Afghanistan: The limits of US power

Imperialism’s 15-year adventure a bloody catastrophe for millions. 
Fifteen years ago George W Bush and his fellow neo-cons were triumphant when their war on Afghanistan led to the collapse of the Taliban regime after just two months. But what followed was years of ‘mission creep’ which, along with the war on Iraq, led to rising levels of opposition across the west to these brutal imperialist interventions.

The war on Afghanistan that began in 2001 was both Britain’s and the US’s longest in modern times, almost double the eight years from 1965 that US troops spent in Vietnam. Camp Bastion became Britain’s biggest overseas base since the second world war, the size of a small town with up to 30,000 troops and support staff. The outcome, as is well known, has been utter failure for the 51 capitalist powers that sent in forces, chief among them the US which sent in by far the most. Their combined might in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which peaked at over 130,000 troops, with high-tech weapons from the ground and air and expenditure of $1 trillion, was unable to defeat a Taliban force of around 25,000, which had incomparable funding and weaponry.

Every twist and turn in NATO’s military tactics during the war – its first outside Europe – failed. Year by year the Taliban and its allies have been taking back more territory, Al-Qaeda is still operating in the country, as also now is ISIS and other anti-government right-wing Islamic groups even less willing to compromise than the Taliban. The Afghan government imposed by western imperialism is completely unable to provide security and development.

The US organisation, SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction), while trying to present a positive gloss, spelt out the degree of failure in its October 2016 report to the US Congress. It noted that the Afghan government had lost 2.2% of territory during the first nine months of 2016, and: “Of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, 258 districts were under government control or influence, 33 districts were under insurgent control or influence, and 116 districts were ‘contested’.” A number of towns in Helmand province once occupied by British or US troops – including Sangin – are now back in the hands of the Taliban. SIGAR mentions that a senior US official described the situation as an “eroding stalemate”, and adds that its own report “might support such a view”.

The human catastrophe is immense. The Watson Institute in the US estimates that 31,419 Afghan civilians died between 2001 and July 2016, 42,100 opposition fighters and 37,923 pro-government forces, contractors, international forces, aid workers and journalists. The death rate is presently worsening and, of the 5,166 civilians killed or maimed in the first six months of 2016, a third were children.

But these bare figures only indicate a fraction of the loss and suffering. Seventy percent of Afghanis fear for their safety, reported the 7 January 2017 issue of the Economist. And, with over 1.2 million people displaced within the country and few basic services, an untold number are dying from war consequences that include malnutrition, exposure, disease and crime. The number of Afghanis fleeing abroad is presently rising, making up the second largest group of refugees in Europe.

The propaganda of George W Bush and Tony Blair, that they were saving Afghanis from hunger and oppression, has been proven as the outrageous deceit it always was. Despite the US pumping in $115 billion of ‘aid’ since 2002, SIGAR confirms: “Poverty, unemployment, underemployment, violence, out-migration, internal displacement, and the education gender gap have all increased, while services and private investment have decreased”. Afghanistan today is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman, confirms the UN Development Programme. Once a country very rich in culture and heritage, over half of children receive no education and 60% of them are malnourished – while opium production is at near record levels. Unemployment is sky high, between 40% and 70%. Only 27% of people have access to clean water.

Among US imperialism’s real motivations for the invasion was defending its prestige in the wake of the 9/11 atrocity in 2001 – delivering retribution to Al-Qaeda and its Taliban protectors and appearing to prevent the prospect of further attacks on the US. Bush claimed that the first months of the war had “rid the world of thousands of terrorists”. Where in the world today does anyone feel safer from terrorism than they did before that war? A new generation of jihadists and splinter groups were trained up in Afghanistan and Iraq on the basis of fighting against a US-led occupying force that inflicted huge casualties and devastation and used torture, abuse and victimisation, including at Guantanamo.

A more medium to long term objective of the US ruling class was to further its geo-strategic interests in central Asia and the Middle East by installing US-friendly governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Afghanistan’s land is rich in untapped mineral deposits and, as it geographically links a number of Asian countries with the Middle East, is important for the passage of oil and other goods. However, the US ruling class has barely achieved its aims on those accounts too, due to the greater instability it has created and the varied international allegiances of those installed to govern.

Bush and Blair’s ‘values’

The US-led coalition’s hypocrisy over humanitarian issues was also made clear in its choice of Afghan allies. To oust the Taliban regime and replace it with a puppet government, they befriended an array of tribal and ethnic-based warlords in the Northern Alliance who had fought a brutal war against each other between 1992 and 1996, after the defeat of the previous USSR-linked regime. These warlords had carried out ruthless sprees of butchery that caused over 65,000 deaths in the capital, Kabul, alone. While Bush and Blair orchestrated a devastating onslaught of missiles from the air, they used the blood-soaked Northern Alliance militias as their ground forces. The warlords were elated at being able to enrich themselves with millions of US dollars, call in US air-strikes against their enemies at the touch of their phone buttons, and return to a period of control and pillage in power.

So hated and feared were these warlords by ordinary Afghanis that the US had to find a government leader outside their ranks, for which it chose Hamid Karzai from the largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. He presided for two terms of office over a ‘government of enemies’, by wheeling, dealing and manoeuvring among them and the intervening foreign powers. Far from controlling the whole country, he was in practise more like a mayor of Kabul. Not even that, in reality, as he would not even walk beyond his compound for fear of assassination. He lived with an escape vehicle always at the ready with its engine running and a team of tasters to check his meals for poison, observed war correspondent Christina Lamb.

Afghanistan is ranked by Transparency International as the third most corrupt country in the world after Somalia and North Korea. Karzai’s governments and the present US-imposed dual power national unity government, headed by president Ashraf Ghani and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, have all been virtually gridlocked by division, corruption, extortion and bribery. Ordinary Afghanis from all ethnic communities are repelled by it, with many viewing it as worse than living under the Taliban. A NATO report leaked in 2012 included the comment: “Afghan civilians frequently prefer Taliban governance over GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] usually as a result of government corruption, ethnic bias and lack of connection with local religious and tribal leaders”.

The creaming off of wealth by those at the top is of staggering proportions. For instance, in 2010 a huge scandal erupted at the Kabul Bank when over $900 million of loans and deposits went missing. An inquiry showed that twelve individuals at the top of the political and financial elite had hived off most of it for personal luxuries abroad, including Karzai’s brother having a $22 million ‘interest-free loan’. “It was almost worse than corruption”, said the chair of the committee behind the inquiry. “In corruption you give the money and ask for something in return. Here the money was given without asking for anything in return”.

Abdullah Abdullah was once in the Northern Alliance and current vice-president Abdul Rashid Dostum, was one of its most notorious warlords, a “known killer”, admitted Ghani. Like Karzai, Ghani was not a warlord. He was an academic who once worked at the World Bank and later co-authored a book called Fixing Failed States. Afghanistan is a state he is failing to fix.

The economy had an average growth rate of 9% of GDP a year from 2002 to 2013. But the overwhelming source of income was the billions of dollars being pumped in by the US to fund its military operations and aid. With the dismantling of most of the 800 ISAF bases in recent years the ‘war economy’ has collapsed, with hundreds of thousands of support contracts disappearing, and a resulting growth rate of just 0.8% in 2015. Even this is unsustainable, given the massive instability, capital flight and pillaging of resources.

The billions of dollars delivered into the hands of the Afghan elite to build an army, police force, infrastructure, etc, has not won the western powers any lasting allegiance from it. Karzai, to safeguard his own interests and hold a semblance of government together, turned against the US. He lambasted it for killing civilians, calling the Taliban his ‘brothers’. In his farewell speech, Karzai blamed the US and Pakistan for the state of the country.

The Taliban and the west

The Taliban was not destroyed in 2001. Many of its fighters hid on either side of the border with Pakistan or dispersed into villages. It surrendered Kandahar, its final stronghold, in December 2001 “without a shot”, reported Lamb. The Taliban had only formed in 1994, at a meeting of Sunni Muslim mullahs with the declared aim of countering the thieving and raping by the Northern Alliance. It seized Kabul just two years later and imposed ‘order’, using heavily repressive, right-wing religious rule. Punishments ranged from humiliation and floggings to hand amputations and executions. Entertainment, sport, culture and science were banned. Women had to wear the burqa, were mainly banned from education, and could not lead independent lives.

But, however monstrous and unpopular that regime was, it was not the task of western capitalism to overthrow it – which only worsened the plight of the Afghan masses. It was the job of Afghanis themselves, aided if necessary by support from working-class people internationally, who have no other interest in Afghanistan except solidarity with workers and the poor. This is the very opposite class interest to that of the capitalist ruling classes globally, who wanted to remove the Taliban regime not because of its brutality and lack of democracy but because, when in power, it had moved to a position of opposing the interests of western imperialism.

The US governments of Bill Clinton and George W Bush had engaged in talks aimed at having relations with the Taliban government on the basis that an oil and gas pipeline would be constructed across Afghanistan to serve the interests of US energy big business. Later, they also wanted the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden. It was their failure to secure these objectives that led them to intervene militarily, not any concern for the Afghan people.

Moreover, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and most of today’s other jihadist organisations globally are products of the sponsorship by world capitalist powers of the mujahideen who fought the Soviet-backed governments of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Billions of US and Saudi dollars – $6 billion, according to former CIA officer Mike Scheuer – and weapons from all over the world, were sent to the mujahideen, via Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency. Osama bin Laden was a rich Saudi financier of the mujahideen who eventually went to Afghanistan along with other Arabs to fight with them. British government cabinet papers released in 2016 in accordance with the ’30-year rule’ show the keen participation of the Thatcher government along with the US, France and others in supporting that agenda.

Those who these governments today call ‘terrorists’ were at that time called ‘patriotic’ and a ‘guerrilla resistance’. By 1986 the CIA was spending 70% of its operations budget on funding that jihad. Control of this torrent of resources made the ISI a powerful player in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Part of it was used for a massive training programme in Pakistan of jihadists, through encouraging some of the many madrassas (religious schools) to take up that task.

Pakistan’s pivotal power

The 1980s’ US-USSR proxy war in Afghanistan meant that Pakistan also received large sums of US money in that decade. After the Russian withdrawal, this was largely cut off, with the US having achieved its objective of pushing the USSR back – then in its dying days as a Stalinist system. The US ruling class was also becoming wary of the growth of the jihadist organisations it had been spurring on and, later in the 1990s, was alarmed about Pakistan’s nuclear arms race with India.

However, after 9/11 there was a complete volte-face. Bush cosied up to Pakistan’s head of state, Pervez Musharraf, who had seized power in a coup, and restored substantial aid and loans because he wanted Pakistan to help with the war on Afghanistan. But during the 1990s the ISI had covertly given active support to help propel the Afghan Taliban into power. The Saudi royals also nurtured the Taliban at that time, as a force modelled on their own Sunni Wahhabism that could counter Iran’s links in Afghanistan.

Musharraf wanted the US’s dollars – Pakistan has received $20 billion since 9/11 – and also wanted to deter the US from looking towards India for assistance. At the same time, Pakistan’s elite wanted to keep its Taliban networks of influence in Afghanistan. It realised that the US would not stay in Afghanistan indefinitely.

In 2004 Musharraf responded to US pressure to send Pakistan’s army into the tribal areas it had never before entered, to fight the Taliban, but that was only after suicide bombings had started in Pakistan and Islamists in the military were behind two attempts to assassinate him. This new war front – supplemented by many drone attacks ordered by Barack Obama – has been scarcely covered in the western media, not least because it is too dangerous an arena for journalists. The drones have killed many hundreds of civilians and Pakistan’s army has caused widespread death and destruction, destroying whole villages and losing thousands of soldiers in the process.

Meanwhile, the international forces in Afghanistan experienced many instances of collusion by members and former members of ISI with the Taliban. So, by the time of the 2011 killing of Bin Laden by US special forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan – where he had been living close to Pakistan’s top military academy  – the US did not risk tipping off any Pakistan leader in advance. 

Can the Taliban reconquer Afghanistan? It faces major obstacles, which no doubt lie behind the willingness of some of its commanders to engage in peace negotiations. Infighting has been reported within its ranks and it is receiving less money than before from rich benefactors. It also faces a changed type of conflict: ISAF’s withdrawal makes it less a direct war against foreign occupation, although there are still 13,000 NATO troops in the country and, in January 2017, Obama sent a 300-strong US taskforce back into Helmand.

The internationally-funded Afghan army, while beset with desertions, heavy loss of life and insurgent infiltrators, backed up by US air-strikes is at present at least able to hold the main urban areas. When the Taliban overran Kunduz in September 2015 it only held it for a week. For the Taliban to retain and make further inroads into rural areas, where most of the population still lives, is another matter. Ongoing war and eventual ceasefire deals are more likely in those vast territories than outright defeat.

US strategy

When four US personnel were killed in November 2016 at Bagram airfield by a suicide bomber, US defence secretary Ash Carter repeated the old, worn, fabricated aims: “We will not be deterred in our mission to protect our homeland and help Afghanistan secure its own future”. In reality, Obama had the unsolvable dilemma of how to make 2,392 US deaths in Afghanistan appear to have been necessary. Reflecting the rising tide of domestic opinion in favour of troop withdrawal and elected in 2008 as ‘anti-war’, Obama had pledged to pull US forces out of Afghanistan. He reneged on that because of the rising insurgency, and 10,000 US troops remain there today. By 2014, more Americans thought the Afghanistan war was a mistake than those who did not.

Donald Trump has become US president having echoed that mood but, while at one time he said that US troops should be withdrawn, he has subsequently said the opposite. He criticised Pakistan for sheltering the Taliban then, after his election, switched to praising Pakistan’s president Nawaz Sharif. He has indicated a preference for short intensive military operations – not getting mired. But Bush’s initial strategy was to contract out the removal of the Taliban to Afghan warlords on the ground, backed only by small numbers of US special forces and air power. That did not work.

The dilemma Trump faces is whether further withdrawal of US military and financial input into Afghanistan will result in the fall of the Ghani-led government and a spiral into all-out civil war. It was no accident that Afghanistan was barely mentioned in the US presidential debates. Neither of the main political parties of US capitalism have a solution to the intractable crisis there for US military forces.

Decades after its humiliating defeat in Vietnam, a war in which millions of Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans died, the US capitalist class celebrated major shifts back in its favour with the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan, followed by the sweeping collapse of Stalinism and the US-led ousting of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991. In their triumphalism the US neo-cons believed they could do whatever they wanted across the globe. That glee was short-lived. While US imperialism is still predominant in the world economically and militarily, following its catastrophes of the last 15 years in Afghanistan and Iraq, the flexing of China’s muscles in the Pacific arena and beyond, and Vladimir Putin’s takeover of Crimea and determined intervention in Syria, US imperialism’s influence has been weakened.

The US was completely excluded from the recent ceasefire deal in Aleppo, a humiliating dismissal of its attempts to broker talks on Syria over years. Russia, which has been punching militarily significantly above its weak economic weight, orchestrated the deal along with Turkey, Damascus and Iran. “The new American president must accept the reality that Iran is the leading power in the region”, gloated Yahya Safavi, foreign policy advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei in Iran. Also, Russia and Iran have made overtures towards the Taliban in Afghanistan, partly to counter ISIS. If the US reduces its influence in Afghanistan, US strategists fear a stepping into the breach by a number of other world powers, including China.

Trump has made it clear that he wants a more Russia-friendly US policy, contrary to the predominant view of  US Republicans, and he wants to reduce European reliance on the US’s present input into NATO. However, reflecting the shifting tectonic plates internationally, the US under Obama already had to adopt a multi-polar doctrine, assembling fractious coalitions for its interventions and collaborating more with Russia and China in the Middle East – against ISIS for instance.

As Trump considers it a priority to counter the likes of ISIS, that indicates that continued military action in Afghanistan could feature on his list. But there are two absolute certainties: he will have no way of turning failure into success for the US intervention in Afghanistan; and, on the basis of capitalism, the future will be bleak for the Afghan people. They have endured nearly 40 years of war in various forms, with some capitalist analysts concluding that the ethnic fragmentation of the country between Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Aimak, Turkmen, Baloch and more – all minorities – means that stability is impossible and bouts of bloody civil war inevitable.

Marxists completely refute that verdict and stand for democratic, equal rights for all minorities, including on language and culture, and freedom from any form of discrimination or oppression by other ethnic groups or nationalities. This means upholding the right to self-determination – as Lenin and the Bolsheviks did 100 years ago regarding the many nationalities and groups repressed under Russian tsarism – because socialism cannot be built on the basis of any compulsion.

Also crucial for Marxists is the building of joint solidarity actions between workers and the rural poor from every background. This has to include, presently as a priority, democratically run armed defence against attacks from sectarian militias or terrorists, such as the suicide bombers in Kabul that killed over 80 people on a mainly Shia Hazara demonstration last July, or the killing of 13 Hazara coal miners in the north of the country in January 2017.

The other vital part of a socialist programme is the need to build a mass movement strong enough to drive all foreign capitalist forces out of Afghanistan and to remove power from the Afghan warlords and big business elite. No-one at the top can enrich themselves through exploitation or pillage without supply networks and their own bands of armed fighters, or reliance on the new state army and police, which are not in reality at all reliable for them. All the back-up that maintains the super-rich Afghan capitalists in their privileged positions can be quickly undermined when a new mass formation of workers and the poor is built that puts forward a democratic socialist alternative.

This must include taking into public ownership the mineral resources, banks, agribusiness and key services so that production and society can be developed for the benefit of the overwhelming majority. This is the only possible way that the overwhelming majority in Afghanistan – half of whom are under the age of 18 – will have a tolerable future. Not just tolerable, but one in which all the terrible relics of feudal and capitalist barbarism will be placed in the past and an era of human cooperation and development opened up for all.

Note on references: Apart from many press articles, the following books were drawn on for this article: Robert Fisk on Afghanistan, 2016, Independent Print Limited; Farewell Kabul, Christina Lamb, 2015, Harper Collins; Age of Jihad, Patrick Cockburn, 2016, Verso books.

Special financial appeal to all readers of

Support building alternative socialist media provides a unique analysis and perspective of world events. also plays a crucial role in building the struggle for socialism across all continents. Capitalism has failed! Assist us to build the fight-back and prepare for the stormy period of class struggles ahead.
Please make a donation to help us reach more readers and to widen our socialist campaigning work across the world.

Donate via Paypal

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


January 2017