Afghanistan – imperialism beats a humiliating retreat
The summary departure of US troops from Afghanistan and collapse of the mercenary Afghan army further seriously weakens US dominance in the Middle East, widens cracks in the warmongering imperialist coalition and usefully undermines the prestige of capitalist class rule over the home populations of the imperialist heartlands.
The entire country of Afghanistan is now in the hands of the Taliban resistance fighters, either through military occupation or through separate peace deals aimed at sparing needless bloodshed. The mercenary Afghan army is everywhere in retreat or fleeing into Tajikistan or Pakistan, no longer prepared to risk their lives in defence of a government imposed upon them by occupying foreign powers and lacking any popular support. The president Ashraf Ghani has fled the country and the resistance are now billeted in the President’s palace.
The home-grown resistance fighters of the Taliban, who alone stood in defence of Afghan sovereignty through twenty straight years of occupation, have triumphantly completed their advance on US-made Humvees, armed with M-16s expropriated from the Afghan army. Despite Washington having spent more than $830 billion trying to forge and prop up a client state that would be able and willing to do its bidding, both the puppet government and its army have now evaporated like the morning dew.
The Taliban headed to the palace for what they thought were to be talks with the President, Ashraf Ghani, but Ghani had other plans. He slipped away, leaving a message claiming that his departure was intended to save bloodshed, leaving his acting interior minister, Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal, to carry the can. Mirzakwal said that a transfer of power will happen peacefully, while security forces will remain in the streets to “ensure Kabul’s security” pending formation of a “transitional administration”. The Taliban went on to live-stream a press conference inside the presidential palace, at which a Taliban spokesman declared, “We assure everyone that we will provide safety for citizens and diplomatic missions. We are ready to have a dialogue with all Afghan figures and will guarantee them the necessary protection” (‘Former Guantanamo inmate among Taliban leaders pledging “no revenge”’, John Reynolds, The Times, 16 August 2021).
In stark contrast to what was basically a peaceful transfer of power at the presidential palace, the scenes of chaos at Kabul’s international airport were the stuff of nightmares. The US military remained in control there, taking charge of air traffic control and cancelling all normal flights in favour of military transports, effectively trapping thousands of Afghans wanting to leave the country, with or without tickets. As panic developed, people began to stampede; some even sought to board planes as they taxied on the runway. At least seven lives were lost in consequence. The military helped to raise the panic further by firing warning shots and buzzing the crowds with an Apache helicopter.
Amongst those most eager to leave the country are of course the thousands of Afghans who collaborated with the occupation forces, including the many interpreters and the Afghan special forces. Just as in the US evacuation of Saigon, once the occupation is over scant regard is paid to those who have compromised themselves by assisting the colonisers, leaving them with an uncertain future.
Biden in the pillory
Confronted by the extraordinary and immediate consequences of his actions, Joe Biden is lashing about blaming everyone but himself. It’s Trump’s fault for doing a deal with the Taliban he says, his hands are tied. Yet it was Biden who speeded up the timetable for the pull-out, plunging the get-out plans into chaos. Well then, it’s the ungrateful Afghan army that refused to fight, or it’s the Taliban’s failure to negotiate by the rules. And besides, he says, he was obliged to scuttle out of Afghanistan so as to concentrate on targeting Russia and China. But given the failure of the US President to meet US commitments to its allies, slinking away from Afghanistan with minimum warning, who will be prepared to rally around America in a confrontation with China or Russia?
Whilst Biden remains in denial, his critics at home are pulling no punches. Republican heavyweight Mitch McConnell opined that “President Biden’s decisions have us hurtling toward an even worse sequel to the humiliating fall of Saigon in 1975,” adding that the Taliban’s advance raised the spectre of Islamists celebrating the 20th anniversary of September 11 by “burning down our Embassy in Kabul” (Katrina Manson, Lauren Fedor and Benjamin Parkin, ‘Critics round on Joe Biden as US pulls out of Afghanistan’, Financial Times, 14 August 2021).
Meanwhile in Britain, whilst Boris Johnson feebly called for a coalition of “like-minded” people to make the Taliban behave themselves, with the plea that nobody should go ahead and recognise the new government unilaterally, and whilst the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was reluctantly winding up his summer hols, the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace blurted out some uncharacteristic home truths about the collapse of US leadership, telling Sky News that “At the time of the Trump deal with, obviously the Taliban, I felt that was a mistake to have done it that way. We will all, in the international community, probably pay the consequences of that. I think the deal that was done in Doha was a rotten deal. I’ve been pretty blunt about it publicly and that’s quite a rare thing when it comes to United States decisions, but strategically it causes a lot of problems and as an international community, it’s very difficult for what we’re seeing today” (Steven Swinford and Catherine Philp, ‘US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a mistake, says Ben Wallace’, The Times, 13 August 2021).
Tom Tugendhat, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, took another swipe at Washington, twittering that “A hasty exit is not a sign of success. Needing reinforcements to keep the door open as you leave is a sure sign of failure. The decision to withdraw is like a rug pulled from under the feet of our partners.” Former Chief of Defence Staff Lord Richards was still more trenchant, spluttering that the pull-out was “a tacit — explicit really — admission of failure. Of a gross, a dismal failure of geostrategy and of statecraft.” So enraged was one former defence minister, Tobias Ellwood, that he seemed all ready to dust off his old army uniform and assemble a task force against the Taliban himself, urging that “Britain must step up and show international leadership, convene a conference of like-minded states and get a plan in place to deliver effective military support. If we don’t, everything we fought for since 2001 could be lost.”
Never was a truer word spoken. The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the shambolic exit in 2021 neatly book-end two decades of unadulterated imperialist failure in the Middle East.
The Taliban: a caveat
The fact that twenty years of occupation have been brought to a conclusion by resistance forces which coalesced around an Islamist movement is a mixed blessing, however. The Taliban has previously acted as a catspaw for imperialism, helping to crush the revolutionary gains made under the leadership of the Soviet-backed Peoples Democratic Party in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The US and Pakistan armed the Taliban and other Islamist forces as they overthrew the socialist government and plunged the country back into feudal backwardness.
Later the US called on the Taliban for help again. The instability generated by endless feuding between rival warlords threatened to get in the way of imperialist plans to construct a network of energy pipelines facilitating the loot of the region’s mineral resources. The US calculated that, with the Taliban in the driving seat, a necessary degree of social peace could be enforced. The bargain went sour when it became clear that their Islamist ambitions served an agenda which went beyond acting as imperialist satrap.
None of this dubious history detracts from the heroic role played by the Taliban in leading the resistance struggle of the Afghan people against foreign occupation. The objective contradiction between the interests of imperialism and the interests of oppressed countries remains the defining context, without regard for any subjective ideological baggage which resistance forces may bring along. And the reality is that the religious prejudices nursed by the Taliban are in great part shared by their compatriots. With the Afghan army and government gone, it is likely that some form of transitional government, possibly even including some familiar faces from the defunct government, would prove acceptable to most people.
That said, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are wise to be taking defensive measures to secure their borders in anticipation of any instability spilling over from Afghanistan. Many Afghan soldiers and civilians have already crossed into Tajikistan and it is not impossible that the Taliban themselves, flush with success, could be minded to indulge in new cross-border caliphate adventures in the former Soviet republics. Such a development would doubtless be seen by the West as a consolation prize for losing the war and Russia is right to prepare for all eventualities.
Those who recognise the right of Afghanistan to self determination in theory but demur at the theocratic, feudal prejudices of the Taliban, whose forces have in practice led the independence struggle, should remember how the fight for liberation came to be sidetracked to the mosque in the first place. Contrary to the racist impression given by the imperialist media, the Afghans are not a people without historical agency, a people incapable of any progress other than under the close guidance of the ‘civilised’ West, or a people in dire need of the ‘nation building’ skills of the United States or anybody else.
The struggle between Britain and Tsarist Russia in the 19th century for control of the country ended up with the Afghans being forced into the role of a semi-dependency under the British Empire. This humiliating status was challenged when Amanullah Khan ascended to the emirate throne in 1921, asserting Afghanistan’s sovereignty. Khan established relations with the Soviet Union, which promptly recognised Afghanistan’s independence, and Moscow and Kabul signed an Afghan-Soviet friendship treaty. For the next eight years Moscow helped the Afghanis to modernise, assisting the building of power plants, water resources, transport links and communication networks. Thousands of young Afghanis went to Soviet technical schools and universities.
This fantastic opportunity for Afghanistan to cut loose from its colonial ties and take the path of a modern democracy was cruelly cut short in 1929 when British-backed reactionary forces forced Amanullah out.
The 1960s saw the founding of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) which in 1973 helped overthrow the 40-year reign of the US-backed Mohammad Zahir Shah. When the PDP went on to take power in 1978 it was clear that a second great opportunity to get out of the trap of feuding warlords at home and imperialist dominance from without was presenting itself. The PDP pledged to press on with the emancipation of women and provision of universal access to education, health care, housing and sanitation. An eye witness gives a moving snapshot of those heady times.
“During two visits in 1980-81, I saw the beginnings of progress: women working together in handicraft co-ops, where for the first time they could be paid decently for their work and control the money they earned. Adults, both women and men, learning to read. Women working as professionals and holding leading government positions, including Minister of Education. Poor working families able to afford a doctor, and to send their children—girls and boys—to school. The cancellation of peasant debt and the start of land reform. Fledgling peasant cooperatives. Price controls and price reductions on some key foods. Aid to nomads interested in a settled life” (Marilyn Bechtel, ‘Afghanistan’s socialist years: The promising future killed off by U.S. imperialism’, People’s World, 15 April 2021).
But this second great opportunity to break with feudal backwardness and imperialist domination was again sabotaged. Feudal and tribal warlords, whose right to exploit and oppress the people was being fundamentally challenged, appealed for help from the US and Pakistan, which were only too happy to bankroll and train jihadi terrorists to undermine the revolution.
Nor was Britain shy about chipping in. Disguised as tourists, selected junior commanders in the Mujahideen were trained in three week cycles in Scotland, northern and southern England on SAS training. Terrorists infiltrated from Pakistan, swarming in to blow up and burn what the Afghani revolution had built. In desperation, at the end of 1978, the PDP government appealed for assistance to Moscow, which responded by sending in the Red Army, which remained until 1989.
Afghanistan was not ‘Russia’s Vietnam’, as is so often glibly claimed. When the last helicopter wobbled off the US Embassy roof, the puppet Saigon regime went up in smoke. When the Russians pulled out of Afghanistan, conversely, Mohammad Najibullah’s progressive PDP government valiantly weathered the escalating terrorist attacks alone for the best part of three years before tragically succumbing. Once again, Afghanistan’s struggle for independence and development had been stifled at birth by the ‘civilised’ imperialist West.
Again and again, the opportunity for Afghans to take a secular, democratic route towards an independent future has been trashed by imperialism and its agents, throwing the country back into the same dreary cycle of feudal and tribal warlords. Even the Sunday Times made this point in an article by Roy Liddle who can certainly not be suspected of communist sympathies:
“I have no illusions about the old Soviet Union but there is a case for saying that the Afghan government led by the Soviet puppet Mohammed Najibullah was the best the country has had for a few hundred years. Yet how we reviled the USSR for its invasion and poured money into the Islamist opposition. When we do the same thing as the commies and install our own puppets at the point of a gun, though, it is in the interests of democracy and therefore different” (‘Getting the hell out of Afghanistan is not a betrayal. We were never wanted there’, 15 August 2021).
Now, by a sharp turn of historical irony, the anti-colonial war to clear the foreigners out of the country has been successfully led by the grandchildren of those very Mujahideen whom the West so lovingly nurtured back in the 1980s. Having closed off every democratic and secular avenue of independent development, the West must not be offended when the anti-imperialist struggle brings with it all the social and religious prejudices that imperialism has cultivated for its proxies. The end result – the utter humiliation and demoralisation visited upon imperialism globally – is a gift to anti-imperialists the world over.
We leave the last word to Rod Liddle:
“We were right to get the hell out of Afghanistan. We should never have gone in. Whenever we involve ourselves, for reasons of deluded enlightenment, in third world countries – and especially Islamic ones – it ends up badly for us and even worse for them. Always, without exception.
“We tell ourselves we are ‘helping’ by bombing the people we do not approve of. But we always make things worse. It is an iron law…”
For a refreshing change one sometimes gets the undiluted truth from the mouths of even bourgeois journalists!