As Taliban forces conquer large swathes of Afghanistan, the twenty-year occupation by American and allied imperialist forces is ending in humiliation, chaos, and an ignoble retreat.
Describing the war against the Taliban as “unwinnable”, President Joe Biden announced American withdrawal by 11 September, and other Nato allies followed suit.
Biden has long been a skeptic of the “forever war”, and as vice president opposed Obama’s ill-fated ‘surge’ of US military forces in Afghanistan. However, Biden has left open the possibility of further US military interventions in Afghanistan, primarily deploying air fire and killer drones.
Many Western commentators are making doom-laden predictions for Afghanistan in the wake of US withdrawal. An Independent (London) newspaper editorial predicted, “Within a few years – if not months – Afghanistan will be in a state of bitter civil war; and at worst, it will have returned to the tribalistic system of medieval fiefdoms that prevailed under the Taliban’s previous period of cruel hegemony” (9 July 2021)
In pounds sterling, a staggering $2.26 trillion was spent by Washington in both military and civilian operations during the two decades of occupation. It is conservatively estimated that over 175,000 Afghan civilians were killed during the long war. More than 2,320 US personnel died. The other main imperialist occupier, the UK, spent £40bn in its disastrous operations in Helmand province alone and lost over 400 soldiers.
US forces and allied troops hastily left Bagram airfield in early July, without informing their Afghan successor beforehand. Days later, the Taliban moved over large parts of Afghanistan’s far northeast and the western province of Herat, capturing rural districts from government forces.
Yet two decades ago, Afghanistan was held up as the model of ‘nation building’ and supposed ‘liberal interventionism’, after the US-led a war to overthrow the Taliban in 2001.
The Taliban, backed by Pakistan and Arabian peninsula monarchies, ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. To the long-suffering Afghan masses, the Taliban promised ‘stability’, and a particularly brutal Islamic variant of ‘law and order’, after years of civil war that led to the defeat of the government in 1992 and violent rivalry between warlords (the competing warlords’ power massively increased in the vacuum following the Soviet Union pulling its armed forces out of the country in 1989).
The Taliban was overthrown by a Nato-backed war, utilising their local allies in the ‘Northern Alliance’ in Afghanistan, following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US by al-Qaeda. The Bush Administration blamed the Taliban for “hosting” Osama bin Laden and allowing al-Qaeda to establish its headquarters in Afghanistan.
Yet US imperialism had a hand in the creation of these reactionary Islamic forces. The CIA worked with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to enlist Islamist fighters against Soviet forces supporting a largely secular government in Kabul after Moscow’s 1979 intervention.
West oversaw government corruption
US-led forces occupied Afghanistan, supposedly to end al-Qaeda terror but in reality to further the geo-strategic interests of western imperialism. This was understood by many workers and youth. Around the world, millions marched and protested against the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Pro-war governments and much of the media were held in popular contempt following the exposure of their blatant lies about Iraqi ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ and al-Qa’ ida ‘links’ with Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, which were used to justify going to war.
The puppet, corrupt Karzai regime in Kabul, propped up by 100,000 western troops, presided over mass joblessness and poverty which fuelled the Taliban opposition. The US-backed regime saw the return of the warlords, who extracted funds from the American occupiers. In turn, huge fees were paid to private American ‘consultants’ and security firms.
The impression was given that American air bombardments were enough to vanquish the Taliban. In reality, the Taliban hardly fought the overwhelming western military superiority. Most Taliban fighters went home to their villages or crossed the border into Pakistan, waiting to fight another day. Pakistan continued to give sections of the Taliban support.
Under Western control, Afghanistan, a landlocked country of 38 million, remained one of the world’s poorest countries, today ranking 169th out of 189 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index.
Indiscriminate Nato aerial bombings killed innocent civilians. Poppy production in Afghanistan rose dramatically after the 2001 invasion, as farmers turned to opium production to survive. The conflict destabilised neighbouring states, such as nuclear-armed Pakistan.
The Western forces oversaw the creation of vast government corruption and a kleptocratic elite. While $144bn was spent on ‘development and reconstruction’, 54 percent of Afghans live below the poverty line, with earnings of less than $1.90 a day.
Schools and medical clinics were built but corruption is endemic and pilfering within government institutions and ‘aid organisations’ is rife. Afghans refer to “ghost” soldiers – frontline garrisons without enough food and ammunition
It says a lot about life for Afghans under Western powers that the reactionary Taliban – who believe in a strict interpretation of Islamic law, carry out public executions, and who force women to be fully covered and refuse them proper education – were able to make a comeback.
Over the last two decades, the Taliban – Islamist militias rooted in Saudi-funded religious madrassas (schools) in Pakistan – regrouped and went on the offensive. The Taliban continued to have the support of Pakistan, with a powerful army, a population of 216 million, and a very long border with Afghanistan.
In its current offensive, the Taliban has faced a disintegrating, demoralised Afghan army and security forces, allowing it to make spectacular territorial gains.
Can the Taliban take power?
However, the path to power for the Taliban is not straightforward or guaranteed. The complicated ethnic and tribal allegiances and divisions in Afghanistan are major factors in the ongoing instability and violence. The Taliban draws much support from the Pashtun community, which makes up 40 percent of the Afghan population. A jigsaw of ethnicities, languages, cultures, and tribes, Afghanistan has always been very difficult to conquer and rule, as outside powers, such as Britain, found out to their cost, starting with the “Great Game’ two hundred years ago.
In a society of widespread want and abject poverty, sectarian and ethnic tensions, rivalries and atrocities are common. Earlier this year, bombs in Kabul killed 85 Hazara girls and teachers as they left their school. The Hazaras are Shia by religion and courted by the Shia regime in Iran. The hand of ISIS is implicated in some of the sectarian massacres.
With the rapid advance of the Taliban, many local people are joining militias formed around Mazar-i-Sharif and other places in the north of Afghanistan. In Mazar’s northeast, people from an ethnic Uzbek background created a militia linked to the notorious warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. Militias formed by the local Hazara community in Hahr-e Shahi, a district bordering Mazar’s northern areas, include hardened fighters from Iran’s Fatemiyoun brigades in Iraq and Syria.
The disparate militia forces are propped up by the Kabul government and local ‘power brokers’ (warlords), who are flooding the areas with weapons in the fight against the Taliban. Yet combatants often switch sides, depending on local circumstances and allegiances, with former pro-Dostum militia forces reportedly now allying with the Taliban.
The threat of civil war has led to around 270,000 people fleeing their homes since January, bringing the total internally displaced population in Afghanistan to around 3.5 million. Neighbouring countries are putting troops on their borders to prevent a new influx of refugees. Even before the latest fighting, the numbers of Afghan refugees outside the country were estimated at up to five million.
So far, the Taliban have not captured any large towns or cities, although they are pressing in on several provincial capitals, including Kunduz, a city of 374,000, in Afghanistan’s north. Traditionally their support has been in the countryside. Health care and education improved to a degree over the last two decades but rural poverty remains dire.
Notwithstanding the masses’ hatred towards the corrupt and oppressive pro-US regime of President Karzai, many in the capital fear and loathe the Taliban and will resist a return to their medieval rule, in particular their cruelty towards women. A conflict could grind on for some time, with the Taliban and opposing forces holding territories and with no clear winner.
‘Peace talks’ in Doha have failed to reach any agreement. The Trump administration made an agreement with the Taliban in 2020, and the Biden presidency is pushing all parties in Afghanistan to agree to the formation of an interim government that would oversee the transition to a new national government following elections. How a new constitution that the White House proposes would provide for “the protection of women’s, children’s and minority rights” can be squared with the Taliban’s reactionary ideology remains to be seen. Kabul’s more liberal bourgeois politicians forlornly call for a political settlement under the auspices of the UN.
Local and regional powers, with their sharpening rivalries for influence and geo-strategic gains, such as Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, and India, have keen interests in the outcome. Tehran has close links to the Hazara in Afghanistan but has also edged closer to relations with the Taliban in recent years, making common cause against the common US enemy. However the ruling theocracy in Iran fears a complete take over by the Taliban would see a mass exodus of refugees to Iran, destabilising the country as it struggles with Western sanctions and new protests over the collapse in living standards.
For its own geopolitical reasons, Turkey aims to play a more active role in Afghanistan and has requested that its fellow Nato power, the US, give it assistance to allow Turkish forces to control the vital main airport in Kabul.
The Western powers are piling pressure on Pakistan to pressurise the Taliban to accept some form of negotiated deal in Afghanistan. But as things stand, emboldened by the withdrawal of western forces and by their rapid gains on the field of battle, the Taliban are unlikely to make significant compromises.
The West also has wider concerns. The head of Britain’s MI5 secret service recently warned that the Taliban advances are a propaganda victory for jihadists everywhere and that from Afghanistan new al-Qaeda and ISIS-type forces could be trained and plan new attacks against the west.
Whatever the outcome of the fighting on the ground and international and local powers’ talks and cynical manoeuvres, it is the working class and poor of Afghanistan that will suffer most grievously, with possible huge loss of life, destruction of infrastructure, and a new humanitarian crisis.
Building international solidarity between socialists and the international workers’ movement with the working people of Afghanistan is vital. Developing the anti-war movement requires taking a thorough anti-imperialist stance, independent of the pro-capitalist parties. Full support should be given to attempts to form democratic, non-sectarian, working-class organisations in Afghanistan, in opposition to the reactionary Taliban, the warlords, and the West’s puppet Kabul government. Mass working-class organisations can fight for real and lasting democratic rights, women’s rights, free education, and health, the massive modernisation of infrastructure, as part of the struggle to overthrow the barbaric capitalist and semi-feudal system.
To rid Afghanistan, central Asia, and the Middle East of capitalism’s “forever wars” requires a political alternative. Working class people, the poor and youth in Afghanistan, and across the region, need political parties that represent their anti-war, anti-capitalist sentiments – new mass workers’ parties, with bold socialist policies that can unite across all the ethnic, tribal, and sectarian divisions.
A voluntary federation of socialist states in the region is the only way to end exploitation, extreme inequalities, and poverty, and endless imperialist meddling.