The reality of US ‘hard power’ exposed

Adding to the mounting difficulties for the Trump administration, in December the Washington Post published a six-part exposé of the US strategy in Afghanistan. The report was based on the so-called ‘Afghanistan papers’, an echo of the 1970s Pentagon Papers revealing the systematic official lying over US policy in Vietnam, whose release contributed to the fall of president Richard Nixon.

The Afghanistan papers are notes and transcripts from over 400 interviews conducted between 2014 and 2018 with people who have been involved in the Afghanistan conflict in varying capacities. The Post had to pursue a three-year court case to obtain the interviews – done by a US federal agency known as SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) – and is still fighting for full disclosure today, as some of the information was withheld.

There are few surprises in the papers on the level of failure, devastation and corruption associated with the US-led NATO intervention. But they confirm the lies told by successive US administrations under the presidencies of Bush, Obama and Trump, in making public statements which attempted to cover up the shocking reality. The Washington Post commented: “Officials issued rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hid unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable. Several of those interviewed described explicit efforts by the US government to deliberately mislead the public”. SIGAR head John Sopko even admitted to the Post that “the American people have constantly been lied to”.

Those interviewed, believing their comments would not be made public, bring out the lack of direction and viable strategy which has in reality marked the entire 18 year brutal ‘mission’ – and which continues today. Under Trump, US missiles have still been hitting Afghanistan, over 6,000 last year alone, especially aimed at Taliban fighters but with many civilians killed and maimed too. Yet at the same time the US is desperately negotiating with the Taliban in order to find an exit strategy.

The US-led invasion launched in October 2001 was initially aimed at crushing al-Qaeda and its Taliban protectors following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US. In just a matter of months the Taliban regime was removed and al-Qaeda dispersed. US president George W Bush and his fellow hawks then turned to trying to entrench US influence in the country through financing and moulding a puppet government and security apparatus.

But despite over $900 billion US dollars being spent on that aim since 2001 and having sent over 775,000 troops to Afghanistan – many more than once – the US has not succeeded in imposing a stable regime and the Taliban have regained control of large areas of the country.

“We are trying to achieve the unachievable” was the verdict in the SIGAR interviews of Richard Boucher, the US state department’s top diplomat for South Asia in 2006-2009. Yet the US presidents and their advisors showed abundant imperialist arrogance and ignorance in the way they pressed on with trying to subdue armed opposition on the ground. The Washington Post commented: “Dozens of US and Afghan officials told interviewers that… despite years and years of war, the United States still did not understand what was motivating its enemies to fight”. And: “US military commanders struggled to articulate who they were fighting, let alone why. Was al-Qaeda the enemy, or the Taliban? Was Pakistan a friend or an adversary? What about the Islamic State and the bewildering array of foreign jihadists, let alone the warlords on the CIA’s payroll? According to the documents, the US government never settled on an answer”.

Regarding the regime in Pakistan, one of the interviews illustrates well that it was covertly assisting the Taliban while also acting as a US ally and receiving billions of dollars a year of US money. Ryan Crocker, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan, recalled a Pakistani general saying to him: “One day you’ll be gone again… And the last thing we want with all of our other problems is to have turned the Taliban into a mortal enemy, so yes, we’re hedging our bets”.

In public, US officials and generals gave a positive glow to their training of an Afghan army and police force which came to be over 300,000 strong. Every US commander wanted to get through their six or nine month Afghanistan placement without saying they had failed. But among the people interviewed by SIGAR, “none expressed confidence that the Afghan army and police could ever fend off, much less defeat, the Taliban on their own”, said the Washington Post. The young Afghani men and women who entered those forces to earn a living have paid a heavy price, with over 64,000 of them killed during the course of the conflict so far.

The vast sums of US money thrown in led to a bonanza of corruption, bribery and fraud.  SIGAR interviewees expressed plenty of disapproval on this. “Our money was empowering a lot of bad people. There was massive resentment among the Afghan people. And we were the most corrupt here, so had no credibility on the corruption issue”, said a senior US official whose name hasn’t been released. Ryan Crocker was quoted as saying:  “Our biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption”.

One of the results was a growing view among many Afghani people that the Taliban, despite its brutality, is less corrupt than the government. Desperately trying to counter this, more and more money was ploughed into the construction of hospitals, schools and other projects in an attempt to buy loyalty, but many never became finished or useable services and much of the funding just enriched a small layer further. Overall, basic services have worsened.

Neither did the large sums of money directed against opium cultivation reduce the drugs trade.  In 2018 Afghanistan produced 82% of global opium, according to the United Nations. 

While many of the interviewees in the Afghanistan papers are highly critical of the decisions and zigzags of those above them, there are also comments that are disparaging towards Afghani people and reflect the political views of those making them. A ‘centralised democracy’ and free-market economy are ‘too ahead of the stage they’re at’, suggested some. Others blamed the legacy from the period of Stalinist rule in Afghanistan, from 1978 to 1992, for an unwillingness to embrace capitalist neoliberalism.

On the contrary, people in Afghanistan who have opposed the privatisation of state-owned industries, or the funding fed to notorious warlords who play along with western imperialist interests, or other major attacks on the security and living standards of ordinary people, are completely right to do so. They don’t need political advice from the officials of foreign capitalist powers, least of all military intervention to install a Frankenstein version of capitalist ‘democracy’. Rather, their burning need is for freedom from all oppression and exploitation, whether at the hands of foreign ruling classes, or the super-rich elite domestically, or right-wing political Islamists like the Taliban.

Only by workers and the poor taking their future into their own hands, through building  democratically-run organisations to advance their own interests – based on socialist ideas – can their needs be met. These organisations would need to draw people from all the country’s ethnic groups and nationalities into a united struggle, in what would be the class opposite of the ‘divide and rule’ stance of the pro-capitalist politicians and warlords.

US foreign intervention returned to the fore in the news worldwide when Qassem Suleimani, the top military general in Iran, was killed by a US missile on 3 January. That set in motion greater volatility, including Iran’s accidental hit on a Ukrainian airplane, killing all 170 people on board. The significant protest movement that broke out in Iran in November against a rise in fuel prices was heavily repressed, with reports of 1,500 people being killed. There was further anger and protests when the regime did a U-turn from its denial of responsibility for the plane crash, making clear its initial deceit.

The recent months of courageous protests across the south of Iraq and Baghdad against corruption and lack of services are very significant too. Demonstrators there have also suffered great brutality by the state forces, with around 500 killed. They have faced additional difficulties since the assassination of Suleimani – and alongside him Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis – as Iran-backed militias have tried to use the US action to divide and polarise the movement. The building of non-sectarian, working-class based defence organisations is urgent and vital in Iraq, Afghanistan and everywhere where communities and protesters face violent attacks by state forces or terrorists.

When Trump stood for election as president he pledged to pull away from foreign military interventions and to bring US troops back home. Yet he hasn’t so far succeeded in escaping from the cycles and dilemmas of his predecessors. Air power alone isn’t enough for US imperialism to counter Iran’s network of influence across the Middle East. Trump has actually increased the number of US troops there during his presidency, including adding around 14,000 to the Persian Gulf last year and at the start of this year 3,750 more to Iraq, Kuwait and other countries.

The actions over time by the world capitalist powers are over and over again showing to the working people of the region that it is not humanitarianism and democracy driving those interventions, but the economic and geopolitical interests of the ruling classes of those powers. While pretending in the past to deplore the lack of democracy under the Taliban in Afghanistan, or today in Iran, the likes of Trump at the same time cosy up to the authoritarian, autocratic rulers in the Gulf.

The US military under George W Bush didn’t push to remove the Taliban regime because of its repressive rule, but because it was rejecting US interests – such as construction of an oil and gas pipeline that would benefit US energy corporations. Later, when the lives of many US troops had been lost in battles with the Taliban, it became a political necessity for Bush and Obama to try to prevent a Taliban resurgence that would bring those deaths into greater question. 

Trump, however, in trying to depart from that era, in 2018 authorised US talks with the Taliban. He is seeking in vain an exit strategy that won’t undermine US influence in Afghanistan or allow other world powers like China to step into the breach. Iran is also looking to increase its influence in Afghanistan; it has long had links with Shia communities there, but has also itself held talks with the Taliban, which is based in the mainly-Sunni Pashtun section of the population.  

However, the US ruling class cannot achieve its goals either way, whether through ‘soft power’ or military coercion. This is because, while it can use those means to promote its interests over those of other capitalist elites, a greater enemy is beginning to step into the arena: the working class and rural poor.   

The mutual antagonist US and Iran administrations both privately want an end to the protest movement in Iraq, which they fear could grow to challenge capitalist rule.  That a large section of the Iraqi working class has moved into struggle will be an inspiration, however, to workers in Afghanistan and other countries of the region, especially as it follows a prolonged period of various forms of bloody conflict in Iraq. And there have been sweeping mass movements recently in Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, Hong Kong, Chile and France, to name just some. When an organised movement of working people develops in Afghanistan, they will not be alone in moving to kick out foreign exploiters and to take on those at home. Solidarity and socialist ideas will increasingly need to be adopted by the working class across the globe.

Judy Beishon