous zones and a parallel government apparatus.

A Chronology of India’s Violent Independence Struggle

In his 2006 article, “India, Armed Struggle in the Independence Movement,” scholar Kunal Chattopadhyay broke the struggle down into a series of phases:

1905-1911: Revolutionary Terrorism. A period of “revolutionary terrorism” started with the assassination of a British official of the Bombay presidency in 1897 by Damodar and Balkrishna Chapekar, who were both hanged. From 1905 to 1907, independence fighters (deemed “terrorists” by the British) attacked railway ticket offices, post offices, and banks, and threw bombs, all to fight the partition of Bengal in 1905. In 1908, Khudiram Bose was executed by the imperialists for “terrorism.”

These “terrorists” of Bengal were a source of great worry to the British. In 1911, the British repealed the partition of Bengal, removing the main grievance of the terrorists. They also passed the Criminal Tribes Act, combining their anxieties over their continued rule with their ever-present racial anxieties. The Home Secretary of the Government of India is quoted in Durba Ghosh’s book Gentlemanly Terrorists

“There is a serious risk, unless the movement in Bengal is checked, that political dacoits and professional dacoits in other provinces may join hands and that the bad example set by these men in an unwarlike province like Bengal may, if it continues, lead to imitation in provinces inhabited by fighting races where the results would be even more disastrous.”

Ghosh outlines some more of these cases:

“In Bengal, the Alipore Conspiracy Case, Midnapore Conspiracy Case, the Howrah Gang Case, and other conspiracy trials enabled the government to detain those involved with secret and underground political groups. Relying on a century-old piece of security legislation that included the Regulation III of 1818, the government also passed the Indian Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1908 and the Defence of India Act in 1915 to bring political violence against the state under control.”

But, as Ghosh argues, the imperialist response wasn’t solely to pass draconian laws. On the contrary, they made concessions—growing concessions—toward independence and other demands by the “terrorists,” and tried to disproportionately reward their “nonviolent” interlocutors from the Congress. Bengal was reunited; the British moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi to get away from the terrorist movement in that province.

Revolutionary Struggles 1914-1918: With the end of the Swadeshi movement of 1905 to 1907 began what was called, simply, the “Terrorist Movement” from 1907 to 1917. The terrorists opened with an attack on Bengal Lieutenant Governor Andrew Fraser in Midnapore in 1907. During WWI, the Ghadar movement tried to overthrow British rule multiple times—a (foiled) rebellion in February 1915 led by Rash Behari Bose and another (foiled) raid in Calcutta planned for Christmas Day 1915. Revolutionaries in Bengal raided arms depots, obtained military assistance from Germany, fought a pitched battle against the British in September of 1915 at Chasakhand, and even operated internationally in places like the U.S. and Japan. Revolutionary leaders Chittapriya Ray Chaudhuri and Jatindranath Mukherjee both died in this battle.

The response by the British to the terrorist movements in their colonial possessions was to pass wartime laws: the Defence of the Realm Act in Ireland, and the Defence of India Act. But also to make concessions. 

Turning point in 1919: The Amritsar massacre of 1919 was a massacre of hundreds of protesters dissenting from Britain’s desire to extend wartime measures indefinitely through the 1919 Rowlatt Act. After the slaughter, the British engaged in an orgy of racial violence and ritual humiliation, making Indians crawl on their knees down streets, for example. After 1919, Gandhi also led a nonviolent campaign, the non-cooperation movement. What is less known, documented by Durba Ghosh, is that the terrorist movement was in constant contact with Gandhi and the Nehrus (both Motilal and Jawaharlal) throughout this period. The British passed the repressive 1919 Rowlatt Act, but also passed the first Government of India Act and the Montagu Chelmsford Reforms, promising self-government in some distant future.

Also, recall that in 1919 the British also fought an unsuccessful war with Afghanistan and unsuccessfully invaded the new Soviet Union. These violent, military conflicts set the context for the changes the imperialists were forced to make in India.

Interwar Revolutionary Struggle

In the history of the 1920s, the most visible face of the Indian struggle was Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement. But there was an uprising in South India as well, in Malabar in 1921, which the British tried to steer in a communal direction and ended up crushing by force.

The 1920s and 1930s were a time of constant acts of armed struggle. In the 1920s, the Hindustan Republican Association engaged in “patriotic robberies” like one in Kakori, after which four of the leaders were hanged and three others sentenced to life in prison. In 1929, Bhagat Singh and Batukeswar Dutt threw a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly.

In 1925 and 1930, the British passed two Bengal Criminal Law Amendment Acts. The 1930 amendment was put in force on March 25. On April 18, the Indian Republican Army with Surya Sen and 60 terrorists led a raid on the Chittagong Armory:

“The raid was an elaborately planned attack in which revolutionaries managed to occupy major colonial sites, including the European club, police armoury, and the telephone and telegraph office. The raiders cut off all communications with officials in other parts of India, gathered arms, and hoped to terrorize the British while they enjoyed a Friday evening at their club.”

Also in 1930, Odisha saw a tribal uprising against the British in which villagers battled police—Sainath talked to some of the veterans of this uprising in Last Heroes, chapter 2.

In 1931, the British hanged Bhagat Singh, Shivaram Rajguru, and Sukhdev Thapar. They murdered Chandra Sekhar Azad in a park in Allahabad. They passed the Bengal Suppression of Terrorist Outrages Act in 1932, but terrorism continued.

In 1935, the British made a major concession, another Government of India Act, which expanded the franchise and promised the Congress leaders that they would eventually become the rulers (on the British imperialist timeline). The quid pro quo was that these Indian leaders would suppress the terrorists. Among the British weapons was nonviolence, including the Civil Disobedience movement. The Congress leaders knew, however, that without some terrorism, their leverage with the British would be zero. So they played their own game, quietly supporting the terrorists at times, publicly denouncing them at others, while conducting civil disobedience within a framework of rules that involved jail time for nonviolent actors and British assassination and hanging for terrorists who wouldn’t play the civil disobedience game. Violent struggle was the price paid by the “terrorists” so that the nonviolent could sit at the table to negotiate with the imperialists.

In Chapter 4 of Lost Heroes, Sainath spoke to bomb-maker Shobharam Gaharwar, active in Rajasthan and elsewhere in the 1930s and 1940s, who confirmed the ubiquity of bomb-making activity during the independence struggle:

“We were in great demand at that time! I have been to Karnataka. To Mysore, Bengaluru, all sorts of places. See, Ajmer was a prominent centre for the Quit India movement, for the struggle. So was Benares [Varanasi]. There were other places like Baroda in Gujarat and Damoh in Madhya Pradesh. People looked up to Ajmer, saying the movement is strong in this town and that they would follow the footsteps of the freedom fighters here. Of course, there were many others, too.”

Quit India 1942 and Disillusionment: For Lost Heroes, Sainath spoke to veterans of the armed struggle in Punjab as well as in the south in the Telangana People’s Struggle, led by Sundarayya. Known as the Telangana Uprising of 1946, it was a multiyear struggle over an immense area, and in addition to battles with feudal landlords, police, and hired goondas, he reports:

“At its height, the Veera Telangana Porattam spread across almost 5,000 villages. It touched over three million lives across some 25,000 square kilometres. In the villages under their control, this people’s movement set up a parallel government. That included the creation of gram swaraj committees or village communes. Close to one million acres of land were redistributed amongst the poor. Most official histories date the Communist-led uprising as occurring from 1946-51. But great agitations and revolts were already underway there from late 1943.”

Another southern state, Tamil Nadu, was the site of an immense anti-feudal struggle at the same time as the Quit India movement of 1942. Sainath spoke to veteran R. Nallakannu: 

“We’d fight them at night, throw stones—those were the weapons we had—and chase them away. Sometimes, there would be pitched battles. This happened several times during the protests that came in the 1940s. We were still boys, but we fought. Day and night, with our kind of weapons!”

In one village in Odisha in August 1942, activists took over and declared themselves magistrates, beginning to administer justice. They were quickly arrested, but once locked up they immediately began organizing the prisoners, as they told Sainath:

“They sent us to a prison for criminals. We made the most of it… In those days, the British were trying to recruit soldiers to die in their war against Germany. So they held out promises to those who were serving long sentences as criminals. They promised that anyone who signed up for the war would be given 100 rupees. Each of their families would get 500 rupees. And they would be free after the war.

We campaigned with the criminal prisoners. Is it worth dying for Rs 500 for these people and their wars? You will surely be amongst the first to die, we told them. You are not important for them. Why should you be their cannon fodder?

After a while, they began to listen to us. They used to call us Gandhi, or simply, Congress. Many of them dropped out of the scheme. They rebelled and refused to go.”

In West Bengal, Bhabani Mahato organized logistics for underground fighters in the Quit India struggle. Activist Partha Sarati Mahato told Sainath how it went:

“Only a few better-off families in the village were to prepare meals for however many activists in hiding there [in the forest] were on a given day. And the women doing this were asked to leave the cooked food in their kitchen.

They did not know who it was who came and picked up the food. Nor did they know who the individuals were that they were cooking for. The resistance never used people from the village to do the transportation. The British had spies and informants in the village. So did the feudal zamindars who were their collaborators. These informants would recognize locals carrying loads to the forest. That would endanger both the women and the underground. Nor could they have anyone identifying the people they sent in—probably by nightfall—to collect the food. The women never saw who it was lifting the meals.

That way, both were shielded from exposure. But the women knew what was going on. Most village women would gather each morning at the ponds and streams, tanks—and those involved exchanged notes and experiences. They knew why and what they were doing it for—but never specifically for whom.”

The Toofan Sena 

In 1943, the Toofan Sena, the armed wing of the prati sarkar (or provisional government) of Satara, declared independence from British rule in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Sainath describes the reach of this autonomous zone:

“With its headquarters in Kundal, the prati sarkar—an amalgam of peasants and workers—actually functioned as a government in the nearly 600 villages under its control, where it effectively overthrew British rule. Hausabai’s father, the legendary Nana Patil, headed the prati sarkar. Both sarkar and sena had sprung up as disillusioned offshoots of the Quit India movement of 1942.

Nana Patil, as well as other leaders, including Captain Bhau, led a bold train robbery on June 7, 1943. “It is unfair to say we looted the train,” the captain told Sainath. “It was money stolen by the British rulers from the Indian people that we took back.” Captain Bhau also objected to the notion that the prati sarkar was an “underground movement.”

“‘What do you mean underground government?’ growls Captain Bhau, annoyed by my use of the term. ‘We were the government here. The Raj could not enter. Even the police were scared of the Toofan Sena.’… It organized the supply and distribution of [food grain], set up a coherent market structure, and ran a judicial system. It also penalized moneylenders, pawnbrokers, and landlord collaborators of the Raj.”

Another Toofan Sena member reported to Sainath how they went about punishing informers:

“When we discovered one of these police agents, we encircled his home at night. We would take the informer and an associate of his outside the village.

We would tie up the ankles of the informer after placing a wooden stick between them. He was then held upside down and beaten on the soles of his feet with sticks. We touched no other part of his body. Just the soles.’ No visible marks were there on the body from the feet up. But ‘he couldn’t walk normally for many days’. A powerful disincentive. And so came the name patri sarkar [note: in Marati, the word ‘patri’ means ‘wooden stick’]. ‘After that we would load him on the back of his associate who would carry him home.” 

The Indian National Army

In 1938, the Indian National Congress saw Subhas Chandra Bose become president. He was immensely popular, with an independent power base. While respectful of Gandhi, he was not committed to nonviolence. He was ousted from the party in 1939. In 1941, during World War II, Bose formed the Indian National Army, backed by Imperial Japan, whose goal was to liberate India by force. The same year, Nehru was transferred to Lucknow Jail where he spent time with many imprisoned terrorists. When Gandhi’s Quit India movement was crushed in 1942 within months, Bose and the INA fought on, and Bose was killed in 1945.

Imprisoned for journalism, Bengaluru-based H.S. Doreswamy described his encounter with Indian National Army prisoners whose massacre he witnessed in 1943:

“Once, when we were in prison in Bengaluru (1942-43), it was midnight, and a group of captives was brought in. They came in shouting slogans, and we thought they were more of our people. But they weren’t. They were Indian military personnel. We were told they were officers but didn’t know for sure. We didn’t know their ranks.

There were fourteen of them—from different states. They had decided to leave the British Indian military and join Netaji Bose’s Indian National Army (INA). They tried to leave the country. And were on their way to Burma [now Myanmar] when they were arrested. All fourteen of them. They were brought to Bengaluru and court-martialled. And sentenced to death by hanging.

We interacted with them. They wrote down, with their blood, a letter to all of us. It said, ‘We are so happy that you are 500 here. This country, this Bharat Mata, requires the blood of so many people. We are also a part and parcel of that effort. We have also pledged to give our lives to this country’s cause.’ That is what they wrote… ‘We heard that all of them were lined up in a row and shot dead—all of them—at one time… They knew it. That they were going to their death. But they were very cheerful. That’s why they gave us that letter written in blood addressed to all of us.’”

When the British tried to execute INA officers for treason at the symbolic Red Fort in Delhi, they ended up with an uprising. In 1946, a Naval Mutiny centered in Mumbai was suppressed at huge cost to the British: Their Indian Empire had unraveled. In his book on the naval mutiny, Pramod Kapoor notes that while Quit India was called in 1942, Independence followed very quickly after the 1946 Naval Mutiny. A look at the chronology suggests that the mutiny was more decisive than the nonviolent campaign in bringing about Independence.

The British quickly partitioned the subcontinent, poisoned the chalice, and handed it over to their chosen Indian Congress interlocutors.

As H.S. Doreswamy put it: “When the Britishers left the country, they did so with three formulae. One, to form Pakistan and Hindustan. Two, to keep the people in both countries divided on communal lines. And three: those 562 princely states—they were free to join or stay out of this Indian Union.” The princely state plot was foiled by the post-independence government, but the communal plot and the partition plot both succeeded. So did the sponsorship of the myth that Indian independence sprung from a series of nonviolent campaigns, and not the same processes of armed national liberation struggle that occurred in India as everywhere else in the world that faced a similar situation.

The Harm Caused by the Nonviolence Myth

The nonviolence myth helped preserve feudalism. Like slavery and segregation in the U.S., colonialism in India was overthrown by violence. But also like the U.S., the myth of nonviolence has done real damage to India’s polity. Gandhi’s spiritual successor, Vinoba Bhave, traveled the country trying to convince landowners to conduct a voluntary land reform (contrast this with the violent land reforms enacted in neighboring China, described in Fanshen by William Hinton). 

Vinoba Bhave’s was a nonviolent campaign of land reform which kept feudalism largely intact in India. Ironically, Vinoba Bhave was known to have threatened the landowners with violence—explicitly stating that by voluntarily giving up some land, the landowners could save themselves from future violent revolution. Again, we see nonviolent leaders putting the poor in the position of the supplicant, asking for crumbs from the rich based on some distant possibility of revolution instead of working to organize the poor for that revolution.

The nonviolence myth does not produce nonviolent societies. One of the central arguments for nonviolence dating at least back to Gandhi is that nonviolent means lead to better ends. Noam Chomsky put it this way in the 1967 debate with Hannah Arendt:

“It seems to me, from the little we know about such matters, that a new society rises out of the actions that are taken to form it, and the institutions and the ideology it develops are not independent of those actions; in fact, they’re heavily colored by them, they’re shaped by them in many ways. And one can expect that actions that are cynical and vicious, whatever their intent, will inevitably condition and deface the quality of the ends that are achieved. Now, again, in part this is just a matter of faith. But I think there’s at least some evidence that better results follow from better means.”

Since Gandhi’s nonviolence argument was based on the notion that means and ends are inseparable and that the choice of violent means would lead to violent ends, it should follow that the central importance of nonviolence in the Indian freedom struggle led to India being a particularly nonviolent country after independence. Italian communist author Domenico Losurdo, in his book Nonviolence: A History Beyond the Myth, answers that one: “[F]ar from being the embodiment of the ideal of non-violence, India today is one of the most violent countries on earth. Armed clashes between the different religious and ethnic groups are widespread; in particular, massacres of Muslims and Christians are recurrent.”

The inseparability of means and ends is an argument against nonviolence. Nonviolence is a means that involves begging the powerful for concessions and inviting them to do violence without consequences for themselves: it leads to a society with an elite that feels complete impunity to do horrific violence while facing opponents that will try, at worst, to melt their hearts through an example of suffering. It turns oppressors into worse people, drunk on power and feeling no consequences.

Decolonization Is a Violent Process, and India Was No Exception

As Losurdo tells it in his book, nonviolence is an ideal that was developed in the UK and U.S. to ensure that resistance to slavery would be ineffective—for keeping resistance to one of the most vile institutions ever invented within controllable bounds. Christian pacifists and Quakers developed it because they did not want to participate in the violence of slavery. Very few of them were moved to fight slavery violently.

Gandhi’s Indian enemies have argued that it is these Christian, Anglo-American roots from which Gandhian nonviolence springs, and not from Hindu notions of ahimsa or satyagraha. In the end, Indian people did not behave like otherworldly sages. They did what all colonized people do: they fought an armed struggle for independence.

Shorn of the myth of nonviolence, what are the lessons of the real Indian independence struggle and how do they fit into our understanding of social change? It is clear that some struggles—for improved wages or working conditions, better municipal services, or other struggles for equality within a community—can be kept on the nonviolent plane. Colonialism, based on racial oppression and dehumanization, cannot be, and India is not an exception. Like colonialism itself, the absence of a nonviolent solution to colonialism is tragic, but the sooner the reality is recognized by advocates of social change, the better.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

AER 133: Tankie Group Therapy #5 Gaza War resumes after pause

Nora, Matteo, Rania, and Alex are gathered to talk about what we’re seeing and trying to make sense of on Israel’s War on Gaza after 8 weeks, a couple of days after the end of the “humanitarian pause”. We open with a discussion of the five premature babies left to die in Al-Nasr hospital when doctors and parents were forced out of the hospital at gunpoint by the Israeli military. We conclude with a discussion of what wars of resistance and guerrilla wars have looked like in history.

Anti Empire Radio 130: Palestine Action and the focus on Elbit Systems

A discussion with Calla and Fergie from Palestine Action US about the theory of direct action and how activists have tried stop the flow of Western weapons that are being deployed against Palestinians in Gaza, instead of, e.g., moral suasion on Western politicians. The Palestine Action UK precedent and the reason for Palestine Action’s focus on Elbit Systems, the flagship corporation of Israel’s military industrial complex.

World War Civ 24: Why socialists failed to stop the war

Leading up to 1914 socialist movements all over Europe, notably in France and Germany, had become so strong that they were in the very halls of power. But when faced with the onset of the Great War, the established socialists blinked, unwilling to risk their heard-earned position and possibly be arrested and have their parties driven underground again. This is precisely what they should have done, argued Lenin in 1915. We discuss this possible missed opportunity – why the socialists failed to stop the war before it started.

AER 128: CAUKUZians speak out!

Arama Rata, independent Maori researcher, and Carl Zha of Silk & Steel podcast are both back! Carl reports on his lived experience as a survivor of the Prigozhin coup in Moscow; Arama outlines the anti-AUKUS speaking tour she is on with other journalists and activists; I continue my rant about the sheer plagiarism of Canada’s China panic using David Brophy’s book about Australia’s China panic. We conclude with the possibility of a regular meeting of CAUKUSZians (Canada + AUKUS + new Zealand)

In Real Time with Stan Cox 4: A discussion of violence and policy murder

The fourth discussion with Stan Cox about his latest dispatch, “They’ll Show Up Armed – Countering Policy Murder and the Rising Violence of the Right”. We talk about a nonviolent march Stan participated in and a few of the historic movement debates about violence and nonviolence that we’ve seen over the decades. And we conclude with the question: will it be necessary for there to be more guns out there, to get gun control back on the agenda?

Countering violence with Stan Cox

A destroyed Afghanistan has been an imperialist priority for 200 years

As the British before them, US imperial propaganda treats itself as the victim and those they invaded and occupied as the criminal

On August 18th, shortly after the Taliban took Kabul, former British Prime Minister Theresa May stood up in the British House of Commons and asked: “Where is global Britain on the streets of Kabul?” The rhetorical question, as well as the concept of “global Britain” itself, sounds like pandering to a bygone era of imperial glories. But a survey of what it looked like when “global Britain” first showed up on the streets of Kabul, and the nearly two centuries since, could help clear up some muddled thinking about Afghanistan today.

Imperialist designs on Afghanistan

While they were about halfway into their 180 years of plundering $45 trillion from India, the British always knew that an alliance of neighbouring states – the Persian Empire, the Sikh Empire, Afghanistan – could pry their claws off of their prize.

As the British completed the destruction of their rivals and the absorption of territory, Afghanistan came under their hungry gaze. Initially the plan was to install a friendly monarch on the throne and turn him into a pensioner, along the Indian pattern.

The opportunity came in the form of an exiled monarch, Shah Shuja, who the British hoped to install on the throne in Kabul. After elaborate preparation, the British invaded from India in a momentous year for imperialism – 1839. That very same year, they launched the first Opium War on China and began what that country calls its ‘Century of Humiliation’. The army the British sent into Afghanistan consisted mostly of Indian troops, who were treated according to a strict racist hierarchy. “Rather strangely”, writes Farrukh Husain, author of Afghanistan in the Age of Empires, “the British Indian army operated an apartheid system for provision of food. British soldiers received more food rations than Indian troops and the camp followers received less still.” When food ran low, all of it went to the white soldiers while the native troops starved.

British forces raped, slaughtered, and looted their way through Afghanistan. They kidnapped the wives of their allies. They blew Afghans out of cannons (a move they made more famous in 1857 India). They destroyed the economies of the cities they seized. One British agent, a Kashmiri named Mohan Lal, wrote: “I heard both the men and the women saying that the English enriched the grain and grass sellers…while they reduced the Chiefs to poverty, and killed the poor by starvation.” Upon occupying Kabul, the British raised taxes on the locals – unleashing an army of collectors on Afghans, who had to borrow the money to pay the taxes, and then proceeded to lose their houses and other assets, in a standard pattern repeated throughout the colonized world.

Even centuries ago, the imperialists were interested in Afghan minerals. One held the “opinion that a good geologist would be very useful in Afghanistan as the country is said to abound in minerals of every description.”

But after abusing both their allies and their enemies, the British lost control of Kabul and were driven into retreat. The king they put on the throne, Shah Shuja, was assassinated in 1842.

A less vindictive power might have ended it there, but “teaching the natives a lesson” through extreme violence has also always been a pattern of the imperialists. After their loss the British re-grouped and created an “Army of Revenge” against the Afghans for having the temerity to drive them out. The British destroyed Ghazni, an important city which has never recovered: “Ghazni was lost in the darkness of the night to be forgotten by history.” They also looted the gates at the 800-year old tomb of Mahmood of Ghazni and brought the gates back to the Agra Fort. After Indian independence, the Indian government created an official inscription stating that the gates are “lying here either as a war trophy of the British campaign of 1842, or as a sad reminder of the historic lies of the East India Co.”

The Army of Revenge sought to destroy the agricultural and ecological basis of life in Afghanistan: “Our way of destroying the country is very simple, merely cutting a ring through the bark of every tree. This ruins the country completely as the trees die directly and the inhabitants live principally on dried fruit and flour made from the dried mulberry.” There was no other purpose to this army than destruction: “every house was destroyed, every tree barked or cut down”. Neville Chamberlain reported of a village where all males over puberty were bayoneted, the women were raped and their goods plundered: “This is one of the most beautiful valleys in Affghanistan, but we left it a scene of desolation;” At one fort that the British destroyed, Reverend Allen described the scene: “One woman was the only live thing in the fort. She was sitting, the picture of despair, with her father, brother, husband and children lying dead around her.”

Still the imperial bloodlust was unsatisfied. Upon reaching the capital the British debated whether to destroy Kabul or not (one British commander said “not one stone should have been left standing upon another”), and also whether or not to kidnap the king’s child and bring him up as a Christian in London (which they did to Prince Duleep Singh after the Anglo-Sikh wars). The British finally settled for destroying the most spectacular building in Kabul, the Char Chatta market, described by Farrukh Husain as “the greatest covered bazaar of all Central Asia, a veritable regional trade centre if not world trade centre from whence Afghan lapis, dried fruits and rugs went to far off lands on the silk road.” In his own book about the 1839-1842 war, William Dalrymple described it as “superb structure with its painted wooden vaulting and intricate tilework, said by some to be the single most beautiful building in Afghanistan… originally built during the reign of Shah Jahan and renowned not just as one of the supreme wonders of Mughal architecture but as one of the greatest buildings in all Central Asia.”

The dynamiting of Char Chatta bazaar was part of a general carnage enacted by the British in Kabul: “the city was pillaged, and fired in a hundred different places. Numbers of the European soldiers… and crowds of sepoys and followers from both camps, poured in, through many unwalled spaces, and with little interference from the troops on duty, who indeed, to a certain extent aided and abetted, the work of plunder and destruction was carried on, and the few remaining inhabitants were exposed to outrage.” “Outrage” itself was a euphemism for rape, murder, indiscriminate killing, enslaving and trading of women, burning of wounded people alive. “Many a hiding mother hen and newborn infant died. But such things like these you know must be at every famous victorie.” Murder and loot went together: “All day the sack went on, and great booty did the captors get, rich dresses, shawls, carpets, silks, horse trappings, arms, emblazoned Korans, etc”

The engineered demolition of the most magnificent building in Central Asia was not an accident or a crime of passion. Imperialists always try to destroy the cultural heritage of their targets. The same way that Iraq’s National Museum was looted immediately after the US occupation began in 2003, the destruction of Afghanistan’s culture has been an objective of the imperialists for centuries.

On their way back to their base in their Indian colony, the British destroyed other cities, including Jalalabad, which they left “a smoking mass of ruins”. When the British left Afghanistan, one officer writes in 1843: “The work of retribution was now deemed accomplished, and, indeed, it was severe…nor will years repair the damage and evils inflicted”. Another writer, Roebuck, summarized it: “Ghuznee, Cabul, Istalif and Jalalabad have shared a common doom; havoc and desolation have marked the path of our conquered armies, and as fell a revenge has been inflicted on our foes as the warmest advocate of retaliation could desire.”

One British Minister of Parliament, William Hutt, lamented the loss of business opportunities: “We had destroyed every town which could afford us a market, and centuries would elapse before Affghanistan recovered from the misery and desolation in which it had been plunged.”

Having failed to subjugate Afghans, the British imperialists decided the country was to be a buffer zone and dedicated themselves to ensuring it would remain divided, undeveloped, and ideally controlled by compliant rulers. But even this arrangement could not be accomplished without additional wars.

Modernization efforts clash with imperialist designs

The decades after the 1839-1842 war on Afghanistan were decisive in the history of imperialism.

On the North American continent, the United States took all of northern Mexico in the Mexican American war of 1846-8 and followed it with a series of wars and genocides against Indigenous nations. Most of what is now Canada was stolen from First Nations at the same time.

Having devastated Afghanistan, the British next put an end to the Sikh Empire in 1849. In 1852, the British took more territory in Burma. I’ve already mentioned the war of 1857, during which the British faced a powerful challenge to their rule in India. Diminished as a “mutiny”, the uprising was multi-religious, multi-caste, across much of the country, and nearly succeeded in ousting the British, who suppressed it by killing millions. In the decades that followed, documented by Mike Davis in Late Victorian Holocausts, imperialists broke down China’s and India’s sophisticated agricultural systems and tens of millions of Asians died in the resulting famines.

Enjoying years of calm left behind after the mass slaughter of 1857, the British decided in the 1870s to try again to annex Afghanistan. The propaganda of “avenging” the losses of the first round was revved up, including a famous painting of a lone survivor of the 1842 retreat. The horrible cliche of invincible savage Afghans is less the product of multiple wars and more the product of multiple rounds of war propaganda.

In the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1878-9, Britain imposed the humiliating treaty of Gandamak on Afghanistan, which gave Britain control over Afghanistan’s foreign policy (this was a time when successive humiliating treaties were also foisted on China and Indigenous nations in North America). In 1893, Mortimer Durand – whose father had helped destroy Afghanistan in the 1839-1842 war – went to Kabul and imposed a division of the Pashtun lands into the British India side and the Afghanistan side, seeding a century of conflict with the stroke of a pen.

The British invaded Afghanistan again in 1897 to suppress what they called the Malakand Uprising, with the same vindictive imperial purpose. Winston Churchill was there, and what he told a friend was representative: “After today we begin to burn villages. Every one. And all who resist will be killed without quarter. The Mohmands need a lesson, and there is no doubt we are a very cruel people.”

On the Afghan side, though, the drive to modernize (chronicled in Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire) was strong – inspired by Turkey, Japan, and the Russian Revolution, the courts of the Afghan monarchs debated ideas and envisioned building a state capable of withstanding imperial pressure. In February 1919, the young king Amanullah Khan took the throne. The new Soviet Union, itself desperately fighting off an invasion by the imperialists, quickly extended recognition to the new monarch. A short war with the British followed in May, which ended with Afghanistan winning foreign policy independence. Having just slaughtered 1,000 Indians at Jallianwalla Bagh in Amritsar in April, The British may have been concerned about the morale and reliability of their Indian troops – these were the men who, after all, fought the British Empire’s wars.

Afghan history has had many twists and turns since Amanullah won its independence in 1919. One under-appreciated theme: it has been a century of nationalists struggling to modernize their country in the face of imperialism. If it is rarely understood this way, it could be, among other reasons, because many of the nationalists killed each other.

In 1929, Amanullah was overthrown in a British backed regime-change operation and a series of short-lived rulers followed, until king Zahir Shah, who ruled from 1933-1973. Zahir Shah was also a modernizer, who tried to develop the country under growing pressure from the new US empire.

When the CIA overthrew neighbouring Iran’s elected government and installed the pro-US Shah in 1953, the US gained its own independent military foothold in the region. Taking over the British imperial role, the US injected a new ideology of “development”, as well as “democracy and human rights”, to compete with the socialism and independent national development desired in the colonies. US Historian Nick Cullather wrote in 2002: “The confrontation between colonizer and colonized, rich and poor, was with a rhetorical gesture replaced by a world order in which all nations were either developed or developing.” And in this scheme, Afghanistan “suddenly became ‘underdeveloped’”. Daud Khan, the king’s cousin, said succinctly: “Afghanistan is a backward country. We must do something about it or die as a nation.”

And much was done about it, with help from both Cold War blocs. The USSR built highways linking Kabul to the Central Asian Republics, including the engineering feat of cutting the 2.67km Salang Tunnel through the Hindu Kush mountains in 1964. Germany and Japan built factories and radio towers.

The flagship US project was the Helmand Valley Authority, which historian Arnold Toynbee described as “a piece of America inserted into the Afghan landscape.” Through the Helmand Valley Authority, which ran from 1946-1979, America engaged Morrison-Knudson – builders of Hoover Dam and the San Francisco Bay Bridge, active all over the world – to build a network of dams. Agricultural fields – which now grow opium – in Helmand were improved and made capable of multicropping. In Afghanistan in this period, Cullather notes, the Cold War was “fought with money and technicians instead of spies and bombs.”

In fact the spies and bombs were well on their way. From 1964-1973, there was a famous “democratic opening”, during which the US exercised influence over pro-US Afghan politicians to try to exclude the left. In 1973, Daud Khan, another modernizer, took over in a coup. There is evidence in the Wikileaks Kissinger Cables that the US were themselves planning a coup that year to counter the growing influence of left-wing politics. The first mujahadeen uprising occurred against Daud’s modernizing efforts in 1975 – led by Ahmad Shah Masoud of the Panjshir Valley, it failed to win any popular support and was easily crushed. In 1977, Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was overthrown by General Zia ul-Haq. Bhutto had offered a degree of support to the mujahadeen: Zia-ul-Haq radically stepped that support up. In 1978, Daud himself was overthrown by the left-wing, and Muhammad Taraki became president. A co-founder of what was called the Saur Revolution was Hafizullah Amin. Taraki was president from April 1978-September 1979. He was killed (maybe by Amin). Then Amin took over from September 1979-December 1979.

During the Taraki/Amin year and a half, there was a land reform, which was very popular with farmers and very unpopular with landlords. A number of these disaffected elites went to Pakistan to organize a revolt. The US supported these exiles, in a pattern familiar across the world of the US supporting right-wing insurgencies against left-wing governments. With an open border with Pakistan and virtually unlimited financial resources and weapons from the US, Saudi Arabia, and China, the mujahadeen quickly became a viable threat to the Afghan government, which asked the USSR for military support in 1979. When Soviet troops arrived, the Afghan leader who had invited them, Hafizullah Amin, was himself killed in still-unclear circumstances. Babrak Karmal – a former student leader and parliamentarian with a stronger relationship to Moscow – took over leadership.

The controversial post-1979 period

History is always contentious, but historical consensus on interpretations, or even facts, of an ongoing civil war is impossible. How to interpret the history of the past forty years? The standard interpretation argues that reformers from Amanullah to Zahir Shah, Daud, Taraki, Amin, and Karmal all tried to do too much too fast, failing to respect the deep conservatism of the Afghan people. But that is too shallow of an analysis. Every reform faces a conservative backlash and if the backlash succeeds, the reform itself can always be blamed for provoking it.

What we can say is: From 1979-1987, Afghanistan became the epicenter of a US-supported insurgency against the Afghan government and its Russian ally. The war devastated the country but the government’s modernization efforts continued. From when the Soviets arrived in 1979 until the end, the mujahadeen never again would pose a strong enough military threat to overthrow the government. Media commentators of all viewpoints in the 1980s admonished readers that “there was no military solution in Afghanistan” for either side. Yet Afghan’s government did fall: its demise was negotiated by Gorbechev and then Yeltsin. Hoping to appease the US, the Russian leaders agreed to abandon their allies in Afghanistan – and kept their word. Meanwhile the US, having made the same agreement, blithely continued to support the overthrow of the Afghan government and reject the reconciliation efforts of Afghanistan’s last modernizer, Mohammad Najibullah, who had succeeded Karmal in 1986. Even when Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, Najibullah’s government held on until 1992, when airlifts from Russia were halted altogether.

From 1992-2021: what the imperialists built

So it was in 1992 the US-sponsored insurgents finally toppled the Afghan government and proceeded to cleanse the country of communism and the idea of modernizing, nationalist reforms.

The mujahadeen then applied their skills in state destruction on the whole of the country. While some warlords were content to contain their depredations to their own base areas, two warlords in particular wanted control of Kabul and couldn’t agree – one was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the other was Burnuhuddin Rabbani (and Ahmad Shah Massoud). Hekmatyar was kicked out and proceeded to shell Kabul from outside. The 1992-1996 war destroyed much of what little development had survived the previous decade.

Into this context were born the Taliban, a group of young men raised entirely during war and by the Islamists with no influence from nationalism or communism (which had been cleansed from public memory). They repudiated the atrocities and chaos of the warlords and promised to bring them to an end. Starting in the refugee camps of Pakistan where they grew up, they took Kandahar, advancing quickly from 1994-1996 until they took Kabul. From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan from Kabul (though several warlords continued to control northern areas and maintained an anti-Taliban alliance). In 2001, the US invaded, re-organized the warlords, and overthrew the Taliban, who retreated to Pakistan.

The US imposed their own candidate, Hamid Karzai as president under an Afghan-American viceroy, Zalmay Khalilzad. For the next 20 years, Karzai and then his successor, Ghani, ruled over the warlords; the US, through Khalilzad, ruled over Karzai and Ghani. Called ‘indirect rule’ in the 19th century, this arrangement would have been familiar to the British imperialists of that era. So, too, would the US’s geopolitical imperative: having lost its Iranian bases in 1979, the US had gained a covert new foothold in Pakistan that same year, but didn’t get the full power conferred by military occupation and multiple bases in Afghanistan until 2001.

For the next 20 years, the US treated Afghanistan as a video gameworld for practicing drone warfare, protected the opium trade, and committed continuous atrocities, including hunting Afghans for sport, while making it a playground for private contractors and NGOs. US bombs and night raids, which probably killed hundreds of thousands of Afghans, and the indifference to these deaths shown by the US-sponsored government, made support for the Taliban inevitable.

The 1996-2001 Taliban destroyed Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, massacred minorities, and subjugated women as severely as the mujahadeen. Will they be worse, better, or the same as the US-backed mujahadeen? It is too soon to tell, but here are two anecdotes.

First, the mujahadeen and the CIA turned Afghanistan into the world’s leading opium producer from the 1980s. The Taliban taxed opium but discouraged production, and in 2000 – whether for reasons of market manipulation or earnest principle – reduced opium production in Afghanistan to nearly zero. In 2001 they were overthrown and opium cultivation returned to even higher levels than before under US protection.

Second, like the mujahadeen among whom they grew up, the Taliban built almost nothing, but they did complete one infrastructure project. Cullather reported it in 2002: “During its five years in power, the Taliban government invested in the dams and finished one project begun but not completed by the Americans: linking the Kajakai Dam’s hydroelectric plant to the city of Kandahar. Work was finished in early 2001, just a few months before American bombers destroyed the plant.”

AEP 90: Cuba demonstrations and Cuba blockade, with Reed Lindsay

The US embargo on Cuba is the problem

Joe Emersberger and I talk to Reed Lindsay, journalist and filmmaker with Belly of the Beast, a media organization focusing on Cuba and Cuba-US relations. Among their films is a 3-part series called the War on Cuba available on YouTube. Reed was at the recent demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in Havana and talks about how the scarcities and difficulties of life have everything to do with the 60-year, ever-intensifying economic blockade against Cuba imposed by the United States.