Disaster in Afghanistan

Submitted by martin on 15 August, 2021 - 2:40 Author: Martin Thomas
Taliban sign

The USA is sending 5,000 troops to Afghanistan, boosting its military presence above anything since late 2020. The UK is sending 600, and the USA has another 4,000 stationed nearby in support.

These troops were not sent to assist the collapsing Afghan army as the Taliban entered Kabul (on 15 August) after sweeping almost all the country's cities since it took Zaranj on 6 August, and a series of rural areas since 4 May. Or to protect the people of Kabul, including the thousands of refugees who have fled there since the Taliban took their home cities.

Rather the opposite: the US and UK sent the troops to evacuate staff from the US and UK embassies. They signalled to the Taliban that they accepted that it would take Kabul, and to the outgoing Afghan government and all anti-Taliban Afghans that they were on their own.

The Afghan government's collapse is even faster than that of the Taliban when the US sent forces to help the Northern Alliance in October-December 2001. It was then about eight weeks from the start of operations to the Taliban abandoning Kandahar, This time: little more than ten days to take all the countries' cities, one by one, though unlike in 2001 there are few reports of jubilation in those cities. And the Taliban was withdrawing to Pakistan, in relatively good order, not being overrun.

The peoples of Afghanistan are being overrun. Those who can, will flee; some will submit to a new regime extinguishing women's rights and almost all personal liberties, as well as collective civil rights; some will be massacred.

Appealing to the USA to change the mission of the new troop contingent would be a futile bit of wishful thinking rather than a policy.

The Afghan army, nominally 300,000 strong, equipped, funded, and trained by the USA over 20 years, has offered almost no resistance to the Taliban advance. The same for the militia warlords of Afghanistan's north who were able to hold their areas against the Taliban from 1994 right through to the US invasion in 2001, and with only slight foreign backing.

The warlord Ismail Khan, who held Herat against the Taliban in 1995, then combatted them for two years until they captured him in 1997 (he escaped them in 1999), organised some small resistance in Herat this time round, but soon (on 13 August) surrendered to the Taliban. All the other warlords had evidently switched too thoroughly towards fighting each other to pocket the aid money flowing to Afghanistan from the US and other rich powers.

Some elements of "civil society" have emerged in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, but largely in the form of foreign-financed NGOs, unable to organise any resistance to the Taliban advance.

The best-known of the organisations which aspired to build any sort of "third camp" between the Taliban on the one side, and the Afghan government and US on the other, the ex-Maoist Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, long ago seems to have shifted all or almost all its activity to Afghans in exile. The last statement from RAWA was in March 2021. ("This year, the situation in our country is more disastrous than ever because the US... wants to bring its medieval Taliban mercenaries back to life to rule over the people of Afghanistan..."). There seems to be even less of a left or labour movement, in the broadest definition, in Afghanistan than there was before 1978. There is nominally an "All Afghanistan Federation of Trade Unions", but its existence seems shadowy at best.

Malalai Joya is known internationally as a feminist active in Afghanistan, but in a 10 August interview, after arguing that "US 'war on terror' has only fed the terrorists", she is unable to offer hope before a future time when "the people rise up for peace, freedom and the liberation of our country".

Early in the Taliban advance, there was talk of unofficial militias resisting as they did in the 1990s, but little such resistance has developed. The US operation in Afghanistan has done even less well than the murderous Russian war of 1979-1988 (which bombed the countryside more or less indiscriminately, and aimed essentially at colonial-type conquest) in the development of a modernising social base in the country.

And at the end, it seems the US administration and military lacked even a reasonable judgement on the balance of forces in the country. (We didn't expect the collapse to be so quick after the US withdrawal announcement, either. But we're assessing from a distance, not from a position of having had a large presence in Afghanistan for 20 years.)

Former CIA chief (and US military chief in Afghanistan 2010-11) David Petraeus has said that a small continuing US presence could check the Taliban advance indefinitely. But, apart from that judgement now being too late to be relevant, it makes no sense. It is not true that Afghanistan had reached even a workable-for-the-time-being stalemate. It was canny for the Taliban to wait until the US announced full withdrawal, but they could easily have "gone round" the minimal presence of a few thousand US troops if they had to. (Troop numbers insufficient to evacuate the embassy could hardly be enough to hold the whole country…)

The Economist magazine suggests that the US could stall the Taliban by "special forces" operations from outside the country. But how could that work without some substantial anti-Taliban military force within the country which those "special forces" would be aiding?

The Turkish government is seeking talks about taking over guard duties at Kabul airport, but no-one knows whether that will go through. Neighbouring countries such as Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China seem reconciled to the Taliban taking the whole of Afghanistan, even though they have their own reasons for fearing it. (Afghanistan's population includes substantial minorities of Shias speaking variants of Farsi, of Uzbeks, and of Tajiks, all of whom will fear the Sunni and Pashtun Taliban; China will worry about the Taliban giving aid to Islamists in East Turkestan.)

Prospects are worse than they were in 2001, before the US invasion, and there is no agency which the left or the labour movement might conceivably push or influence to improve them in the short term. As with horrors like the wars in Sudan and Yemen, we are reduced to "saying what is", doing what we can to secure better help for refugees and those who seek to flee, and supporting moves like the International Federation of Journalists attempt to seek protection for media workers in Afghanistan.

After the Russian withdrawal in 1988-9, it seemed almost certain that Islamists would overrun the country - as eventually they did, first a loose alliance of groups, then the Taliban sweeping the whole country other than the north - but when we advocated solidarity with the Stalinist-ruled cities against the rural-based Islamists, there was some reality to the idea. The Stalinists in Kabul held out until 1992, and succumbed only when Russia cut off all aid, even fuel supplies. They didn't collapse instantly as the Afghan government is now doing.

We have never sloganised for "US troops out of Afghanistan". We opposed the US intervention and always refused positively to support the US and NATO military presence there. For a long while we have said that further years of the US operation would most likely worsen the horrors when the US would, inevitably, eventually, some time, withdraw. That prediction has been confirmed.

Probably an even halfway competently-managed withdrawal relatively soon after 2001, for example, would have produced fewer horrors, or might have done if the Bush administration had had a less unilaterally "neo-con" (militaristic, neoliberal-economics) policy on assistance to Afghan economic rebuilding and on its so-called "war against terror". (The Taliban's revival after 2001 was at first gradual.) But in essence we cannot and should not try to pose as experts to advise the US military on how to resolve the impasse which its 2001 intervention has inexorably (as it turned out) led to.

Our vindicated warning on the consequences of continuing US military action in Afghanistan does not disqualify us from denouncing the specific more-or-less worst-imaginable policy of withdrawal set in train by Donald Trump in early 2020 and followed through by Joe Biden.

We do not pretend to be able to offer detailed advice on how to "manage" withdrawal. (Even if we did, it would be of little consequence: we are not advisers to the US military). We report the realities. Yes, the withdrawal, done as it has been done, is, as we quoted Malalai Joya saying about the Doha talks to prepare it, "a betrayal". Yes, sending troops to save US embassy staff and a few selected Afghan allies, and leaving everyone else in Kabul to try their luck with the Taliban, is "a betrayal". We can estimate that if Biden had gone for delay on Trump's promise of withdrawal, rather than speeding it up, it would have been less bad, in the short term, anyway. That estimate does not oblige us to support the alternative of "forever war". Our policy is for working-class and democratic action which cuts through the capitalist impasse-alternatives, not for detailed tweaking of those alternatives.

As Trotsky explained back in 1939: "Our tasks... we realise not through the medium of bourgeois governments and not even through the government of the USSR, but exclusively through the education of the masses through agitation, through explaining to the workers what they should defend and what they should overthrow. [That] cannot give immediate miraculous results. But we do not even pretend to be miracle workers. As things stand, we are a revolutionary minority. Our work must be directed so that the workers on whom we have influence should correctly appraise events, not permit themselves to be caught unawares, and prepare the general sentiment of their own class for the revolutionary solution of the tasks confronting us".

Or again: "The policy that attempts to place upon the proletariat the insoluble task of warding off all dangers engendered by the bourgeoisie and its policy of war is vain, false, mortally dangerous... The workers will be able to profit to the full from this monstrous chaos only if they occupy themselves not by acting as supervisors of the historical process but by engaging in the class struggle".

Back in 2001, opposing the US invasion, we wrote:

"War by the US and Britain on Afghanistan or neighbouring countries will not halt Islamic-fundamentalist militarism... It will not touch - may even comfort - many of the strong bases of fundamentalism; through its disruptions it may well generate more recruits for fundamentalism".

I remember discussing with an Iranian Marxist at the time. He agreed with our basic attitude of opposing the US invasion, while also denouncing the Taliban. But he argued that our statement was too general. The Taliban, specifically, he thought, would never revive after being routed and discredited in 2001.

I wondered: were we too formulaic? It turns out not.

The Taliban gradually gained ground from 2006 (especially) to 2009. It developed an "economic base" for itself in opium-poppy production in areas it controlled stronger than the "economic base" for the US-backed government, which relied largely on foreign aid, most of it disappearing into the pockets of the corrupt, and a political base from popular discontent with the US presence. The US, unlike the Russians, never attempted a colonial or semi-colonial domination, a "puppet government", but the outcome was not an Afghan government with a real local base with which it could do solid deals, but a series of corrupt and ineffectual administrations, led by ex-warlords concerned with enriching themselves.

President Obama attempted a troop "surge" in 2009-10, sketching a plan to withdraw in 2011 or soon after. The "surge" (NATO troop numbers rose over 150,000) pushed back the Taliban over the border somewhat, but seems also to have further undermined Afghan support or consent for the US presence, through large "collateral" civilian casualties. (Afghan president Hamid Karzai would long resist, or at least making a show of resisting, an agreement to keep US troops in the country after 2014.)

For the last ten years the US has been signalling that it wants to withdraw but doesn't know how. Obama left the troop numbers reduced from the "surge" peak, but said his successor would have to work out how to complete withdrawal. Donald Trump tried another, smaller, "surge" in 2017, but to little effect. So he started signalling to the Taliban that he wanted a deal, any deal, to get out; then, that all the Taliban had to do was talk about a deal, without making one, and he would get out.

The Taliban stepped up rural operations and disruptive assassinations and bombings in the cities, but cannily waited its time before storming the cities. Evidently it was planning carefully and well.

Probably any sort of US management more concerned with the fate of the peoples of Afghanistan, and less exclusively concerned with "cutting losses", could have limited the disaster at least to some degree. The factor that could have changed the whole picture substantially was a democratic upsurge of workers and peasants in Pakistan sufficient to break the tacit alliance between Pakistan's military (or large sections of it) and the Taliban.


Submitted by martin on Mon, 16/08/2021 - 20:12

Everyone on the left is saying that the current disaster in Afghanistan shows that no-one should rely on US militarism to deal with the danger of Islamist militarism like the Taliban's. And that's true.

No-one on the left is claiming that the Taliban taking Kabul is a victory for liberation, anti-imperialism, or self-determination. Right again: it isn't.

But then why did a large chunk of the left implicitly or explicitly side with the Taliban and Al Qaeda in 2001?

The Taliban victory confirms the argument we made in 2001, and which was then a minority argument within the left, that the "reactionary anti-imperialism" of some (in global terms) relatively small powers in conflict with the USA can be just as reactionary as US imperialism, or more so.

In 2001 Workers' Liberty, the SWP, other groups, and many unaffiliated leftists were working together in the Socialist Alliance, so we debated this issue face-to-face.

The SWP at first made a virtue of "refusing to condemn" the 11 September 2001 attack on New York and Washington. In the Socialist Alliance we argued that the attack must be condemned, and on that we had the majority against the SWP.

Eventually, under pressure in a Stop The War conference, Lindsey German (then a leading figure of the SWP, now in Counterfire) backed down, saying "of course" we should condemn the attack. "Of course"? Well, yes. But then why had Lindsey German and the SWP been making a virtue of "refusing to condemn"...?

The Workers' Power group (now organised as Red Flag) proposed that the Socialist Alliance should argue explicitly to support the Taliban's "resistance to imperialism".

The SWP replied that Workers' Power was right in principle, but such slogans would be inopportune and off-putting (as indeed they would).

The SWP equally argued against Workers' Liberty and others who wanted the Socialist Alliance to have slogans denouncing the Taliban as much as US militarism. Their line was to advocate "Stop The War" as a broad slogan to rally all peace-lovers, and under that heading to smuggle in the idea that US militarism was the sole generator of reactionary war, and so war by the Taliban was "anti-imperialist" and should not be "stopped".

In fact, as we explained in the text below, issued as a leaflet at the SWP's "Marxism" event in summer 2002, they made it their business to explain away the Taliban's misdeeds as an inevitable part of the righteous "rage and despair" against "imperialism" which, they said, the Taliban expressed.

Was it right for socialists to back the Taliban?
Summer 2002 Workers' Liberty leaflet

The 11 September attack on New York and Washington merely gave the people of the US a taste of what Islamic-fundamentalist militarists had meted out to the women, the socialists, the trade unionists, the workers and the oppressed minorities of their own countries for decades.

It was not a blow against imperialism. Al Qaeda carried out their attack, not despite the retaliation it would provoke from the USA, but deliberately in order to bring that retaliation. The ensuing war and tumult, so Al Qaeda hoped, would create the conditions for their Islamic-fundamentalist allies to overthrow the “American-Islam” regimes in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and impose full-scale Islamist dictatorship there. Where Al Qaeda went wrong was in exaggerating their own strength — Allah did not let them prevail against the USA as they probably hoped he would — and in understating the force and courage of secular, democratic and socialist activists in Pakistan.

Socialists obviously oppose US militarism, and have no brief for the corrupt US-allied regimes of the Muslim world. We must, however, learn the lessons from Iran since the 1979 revolution. To make “anti-imperialism” mean that we side, explicitly or implicitly (by “refusing to condemn”), with the Islamists, oppressors of “their own” people in a way whose nearest European analogue is fascism, was always wrong.

By November 2001, after the collapse of the Taliban in large parts of Afghanistan, what was politically untenable had become flagrant absurdity.

Pakistani socialist Farooq Tariq, a courageous opponent of the US/UK war much closer to the scene than us, wrote at the time: “The surrender of Kabul shows the absolute dictatorial nature of the Taliban and its fast disappearing social base. The ordinary citizens of Kabul seemed quite delighted over this victory...

“The Taliban was the most hated regime that the Afghan masses had ever seen... The religious fundamentalist forces were a tiny, very committed minority who were able to hold on with the support of the international religious fundamentalist forces...

“There could be a little so-called liberal time in Afghanistan if a broad-based govemment is established under the influence of US imperialism”.

To preach distrust of US/UK militarism — that is always a basic and irreducible duty for socialists. Anti-imperialism in the name of the positive programme of democracy, socialism and international solidarity — which entails opposition to both the Taliban and to the US-sponsored replacement regime, dominated by the Northern Alliance — that makes sense. An “anti-imperialism” based on one-sided Americanophobia, silent on or making excuses for the Taliban, and implying that we should mourn the Taliban's downfall as a “victory for imperialism” — that was nonsense, and since November has been very obvious nonsense, both politically and morally.

The Taliban was created among the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, with money from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the US. Its version of Islamic law was drawn more from Saudi Arabia than from Afghan customs. A large number of the Taliban's fighters were not Afghans, but Islamic fundamentalists from other countries; a large number of its Afghan fighters were young men who had come to Pakistan as refugee children, and then been brought up in religious schools there, as alien to Afghan society as the Taliban's Arab volunteers.

The quick collapse of the Taliban showed that they were even more significantly an outside force, imposing itself on the population, than we thought.

So should we regret opposing the US/UK war? No, we should not. The US commanders started bombing Afghanistan saying they would continue for months or years. That was a stated intention to kill directly as many Afghan civilians as required,and many more indirectly, through famine and disease, by wrecking even more an already wrecked society. Fewer civilians were killed only because the Taliban regime proved more fragile and thin than any calculators had expected.

No serious socialist could have given the US/UK war machine credence or political confidence in advance, even to bring down the Taliban. The US was and is deep in compromises and horse-trading with scarcely-less-vile Islamic fundamentalists, and not only in Afghanistan. Civilian casualties continue. We give no blank cheque to the US to deal with the remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban with its missiles and cluster bombs.

As Farooq Tariq also pointed out: “Once the Northern Alliance strengthens its power base, the real face of these fundamentalists will come out in the open”.

And more. The fact that the Afghan war went so smoothly and easily for the USA increased the weight of those US government officials who talked, after 11 September, about “ending states” and attacking “a whole series of countries” — specifically, Iraq — as against the more cautious.

The Stop the War coalition statement on the fall of Kabul, put out by Lindsey German of the SWP and Andrew Murray, declared that: “At no time has the anti-war movement in this country supported the Taliban...”

Sadly, that was a half-truth, or a quarter-truth. The vast majority of those who joined anti-war demonstrations or supported anti-war resolutions in trade unions gave no support to the Taliban at all. Whatever way they would have chosen to phrase it, in essence they agreed with the view that we must stand for democracy and international solidarity against both US/UK militarism and Islamic fundamentalism.

And none, or very few, of the political currents within the anti-war movement said that they supported the Taliban’s politics.

The biggest of those currents, however, the SWP, opposed condemning the 11 September atrocity, and opposed all moves to have the anti-war movement distance itself explicitly from Islamic fundamentalism. Denunciation of the US/UK war combined with opposition to condemning the Taliban adds up to siding — positively though implicitly and, to be sure, “critically” — with the Taliban. After the fall of Kabul, Stop the War spokespeople felt the need to denounce the Taliban’s “contempt for democracy and human rights”. But only then, when the Taliban were in retreat! When the Taliban seemed strong, they made excuses for it. The SWP, for example, explained Islamic fundamentalism in general as a natural reflex of “rage and despair” against imperialism, and the Taliban’s seclusion of women as down to the Taliban’s leaders’ desire to protect women from the lusts of their young soldiers (Socialist Worker, 6 October 2001).

They sought alliance with the broadest forces of Islam, objecting to any differentiation from the fundamentalists because it would supposedly alienate Muslims.

Then they hastened to dissociate from the same forces, defeated, whom they made excuses for when they were strong.

This drive to latch on to whatever seems strong among our enemy’s enemies is the opposite of working-class politics — the opposite of any politics which can prepare the working class to act as a force in its own right, with its own principles and its own programme.

Submitted by Duncan on Tue, 17/08/2021 - 15:58

Martin says 'No-one on the left is claiming that the Taliban taking Kabul is a victory for liberation, anti-imperialism, or self-determination. Right again: it isn't.'

However the SWP do in an article entitled 'The defeat of the West's Afghanistan war' lead with this comment:

"After 20 years, at least a ­quarter of a million killings and trillions of pounds spent on military assaults, the Taliban has overthrown the Western-backed government in Afghanistan.

It is a colossal defeat for British and US imperialism. Even decades of bloody war could not ensure they won."

As far as I can see they make no explicit criticism of the Taliban in any of their articles.

The Socialist Party's article entitled 'Kabul falls: A devastating blow to the US and Western imperialism - Afghans' suffering continues under Taliban' which still seems to suggest some positive anti-imperialist side to the withdrawal although at least with the recognition of what the Taliban represent.

Of course the reality is that as Martin has written there is nothing at all to be celebrated in this.

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