The Taliban are sweeping across Afghanistan, taking one provincial capital after another. Despite over $80bn spent on “security assistance” from the US, since 2002, along with an annual massive military budget, the Afghan army has been routed in large swathes of the country.
“Afghan military resistance to the Taliban is collapsing with greater speed than even most pessimists had predicted,” commented the Guardian newspaper (London, August 13, 2021). The Afghan army, which is largely cut off from US air support, has been impotent in the face of the Taliban. The days of the Kabul regime look numbered. “The final collapse of the government looks inevitable. It may come just in time for the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that originally led to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan,” comments Gideon Rachman (Financial Times, London, August 14, 2021).
This is a stunning defeat not just for the Kabul government of President Ashraf Ghani but also for the US, and Nato, under the banner of which the 2001 bloody imperialist invasion of Afghanistan was organised. It has wider consequences for US foreign policy.
“So how does America’s defeat in Afghanistan — in reality, a defeat for the entire western alliance — play into the growing rivalry between Washington and Beijing?” asks the Financial Times columnist, Gideon Rachman. “The US failure makes it much harder for Biden to push his core message that ‘America is back’. By contrast, it fits perfectly with two key messages pushed by the Chinese (and Russian) governments. First, that US power is in decline. Second, that American security guarantees cannot be relied upon.”
This is a sharp reversal of the arrogance and hubris displayed by mighty US imperialism in the aftermath of the attacks on the Twin Towers, two decades ago.
While condemning the appalling 9/11 attacks by the reactionary, anti-working class al Qaeda that killed thousands of innocent people, the CWI resolutely opposed the war build-up and invasion of Afghanistan, which was spearheaded by the US. We pointed out that the western imperialist forces were exploiting the criminal 9/11 attacks primarily to enhance their long-standing geo-strategic interests and aims in the region.
Bush and Blair hypocritically claimed they were going to war to “defeat terrorism”. They conveniently ignored the fact that the Taliban had sprung from the devastation caused by the West’s financial and arms backing for the Mujadeen fighters against the Soviet Union army forces in Afghanistan, who were backing up Moscow’s client regime.
During the 2000s, CWI comrades organised anti-war protests and energetically took part in the broader anti-war movements opposing the invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq. We opposed all the governments that backed the drive for war by the Bush administration in the US, be they of the traditional right or ‘social democratic’, such as Tony Blair’s New Labour government in Britain.
The CWI argued that the invasion would not lead to peace, stability and prosperity and the modernisation of society for the Afghan people, as promised by the invaders, and repeated endlessly by much of the mass media. Instead, we said, the invasion would only result in repressive occupation and conflict and without any fundamental change in the poverty conditions facing most of the population.
While a few limited and partial reforms, like education for girls, were introduced, the occupying imperialist powers were happy to maintain the façade of ‘democratic rule’ in Afghanistan. At the same time, the occupiers and the puppet Kabul regime feared a mobilisation of the Afghan people struggling for their own demands and a real future. Indeed, brutal repressive measures were used by the occupation and Kabul regime against social and class protests to prevent such developments. Only the independent action of the Afghan working class could have effectively undermined Taliban support, as well as opposed the occupation. The Taliban’s gains, putting huge parts of the country under their reactionary medieval rule, are a defeat for the aspirations of the mass of Afghans.
“Graveyard of empires”
The CWI predicted that Afghanistan would once again prove a “graveyard of empires” and that US imperialism had created a new Vietnam for itself – a long unwinnable war that would end in humiliating retreat.
The arrogant imperialist powers ignored the fact that no foreign power has been able to conquer Afghanistan. Even over the last few months, the Kabul regime and White House administration downplayed the fighting strength of the Taliban. Last month, Biden insisted that the “likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely”.
Previously, the Taliban’s gains were mainly in rural districts, which led the US puppet regime in Kabul to estimate that the Taliban lacked the firepower or numbers needed to seize towns and cities. Now, however, the Taliban have captured Kandahar, the second-largest city and where the Islamist group first emerged in the 1990s. This follows the fall of Herat, Afghanistan’s third city in the west of the country. The city of Ghazni, 90 miles from the capital, was seized by the Taliban on Wednesday 11 August. The taking of Kandahar would represent a “catastrophic blow to the [Afghan] administration, which has watched its forces crumble in the face of the [Taliban] advance.” (Guardian).
The Kabul regime has, in effect, lost most of northern and western Afghanistan, and is left holding a “scattered archipelago of contested cities also dangerously at risk”. The Taliban is closing in on Kabul, with the Afghan army and government pushed to the brink of collapse. This has prompted the US administration to prepare for the evacuation of 4,000 personnel, including 1,400 US citizens, from the US Embassy and other US citizens in the country. Both American and British military forces are also being mobilised to evacuate Afghans who assisted the occupation and may be targets of Taliban reprisals.
The corrupt, US-puppet regime in Kabul was never capable of forging a military force to defeat the resurgent Taliban. The Taliban was overthrown by a US-led military invasion in 2001 but as the occupiers failed to improve the vast majority of Afghan lives, as promised, the Taliban regrouped in the 2000s. A 350,000 strong Afghan National Security Force (ANSF), made up of army, police and militias, was created by the ‘coalition’ of western occupiers to counter the Taliban. From the start, the ANSF was poorly trained and funded, with corruption and bribery running through its ranks.
The Taliban has been able to make spectacular territorial gains mainly because of the unpopularity of the US-backed Kabul regime and lack of morale among the Afghan National Security Force, who are often semi-starved and with low ammunition. Many of the ANSF personnel surrendered without a struggle. Warlords have swapped sides repeatedly throughout Afghan history and many are doing so again in the current battles.
Four months after President Biden announced he was withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan, ending a 20-year war that is deeply unpopular among Americans, the situation has greatly worsened for US imperialism’s standing, prestige and authority.
“Everybody’s worried about a repeat of the Saigon images”, commented Brian Katulis, from the Centre for American Progress, referring to the chaotic April 1975 evacuation of the American Embassy in South Vietnam’s capital.
While the strategists of US imperialism want to extricate the world’s greatest military power from the Afghan quagmire, they are alarmed about the unfolding debacle and that it might undermine future US-led ‘interventions’ deemed necessary in pursuit of capitalist profits, influence and territory. Frederick W Kagan, who advised three commanders of the US and coalition forces in Afghanistan, bemoans, “Is this really the type of fearful, defeatist message a global leader should be sending out to the world?” (New York Times, August 12, 2021)
For years, polls showed most Americans support withdrawing from Afghanistan, which has cost many American lives, as well as huge numbers of Afghan deaths.
Apart from a few high profile Republican politicians attacking Biden’s retreat from Afghanistan, the opposition is hampered by the fact that the former President Trump made a deal with the Taliban last year, under which the group would halt its attacks on US forces and begin peace talks with the Afghan government. Trump attacked the Republican Representative for Wyoming, Liz Cheney, last April, describing her as a “warmongering fool” who “wants to stay in the Middle East and Afghanistan for another 19 years, but doesn’t consider the big picture – Russia and China!”.
The Biden presidency also has China in its sights. Biden recently remarked that the US cannot “remain tethered to a world as it was 20 years ago. We need to meet the threats where they are today…the strategic competition with China”.
However, the public mood and approach of Republicans regarding Afghanistan could change over time (and which could be used to try to weaken Trump’s grip over the party). “If you have a parade of horribles in Afghanistan, it could seep into the public consciousness the way Iraq did in 2013 and 2014”, warns Katulis, referring to when Islamic State swept across Iraq after American troops withdrew, putting vital US interests in peril.
If the Taliban do win control of Kabul, and al Qaeda or other jihadists were to use the country to launch attacks at Western targets, this would also put the US under pressure to military engage once again in Afghanistan (though probably in a supposedly more ‘nuanced’ and ‘surgical’ manner).
As the Taliban has captured nearly a third of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals, many residents gathered in streets and on rooftops in Kabul and other cities still holding out, in protests of defiance against the Taliban. Anger is also targeted at neighbouring Pakistan, where many of the Taliban leaders live and find havens. The right-wing Economist (London, 12 August) hopes there is a basis to forestall the Taliban drive: “Both Afghan and withdrawing Western military commanders maintain that the Taliban are not an unstoppable juggernaut. A couple of government victories, or even battles that end in stalemate, could change the dynamic. But the insurgents are on the front foot. The ten towns just lost to them are unlikely to be the last.”
There is little reason for the Kabul regime to be hopeful. Limited attacks against the Taliban by US B-52 bombers and drones have failed to stop the Taliban advance and only alienated more Afghans by causing more civilian deaths and destruction of homes and infrastructure. Earlier this week, President Ashraf Ghani made a desperate journey to Mazar-i-Sharif city, in the north, in an attempt to win support from some of the most notorious warlords against the Taliban. The Pakistan government is reportedly piling huge pressure on Ghani to make an agreement with the Taliban.
The US is continuing to push for a “political settlement” through talks in Doha, involving a wide array of local states and regional and world powers, including China, Russia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, the EU, UN and Germany. ‘Representatives’ from the Taliban are also present in Doha but how far their writ runs on the ground in Afghanistan is dubious. Iran is also taking a very close interest in the unfolding conflict in Afghanistan.
The US fears that if the Taliban topple the Ghani regime, China, Iran and Russia can exploit the new situation at the expense of Washington. But with the momentum going in all its direction, the Taliban is highly unlikely to seriously engage in talks and a negotiated settlement.
The struggle for Kabul
However, Taliban sources quoted in the Western press indicate that they expect a much harder struggle to take Kabul, with the Afghan army concentrating its forces, including its supposed ‘elite’ troops, in the city. How resistant the Kabul defenders are, remains to be seen. A prolonged encirclement of Kabul by the Taliban could lead to the de facto breakup of the country.
The situation is highly volatile and with many consequences. On the one hand, China, for example, will be relieved if there is no longer a US-puppet regime in Afghanistan and all western forces are withdrawn from a bordering country. On the other hand, “the direct consequences for Beijing of US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which borders China, will be less welcome,” estimates the FT (London, August 14, 2021). “The Chinese regime has adopted policies of mass internment and repression in Muslim-majority Xinjiang. The idea of the Uyghurs receiving support from a fundamentalist Taliban government will raise concerns in Beijing. So will the potential threat of terrorist bases in Afghanistan”.
The conflict is also causing a new refugee crisis that will eventually rebound on the Western powers. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing rural areas to Kabul and the number of internally displaced people in Afghanistan is likely to increase significantly. A new wave of desperate Afghans will be forced to make the perilous trek to Europe, where the capitalist EU and Western governments have shown scant regard for the lives and rights of refugees.
In all of this renewed chaos, destruction and death, it is the working people and poor of Afghanistan who, once again, suffer most. Socialists support armed self-defence by working people in Afghanistan – which is democratically organised and non-sectarian – against attacks from the Taliban, the Kabul regime’s forces or warlords. Moreover, the last few decades of misrule under the reactionary Taliban, western occupation or warlords amply shows that working-class people in Afghanistan need their own independent political force, 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 wars, exploitation, oppression, extreme inequalities and endless imperialist meddling.
See also archive CWI analysis from the 2000s, on Afghanistan and Islam, and the similarities between Afghanistan and the Vietnam War: