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Vol. 23 No. 7 · 5 April 2001

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Propping up the Taliban

Jason Burke's self-description as someone proud to have seen an execution (LRB, 22 March) would, in normal circumstances, merit little more than anthropological interest. Just another visiting European attracted by the particularist values of a remote country which, he implies, should not be judged by universal standards. It's not a view that many people in Afhganistan find acceptable – in particular, the tens of thousands of women who have fled abroad as refugees – but it does correspond to that of the US oil giant Unocal, which is constructing a pipeline in Afghanistan. Unocal's spokesman said in response to criticism from women's groups in the US: we are guests in countries who have sovereign rights and their own political, social and religious beliefs. Confronted with the question of sovereign rights, apologists such as Burke tend to turn a blind eye.

Burke traces the origins of the Taliban to a mass campaign against a particularly violent gang-rape in Kandahar. He is wrong. The Taliban were educated and trained in specialist religious schools in this country, funded by the Saudi regime and under the control of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence. They were then despatched across the border together with Pakistani soldiers, officers and heavy armour to capture as much of the country as possible. Afghanistan today is a Pakistani satellite, heavily dependent on Islamabad for economic and military sustenance, though both parties rely a great deal on cultivating the poppy. Pakistan's control of the Taliban is hardly a secret. They may well resent the fact that they are still not recognised as their country's legitimate government but Burke's sympathy for them is misplaced.

Burke also states that the situation is better now than it was while the civil war was raging. This is true, but hardly surprising. Dictators always pride themselves on restoring order. The fact remains that two of the most virulent strains of Islam – Saudi Wahhabism and subcontinental Deobandism – have coalesced to justify and strengthen the deracinated fanaticism that rules Kabul. It was two Saudi clerics who sanctioned the destruction of the statues against the advice of Muslim scholars from rival Sunni and Shia institutes in Cairo and Qom. Contrary to what Burke says, the situation remains unstable. If Pakistan were to withdraw its troops under American or Chinese pressure, the Taliban regime would collapse.

Ahmed Gul

How Mugabe came to power

In his piece about Wilfred Mhanda R.W. Johnson transforms a key actor in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle from a radical Marxist to a liberal and in this way rewrites history to fit his own worldview (LRB, 22 February). In 1997, in How Long Will South Africa Survive?, he referred to the Zimbabwean guerrilla army led by Mhanda as ‘a ragged little army composed mainly of teenagers’. Today, he is almost as condescending – Mhanda is described as naive and the army as ‘ignorant’ – but Mhanda, who Johnson claims is ‘personally responsible’ for bringing Mugabe to power, is also elevated into a ‘passionate believer in all the liberal verities’.

In fact, Mhanda (a.k.a. Dzinashe Machingura) was the leader of the Marxist vashandi (‘workers’) among the Zimbabwean nationalists. Mugabe, on the other hand, was currying favour with liberals all over the world. The vashandi criticised Mugabe’s ‘petty-bourgeois’ politics, and initially refused to attend the 1976 Geneva Conference, instigated by Kissinger to force Ian Smith to abdicate in favour of moderate nationalists, because they felt that to do so was ‘selling out’ (pace Johnson, Samora Machel forced Mhanda and others to go).

Johnson portrays Mhanda as an apolitical soldier simply ‘surrounded by the mystique of the African freedom fighter’. On the contrary, he was an astute ideologist and politician proud to call himself a ‘scientific socialist’ and does not disavow that label now. The experience of reading the Marxist classics (they tired of Mao’s platitudes very quickly), as well as the likes of Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral and Walter Rodney, inspired a powerful dissatisfaction among the young nationalist commanders with Mugabe and all the ‘old guard’. There were similar kinds of discussion and argument among the soldier politicians who were working for unity among the nationalists: in their short-lived days of unity, the ‘Stalinists’ from the Zapu camps in the USSR and the Chinese-schooled Zanu soldiers were developing a flexible historical materialism. Mugabe was seen as not ‘scientifically socialist’ enough.

Far from coming from nowhere, Mug-abe had been third in command of Zanu since the early 1960s. Given that the vice-president had died in prison, that Ndabaningi Sithole had acted as he did towards the young commanders, and that they had very quickly to gain Nyerere’s approval to restart the war, it is hardly surprising that they – reluctantly – selected Mugabe as the ‘next in line’. Mhanda didn’t ‘flee’ to Mozambique to consult with the Zanla commander-in-chief Josiah Tongogara, as Johnson says: Tongogara was actually in Kaunda’s jail, and the young turks talked to him through the prison fence.

Over the years, Mhanda became a more pronounced democrat, but not necessarily a liberal and certainly not a neo-liberal. His prison writings illustrate an acute realisation that unless the liberation army’s footsoldiers were politically empowered, Mugabe-type politicians would dispense with them summarily. Perhaps an earlier understanding of this would have forestalled today’s farce. It might also have prevented Mugabe’s mini-genocide of purported Matabeleland Zapu supporters in the 1980s. Mhanda’s ‘two-stage’ perspective on socialism, which emphasised the attainment of democracy, encouraged him to advocate a united front at the Geneva Conference, involving Muzorewa, radical soldiers and middle-range politicians. By such means, he thought, the Smiths and Kissingers of the world would be prevented from practising divide and rule. Such pragmatism was too farsighted for those more interested in internecine battles. The vashandi also hoped that full electoral freedom would enable them to mount a radical challenge to Mugabe’s empty nationalism. Mugabe stole Mhanda’s language and proceeded to practise the worst of Third World socialism – and then the worst of Third World neo-liberalism.

David Moore
University of Natal, Durban

R.W. Johnson quotes Wilfred Mhanda’s characterisation of the Chinese as ‘essentially racist’: ‘If people like me appeared in the street there’d be an immediate traffic jam as people queued up to look at blacks like you’d look at monkeys.’ It is sad that he equates their genuine curiosity at the sight of a black African with racism. I have long since come to the conclusion that there are some cultures in which staring is not necessarily deemed to be rude. Moreover, Europeans (and others of European descent) have experienced the same reaction in many areas of Asia and the Far East. As a black Briton travelling in Europe, I often find myself being stared at. And I endure the additional horror of automatically being taken for an American.

Roger Nobbs
London N8

Saving Masud Khan

The prevailing response of the psychoanalytic community (in the broader sense) to Wynne Godley’s story (LRB, 22 February) is very predictable. How dreadful that such things happened in the past! But look what we’ve done to ensure that they could not happen now! However much we appreciate the earnestness with which the therapists insist that these things will not happen again, and their well-intentioned attempts to put structures in place to ensure that this is so, the idea that such measures will do much to raise the consciousness of psychotherapy – and in that sense to protect the public – is comic.

Whatever else he did, Freud reminded us of the ubiquity of self-deception and the infinite cleverness with which it clothes itself. Codes of ethics, established standards of practice, systems of investigation, transparency and accountability are all very well, but self-deception insinuates itself into these very structures, all in the name of standards. ‘doesn’t a professional set of standards enable a profession to forget about standards?’ the psychoanalyst and philosopher Jonathan Lear asks. It is despite this new culture of ‘strengthened self-regulation’ that openness of mind, existential vigilance and sceptical sensibility sometimes survive.

Robin Cooper
Philadelphia Association, London NW3

Leur Pays

In his essay on immigration to the US, David Kennedy (LRB, 22 February) ‘disallows’ the Native American experience, dismisses the recent demands of African Americans, and then effaces the actual ordeal of immigration, concluding that some forty million people ‘voluntarily’ entered the United States during the 20th century, where ‘for the most part’, they ‘thrived’ – ‘accommodated’, he tells us, without much ‘open social conflict’. Astonishingly, he then offers up the history of the US as a lesson for others, assuring us that no new nativism is in sight, not with ‘the California economy … to put it mildly, in recovery’. As evidence, he refers us to a tradition of ‘American universalism’ and ‘an actively inclusionist ethos’ of which ‘Franklin Roosevelt was at once champion, agent and political beneficiary.’

Ignore for the moment the rather more difficult passages of the European immigrants (the Louisiana lynchings of Italians in the 1890s, for example). Today ‘slave markets’ like those seen in the Bronx during the 1930s are ubiquitous in California (they may even be found in Palo Alto): streets where Latino men line up at dawn, offering themselves as day labourers. Will the new immigrants thrive? I hope so, but let’s not forget white ‘separatism’ – sociologists these days call it ‘hyper-segregation’ – especially as crashing hi-tech profits, power shortages and rolling blackouts have now brought the California economy back down to earth.

Cal Winslow
Mendocino, California

Chidiock Tichborne

Patrick Collinson, who remarks at the end of his review of Susan Brigden’s New Worlds, Lost Worlds (LRB, 22 March) that ‘Chidiock Tichborne appears in no anthology of great English verse’, will be glad that the poem of which he quotes the final of its three stanzas has been available for 15 years in 100 Poems by 100 Poets, an anthology, selected by Harold Pinter and two friends, of poems ‘representative of the finest work’ of each poet.

Michael Richards

Life, Liberty and Property

Mark Leier (LRB, 8 March) and ‘social studies teachers and media pundits’ should not observe that the US Constitution promises life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The words come from the Declaration of Independence. Alas, by the time of the Bill of Rights the politicians had come to their senses. The Fifth Amendment states that an individual is guaranteed certain rights when on trial and the right to life, liberty and property.

Richard Morris
London SW18

Ackroyd is right-wing

In his review of Peter Ackroyd's book about London, Christopher Tayler (LRB, 22 February) correctly suggests that Ackroyd's comparison between the failure of the Chartist meeting at Kennington in April 1848 and the failure of Mosley's march at Cable Street in 1936 is rather odd. It is not the only odd comparison Ackroyd makes. For example, he compares the Gordon Riots of the 1780s, often seen as a reactionary mob, with the Broadwater Farm uprising in Tottenham in 1985. Behind all this lies a simple truth: Ackroyd is right-wing. That doesn't make him a less interesting writer, but it should add a note of caution.

Keith Flett
London N17

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