25 August 2021
Audio of a talk based on this article at an online meeting on 12 September 2021:
As the Taliban marched into Kabul on 15 August, the puppet government of President Ashraf Ghani evaporated, marking a humiliating defeat for the United States and its NATO partners. While it is difficult to calculate the full extent of the damage to the American Empire at this early stage, the US withdrawal and the loss of Afghanistan following the longest running war in American history clearly represent a major geostrategic setback for Washington. The defeat of the world’s most formidable military and its local agents at the hands of poorly-armed insurgents will only accelerate the decline of US imperialism while opening up new possibilities for Russia and China in Central Asia.
News outlets around the world aired the chaos at Kabul airport as the US scrambled to evacuate the remaining American citizens and government staff from the country. Disturbing videos of Afghans desperately clinging to the side of a US military plane, only to plunge to their death, evoked memories of Washington’s hasty retreat from Saigon, Vietnam in April 1975. Now iconic images of Taliban fighters occupying the presidential palace quickly surfaced, while social media carried surreal footage of insurgents riding bumper cars at an amusement park and exercising at a deserted gym.
Roughly 80,000 Taliban fighters achieved stunning military victories against the nominal 300,000 Afghan government troops, many of whom simply retreated, deserted or joined the insurgents. The rapid collapse is a byproduct of the demoralization of soldiers within the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) who were no longer willing to fight for the corrupt and discredited Ghani government. Ghani himself reportedly fled Kabul before the Taliban takeover with $170 million in cash and is now in exile in the United Arab Emirates “on humanitarian grounds.” In many cases the Taliban was able to secure victory and avoid armed engagement by negotiating surrender with the civilian and military officials on the ground, along with tribal elders, who were anxious to prevent massacres of their local population. In Jalalabad, the Taliban marched in without firing a shot, and in Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, the governor was pictured handing over power to his insurgent replacement.
The Taliban has proclaimed a new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and will now seek to consolidate state power and build a functioning government. Former president and US asset, Hamid Karzai, along with a newly formed coordination council of Afghan leaders, is working with the Taliban to oversee the transfer of power. The new rulers have so far moved cautiously and for the time being adhered to the key provisions outlined in the peace agreement signed with the US under the Trump administration in Doha, Qatar in February 2020. However, the carefully crafted vows to form an “inclusive, Islamic government,” to grant a general “amnesty” for all in Afghanistan and “to respect women’s rights” will almost certainly give way to reprisal killings, strict enforcement of sharia law and a repeat of the brutal theocracy that characterized Afghanistan under Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001.
Since 2001, American imperialism and its partners in the “Five Eyes” network (Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand) have unleashed violence on the people of Afghanistan under the Orwellian cover of a “war on terror”—a series of imperialist military adventures designed to reassert US control over the strategically important Middle East and Central Asia. An estimated 240,000 Afghans and Pakistanis have died as a direct result of the war, while some 3.5 million Afghans are internally displaced. An unimaginable 90 percent of the population lives below the official poverty line (i.e., on less than $2 per day).
The US has spent an estimated $2.2 trillion dollars on the occupation, which is expected to reach a staggering $6.5 trillion by 2050 with the cost of interest on the Afghan war debt. According to Forbes (16 August 2021):
“That’s $300 million dollars per day, every day, for two decades. Or $50,000 for each of Afghanistan’s 40 million people. In baser terms, Uncle Sam has spent more keeping the Taliban at bay than the net worths of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates and the 30 richest billionaires in America, combined.”
Washington spent $145 billion on reconstruction activities in Afghanistan, though, as Georgetown University Professor Christine Fair observes, “much of U.S. investment did not stay in Afghanistan”: “Because of heavy reliance on a complex ecosystem of defense contractors, Washington banditry, and aid contractors, between 80 and 90 percent of outlays actually returned to the U.S. economy” (Foreign Policy, 16 August 2021). Of the $145 billion, “governance and development” accounted for $36 billion—including over $4 billion for “counternarcotic initiatives.” The lion’s share, almost $89 billion, went to building Afghan security, including the army and police, which, faced with the imminent withdrawal of American forces, largely melted away during the Taliban advance.
For almost 20 years, US imperialism armed and equipped the forces of its Afghan puppet regime, fueled by ambitious designs of “transforming the Afghan National Army from a light-infantry force into a combined-arms service with army, air force and special forces element.” Yet, after two decades, they remained dependent on the US “for key skills, including air cover, logistics, maintenance, and training support for ANDSF ground vehicles and aircraft; security; base support; and transportation services” (Guardian, 15 August 2021). As the ANDSF dissolved, it essentially gifted the Taliban billions of dollars worth of US-made military equipment, “possibly including 600,000 assault rifles, some 2,000 armored vehicles, and 40 aircraft, including Black Hawks” (New York Post, 20 August 2021).
In December 2019, the Washington Post published a confidential trove of government documents which revealed “that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.” Known as the “Afghanistan Papers,” the documents exposed widespread hypocrisy and incompetence among the highest levels of the US military carrying out the imperialist occupation:
“‘We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan—we didn’t know what we were doing,’ Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: ‘What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.’”
It has long been known “what we were doing” in Afghanistan and Iraq thanks to former US soldier, Chelsea Manning, and the founding editor of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange. In 2010, WikiLeaks released the “Afghan War Diary” and “Iraq War Logs,” which, as we previously noted:
“exposed the widespread brutality of imperialist occupation by the United States and its coalition partners, including the use of psychological warfare, rendition and torture, child prostitution, and massive civilian casualties and deaths through targeted killings and air strikes. In Afghanistan, when the imperialists could no longer conceal the murders, they simply paid off the families of the victims to keep quiet. In Iraq, the number of civilian deaths was estimated to have reached over 100,000, many of them simply unreported or reclassified as ‘enemy casualties’ to conceal the scale of killing.…
“The International Criminal Court (ICC) has recently ruled that it will pursue an investigation into the war crimes committed in Afghanistan by the United States, the first time the ICC has investigated a major imperialist power. The U.S. was not a signatory to the agreement establishing the ICC in 2002 and essentially doesn’t recognize it. The inquiry will cover the torture, rape, and sexual violence mentioned above, as well as the use of a U.S. Army hit squad, known as a ‘Kill Team,’ that murdered, humiliated and then posed with the corpses of their victims.”
—“WikiLeaks & Whistleblowers in the Age of Imperialism”
The “war on terror” has been very profitable for the military-industrial complex and a handful of financial parasites on Wall Street. Since September 2001, the top five defense contractors (Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics) have seen a near ten-fold increase in the value of their stocks, while “defense stocks outperformed the stock market overall by 58 percent during the Afghanistan War”:
“These numbers suggest that it is incorrect to conclude that the Taliban’s immediate takeover of Afghanistan upon the U.S.’s departure means that the Afghanistan War was a failure. On the contrary, from the perspective of some of the most powerful people in the U.S., it may have been an extraordinary success.”
—The Intercept, 16 August 2021
The US government has specifically pursued a strategy of outsourcing the Afghan war to benefit private mercenary contractors. In 2012, “the number of defense contractors in Afghanistan peaked at more than 117,000 individuals, as compared to around 88,000 U.S. service members” (Military Times, 17 August 2016). By the end of the war, after troop levels had significantly declined, the ratio of private mercenaries for every service member in Afghanistan was 7 to 1.
Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops, despite the likelihood of the collapse of the Afghan military, was calculated to cut America’s losses in a two-decade long occupation that has lined the pockets of defense contractors but ultimately yielded few substantial material gains for the rest of the imperial ruling class. This explains why elements of the establishment and the “deep state” (i.e., the military-industrial complex and the NSA, CIA and FBI security-intelligence apparatus) are so critical of the abrupt end to the war. However, the defense budget under Biden has reached a record $778 billion, and the United States still spends more on “national defense” than the next eleven countries combined, enabling the US military to start new wars in new theaters.
The defeat of US imperialism in Afghanistan follows disastrous interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria and failed attempts at “regime change” in Cuba, Venezuela and Iran. Taken together, these misadventures have done significant damage to the military prestige and capability of the once seemingly hegemonic imperialist power. While Washington has some 800 military bases abroad, the absence of American boots on the ground in Afghanistan leaves the US searching for options to carry out future “counter terrorism” operations in the country. Also in jeopardy are US plans to “rely on a shadowy combination of clandestine Spec Ops forces, Pentagon contractors and covert intel operatives to find and attack the most dangerous Qaeda or Islamic State threats” that were previously slated to remain in Afghanistan after the official troop withdrawal (New York Times, 13 April 2021).
The most direct beneficiaries of the “new geopolitical configuration” in Central Asia will be Russia and China. Both have already built ties with the Taliban and, along with regional ally Pakistan, have “agreed to continue consultations … on how to encourage ‘an inclusive inter-Afghan dialogue in the new conditions’” (Wall Street Journal, 17 August 2021). Journalist Pepe Escobar has suggested that “Moscow and Beijing are meticulously stage-managing the Taliban’s reinsertion in regional and global geopolitics” (Asia Times, 19 August 2021), though the relationship is fraught with its own set of contradictions.
Moscow, although it designates the Taliban as a terrorist organization, has been quietly talking to the insurgents for years and is seeking “pragmatic” engagement with the new regime in Afghanistan. The Russian government is aware of the potential of getting burned by the Islamists in Kabul and has, in the words of one analyst, “show[n] them a fist”:
“As the Afghan government collapsed this week in Kabul and the United States scrambled to speed up its evacuation effort, hundreds of Russian armored vehicles and artillery pieces were clearly visible hundreds of miles away, on the border with Tajikistan.
“They were part of a high-profile military exercise taking place just 12 miles from a Taliban position, and they were there, a Russian general said, to make a point.”
—New York Times, 19 August 2021
As the US withdraws from Central Asia, Russia has, in fact, emerged as the main imperialist military influence in the region:
“Russia’s security presence is predominant. The sprawling military footprint the U.S. established in the former Soviet states of Central Asia to facilitate the invasion of Afghanistan has all but disappeared.
“As Edil Baisalov, the Kyrgyz ambassador to Britain, put it succinctly in a telephone interview: ’The great hour of America in Central Asia has long since passed.’”
Moscow hopes to leverage its military weight and relationship with the Taliban to insert itself in Afghanistan’s economy. Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s Special Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan, stated: “We have long been in talks with the Taliban on the prospects for development after their capture of power” (Tass, 16 August 2021).
China has also signaled its interest in establishing “friendly relations” with the Taliban, despite concerns about Uighur radicals using Afghan territory to destabilize neighboring Xinjiang province, anticipating that “a stable and cooperative administration in Kabul would pave the way for an expansion of its Belt and Road Initiative into Afghanistan and through the Central Asian republics” (France24, 16 August 2021). Beijing, which has invested $62 billion in the China-Pakistan economic corridor, is expanding its role and influence in Afghanistan and is expected to increase trade and investment. Already the biggest buyer of raw materials from Afghanistan, China has taken the lead in exploring the country’s natural resources, which are estimated to be worth up to $3 trillion and are crucial for industrial manufacturing (e.g., copper, gold, lithium, uranium and fossil fuels).
Washington has for years expressed concern about the resurgence of “great power” rivalry and has been preparing for “the prospect of war—real war, war between the major powers”:
“All of this—the aggressive exercises, the NATO buildup, the added US troop deployments—reflects a new and dangerous strategic outlook in Washington. Whereas previously the strategic focus had been on terrorism and counterinsurgency, it has now shifted to conventional warfare among the major powers.… Until recently … American forces had largely been primed to defeat insurgent and irregular forces, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan. Now, however, the Pentagon was being readied for ’a return to great-power competition,‘ including the possibility of all-out combat with ’high-end enemies’ like Russia and China.”
—The Nation, 7 July 2016
This “dangerous strategic outlook,” shared by both Republican and Democratic administrations, was expressed in the National Defense Strategy unveiled by Trump’s Secretary of Defense James Mattis in January 2018: “We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists that we are engaged in today, but great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security” (Reuters, 19 January 2018).
We have already witnessed flashpoints of “great power competition” between the US and Russia in the recent clashes over “spheres of influence” in Ukraine (see “Ukraine in Imperialist Vise”) and the Caucasus (see “Nationalism & Nagorno-Karabakh”), although Russia is forced to play more of a defensive role than its much stronger American rival. Revolutionary socialists take no side in inter-imperialist conflicts, though for Leninists in any particular imperialist country, “the main enemy is at home.”
Washington has been targeting China by supporting anti-China protests in Hong Kong (see “Defend China against Pro-Imperialist ‘Democracy’ Campaign!”) and maneuvering in the South China Sea (see “Provoking China”), and will continue to look for opportunities to undo the remaining gains of the 1949 Revolution. China remains a deformed workers’ state, and Marxists defend it against imperialist threats and internal capitalist counterrevolution. We do not consider its foreign investments to be “imperialist.” However, we remain political enemies of the Stalinists in Beijing and do not issue blanket endorsement of their foreign policy, which is designed to serve the interests of the bureaucracy and not the oppressed.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan is a direct result of decades of US imperialist intervention dating back to the late-1970s. In April 1978, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) took power and began carrying out a series of radical-nationalist measures that included slashing debts, enacting land reform, lowering the bride price, abolishing child marriage and initiating schooling for girls. This provoked intense hostility among ultra-conservative layers within Afghanistan (e.g., mullahs, money lenders, big landowners) who were also concerned about Soviet support to the PDPA government.
In July 1979, Washington began covertly aiding the Islamist mujahedin (which it referred to as “freedom fighters”) in the hopes of inducing Soviet military intervention. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser at the time, later outlined the “secret operation” in an interview with Le Nouvel Observateur (15-21 January 1998):
“Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn’t believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don’t regret anything today?
“B: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border [24 December 1979], I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.
“Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?
“B: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”
Throughout the 1980s the CIA used Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence as a pipeline to channel an estimated “$2-3 billion worth of covert assistance to the mujahidin, training over 80,000 of them” (Human Rights Watch, July 2001). Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden was one of the foreign fighters who flooded into Afghanistan to wage jihad (“holy war”) against the Soviet infidels and their left-nationalist PDPA allies.
The Taliban emerged in 1994 from the chaos and civil war in Afghanistan that followed Soviet withdrawal in February 1989 and the eventual collapse of the PDPA government in 1992. It is a fundamentalist Islamic sect largely based in Afghanistan’s Pashtun population (the predominant ethnic group in much of the country’s south and east) and has significant support among Afghans who fled to the tribal areas in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province in the 1980s, of whom over a million remain. With military aid and training from Pakistan throughout the war, the Taliban had seized Kabul by September 1996 and shortly thereafter declared the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The imperialist assault on Afghanistan in 2001 began under cover of the claim the Taliban was harboring bin Laden, though it was widely reported at the time that the US refused offers by the Taliban to hand him over if it could provide evidence of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks (Guardian, 14 October 2001). The launch of the war was a monstrous crime and a defining political event at the dawn of the 21st century. It was also a litmus test for every organization claiming the anti-imperialist heritage of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Revolutionaries call for all imperialist powers to be driven out of Central Asia and anywhere else they intervene. We take a position of unconditional military defense of neocolonies such as Afghanistan targeted for imperialist attack and favor the defeat of the imperialists:
“For example, if tomorrow, Morocco were to declare war on France, or India on Britain, or Persia or China on Russia, and so on, these would be ‘just’, and ‘defensive’ wars, irrespective of who would be the first to attack; any socialist would wish the oppressed, dependent and unequal states victory over the oppressor, slaveholding and predatory ‘Great’ Powers.”
—V.I. Lenin, Socialism and War
The Bolsheviks codified the policy of revolutionary defense of colonies and semi-colonies against imperialism in the “Twenty-One Conditions” for admission to the Third (or Communist) International:
“Any party wishing to join the Third International must ruthlessly expose the colonial machinations of the imperialists of its ‘own’ country, must support—in deed, not merely in word—every colonial liberation movement, demand the expulsion of its compatriot imperialists from the colonies, inculcate in the hearts of the workers of its own country an attitude of true brotherhood with the working population of the colonies and the oppressed nations, and conduct systematic agitation among the armed forces against all oppression of the colonial peoples.”
—“Terms of Admission into Communist International,” July 1920
After the Stalinist degeneration of the Communist International, the position of principled opposition to imperialist war was upheld by Trotsky and the Left Opposition. When Italian imperialism invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Trotsky wrote:
“Of course, we are for the defeat of Italy and the victory of Ethiopia, and therefore we must do everything possible to hinder by all available means support to Italian imperialism by the other imperialist powers, and at the same time facilitate the delivery of armaments, etc., to Ethiopia as best we can.”
—“The Italo-Ethiopian Conflict,” 17 July 1935
Unfortunately, most of the self-described socialist left considers the above principles as sectarian and hopelessly outdated. They failed to defend Afghanistan (or Iraq, Libya, etc.) against imperialist assault and instead followed the line of least resistance. In place of an explicitly anti-imperialist intervention into the anti-war movement of the early 2000s, groups like the Socialist Workers Party in Britain built coalitions that adapted to the existing (reformist) consciousness and promoted pacifist illusions centered around demands to simply “stop the war.” The International Communist League (aka the Spartacists) initially declared that the “Taliban has no possible military redress” and denounced the call to defeat US imperialism in Afghanistan as “illusory and the purest hot air and ’revolutionary’ phrasemongering” (see “Where is the ICL Going?”).
Marxists are implacable political enemies of Islamic reaction, but we nonetheless welcome the defeat of US imperialism in Afghanistan. The inability of the US to consolidate a stable client state and its humiliating loss may lead Washington and its allies to think twice the next time they decide to target a neocolonial victim for “regime change.” The defeat has shaken the confidence of the American population in its government, though the military-industrial complex and its corporate media agents have been busy using the discontent to build the case for never withdrawing from overseas occupations. While the US has declined from its dominance in the last half of the 20th century, it remains the most powerful imperialist force on the planet—its military, investments, geostrategic maneuvering and secret operations span the globe.
Defending the right of Afghanistan (or any other neocolonial country) to drive out the imperialists does not entail any political support to the Taliban. We are under no illusion that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will result in anything but a repeat of the reactionary theocratic regime that ruled the country from the mid-1990s to 2001. The Taliban are deadly enemies of the oppressed. They oppose all forms of social equality, are committed to the absolute subordination of women within the family and virtual exclusion from society, and are dedicated to a religious worldview of obscurantism and visceral anti-communism. However, the task of removing the Taliban falls not to the imperialists and their regional allies but to the oppressed and exploited in Afghanistan supported by the international working class. Revolutionaries in the imperialist powers call for workers’ strikes against the war machine as concrete acts of international solidarity (see “Anti-War Strike: U.S. Dockers Take Historic Step”).
Imperialist war is endemic to capitalism. The assault on Afghanistan, like Iraq, Libya and Syria, is the inescapable result of the predatory redivision of the world market by great powers in the imperialist epoch (i.e., the “highest stage of capitalism”). Without its revolutionary overthrow and the establishment of workers’ power, capitalism will ultimately destroy human society. But it will not disappear on its own—it must be overturned and replaced with a higher, socialist, form of economic organization. That requires the construction of revolutionary socialist parties armed with the program of class struggle. The key task of Marxists in this period is to cohere the nucleus of a Bolshevik-type party based on the anti-imperialist political legacy of Lenin and Trotsky and the early years of the Communist International. This is the revolutionary perspective upon which the International Bolshevik Tendency is based and for which we fight.
Afghanistan & the Left (Trotskyist Bulletin No.8)
Imperialist War & Socialist Pretenders (1917 No.25)
‘Marxists Are Not Pacifists’: United-Front Demonstration against Afghan War (1917 No.34)