The US military were not due to completely exit the country until the end of this month, yet they have been overwhelmed by the speed of the Taliban takeover. Our aim here is to give an update amidst all the commentary and propaganda floating about since.
It is almost twenty years since George W. Bush announced the invasion of Afghanistan on 7 October 2001, after the Taliban refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden, architect of the 9/11 attacks on the USA. His “address to the nation” finished with the following words:
"The battle is now joined on many fronts. We will not waver; we will not tire; we will not falter; and we will not fail. Peace and freedom will prevail."
How hollow that rhetoric looks today. And how hollow the attempts to explain away this significant defeat for US imperialism…
"The recurring popular story about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan says that Washington is tired of being the world’s policeman, having its soldiers killed in the four corners of the globe and spending trillions of dollars to finance NATO operations. Nothing could be further from the truth. The US is withdrawing, not because it has achieved its goals, as Biden says, but because they have been defeated. After 20 years of war, 2,000 deaths and $2,000 billion of military spending without obtaining the slightest imperialist advantage, they have withdrawn, leaving the field free to the Taliban on the domestic front and to China, Russia and Turkey on the international stage. Those who argue that a "justified" American disengagement, including the "exit strategy" plan from Afghanistan, is a tactical solution against China are grossly mistaken. It is true that China represents strategic objective No. 1, both for the immediate and for the future, but the Pentagon no longer has the strength it had only a few decades ago. The US economy no longer dominates the world market as it once did, its balance of payments on trade is deep into the red. The crisis of low profit rates, or the valorisation of capital invested in production, has encouraged financial speculation, and depressed the real economy, so the costs of being the world's gendarme, or the cost of continuing to be the prime imperialist country in the universe, are starting to become unsustainable. Therefore, it is better to withdraw from dangerous areas where defeat can be the only outcome (Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan) to focus on more limited, but strategically more important, objectives such as China. This is quite different from the previous folktale. But even as the US departs, the American withdrawal from Afghanistan allows Beijing to make agreements with the Taliban: In exchange for political recognition and "generous" funding to rebuild Afghanistan after thirty years of war they will no longer interfere in the fight against the Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province. In addition Russian energy products now have easier access to China and India and Turkey can present itself as a negotiating power in the Central Asian area by setting up a meeting of the Taliban and their opponents in Istanbul. What will happen to the Afghan people, especially women is of no interest to Biden. Having failed to support an allied and puppet government, the American president gave the order to flee, mobilising thousands of soldiers for this last, shameful, Afghan campaign." (Afghanistan - La Tragedia Afgana Tra L’inumano Nazionalismo Talebano E La Barbarie Dell’imperialismo Americano)
So wrote our Italian comrades of Battaglia Comunista just before the fall of Kabul. Needless to say we are in complete agreement. Our aim here is to give an update amidst all the commentary and propaganda that has floated about since. The media, especially in the US, have been emphasising Biden’s role. Trump has not been slow to make propaganda over the chaos at Kabul airport to attack Biden’s competence, but this is a diversion from the main story. As we indicated over ten years ago in our article Afghanistan – Graveyard of Imperialist Ambition, the project “Operation Enduring Freedom” was already finished (Obama announced it was over in 2014 because it was clearly failing). By then it was already clear that the US invasion had only given birth to a series of corrupt governments made up of stitched together tribal factions. They have been busily enriching themselves on the money that is supposed to have been going to Afghanistan to build up its army to resist the Taliban. The Taliban is now having a fine old time posting videos of the interiors of their luxury houses (the owners having fled) on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif, Kabul, and other cities. Of more material significance is the fact that this corruption grossly overstated the size of the Afghan army, as officials claimed the pay for around 100,000 so-called “ghost soldiers” who did not exist.
This is not a repeat of the exit from Saigon in 1975. At that time the US military had already left the country two years earlier. This retreat is far more desperate and historically significant. The US military were not due to completely exit the country until the end of this month, yet they have been overwhelmed and surprised by the speed of the Taliban takeover. However, for all his current diversionary bluster, the road to this second ignominious failure of the US to prop up an ailing puppet regime began with Trump. Not only did the Trump administration release many Taliban prisoners in 2018 (like Abdul Ghani Baradur, one of the four founding members of the Taliban who had been held since 2010) but they did so precisely to facilitate a “deal” with them. This came in the form of the Doha (Qatar) accord signed between the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (aka the Taliban) headed by Mullah Abdul Hakeem and Abdul Ghani Baradur in February 2020. It had three essential terms. We reproduce them verbatim below:
"1. The United States is committed to withdraw from Afghanistan all military forces of the United States, its allies, and Coalition partners, including all non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisors, and supporting services personnel within fourteen months following announcement of this agreement.
2. The United States and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban seek positive relations with each other and expect that the relations between the United States and the new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government as determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations will be positive.
3. The United States will seek economic cooperation for reconstruction with the new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government as determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations, and will not intervene in its internal affairs."
It is clear that this is not only a surrender of any US right to have a say in the affairs of Afghanistan, but even abandons any idea that the then Kabul government of President Ghani would play much, if any part, in the post-US Afghan settlement. It was a blank cheque for the Taliban to take over, since all the other terms are just based on wishful thinking. Biden and Trump actually agreed that the US should stop fighting “forever wars”, and thus Biden happily followed the policy of the previous administration. He actually hung on in Afghanistan two months longer than this agreement specified, but the manner of the departure has been almost predictably incompetent. US forces held their Afghan allies in such contempt that they abandoned Bagram airbase without a word of warning. By the time Afghan government forces arrived there, the place had already been looted, and the Taliban inherited some powerful and sophisticated weaponry there and elsewhere.
The Taliban, on the other hand, had used the last eighteen months since the deal was signed in Qatar to prepare the ground for a takeover which would be done by local negotiation, with as little fighting as possible. An Afghan army, deserted by its main ally, was left to fight, and die, for a corrupt regime (which made little attempt to draw in the various tribal warlords who had held off the Taliban in the past but who President Ghani held in contempt). They were being asked to uphold an agreement which gave them no future, and thus simply melted away. There was nothing to fight for.
As far as Afghanistan itself is concerned, the main speculation is over the fate of those who oppose Taliban rule and the future of women and “minorities” like the Shia Hazara, whose leading citizens have been regularly murdered in both Afghanistan and Pakistan for two decades by the Taliban and other Salafists. The Taliban are dominated by Pashtun-speakers but Pashtun is spoken by just under half of the population, and before 2001 the Taliban never had full control of the whole country (as if anyone in Afghan history ever had). It seems they have been taking a more astute PR stance than they did the last time they ruled in Kabul. They claim that amnesties will be on offer for former foes, call on government officials to resume their posts and declare that women will have rights (ominously qualified as “those which comply with Islamic law and local customs”). Facts on the ground suggest that these are just empty words intended only for the world’s press. Taliban leaders have ordered the arrest of known opponents in the media and government, and Taliban fighters have been going door to door to find them. When they find they have escaped they kill their relatives. Village girls have already been forced into “marriage” with Taliban fighters and some women have already been lashed for simply being outdoors.
However, before we lament this impending humanitarian disaster, we should also remember what has gone on over the last 20 years. In the name of “democracy and freedom” (aka the imperialist interests of the US and its NATO allies):
"About 241,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan and Pakistan war zone since 2001. More than 71,000 of those killed have been civilians."(1)
42,000 civilians died in 2019 alone(2) making Afghanistan the deadliest conflict in the world. The report just quoted from the Watson Institute at Brown University in the US concluded that the massive increase in civilian casualties was mainly due to a relaxation of US rules of engagement for airstrikes in Afghanistan in 2017 (although Improvised Explosive Devices planted by the Taliban and other Salafists also played their part). At the same time they found that:
"The CIA has armed and funded Afghan militia groups who have been implicated in grave human rights abuses and killings of civilians."
This included the Afghan Local Police:
"a 30,000-strong pro-government militia mobilised by the US – [which] murdered civilians, committed fraud and engaged in theft, rape, kidnapping, drug trafficking and extortion."(3)
Amnesty International details an even grimmer picture in its Afghanistan 2020 report. Whilst about half of civilian deaths can be attributed to the Taliban and others Islamic extremist groups life for most Afghans has deteriorated over the last two decades:
"Children continued to be recruited for combat, particularly by armed groups and the Afghan security forces – pro-government militias and local police – and faced multiple abuses, including sexual abuse. Afghanistan continued to be ...“one of the deadliest countries in the world for children”, with both pro-government and anti-government forces responsible for more than 700 child casualties each. In October, First Vice-President Amrullah Saleh announced ordering the arrest of an individual who reported civilian casualties in an Afghan government air strike on a school, which had killed 12 children. Later, the Takhar provincial governor’s spokesperson reported that he was removed from his position for reporting on child civilian causalities caused by the Afghan security forces."(4)
The Report goes on:
"Despite the sexual abuse of children being well-publicized, and the abusive practice of “bacha bazi” (male children being sexually abused by older men) being criminalized in 2018, the authorities made little effort to end impunity and hold perpetrators accountable."
And it is not just the Taliban who repress women. Whilst the “progressive” international face of the Afghan Government is based on the 60 or so seats reserved for women in parliament in practice, "the few women in government faced intimidation, harassment and discrimination. They were not able to access office resources on equitable terms with male colleagues and were often denied overtime work and payment."
2 million girls still do not go to school, whilst the Taliban is not the only force attacking those fighting for women’s rights:
"Human rights defenders continued to come under attack, facing intimidation, violence and killings. In March, government officials in Helmand province physically assaulted human rights defenders who had alleged corruption. They needed hospital treatment for their injuries. In May, Mohammad Ibrahim Ebrat, a facilitator of the Civil Society Joint Working Group, was attacked and wounded by unknown gunmen in Zabul province. He subsequently died of his injuries. In June, two staff members of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Fatima Khalil and Jawad Folad, were killed in an attack on their car in Kabul."
Overall the war has left Afghanistan "contaminated with unexploded ordnance, which kills and injures tens of thousands of Afghans, especially children, as they travel and go about their daily chores." And it has also "exacerbated the effects of poverty, malnutrition, poor sanitation, lack of access to health care, and environmental degradation on Afghans’ health."(5)
So much for the benefits of “freedom” the West promised. With the Taliban now calling the shots this situation won’t change for the better, and most of those clinging on to the undercarriages of US transport planes at Kabul Airport know that, and more. The fact that the US and NATO states cannot even guarantee the safety of those they employed is perhaps the most shameful coda to a disastrous imperialist adventure. They are not the first imperialists to discover that Afghanistan is the graveyard of their ambitions.
As long ago as 1857 Engels wrote about the difficulties the British had in establishing control in the First Afghan War (1839-42).(6) Leonid Brezhnev should have read his work before committing to the Red Army occupation of the country (1979-89), an event which both underlined and accelerated the decline of the USSR as an imperialist force. The irony is that it was US financial and military assistance via Pakistan’s military intelligence, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to the mujihadeen to destroy Russian control that eventually paved the way for the rise of the Taliban (just as the overthrow of Saddam Hussein led to the birth of the Sunni resistance which came to be the backbone of Daesh or ISIS). The added contradiction was that the Taliban arose from the madrassas of Pakistan which by that time were also under the influence of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabist version of Islam. Saudi Arabia armed, and even supplied reinforcements, to the Taliban in the civil war that followed the Soviet Union’s departure. Most of the 9/11 suicide bombers were (like Osama bin Laden himself) Saudi citizens, but the US had signed a Faustian pact with Saudi Arabia in 1945 (oil for US security) and so their part was downplayed. Despite this, and many other tensions, this alliance of convenience survives. Oil is less important to the US than it was as once again it is self-sufficient if it needs to be. The cement of the Saudi-US relationship is now the common fight against Iran.
Which brings us to the significance of the latest imperialist débacle of the US and its NATO allies. Imran Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan, has made no secret of his glee at events in Afghanistan. Afghans, he said, had “broken the shackles of slavery”. Imran Khan is a puppet of the Pakistan army and it is no secret that not only did the Taliban find shelter and could do business in Pakistan but its ISI has been channeling money to the Taliban (that they originally got from the CIA). Hamid Gul, a former ISI chief, even announced on television in 2014: "When history is written, it will be stated that the ISI defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America, Then there will be another sentence. The ISI, with the help of America, defeated America."(7) More significantly for the future imperialist line up, Khan openly declared that Pakistan’s affiliation with China was stronger since the USA was now so allied to Modi’s India (which had grown in influence in Kabul during the Ghani government). The struggle in Central Asia thus looks more likely to spread, given India’s ongoing border disputes in Kashmir and the Himalayas with both Pakistan and China. And all of these states are nuclear powers.
Iran’s position is more ambiguous. Its leaders delight in the latest humiliation of the USA, but the Taliban’s intolerance of Shia Muslims has led to thousands fleeing to Iran, thus putting pressure on an already desperate economic crisis. Last year Iran returned 700,000 refugees to Afghanistan, but as it is now part of the Chinese Belt and Road strategy, given the 25 years treaty it recently signed with China(8) it may have some cards to play with the Taliban. This is all the more likely since the Afghan Central Bank’s funds are lodged in New York. These (and the possibility of withholding IMF finance) remain the last levers for the US with the Taliban. The latter therefore, at least in the short term, will need financial support from somewhere, and the most likely place is China. As our comrades state above, the quid pro quo will be that the Taliban remain silent about the treatment of their Uyghur co-religionists in Xinjiang. China has been eyeing the lithium, copper and other mineral resources like rare earths in Afghanistan for nearly two decades and have the means to extract them. These are said to exist in abundance and would boost both their military and industrial capacity, but for the Taliban the returns on these are likely to take a while to arrive. However the development of a Chinese axis across Eurasia is now more likely than ever before. One indication of this is that Pakistan, China and Russia are the only states to retain embassies in Kabul since the Taliban took over.
For the US the disaster is compounded by the fact that they barely consulted their NATO allies before announcing the date of their departure from Afghanistan. The other powers, like Britain and Germany, were thus exposed as being entirely dependent on the USA, and had no choice but to go with them. After four years of Trump, in which “America First” meant their allies were last, a great deal of damage was done to the “Western alliance”. Biden arrived in the Oval office announcing an end to this, and that “America is back”, but his actions in Afghanistan have done little to convince allies that this is the case. In the light of the way the imperialist line-ups are developing the last thing the US needs are dissensions on its own side.
Meanwhile China has used the pandemic to build up its missile technology and, during the week the Taliban took over, deliberately flew fighter jets into Taiwan’s air space: just the latest in a series of provocative actions, but one boosted by the perception of US weakness. The world, which is already full of barbaric conflicts, has thus become a more dangerous place. The working class everywhere will be its victims as long as they are divided, and disorganised. Workers, as Marx pointed out, have no country. They have no property to fight for, and certainly no imperialist power to support. We leave it to the various factions of the capitalist left and right to declare their support for a non-existent “anti-imperialism”. The only real anti-imperialist struggle is the working class fight to end capitalism in all its forms. Until this takes shape capitalism will carry on taking us down the long slow course to even greater conflicts. No war but the class war!
22 August 2021
Photo from: youtube.com
(1) See watson.brown.edu
(5) This and the preceding quote also from: watson.brown.edu
(6) See marxists.org. What is striking about Engels' account is the number of similarities between that invasion and later ones. Writing in 1857 he noted that “the Afghans are divided into clans, over which the various chiefs exercise a sort of feudal supremacy. Their indomitable hatred of rule, and their love of individual independence, alone prevents their becoming a powerful nation; but this very irregularity and uncertainty of action makes them dangerous neighbours, liable to be blown about by the wind of caprice, or to be stirred up by political intriguers, who artfully excite their passions”. After a Second Afghan War the British managed to get the Afghans to the Durand line, or what would become famous in history as the North West Frontier (of the British Raj), beyond which the Afghans were left to fight each other.
(8) See our recent article “China-Iran Accords, the Silk Road and Some Other Imperialist Manoeuvres” in Revolutionary Perspectives #18, Series 4. leftcom.org