The attention of the international community to the conditions in Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul and the re-ascendency of the Taliban has been concentrated on the struggle for control of the country among competing internal political, religious and ethnic divisions. This concern has been augmented by an evaluation of the competing influences and aspirations of neighbouring countries in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. This political evaluation has been accompanied by speculations on the future market for the largely unexploited mineral wealth of the nation; a model which will require large-scale foreign investment in the new Afghan Government.
Afghanistan possesses a wealth of nonfuel minerals whose value has been estimated at more than US$1 trillion. For millennia the country was renowned for its gemstones – rubies, emeralds, tourmalines and lapis lazuli. These minerals continue to be locally extracted, both legally and illegally, in mostly small, artisanal mines. Far more value, however, lies with the country’s endowments of iron, copper, lithium, rare earth elements, cobalt, bauxite, mercury, uranium and chromium.[i]
It is believed that these valuable sources of mineral wealth will eventually displace Afghanistan’s current economic source of revenue, the drugs trade. The Taliban has pledged itself to reduce or extinguish the drugs trade as, over the years, it has brought vast wealth to the corrupt warlords, generals and politicians who have channelled this wealth into their own pockets but left most of the Afghan people without adequate social services, fuel, water and food.
Evaluating the impact of projects in the field of mineral extraction requires much more than the estimated value of the mineral source in the ground. Mining requires heavy up-front capitalisation of the project, pre-existing road and rail connections, sources of energy and water, and a skilled and semi-skilled labour force as well as local management. The mere fact of having mineral wealth in the ground and claiming its value as generated revenues from their exploitation is a phantasy. If having vast reserves of copper, cobalt and gold in the ground means wealth, then every poor local government in Central Africa would be considered immensely wealthy. That is not the case. These mining companies, most of which are private corporations or quasi-independent companies, have to provide the investment funds for pre-tender investigations and bids; a reliable source of bank financing; a heavy investment in expensive mining and crushing equipment; a government-provided transport system to and from the proposed mine; a ready supply of skilled labour and management; and a fiscal system in the nation which will sustain the credit-worthiness of the government so that additional risk insurance need not be such a heavy burden on the corporations. A functioning political system is integral to these calculations.
For most international mining and trading corporations these risks are their own. Except for Chinese corporations which are notionally private but government-led, these corporations take on the risks and rewards themselves. There may be export-import guarantees by governments to support the efforts of their corporations in marketing the products earned by such investments, but this is only a fraction of the costs involved. To advance the efforts in exploiting Afghanistan’s mineral wealth there must be expectations of stability; a rule of law which recognises contracts, disputes and arbitration; a government-provided and monitored logistics infrastructure; and continuity in what is often a seven-to-ten-year process of reaching breakeven status between investment and generated revenues.
Afghanistan is a low-income country with GDP per capita of US$507 in 2019 according to World Bank. The country currently ranks 172 in the Human Development Index (HDI). It is heavily reliant on foreign aid and aid accounts for more than 90 percent of the national budget. The U.S. alone has spent around $5 billion a year in aid to Afghanistan. At the moment, much of this 90% of the Afghan budget deriving from foreign aid is in suspension and the national wealth is sequestered in Western vaults. The Taliban, or indeed any other Afghan Government, is in no position to carry out the infrastructural and logistical prerequisites needed for the extraction, production and marketing of this notional US$1 trillion in mineral wealth.
One of the key reasons for the poverty of Afghanistan is the divided and competitive nature of the Afghan peoples, whose lack of unity has generated generations of conflict within the nation and served to entice foreign powers to use that conflict to engage in colonial pursuits within Afghanistan by their allying with one or more of the dominant factions.
Afghanistan is a Divided Nation:
These divisions were important in the rise of several Afghan warlords, whose competition still prevails as a political solution for a new government is sought. The conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims has been intense, particularly between the Shia Hazara and the others. Since 2016, the forces of the Islamic State have deliberately targeted the Hazara Shia community in a sectarian jihadist campaign that has occasionally been supported by the Taliban, although the Taliban itself has been in conflict with the Islamic State. The Islamic State officially announced the formation of its Afghan affiliate, Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), in January 2015. ISKP (also known as IS-K or ISIS-K). It has been concentrated predominantly in eastern Afghanistan, particularly in Nangarhar province, which borders the region of Pakistan formerly known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Another powerful faction within the Taliban is the Haqqani Network The Haqqani Network is an official, semi-autonomous component of the Afghan Taliban and formerly a close ally of Al Qaeda. It was founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a leading member of the anti-Soviet jihad (1979-1989) who became a prominent Taliban official and eventually a key leader in the post-2001 insurgency. The Haqqani Network has been the operational arm of the Pakistani ISI (Pakistan Military Intelligence) in Afghanistan and was a prime mover in the last Taliban Government against the Hazara.
The ’new’ Taliban has moved beyond its traditional Pushtun ethnic base and was aided in its speedy takeover of the country after Ghani fled by the support it gained from some parts of the Uzbek and Tajik communities. However, there has been a resurrection of the Northern Alliance, formed as the United Front in 1996 to fight against the Taliban and led, after 1999, by Ahmad Shah Massoud. His son has returned to Afghanistan and has established a major force in the Panshir Valley to stand against the Taliban. The Taliban has offered Massoud a place in the new Taliban Government, but he has refused. Minor hostilities have resumed in the North with the Taliban.
These ethnic and tribal divides are important for the economic future of Afghanistan. If one looks at the map of the supposed new resources which are posited as having the potential of lifting the country out of poverty one will see that they are largely concentrated in regions in which the Taliban have less power; primarily Hazara, Uzbek and Tajik regions. Economic growth and stability will require establishing a working relationship between the Taliban Pashtuns and the Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek and Turkomen regional forces.
The Political, Social and Human Rights Legacy of the Taliban
The Taliban emerged as the dominant force in Afghanistan in the wake of the defeat of the Soviet Union and its retreat from the country in 1989. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was met by a wave of international support for the mujahideen who were fighting the war against the Soviets. A principal supporting nation was Pakistan. Pakistani government had supported the Islamic revival that accompanied the war against the Soviet Union. The Pakistanis had longed for a stable Afghanistan which could offer them a gateway to the oil riches of Central Asia and form a counterweight against India. Pakistani intelligence officers began funnelling arms, money and supplies to the Taliban, as well as military advisers to help guide them in battle. In addition to the $10 million sent to Afghanistan by Pakistan annually, the Pakistani religious madrassas in Pakistan sent hundreds of Pakistani youthful scholars across the border to support the mujahideen. These students weren’t followers of the mainline Wahhabi sect of Islam; they followed an offshoot, the Deobandi movement. The Deobandi creed, based in India, exalted extreme austerity and the subjugation of women. The mullahs in Pakistan added their own touches, including the emphasis on continuous holy war and the harsh repression of dissent.
The zeitgeist of a proxy hot war which advanced the aspirations of the Cold War between the U.S., and the Soviet Union attracted a growing Congressional response, Charley Wilson’s War. In the 1980s U.S.Rep. Charlie Wilson, Texas socialite Joanne Herring and CIA officer Gus Avrakotos formed an alliance to boost Congressional funding for the Afghan freedom fighters. Their successful efforts to finance these covert operations contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. It also established a pipeline of arms, ammunition and advice from the U.S. government to the “freedom fighters” of Al Qaeda.
It was no surprise that the mainly Pushtun Taliban government that took over as the Soviets left would put this harsh brand of Islam into practice. Women were supressed, removed from education and employment and forced to wear the burqa. Dissent wasn’t tolerated and harsh penalties were inflicted on those who did not follow the strict Taliban rules. Not surprisingly, except for the drugs business, there was no economy to speak of. Mullah Omar, of the Taliban, turned to his Arab allies which had been supplying weapons and fighters and invited the Arabs to assist financially as most Western help had dried up. The Arabs sent Osama Bin Laden to Afghanistan, with pockets full of cash, and gradually took over most of the policy positions in Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Afghanistan provided a gathering place for many of the world’s terrorist groups and in September 2001, used their fighters to attack the U.S. mainland. The U.S. responded by sending troops to Afghanistan and began a twenty-year war.
The new Taliban has promised to behave differently than in its previous efforts to control Afghanistan. It has promised to allow women a greater role and pledged to form a political alliance with other, non-Taliban, groups in a new government. It has no money, no available reserves from which to draw, and an urgent need to create a vision of stability which will attract investments in the country. Without a mechanism or process which can provide a measuring tool of progress to show the world that liberalisation is not mere rhetoric, no one will be willing to stretch credulity to promote a more positive view of Afghanistan. Such a mechanism is readily available and universally recognised, the rebirth of the Afghanistan labour movement.
A Brief History of the Afghanistan Labour Movement
The Afghan union movement has played an important role in the development of the Afghan state, despite its open and naked suppression by hostile governments. Afghanistan was largely a feudal agrarian society for much of its history, with little industrialisation. The slow introduction of industrialisation in the late 1860s led to a growth of non-agrarian employment. In 1868, Amir Shir Ali Khan introduced economic and social reforms that led to the establishment of industrial factories in Afghanistan. During the rule of Amir Habibullah Khan (1901-1919), new factories were established, printing, typography, photography, motors, carpentry, metal work, leather, cotton, and power. Thousands of workers started working in those factories as well as in construction of bridges and roads as well as in government service.[ii].
After 1919 there were factory, government and agrarian workers and a sizable working class. Thousands of workers were working in factories in industries such as drugs, railroad, gunpowder, power stations, cement, car repair, soup, perfume, carpentry, oil, sugar, fruits, gas, iron, and mining contracted with the Soviet Union. The new king, Zahir Shah, began a cautious approach to social reforms. He started participating with the newly-formed International Labour Organisation (ILO) of the League of Nations bringing about international standards to the country. Afghanistan became an original member of the International Labour Organization in September 1934 and agreed a number of conventions on the control of the work environment, including the ILO Convention No. 45: Underground Work (Women) in 1937.
This participation in the work of the ILO created a demand for further liberalisation of the industrial scene and was a factor in Afghanistan drawing up a new Constitution in 1964 with provisions which enshrined principles of labour-relations. In the months preceding the new Constitution the ILO worked with the Afghan Government to conduct seminars to agree principles and practices which could be considered for introduction into the Constitutional debate. The Seminar was organized with technical assistance from the ILO and attended by the representatives of workers from coal mining, Franklin Publications, the Ministry of Public Works, the Trade School of the Ministry of Education, the Government Printing Press, the Department of Petroleum Prospecting, the Kabul Electric Co, the Naghloo Project, the Cement Factory at Ghoury, the Gulbahar Textile Mill, the Jangalak Industrial Plant, the Bus Service Co, Ummad Textile Mill, the Spinzar Co, the Jabel Us-Seraj Cement Factory, the Pul-i-Khumry Textile Mill, the Kandahar Woolen Mill and the Leather Factory in Kabul. This was the first time that union and management came together with the assistance of the government to improve their relations.[iii]
This spurred on a great deal of debate on the institutionalisation of the labour-government-management relationship in the reaction to the 1964 Constitution. The first trade unions were established by the left-wing Hezb-e Dimokratik-e Khalq-e Afghanistan (People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, PDPA) around 1967. By the late 1960s, workers organised by the PDPA and other leftist groups were already involved in industrial action in Kabul. Nationwide, 1968 alone saw 40 strikes countrywide, beginning at Kabul’s Jangalak factory in the west of the city, a site which had started as a collection of repair shops, but by this time had extended into pre-fabricated housing production. Similar strikes took place in the gas fields of Sheberghan, the Gulbahar textile factory and the Pul-e Khumri cement factory.[iv]
The PDPA seized power in the Saur Revolution of April 1978. The PDPA had taken advantage of the political opening that followed the adoption of the 1964 constitution; a constitution which had turned Afghanistan from an absolute into a constitutional monarchy. This included elements of parliamentarianism. It allowed the formation of political parties for the first time in Afghanistan’s history. It also permitted the formation of a national trade union body, The National Union of Afghan Employees also referred to in Dari as Atehadye Milli Karkonan (Kargaran) e Afghanistan (AMKA) and Pashto Da Afghanistan da Karkawoonko (Kargarano) Mili Etehadia.
This takeover of the Afghan Government by the PDPA was riven by factionalism. Even after the Soviet invasion in 1979, both sides of the PDPA spoke in increasingly Marxist terms of the rights of workers while brutally suppressing workers’ movements. Under the presidencies of Babrak Karmal (1979 to 1986) and Najibullah (1986 to 1992), after the Soviet invasion, torture became more systemic under the newly created KhAD intelligence service, modelled on the KGB, and sham trials with many executions. Both Soviet and Afghan government forces carried out indiscriminate bombing of the countryside which resulted in mass casualties and the forced displacement of five million Afghans to Iran and Pakistan.[v]
The invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union allowed the Soviets to take over official control of the Afghan labour movement. It was directed through Central Council of Afghan Trade Unions (CCATU) in 1978. By December 1979 the CCATU was purged and restructured by the intervening Soviet Union regime into the sole Afghan trade union. The CCATU functioned along similar lines as other Soviet trade unions, claiming to work both for the improvement of working and living conditions, and defending the gains made by the Saur (i.e., 1978) Revolution. In practice, it transmogrified from a body seeking labour rights to the model of unionism in which recognised labour unions become transmission belts of Party policies. At the 1990 Congress (after the fall of the Soviet regime) the CCATU became the National Workers' Union of Afghanistan (NUWA), retaining most of the previous leadership. In 1992 with the dominance of the Mujahideen, and the declaration of an Islamic state, the NUWA ceased to exist. Unions were banned entirely during the Taliban regime, even though they were able to revise the Labour Law in accordance with Islamic Sharia.
The fall of the Taliban regime was hoped to be the spark which relit the flame of unionism in Afghanistan. The Karzai and Ghani Governments were no friends of labour. Although there was a notional return to a more tolerant governmental control of the labour movement, there was little done in legislation or practice which would indicate an improvement in relations. The NUWAE-AMKA union centre was led by political hacks and protected and preserved the privileges of Afghanistan’s corrupt leadership. Its funds were generated largely by renting out the organisation’s real estate in the cities acquired during the PDPA rule in Kabul.
In 2014, the NUWAE-AMKA joined the International Trade Unions Confederation (ITUC). It later participated in the annual ILO conferences in Geneva. It began a process of internal reform when the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (the German Social Democratic Party international assistance arm - FES) became involved in a series of seminars and training in Afghanistan. It also established an enduring contact with the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) which assisted the union in gaining international support. However, such support from the international labour community and the FES and TUC was thwarted by the political leaders of the Karzai and Ghani regimes.
Now, with the return of the Taliban to power, the situation in relations with the Afghanistan are unclear, and appear to be undergoing little scrutiny.
The Crucial Role of Afghan Unions In Rebuilding the Nation
Despite the historic enmity between the Taliban and organised labour in Afghanistan, establishing a working relationship between the two is very important for nation-building. This is not a question of ideology or theology. Trade unionists learned a long time ago that one can’t eat ideology and theology puts nothing on the table. In order for the Taliban to succeed in establishing a working national system it needs the support of the Afghan working people.
Trade unions in developing countries are different from the types and structures of unions in the globalised interconnected economic world. In most of these emerging societies there are three major, truly national forces: the military; the students; and the unions. The other forces are ethnic, regional and competitive. These three forces represent a population drawn together from all walks of life in the country in a common structure and purpose. They come from different regions, tribes, cults and beliefs but are joined together into a national structure of military, student and union movements. They have learned to speak in a common language (often that of their former colonial master) and to consider the national implications of competing policies. If the Taliban are to succeed in nation-building, they must control or have a working relationship with at least two of the three. This will be a vital backdrop to the quest for foreign investment. If The Taliban doesn’t speak for these national forces they have no credibility in persuading companies, banks or venture capitalists to invest in the country. Promises and pledges are easy to make; what is difficult is to convince the world that they can deliver on these promises and pledges.
It is in the interests of the Taliban that there is security of work and an expanded role of women in that environment. Job safety, occupational health procedures and representation is not a bone of ideological contention. “Revolutions Devour Their Own Children” is not a phrase easily dismissed. The Taliban will learn, as many others before them have learned, there is no revolutionary way to deliver the mail; supply farmers with seed; clear the public drains; fix the potholes in the road; etc. It takes hard work and planning and the co-operation of others. It is the delivery, which is important, not the colour of the flag the postman wears.
In that, the Taliban has no better supporter than a labour movement with the established rights in the workplace that they are seeking as well as those in the political system. The key advantage in working with the labour movement is that there is an important alliance or alliances with unionists in countries across the globe who are willing to assist the Afghan unions if they are truly allowed to make progress in achieving social justice in their nation. The Taliban stands at the crossroad. They would be wise to choose to work closely and positively with the Afghan unions in nation-building. It is a crucial decision.
[ii] Nangyalai Attal, "The State of Labor Movement in Afghanistan", IRLE, June 2016
[iv] Thomas Ruttig , "May Day on Workers Street: Trade unions and the status of labour in Afghanistan", AAN, 4/5/14
[v] Henry S. Bradsher, Afghan Communism and Soviet Intervention, Oxford 1999