Without sufficient knowledge of events on the ground, or of the broader context (historical, social, economic, geo-political, etc.), we share three texts on the recent Taliban overthrow of the U.S.A.-NATO regime in Kabul, with the aim of navigating beyond the obvious.
Our selection of texts does not necessarily assume a full agreement with the authors’ own political views. Nor does what is shared below exhaustively treat the matter. But in each case, we believe, some understanding of what is taking place is gained.
Afghanistan: The Taliban Victory in a Global Context – An Anti-Imperial Perspective from a Veteran of the US Occupation
(CrimethInc. collective, 16/08/2021)
The speed with which the Taliban have recaptured Afghanistan ahead of the United States pullout illustrates how fragile the hegemony of the US empire is: how much force it takes to maintain it and how quickly everything can change when that force is withdrawn. It offers a glimpse into a possible post-imperial future—though hardly a promising one. How did the occupation impact the people of Afghanistan? Why were the Taliban able to regain so much territory so quickly? What do the US withdrawal and its consequences tell us about the future and how we might prepare for it?
The War on Terror, like the Cold War before it, has forced whole populations to choose between mutually undesirable binaries, making it difficult to imagine any alternative to the choice between global capitalist empires and homegrown authoritarianism. In the long run, whatever it promises, colonial militarism can’t control nationalism, fascism, or fundamentalism—it only gives them a justification to recruit. The question is how to nurture global grassroots networks that could create a real alternative.
In the following analysis, a veteran of the US occupation of Afghanistan discusses this defeat for the US imperial project—framing the Taliban, the occupation, and its consequences in the context of a worldwide wave of fascism and fundamentalism that is also gaining ground in the United States.
The Taliban Victory in a Global Context
As I write this, the Taliban have taken control of Kabul and therefore of the entire country of Afghanistan. The US-backed president Ashraf Ghani has fled to Tajikistan, while Afghan Army members flee to neighboring countries or surrender to the Taliban militants. Just days ago, US Intelligence officials were predicting it would be at least 30 days before the fall of Kabul, as President Biden deployed 5000 US troops to protect the evacuation of the US embassy and personnel. Now the State Department is urging remaining US citizens to shelter in place, not to dash to the Kabul Airport for emergency evacuation. As the smoke from burning classified documents and gunfire spreads a haze over the horizon of Kabul, everyone is thinking about the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese Army and National Liberation Front.
I cannot celebrate the victory of the Taliban. While they have been fighting an imperialist, capitalist occupation, they represent the worst of religious fundamentalism, patriarchy, and hierarchy. Still, it is striking to see the curtain pulled back so poignantly, revealing American military exceptionalism for what it is. Twenty years of wasted money, youth, and blood.
I am a veteran of the occupation of Afghanistan. Everything I am about to tell you is derived from my firsthand experience serving the empire as a foot soldier for ten years.
I joined for all the reasons you’ve seen in recruitment ads. As an intelligence analyst and a noncommissioned officer, I managed and led teams, squads, and units of soldiers. On the basis of my experience with aerial surveillance and reconnaissance, I was recruited to join a defense contracting company. The defense companies I worked for included L3, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin. I trained units in the US and Afghanistan for over three years and deployed to Afghanistan three times for those companies. I also deployed to Afghanistan as part of the operations team for a unit managing one of the largest bases in southern Afghanistan.
Based on what I saw, US counterterrorism operations are chiefly about creating markets for US military technologies and products and securing resources for the US empire. For 20 years, we propped up local and regional warlords, giving them weapons, money, and arms so they wouldn’t attack our forces. We green-lit their death squads and called them the Afghan Local Police. Working at senior-echelon levels, I watched both ranking officers and junior soldiers scramble to pad their résumés in hopes of becoming mercenaries for the companies and agencies that were actually running the show. Generals made careers and went on to be employed by those companies or the Department of Defense/Intelligence Community. From Syria and Iraq to Yemen and all across Africa, throughout our 800 military bases, I do not know of a single military mission that is chiefly focused on creating peace and stability.
I participated in this for far too long—and I wish to be accountable, though I know there is no way to truly make amends.
It took the death of one my soldiers to put it all into perspective. Afterwards, I began to suffer from effects of CPTSD [Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]. The classic characteristics: drinking and drug use, the loss of relationships, depression, suicidal tendencies. I also began to reach out for help. I joined Iraq Veterans Against the War and connected with current and former service members fighting US imperialism. With information from the GI Rights Hotline, I was able to leave the Army Reserves. I began a process of politicization in which I learned about militarism, imperialism, colonialism, and white supremacy.
Now that the occupation has ended, an entire generation of US military veterans will be forced to question what it was all for. All I can do is ask why it took them so long to arrive at that question. It was always evident, all around us.
Throughout my time in Afghanistan, we never controlled territory outside of our bases and outposts—and we often found the enemy inside of our own walls. The Taliban ran a successful counter-insurgency for twenty years. They maintained a shadow government, collected taxes, settled social, cultural, and economic disputes, and maneuvered and captured territory, biding their time all the while.
Why was the Taliban able to wait out the occupation and recapture power so easily?
The Taliban benefitted from the tribal and ethnic structures of Afghanistan, a complex web of allegiances and social and cultural bonds that US/NATO forces were never entirely able to understand. Afghanistan, like other nation-states of the former British Empire, was created without consideration of ethnic and religious demographics. The result was a population comprised of Pashtus, Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbek, Aimak, Turkman, and Baloch—groups with a wide range of cultures and practices. Some found it easy to ally with NATO, while others were adamantly opposed.
The Taliban were almost entirely Pashtu—the dominant ethnic group of Afghanistan, with 40 to 50% of the population. The Pashtu people exist on either side of Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan and along the southern portion of the country. Their social connections and traditions extend beyond the country’s colonial borders, making it easy for them to move between safe havens in Pakistan, exploiting a gap in NATO military control.
When I think over the many moments that illustrated why the war was useless, I recall my time at Kandahar Airfield, a base housing at least 22,000 soldiers, contractors, and civilians. There, I learned that the Taliban Shadow District Commander was the brother-in-law of the sitting Afghan Air Force general. In view of the importance of tribal and familial relationships in Pashtu culture, it was obvious that the general’s allegiances to the NATO-backed government would never take precedence over this relationship. The connections between those two warlords, even if they were formally considered enemy combatants, ensured that neither would seek to defeat the other. I encountered this sort of interconnection between supposed enemies multiple times, from my interactions with everyday citizens all the way up to the then-sitting Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The Taliban also provided for people. The legitimacy of the Taliban is rooted in their ability to provide protection and religious guidance, predating the US invasion by years. Their mullahs settled social, cultural, and economic disputes in the areas under their control. They collected taxes and controlled agriculture throughout the war. They also carried out acts of extreme violence, which is how they gained footholds in territories they hadn’t controlled before the war.
The US occupation failed to diminish Taliban resistance for twenty years because there was never a time at which the majority of the population considered the occupying forces legitimate. Bombs and bullets alone are not capable of winning a war against a determined population. By contrast, the US-backed government and military were utterly self-interested and corrupt. Being motivated chiefly by personal gain, NATO forces fought their battles around metrics—they were more concerned about numbers of projects, of casualties, about money spent or money saved. Spending time in the country in relatively short-term deployment rotations, they were never able to build trust or respect. New units and new people were constantly showing up with no idea where they were or what had been done before. This lack of respect was so essential to the insurgency that during a 2012 deployment, insider attacks (attacks by Afghan Government Forces against NATO Forces) represented over 14% of the total casualties.
In the end, the Taliban were able to take control because they understood that the essential thing to winning a struggle against colonial occupation is that you have to survive a war of attrition. For twenty years, demonstrating the ineffectiveness of a corrupt NATO-backed government, they maintained the normative and hierarchal systems of control that they had established before the US invasion.
But the fundamentalism of the Taliban was not essential to their success. Empires crumble from their extremities inward: the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is part of a larger process in which US geopolitical influence is eroding around the world. The Chinese state may gain power in the region; we may see escalating power struggles between India and Pakistan. The question is what will come next—in Afghanistan and around the world.
At this moment in history, in the core of the American empire, I see a rising conservative movement with many ideas and policies that reflect the same fundamentalism, patriarchy, and hierarchy that characterize the Taliban. The opinions I’ve seen expressed by the right wing regarding women’s bodies, LGBTQIA+ communities, migrants, and anyone deemed outsiders line up with the violent worldview justified by the religious tenets of the Taliban.
In the US, the authoritarian right is spreading a myth of shame around the American male—a mythology about replacement, feminization, defeat, a loss of control and power. They have been developing this mythology for years, and the defeat in Afghanistan will only add fuel to the fire. The violence and hatred we have seen in the streets through years of fascist mobilizations is the direct consequence of a nation that has glorified the lies of a losing war. “Patriots” and Proud Boys who wear Right Wing Death Squad patches are not far removed from the death squads of Taliban fundamentalism.
I have seen liberals fall in step with this same imperial war machine. As far as their ideas go about militarism and police, they line up side by side with the fascist right—and regardless of their progressivism, they have done nothing to bring about real safety for our communities. It is instructive that two Republican and two Democratic presidents oversaw this war. One administration after another has expanded the power of the executive branch, while the defense and security budgets of the past two decades have bled our communities dry.
The US has spent trillions of dollars on weapons. Many of these have ended up in the hands of the Taliban and ISIS; others have been brought back and deployed against communities in North America, especially against Black and Brown and Indigenous people. The proletarians who torched police stations and fought the street battles of a not-so-distant uprising have found themselves up against the same forces, strategies, tactics, and mindsets that were developed to police Afghanistan.
For a full generation now, the Global War on Terrorism that started in Afghanistan has been both exploited and commodified. People who never even participated in the conflict have purchased branded materials in order to LARP out their warrior culture fever dreams. An entire sector of the population has internalized the toxic male death cult of patriotism and nationalism. Now that façade has been stripped bare and I am watching as this generation’s identity—built around their proximity and participation in the war—crumbles around them. Liberals will inevitably blame conservatives and vice versa, while the process of political polarization intensifies and both sides surrender their futures to differing brands of authoritarianism in hopes of maintaining the illusion of stability.
If the victory of the Taliban demonstrates anything, it is that the American empire is a stack of cards waiting to fall. It is capable of extreme violence, of killing in the most technologically advanced ways known to humanity. It is capable of extreme cruelty. But it is a paper tiger nonetheless, unable to conquer people’s hearts and minds, regardless of the intensity of the intervention or the length of the occupation.
Turtle Island has seen over 500 years of resistance to occupation, and regardless of how many more years lay before us, it should be clear that we will also win. The fallout from Afghanistan will not just be the defeat of a corrupt and unwanted puppet regime—it will reverberate in many areas of this crumbling empire for years to come.
An entire generation of combat-experienced individuals have learned the hard way that our participation in imperialist rule was based on fallacies. We have already begun to invest our knowledge and experiences back into communities focused on actual liberation.
But what will come next? If the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan is any indication, what succeeds the US empire may be oppressive fundamentalism or nationalism. We should ask how we could go about fighting the reigning order in such a way that it will not be replaced by the equivalent of the Taliban when it collapses elsewhere.
The enemies of our communities and of the futures that we desire have also absorbed disgruntled and disaffected veterans of the occupation. Their anger, rooted in the aforementioned shame, expresses itself in violence rather than solidarity. They have already attempted a coup for the sake of their authoritarian vision. The events in Afghanistan will motivate them further. We can expect to see former soldiers, special forces operators, and mercenaries mobilizing against their perceived enemies and carrying out individual acts of terrorism. That is what we are up against.
Climate change, political polarization, economic crisis, the crumbling of the American empire, and simmering social unrest all stand before us as not individual phenomena, but as a single challenge comprised of interconnected disasters. We can draw inspiration from the defeats of our adversaries in the US government and learn from the successes of those who resist them everywhere while maintaining a permanent opposition to all forms of oppression. My heart pours out for the Afghan people who have suffered the traumas of war for generations now. We are talking about the legacy of a land and a diverse population of people that have repeatedly beaten the most powerful empires in the history of the world. I hope that they find the strength to carry on and, ultimately, to achieve real liberation, real safety. I hope that those of us here in the US, understanding ourselves as a part of an international movement, find the strength to do whatever it takes in the heart of this evil empire to build a new world in the ruins of the old.
Now is the time to listen to the Afghan people, to support refugees, to support aid organizations, and to rail against those responsible for the catastrophe of the past twenty years—to open our hearts to new possibilities and new potential accomplices—to develop the skills and mindsets that will keep us safe as we go forward into the unknown.
If you or your family members are currently serving in the US military, please contact the GI Rights Hotline at 1-877-447-4487 or just go AWOL. There is no need to stay in the service of a violent front for weapons and defense corporations. There’s no reason to die for their benefit, and there’s absolutely no reason to do to the poor of the world what we’ve just spent the past two decades doing to the people of Afghanistan.
RAWA Responds to the Taliban Takeover
It is a joke to say values like “women’s rights”, “democracy”, “nation-building” etc. were part of the US/NATO aims in Afghanistan!
Afghan Women’s Mission has been in touch with RAWA to address their needs at this urgent time. In this brief Q&A with AWM Co-Director Sonali Kolhatkar, RAWA explains the unfolding situation on the ground as they see it.
(RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, 21/08/2021)
Sonali Kolhatkar: For years RAWA spoke out against the U.S. occupation and now that it has ended, the Taliban are back. Could President Biden have withdrawn U.S. forces in a manner that would have left Afghanistan in a safer situation than currently? Could he have done more to ensure the Taliban were not so quickly able to take over?
RAWA: In the past 20 years, one of our demands was an end to the US/NATO occupation and even better if they take their Islamic fundamentalists and technocrats with them and let our people decide their own fate. This occupation only resulted in bloodshed, destruction and chaos. They turned our country into the most corrupt, insecure, drug-mafia and dangerous place especially for women.
From the very beginning we could predict such an outcome. On the first days of the US occupation of Afghanistan, RAWA declared on October 11, 2001:
“The continuation of US attacks and the increase in the number of innocent civilian victims not only gives an excuse to the Taliban, but also will cause the empowerment of the fundamentalist forces in the region and even in the world.”
The main reason we were against this occupation was their backing of terrorism under the nice banner of “war on terror”. From the very first days when the Northern Alliance looters and killers were installed back into power in 2002 to the last so-called peace talks, deals and agreements in Doha and release of 5000 terrorists from prisons in 2020/21, it was very obvious that even the withdrawal won’t have a good end.
The Pentagon proves that none of the theory invasion or meddling ended up in safe condition. All imperialist powers invade countries for their own strategic, political and financial interests but through lies and the powerful corporate media try to hide their real motive and agenda.
It is a joke to say values like “women’s rights”, “democracy”, “nation-building” etc. were part of the US/NATO aims in Afghanistan! US was in Afghanistan to turn region into instability and terrorism to encircling the rival powers especially China and Russia and undermining their economies via regional wars. But of course the US government did not want such a disastrous, disgraceful and embarrassing exit that left behind such a commotion that they were forced to send troops again in 48 hours to control the airport and safely evacuate its diplomats and staff.
We believe the US left Afghanistan out of its own weaknesses not defeated by its creatures (Taliban). There are two significant reasons for this withdrawal.
The main reason is the multifold internal crisis in the US. The signs of the US system decline was seen in the weak response to Covid-19 pandemic, attack on Capitol Hill and the great protests of the US public in the past few years. The policy-makers were forced to withdraw troops to focus on internal burning issues.
The second reason is that the Afghan war was an exceptionally expensive war whose cost has gone into trillions, all taken from taxpayer money. This put such a heavy dent on the US financially that it had to leave Afghanistan.
The war-mongering policies prove that their aim was never to make Afghanistan safer, let alone now when they are leaving. Furthermore, they also knew that the withdrawal would be chaotic yet they still went ahead and did it. Now Afghanistan is in the limelight again due to the Taliban being in power but this has been the situation for the past 20 years and everyday hundreds of our people were killed and our country destroyed, it just was rarely reported in the media.
Sonali Kolhatkar: The Taliban leadership are saying they will respect women’s rights as long as it complies with Islamic law. Some Western media are painting this in a positive light. Didn’t the Taliban say the same thing 20 years ago? Do you think there is any change in their attitude toward human rights and women’s rights?
RAWA: The corporate media is only trying to put salt on our devastated people’s wounds; they should be ashamed of themselves the way they try to sugarcoat brutal Taliban. The Taliban spokesperson declared that there is no difference between their ideology of 1996 and today. And what they say about women’s rights is the exact phrases used during their previous dark rule: implementing Sharia law.
These days the Taliban have declared an amnesty in all parts of Afghanistan and their slogan is ‘what the joy of amnesty can bring, revenge cannot’. But in reality they are killing people every day. Just yesterday a boy was shot dead in Nangarhar only for carrying the tricolored Afghan national flag instead of the white flag of Taliban. They executed four former army officials in Kandahar, arrested a young Afghan poet Mehran Popal in Herat province for writing anti-Taliban posts on Facebook and his whereabouts is unknown to his family. These are just a few examples of their violent actions despite the “nice” and polished words of their spokespersons.
But we believe their claims may be one of the dramas being played by the Taliban and they are just trying to buy more time till they can organize themselves. Things happened so fast and they are trying to build-up their government structure, create their intelligence and make the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which is responsible for controlling the little details of people’s daily lives like the length of the beard, the dress code and having a Mahram (male companion, only father, brother or husband) for a woman. Taliban claim that we are not against women’s rights but then it should be within the framework Islamic/Sharia laws.
Islamic/Sharia law is vague and construed in different ways by Islamic regimes to benefit their own political agendas and rules. Furthermore, the Taliban would also like the West to acknowledge them and take them seriously, and all these claims are part of painting a whitewashed image for themselves. Maybe after a few months they would say that we will hold elections since we believe in justice and democracy! These pretences will never change their true nature, and will still be Islamic fundamentalists: misogynist, inhuman, barbaric, reactionary, anti-democracy and anti-progressive. In a word, the Taliban mentality has not changed and will never change!
Sonali Kolhatkar: Why did the Afghan National Army and the U.S. backed Afghan government fall apart so quickly?
RAWA: Some major reasons out of many are:
1) Everything was done according to a deal to handover Afghanistan to Taliban. The US govt. negotiating with Pakistan and other regional players had agreement to form a govt. mainly composed of Taliban. So the soldiers were not ready to be killed in a war that they knew there was no benefit of the Afghan people in it because finally it is set behind closed doors to bring Taliban to power. Zalmay Khalilzad is highly hated among Afghan people due to his treacherous role in bringing the Taliban back to power.
2) Most Afghans understand well that the war going on in Afghanistan is not the war of Afghans and for the benefit of the country, but waged by foreign powers for their own strategic interests and Afghans are just fuels of the war. Majority of the young people are joining the forces because of severe poverty and unemployment so they have no commitment and morals to fight. It is worth mentioning that the United States and the West have tried for 20 years to keep Afghanistan a consumer country and have hindered the growth of industry. This situation created a wave of unemployment and poverty, paving the way for the recruitments of the puppet government, the Taliban and growth of opium production.
3) Afghan forces were not so weak to defeat in the course of a week, but they were receiving orders from the presidential palace not to fight back Taliban and should surrender. Most provinces were peacefully handed over to the Taliban.
4) The puppet regime of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani were calling Taliban “dissatisfied brothers” for years, and released many of their most ruthless commanders and leaders from prisons. Asking Afghan soldiers to fight a force that is not called “enemy” but “brother”, emboldened the Taliban and hit the morale of the Afghan armed forces.
5) The armed forces were unprecedentedly plagued by corruption. The large number of generals (mostly former brutal warlords of the Northern Alliance) sitting in Kabul grabbed millions of $, they cut even from food and salary of soldiers fighting in the frontlines. “Ghost soldiers” was a phenomenon exposed by SIGAR. High-ranking officials were busy filling their own pockets; they channelled salary and ration of tens of thousands of none-existing soldiers into their own bank accounts.
6) Whenever forces were besieged by Taliban in the hard fight, their call for help was ignored by Kabul. In numerous cases tens of soldiers were massacred by Taliban when they were deserted without ammunition and food for weeks. Therefore the rate of casualties among armed forces was very high. In the World Economic Forum (Davos 2019), Ashraf Ghani confessed that since 2014 over 45,000 Afghan security personnel have been killed, while in the same period only 72 personnel of US/NATO were killed.
7) Overall in society growing corruption, injustice, unemployment, insecurity, uncertainty, fraud, vast poverty, drug and smuggling, etc. provided a ground for reemergence of Taliban.
Sonali Kolhatkar: What is the best way for Americans to help RAWA and Afghan people and women right now?
RAWA: We feel very lucky and happy to have the freedom-loving people of the US with us during all these years. We need the Americans to raise their voice and protest against their government’s war-mongering policies and support the strengthening of the people’s struggle in Afghanistan against these barbarians.
It is human nature to resist and the history bears witness. We have the glorious examples of US struggle “Occupy Wall Street” and “Black Lives Matter” movements. We have seen that no amount of oppression, tyranny and violence can stop resistance. Women will not be shackled anymore! Just the next morning after the Taliban entered the capital, a group of our young brave women painted graffiti on the walls of Kabul with the slogan: Down with Taliban! Our women are now politically conscious and no longer want to live under the Burqa, something they easily did 20 years ago. We will continue our struggles while finding smart ways to stay safe.
We think the inhuman US military empire is not only the enemy of the Afghan people but the biggest threat to world peace and instability. Now that the system is on the verge of decline, it is the duty of all peace-loving, progressive, leftist and justice-loving individuals and groups to intensify their fight against the brutal war-mongers in the White House, the Pentagon and the Capitol Hill. Replacing the rotten system with a just and humane one will not only liberate millions of poor and oppressed American people but will have a lasting effect on every corner of the world.
Now our fear is that the world may forget Afghanistan and Afghan women like under the Taliban bloody rule in late 90s. Therefore, the US progressive people and institutions should not forget Afghan women.
We will raise our voice louder and continue our resistance and fight for secular democracy and women’s rights!
Debacle in Afghanistan
Tariq Ali, Sidecar – New Left Review, 16/08/2021
The fall of Kabul to the Taliban on 15 August 2021 is a major political and ideological defeat for the American Empire. The crowded helicopters carrying US Embassy staff to Kabul airport were startlingly reminiscent of the scenes in Saigon – now Ho Chi Minh City – in April 1975. The speed with which Taliban forces stormed the country was astonishing; their strategic acumen remarkable. A week-long offensive ended triumphantly in Kabul. The 300,000-strong Afghan army crumbled. Many refused to fight. In fact, thousands of them went over to the Taliban, who immediately demanded the unconditional surrender of the puppet government. President Ashraf Ghani, a favourite of the US media, fled the country and sought refuge in Oman. The flag of the revived Emirate is now fluttering over his Presidential palace. In some respects, the closest analogy is not Saigon but nineteenth-century Sudan, when the forces of the Mahdi swept into Khartoum and martyred General Gordon. William Morris celebrated the Mahdi’s victory as a setback for the British Empire. Yet while the Sudanese insurgents killed an entire garrison, Kabul changed hands with little bloodshed. The Taliban did not even attempt to take the US embassy, let alone target American personnel.
The twentieth anniversary of the ‘War on Terror’ thus ended in predictable and predicted defeat for the US, NATO and others who clambered on the bandwagon. However one regards the Taliban’s policies – I have been a stern critic for many years – their achievement cannot be denied. In a period when the US has wrecked one Arab country after another, no resistance that could challenge the occupiers ever emerged. This defeat may well be a turning point. That is why European politicians are whinging. They backed the US unconditionally in Afghanistan, and they too have suffered a humiliation – none more so than Britain.
Biden was left with no choice. The United States had announced it would withdraw from Afghanistan in September 2021 without fulfilling any of its ‘liberationist’ aims: freedom and democracy, equal rights for women, and the destruction of the Taliban. Though it may be undefeated militarily, the tears being shed by embittered liberals confirm the deeper extent of its loss. Most of them – Frederick Kagan in the NYT, Gideon Rachman in the FT – believe that the drawdown should have been delayed to keep the Taliban at bay. But Biden was simply ratifying the peace process initiated by Trump, with Pentagon backing, which saw an agreement reached in February 2020 in the presence of the US, Taliban, India, China and Pakistan. The American security establishment knew that the invasion had failed: the Taliban could not be subdued no matter how long they stayed. The notion that Biden’s hasty withdrawal has somehow strengthened the militants is poppycock.
The fact is that over twenty years, the US has failed to build anything that might redeem its mission. The brilliantly lit Green Zone was always surrounded by a darkness that the Zoners could not fathom. In one of the poorest countries of the world, billions were spent annually on air-conditioning the barracks that housed US soldiers and officers, while food and clothing were regularly flown in from bases in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. It was hardly a surprise that a huge slum grew on the fringes of Kabul, as the poor assembled to search for pickings in dustbins. The low wages paid to Afghan security services could not convince them to fight against their countrymen. The army, built up over two decades, had been infiltrated at an early stage by Taliban supporters, who received free training in the use of modern military equipment and acted as spies for the Afghan resistance.
This was the miserable reality of ‘humanitarian intervention’. Though credit where credit is due: the country has witnessed a huge rise in exports. During the Taliban years, opium production was strictly monitored. Since the US invasion it has increased dramatically, and now accounts for 90% of the global heroin market – making one wonder whether this protracted conflict should be seen, partially at least, as a new opium war. Trillions have been made in profits and shared between the Afghan sectors that serviced the occupation. Western officers were handsomely paid off to enable the trade. One in ten young Afghans are now opium addicts. Figures for NATO forces are unavailable.
As for the status of women, nothing much has changed. There has been little social progress outside the NGO-infested Green Zone. One of the country’s leading feminists in exile remarked that Afghan women had three enemies: the Western occupation, the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. With the departure of the United States, she said, they will have two. (At the time of writing this can perhaps be amended to one, as the Taliban’s advances in the north saw off key factions of the Alliance before Kabul was captured). Despite repeated requests from journalists and campaigners, no reliable figures have been released on the sex-work industry that grew to service the occupying armies. Nor are there credible rape statistics – although US soldiers frequently used sexual violence against ‘terror suspects’, raped Afghan civilians and green-lighted child abuse by allied militias. During the Yugoslav civil war, prostitution multiplied and the region became a centre for sex trafficking. UN involvement in this profitable business was well-documented. In Afghanistan, the full details are yet to emerge.
Over 775,000 US troops have fought in Afghanistan since 2001. Of those, 2,448 were killed, along with almost 4,000 US contractors. Approximately 20,589 were wounded in action according to the Defense Department. Afghan casualty figures are difficult to calculate, since ‘enemy deaths’ that include civilians are not counted. Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives estimated that at least 4,200–4,500 civilians were killed by mid-January 2002 as a consequence of the US assault, both directly as casualties of the aerial bombing campaign and indirectly in the humanitarian crisis that ensued. By 2021, the Associated Press were reporting that 47,245 civilians had perished because of the occupation. Afghan civil rights activists gave a higher total, insisting that 100,000 Afghans (many of them non-combatants) had died, and three times that number had been wounded.
In 2019, the Washington Post published a 2,000-page internal report commissioned by the US federal government to anatomise the failures of its longest war: ‘The Afghanistan Papers’. It was based on a series of interviews with US Generals (retired and serving), political advisers, diplomats, aid workers and so on. Their combined assessment was damning. General Douglas Lute, the ‘Afghan war czar’ under Bush and Obama, confessed that ‘We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn’t know what we were doing…We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we’re undertaking…If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction.’ Another witness, Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy Seal and a White House staffer under Bush and Obama, highlighted the vast waste of resources: ‘What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth $1 trillion? … After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.’ He could have added: ‘And we still lost’.
Who was the enemy? The Taliban, Pakistan, all Afghans? A long-serving US soldier was convinced that at least one-third of Afghan police were addicted to drugs and another sizeable chunk were Taliban supporters. This posed a major problem for US soldiers, as an unnamed Special Forces honcho testified in 2017: ‘They thought I was going to come to them with a map to show them where the good guys and bad guys live…It took several conversations for them to understand that I did not have that information in my hands. At first, they just kept asking: “But who are the bad guys, where are they?”’.
Donald Rumsfeld expressed the same sentiment back in 2003. ‘I have no visibility into who the bad guys are in Afghanistan or Iraq’, he wrote. ‘I read all the intel from the community, and it sounds as though we know a great deal, but in fact, when you push at it, you find out we haven’t got anything that is actionable. We are woefully deficient in human intelligence.’ The inability to distinguish between a friend and an enemy is a serious issue – not just on a Schmittean level, but on a practical one. If you can’t tell the difference between allies and adversaries after an IED attack in a crowded city market, you respond by lashing out at everyone, and create more enemies in the process.
Colonel Christopher Kolenda, an adviser to three serving Generals, pointed to another problem with the US mission. Corruption was rampant from the beginning, he said; the Karzai government was ‘self-organised into a kleptocracy.’ That undermined the post-2002 strategy of building a state that could outlast the occupation. ‘Petty corruption is like skin cancer, there are ways to deal with it and you’ll probably be just fine. Corruption within the ministries, higher level, is like colon cancer; it’s worse, but if you catch it in time, you’re probably okay. Kleptocracy, however, is like brain cancer; it’s fatal.’ Of course, the Pakistani state – where kleptocracy is embedded at every level – has survived for decades. But things weren’t so easy in Afghanistan, where nation-building efforts were led by an occupying army and the central government had scant popular support.
What of the fake reports that the Taliban were routed, never to return? A senior figure in the National Security Council reflected on the lies broadcast by his colleagues: ‘It was their explanations. For example, [Taliban] attacks are getting worse? “That’s because there are more targets for them to fire at, so more attacks are a false indicator of instability.” Then, three months later, attacks are still getting worse? “It’s because the Taliban are getting desperate, so it’s actually an indicator that we’re winning”…And this went on and on for two reasons, to make everyone involved look good, and to make it look like the troops and resources were having the kind of effect where removing them would cause the country to deteriorate.’
All this was an open secret in the chanceries and defence ministries of NATO Europe. In October 2014, the British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon admitted that ‘Mistakes were made militarily, mistakes were made by the politicians at the time and this goes back 10, 13 years…We’re not going to send combat troops back into Afghanistan, under any circumstances.’ Four years later, Prime Minister Theresa May redeployed British troops to Afghanistan, doubling its fighters ‘to help tackle the fragile security situation’. Now the UK media is echoing the Foreign Office and criticising Biden for having made the wrong move at the wrong time, with the head of the British armed forces Sir Nick Carter suggesting a new invasion might be necessary. Tory backbenchers, colonial nostalgists, stooge-journalists and Blair-toadies are lining up to call for a permanent British presence in the war-torn state.
What’s astonishing is that neither General Carter nor his relays appear to have acknowledged the scale of the crisis confronted by the US war machine, as set out in ‘The Afghanistan Papers’. While American military planners have slowly woken up to reality, their British counterparts still cling to a fantasy image of Afghanistan. Some argue that the withdrawal will put Europe’s security at risk, as al-Qaeda regroups under the new Islamic Emirate. But these forecasts are disingenuous. The US and UK have spent years arming and assisting al-Qaeda in Syria, as they did in Bosnia and in Libya. Such fearmongering can only function in a swamp of ignorance. For the British public, at least, it does not seem to have cut through. History sometimes presses urgent truths on a country through a vivid demonstration of facts or an exposure of elites. The current withdrawal is likely to be one such moment. Britons, already hostile to the War on Terror, could harden in their opposition to future military conquests.
What does the future hold? Replicating the model developed for Iraq and Syria, the US has announced a permanent special military unit, staffed by 2,500 troops, to be stationed at a Kuwaiti base, ready to fly to Afghanistan and bomb, kill and maim should it become necessary. Meanwhile, a high-powered Taliban delegation visited China last July, pledging that their country would never again be used as a launch pad for attacks on other states. Cordial discussions were held with the Chinese Foreign Minister, reportedly covering trade and economic ties. The summit recalled similar meetings between Afghan mujahideen and Western leaders during the 1980s: the former appearing with their Wahhabi costumes and regulation beard-cuts against the spectacular backdrop of the White House or 10 Downing Street. But now, with NATO in retreat, the key players are China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan (which has undoubtedly provided strategic assistance to the Taliban, and for whom this is a huge politico-military triumph). None of them wants a new civil war, in polar contrast to the US and its allies after the Soviet withdrawal. China’s close relations with Tehran and Moscow might enable it to work towards securing some fragile peace for the citizens of this traumatised country, aided by continuing Russian influence in the north.
Much emphasis has been placed on the average age in Afghanistan: 18, in a population of 40 million. On its own this means nothing. But there is hope that young Afghans will strive for a better life after the forty-year conflict. For Afghan women the struggle is by no means over, even if only a single enemy remains. In Britain and elsewhere, all those who want to fight on must shift their focus to the refugees who will soon be knocking on NATO’s door. At the very least, refuge is what the West owes them: a minor reparation for an unnecessary war.
Read on: Tariq Ali, ‘Mirage of the Good War’, NLR 50.
Afghans Will Bear the Brunt of Failed U.S. Occupation
Vijay Prashad (The Analysis, 19/08/2021)
Greetings from the desk of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.
On Sunday, 15 August, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani fled his country for Uzbekistan. He left behind a capital city, Kabul, which had already fallen into the hands of the advancing Taliban forces. Former President Hamid Karzai announced that he had formed a coordination council with Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the National Reconciliation Committee, and jihadi leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Karzai called on the Taliban to be prudent as they entered Kabul’s presidential palace and took charge of the state.
Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah, and Hekmatyar have asked for the formation of a national government. This will suit the Taliban, since it would allow them to claim to be an Afghan government rather than a Taliban government. But it is the Taliban and their leader Mullah Baradar that will effectively be in charge of the country, with Karzai-Abdullah Abdullah-Hekmatyar as the window dressing designed to placate opportunistic outside powers.
The entry of the Taliban into Kabul is a major defeat for the United States. A few months after the US initiated its war against the Taliban in 2001, US President George W. Bush announced that ‘the Taliban regime is coming to an end’. Twenty years later, the reverse is now evident. But this defeat of the United States – after spending $2.261 trillion and causing at least 241,000 deaths – is cold comfort for the people of Afghanistan, who will now have to contend with the harsh reality of Taliban rule. Since its formation in Pakistan in 1994, nothing progressive can be found in the words and deeds of the Taliban over the course of its nearly thirty-year history. Nor can anything progressive be found in the twenty-year war that the United States prosecuted against the Afghan people.
On 16 April 1967, the Cuban magazine Tricontinental published an article by Che Guevara called ‘Create Two, Three, Many Vietnams: That is Our Watchword’. Guevara argued that the pressure on the Vietnamese people needed to be relieved by guerrilla struggles elsewhere. Eight years later, the United States fled from Vietnam as US officials and their Vietnamese allies boarded helicopters from the roof of the CIA building in Saigon.
The US loss in Vietnam came during a series of defeats for imperialism: Portugal was defeated the year before in Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique; workers and students ejected Thailand’s dictatorship, opening up a three-year process that culminated in the student upsurge in 1976; the communists took power in Afghanistan during the Saur Revolution in April 1978; the Iranian people opened up a yearlong process against the US-backed dictator, the Shah of Iran, that led to the revolution of January 1979; the socialist New Jewel Movement conducted a revolution on the small island state of Grenada; in June 1979, the Sandinistas moved in on Managua (Nicaragua) and overthrew the US-backed regime of Anastasio Somoza. These were among the many Saigons, the many defeats of imperialism, and the many victories – one way or the other – of national liberation.
Each of these advances came with a different political tradition and a different tempo. The most powerful mass revolt was in Iran, although it did not result in a socialist dynamic but in a clerical democracy. Each of these faced the wrath of the United States and its allies, who would not allow these experiments – most of them socialist in nature – to germinate. A military dictatorship was encouraged in Thailand in 1976, proxy wars were set in motion in Afghanistan and Nicaragua, and Iraq was paid to invade Iran in September 1980. The United States government attempted by any and every means to deny sovereignty to these countries and to return them to full-scale subordination.
Chaos followed. It came alongside two axes: the debt crisis and proxy wars. After the non-aligned countries passed a New International Economic Order (NIEO) resolution in the United Nations General Assembly in 1974, they found themselves squeezed by the Western-dominated financial institutions, including the International Monetary Fund and the US Treasury Department. These institutions drove the non-aligned states into a deep debt crisis; Mexico defaulted on its debt in 1982 and inaugurated the ongoing Third World Debt Crisis. In addition, after the victory of the national liberation forces in the 1970s, a new series of proxy wars and regime change operations were initiated to destabilise the politics of Africa, Asia, and Latin America for two generations.
We have not yet emerged out of the destruction caused by the Western policy of the 1970s.
The Western callousness towards Afghanistan defines the nature of the counter-revolution and of liberal interventionism. US President Jimmy Carter decided to put immense resources behind the worst elements in Afghan politics and work with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to destroy the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA), which lasted from 1978 to 1992 (renamed the Republic of Afghanistan in 1987).
Years after the fall of the Republic of Afghanistan, I met with Anahita Ratebzad, who was a minister in the first DRA government, to ask her about those early years. ‘We faced severe challenges from both within the country – from those who had a reactionary social view – and from without the country – from our adversaries in the United States and Pakistan’, she said. ‘Months after we came to office in 1978, we knew that our enemies had come together to undermine us and to prevent the arrival of democracy and socialism in Afghanistan’. Ratebzad was joined by other important female leaders such as Sultana Umayd, Suraya, Ruhafza Kamyar, Firouza, Dilara Mark, Professor R. S. Siddiqui, Fawjiyah Shahsawari, Dr. Aziza, Shirin Afzal, and Alamat Tolqun – names long forgotten.
It was Ratebzad who wrote in Kabul New Times (1978) that ‘Privileges which women, by right, must have are equal education, job security, health services, and free time to rear a healthy generation for building the future of the country … Educating and enlightening women is now the subject of close government attention’. The hope of 1978 is now lost.
Pessimism must not be laid at the feet of the Taliban alone, but also of those – such as the US, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and Pakistan – who funded and supported the Taliban-like theocratic fascists. In the dust of the US war that began in 2001, women like Anahita Ratebzad were pushed under the rug; it suited the US to see the Afghan women as incapable of helping themselves, and therefore to need US aerial bombardment and US extraordinary rendition to Guantánamo. It also suited the US to deny its active links to the worst theocrats and misogynists (people such as Hekmatyar, who are no different from the Taliban).
The US funded the mujahideen, undermined the DRA, drew in the reluctant Soviet intervention across the Amu Darya, and then increased the pressure on both the Soviets and the DRA by making the counter-revolutionary Afghan forces and the Pakistani military dictatorship pawns in a struggle against the USSR. The Soviet withdrawal and the collapse of the DRA led to an even worse scenario with a bloody civil war, out of which the Taliban emerged. The US war against the Taliban ran for twenty years but – despite the superior military technology of the United States – led to the US defeat.
Imagine if the US had not backed the mujahideen and if the Afghans had been allowed to entertain the possibility of a socialist future. This would have been a struggle with its own zigs and zags, but it would certainly have resulted in something better than what we have now: the return of the Taliban, the flogging of women in public, and the enforcement of the worst social codes. Imagine that.
The defeat of US power does not necessarily come these days with the possibility of the exertion of sovereignty and the advancement of a socialist agenda. Rather, it comes through chaos and suffering. Haiti, like Afghanistan, is part of the detritus of US interventionism, tormented by two US coups, an occupation of its political and economic life, and now by another earthquake. The loss in Afghanistan also reminds us of the US defeat in Iraq (2011); these two countries faced ferocious US military power but would not be subordinated.
All of this elucidates both the wrath of the US war machine, capable of demolishing countries, but also the weakness of US power, unable of fashioning the world in its image. Afghanistan and Iraq built up state projects over hundreds of years. The US destroyed their states in an afternoon.
Afghanistan’s last left-wing president, Mohammed Najibullah, had tried to build a National Reconciliation Policy in the 1980s. In 1995, he wrote to his family, ‘Afghanistan has multiple governments now, each created by different regional powers. Even Kabul is divided into little kingdoms … unless and until all the actors [regional and global powers] agree to sit at one table, leave their differences aside to reach a genuine consensus on non-interference in Afghanistan and abide to their agreement, the conflict will go on’. When the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, they captured President Najibullah and killed him outside the UN compound. His daughter, Heela, told me a few days before the Taliban took Kabul about her hopes that her father’s policy would now be adopted.
Karzai’s plea is along this grain. It is unlikely to be genuinely adopted by the Taliban.
What will moderate the Taliban? Perhaps pressure from its neighbours – including China – who have interests at stake in a stable Afghanistan. In late July, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with the Taliban’s Baradar in Tianjin. They agreed that US policy had failed. But the Chinese urged Baradar to be pragmatic: to no longer support terrorism and to integrate Afghanistan into the Belt and Road Initiative. At present, this is the only hope, but even this is a fragile thread.
In July 2020, former minister of the DRA government and poet Sulaiman Layeq died from wounds he had suffered from a Taliban bombing in Kabul the previous year. Layeq’s poem ‘Eternal Passions’ (1959) describes the longing for that different world he and so many others had worked to build, a project that was obliterated by the US interventions:
the sound of love
overflowed from the hearts
yet still these desires
like winds upon the snows
or like waves upon waters
cries of women, wailers
The Afghans are largely glad to see the back of the US occupation, to be one more Saigon in a long sequence. But this is not a victory for humanity. It will not be easy for Afghanistan to emerge out of these nightmare decades, but the desire to do so can still be heard.
Current Events with Noam Chomsky: Afghanistan | Withdrawal of Troops & History of Military Presence (25/05/2021)
Newest Thoughts on Afghanistan with Noam Chomsky | Current Events with Noam Chomsky (23/08/2021)
Noam Chomsky on Afghanistan (Post-9/11)
A Historical Timeline of Afghanistan (PBS)