The Afghanistan debacle

Edited extracts from articles first published, as events unfolded, on, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), chart the ignominious collapse of the puppet Kabul regime and outline the consequences for Afghanistan and globally.

On Sunday 15 August, the Taliban reached the capital of Kabul, forcing the US-backed government of Ashraf Ghani from power. Thousands of residents tried desperately to board planes to flee the hard-line Islamic force. After Ghani fled the country, Taliban fighters took control of the empty presidential palace and abandoned police posts in Kabul. The Taliban released thousands of inmates from the notorious Bagram airbase prison, a hated symbol of western occupation.

After decades of western imperialist military occupation backing up puppet regimes, the capital fell without a battle. Such was the lack of support of the Ghani regime among the population, as a whole, and the deep unpopularity of decades of Western troops on the ground.

Clearly, there is no appetite for the return of the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan by the majority of Afghans. However, the Taliban have exploited the demoralisation of much of the masses at their atrocious conditions, as well as the huge anger at corruption. The hardline Islamists promise to deliver the ‘law and order’ and ‘security’ which is yearned for by so many.

The fall of Kabul is a devastating blow for the US, and for all the powers grouped under NATO, which invaded Afghanistan in 2001. It is a humiliating debacle for western imperialism. The television images from Kabul blows away the idea, carefully promoted by capitalist ideologues since the collapse of Stalinist regimes in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe, that US military power was unstoppable and could impose ‘New World Order’ everywhere. The ‘nation building’ plan for Afghanistan lies in ruins, as the Taliban return to power just short of the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

For weeks, the Taliban captured swathes of Afghanistan, facing little resistance. The Afghan national army was not prepared to fight and die for the very unpopular and repressive Ghani regime. Like all institutions under the US’s puppet regimes, the Afghan army was riddled with graft and corruption. In many cases, soldiers were semi-starved and had only low stocks of armoury and ammunition.

Warlords made deals with the advancing Taliban and did not rally to the ‘lost cause’ of the beleaguered Ghani government, even in the traditionally anti-Taliban north of the country.

Fear and terror in Kabul

With the arrival of the Taliban in Kabul, fear and terror has gripped many residents. When the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, they imposed their strict interpretation of Islamic law, which entailed banning women from being educated or working, stoning women accused of adultery, carrying out public executions and cutting off the hands of accused thieves.

In the period running up to their victory, the Taliban have indicated they will ‘moderate’ their rule. One of their senior leaders, Mullah Baradar, declared they are in discussions with “other Afghan leaders” over the formation of an “open, inclusive Islamic government”. Mullah Baradar admitted that “we reached victory that wasn’t expected… now it’s about how we serve and secure our people and ensure their future and a good life to the best of our ability”.

How much this is merely convenient propaganda by Taliban leaders remains to be seen. “At the start of this transition [to power]”, the veteran correspondent Patrick Cockburn comments, “it may be in the interests of the Taliban to show a moderate face and not stir up opposition at home or abroad by public executions and beatings”. (The Independent, 16 August) Yet even a supposedly ‘moderate’ Taliban regime will be deeply reactionary and oppressive towards women and others.

The Taliban will most likely want to avoid direct clashes with western imperialism as they consolidate their rule. Their lightning victory does not mean the Taliban has deep roots and universal support throughout the country. Afghanistan is made up of various ethnic and tribal groups, including Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara peoples, and the Pashtun, from which the Taliban draws most support. The Taliban will have to try to reach agreements with many of these groups if it is to stay in power. If they fail in this aim, the way could be open for renewed conflict and another round of bloody civil war, with the country possibly breaking up.

An upsurge of Islamic terror attacks arising from the Taliban’s victory is plainly a pressing concern of regional and western powers. The Taliban has factions more aligned to al Qaeda. However, it is not at all certain that the Taliban will once again allow Afghanistan to become a launchpad for Islamic terror groups to hatch attacks against their perceived enemies. The Taliban may try to rein or contain jihadist Islamic forces from using Afghanistan to plot attacks that could invite western military assaults. The relationship between the Taliban and ISIS is strained and it is not clear how much the Islamic terror group can develop in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, western governments are seriously concerned about a new spike of domestic terror attacks, as the Taliban victory acts, at the very least, as a spur to various Islamic terror groups around the world.

Western powers scrambling

The western powers are now desperately scrambling around in response to the Taliban’s coming to power, trying to find if there is any modus operandi they can have with the new rulers in Kabul. After all, they count the repressive Saudi Islamic regime as an ally. Since former president Donald Trump made his ‘deal’ with the Taliban, and Biden announced the full departure of all US forces by September 11, the US had pushed for an agreement by Afghan parties, involving the Taliban, during failed talks in Doha. Clearly, the western powers can live with reactionary, anti-women and anti-working class Islamic regimes, such as their close allies in the Gulf States, as long as they do not stand in the way of their vital interests regionally or globally.

The ‘war on terror’ was merely the pretext for the imperialist invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. After all, the creation of Al Qaeda arose from the US’s backing of the Mujahedeen fighters against Soviet Union forces in Afghanistan during the 1980s. The occupation of Afghanistan by Western forces in 2001 was a crucial part of the efforts by the US, and other ‘coalition partners’, like Britain, to enhance their influence and control of Central Asia.

Far-reaching repercussions

The Taliban’s victory will have far-reaching repercussions in the region and wider consequences too 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.

The US president George W Bush and British prime minister Tony 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 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.

‘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.  In July Biden insisted that the “likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely”. 

But 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. Many of the ANSF personnel surrendered without a struggle. Warlords have swapped sides repeatedly throughout Afghan history and many did so again.

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)

Washington’s priorities

For years, polls showed most Americans support withdrawing from Afghanistan, which has cost many American lives, as well as huge numbers of Afghan deaths.

Some high profile Republican politicians are attacking Biden’s retreat from Afghanistan, but 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 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).

The situation is highly volatile and with many consequences. On the one hand, China, for example, will be relieved 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 Financial Times (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. 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, left with the dire consequences of decades of occupation and now the return of the Taliban. There is nothing remotely progressive about the Taliban or the warlords and tribal and ethnic leaders with whom the Taliban will try to find agreements in order to rule.

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.