Afghanistan: Humiliating US Defeat, the Return of the Taliban, and the Threat of Civil War

Afghanistan is hurtling towards yet another civil war as US and allied forces withdraw after two decades of bloody occupation. The withdrawal of imperialist troops, announced by Joe Biden, is set to be completed by August 31 this year, although most US forces have already left or are in the process of hurriedly abandoning the country while the Taliban is advancing in many areas.

The fact that US imperialism and other allied forces have been forced to withdraw is being presented as solely due to the Taliban. The fact, however, is that the US intervention and occupation of Afghanistan over the last two decades was also met with strong opposition by the local population. There is widespread and burning hatred towards this imperialist war, which has killed tens of thousands of innocent people and plunged the whole country into devastation, instability, and barbarism.

It may well be true that on many occasions, in particular in rural Pashtun areas, the hatred towards western imperialism meant that the local population would either passively accept, or even on occasion help facilitate Taliban attacks. However, this does not mean to say that that the majority of the population had or has any deep-seated sympathy for the arch-reactionary and obscurantist forces of the Taliban.

The tragedy of the situation is that the power vacuum left by the US is being filled in many areas mainly by the Taliban, with its thousands of men under arms, and with the tacit backing of several foreign powers.

After two decades of war, at a cost of more than $2 trillion, the US ruling class has signally failed to achieve any of the aims it announced to the world at the start of the war. After killing countless civilians, carpet bombing many regions, and devastating the lives of millions, the US is leaving after reaching a humiliating agreement with the Taliban. In this so-called peace agreement, signed last year in Doha, Qatar between the Trump administration and the Taliban leadership, the US ceded to all the latter’s demands.

Biden and Ghani Image public domain
Biden and President Ghani. The US-backed Ghani government is falling to pieces as the US make an ignominious retreat. / Image: public domain

The weak and corrupt Kabul government, now led by President Ashraf Ghani, and supported by US imperialism and other allied forces, is rapidly falling to pieces as US forces withdraw. That is because it is hated by large sections of the masses for being a puppet of Imperialism. US intelligence reports suggest that this government will barely survive six months after the withdrawal. Going into the war, the imperialists claimed they would eventually transform Afghanistan into a modern democratic state. The result has been a dismal failure.

20 years ago, the International Marxist Tendency explained why this adventure would only lead to more misery and destitution for the Afghan people, while at the same time destabilizing the whole region. As we explained in November 2001, immediately after the fall of Kabul to US-backed forces:

The Taliban have lost their grip on power, but not their potential for making war. They are very used to fighting a guerrilla war in the mountains. They did it before and can do it again. In the north, they were fighting in alien and hostile territory. But in the villages and mountains of the Pushtoon area, they are in their own homeland. The prospect opens up of a protracted guerrilla campaign which can go on for years. The first part of the allied war campaign was the easy bit. The second part will not be so easy. British and American troops will have to go into the Pushtoon areas on search and destroy missions, where they will be sitting targets for the guerrillas. Casualties will be inevitable. At a certain stage this will have an effect on public opinion in Britain and America.

The Americans had hoped to be able to carry out a quick, surgical strike against bin Laden, relying mainly on air power. Instead, the conflict is becoming ever more complicated and difficult, and the prospect of an end is postponed almost indefinitely. They will have to keep troops stationed not only in Afghanistan but in Pakistan and other countries in order to prop them up…

This is a far worse and more dangerous position than the one in which the Americans found themselves on September 11. Washington will now be compelled to underwrite the bankrupt and unstable regime in Pakistan, as well as all the other “friendly” states in the region, which are being destabilized by its actions. If the aim of this exercise was to combat terrorism, they will find they have achieved the opposite. Before these events, the imperialists could afford to maintain a relatively safe distance from the convulsions and wars of this part of the world, but now they are completely entangled in it. By their actions since September 11, the USA and Britain have got themselves dragged into a quagmire, from which it will be difficult to extricate themselves.

Again, we explained in 2008 that this war was unwinnable for imperialism. After a protracted war, the imperialists would be forced to withdraw, defeated, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake:

In the end the Coalition forces will be compelled to abandon the attempt to occupy Afghanistan. They will leave behind them a trail of death and destruction and a legacy of hatred and bitterness that will last for decades. We do not know which of the rival gangs will dominate the next government in Kabul. What we do know is that, as always, the heaviest price will be paid by the ordinary people, the workers and peasants, the poor, the old, the sick, the women and children.

The terrible fate of the people of Afghanistan is yet another of the innumerable crimes of US imperialism and its allies. The infamous “war on terror,” far from achieving its objectives, has had the opposite result. By its actions the imperialists have provided a powerful impetus to terrorism. They have poured fuel on the flames of fanaticism and thus acted as the main recruiting sergeant for al Qaeda and the Taliban. They have completely wrecked Afghanistan and in the process they have destabilized Pakistan. In the immortal and often quoted words of the Roman historian Tacitus: “And when they have created a wilderness, they call it Peace.”

This analysis has been fully confirmed, while the tall claims of the imperialists lie in tatters. Those liberals and so-called “leftists” and “nationalists” who supported US imperialism have also been exposed in their utter bankruptcy.

Four decades of US intervention

The US intervention in Afghanistan is now more than four decades old. The 1978 Saur Revolution, led by Noor Muhammad Taraki, was a turning point, which could have led to the socialist transformation of Afghanistan and challenged the powers of the whole world at that time.

After the subsequent Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, which was strongly criticized by Ted Grant (then-leader of the Marxist tendency), the US imperialists opened their coffers for the infamous “Dollar Jihad,” using Pakistan as a staging post for the Taliban and other US-allied fighters (labeled “holy warriors,” jihadis) to attack Soviet forces.

Saur Revolution Image Cleric77
The Saur Revolution could have opened the road to the socialist revolution in Afghanistan. But after the Soviet invasion, the US sponsored a “Dollar Jihad” in the country, fueling Islamic fundamentalism. / Image: Cleric77

The brutal dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan viciously attacked the working class and prepared the ground for the rise of Islamic fundamentalist groups, which prospered with aid from the US and Saudi Arabia. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the imperialists lost control over this Frankenstein’s monster that they had created. The consequence was a brutal civil war ravaging Afghanistan throughout the 1990s. The whole country was plunged into barbarism and tens of thousands of innocent people were slaughtered, as the warring jihadi factions fought amongst themselves for control of Kabul.

With the turn of the century, as the interests of US imperialism changed, these “holy warriors”—who now bite their former master’s hand—were suddenly labelled as terrorists. A war was unleashed by the biggest imperialist power in history against the most backward and devastated nation on Earth, which had been declared, without any sense of irony, as a threat to the whole world. At the end of this war, the US and its allies signed a “peace” deal with these same terrorists, accepting all their terms and conditions, including the release of thousands of Taliban prisoners in Afghan jails, and conceding the Taliban a seat at the table of world diplomacy.

Meanwhile, the Taliban’s brutality and atrocities in the name of religion have earned them well-deserved enmity from a significant layer of the population across the country especially among the non-Pashtuns and in the cities. Only thanks to the support from Iran, Pakistan and other imperialist powers have they been able to organize and fight back. This has been helped along by the corruption and brutality of the US installed regime, which particularly in Pashtun areas has pushed a layer of the rural population into the arms of the Taliban.

We should also not forget that these reactionary, Islamic fundamentalist forces were also backed and promoted by US imperialism in the past. And once these reactionaries then turned against US imperialism, they became a useful bogeyman to justify any US military intervention in the region.

Now the imperialists are exiting the war in what can only be termed a humiliating defeat. For all the objections of some Pentagon generals who wish to continue the war, it has become a thorn in the side of US capitalism, which is faced with an economic, social, and political crisis of historical proportions and a population deeply weary of never-ending wars. What is left is an Afghanistan ravaged by backwardness, misery and devastation.

The fact remains that, in spite of being propped up by these powers, the Kabul government failed totally to garner mass support nationally. After two decades of massive assistance and billions of dollars in aid, it is now suspended in midair. The puppet government and all its institutions are crumbling to the ground as the hated war comes to an end. The artificial state apparatus imposed on Afghanistan by the imperialist powers is collapsing, with the 200,000-strong Afghan National Army and other security forces in the process of rapid disintegration.

No government imposed by the imperialist powers can sustain itself indefinitely when it is utterly despised by the masses. All the sham elections of the last two decades, the corruption of the regime and its crimes against the masses, can now be seen plainly by the whole world.

The extreme fragility of the Kabul government was known to imperialist powers for many years. They nevertheless tried to concoct a success story that they could sell to the world, declaring “victory” in Afghanistan. But in the last few years, killings and terrorist attacks have spiraled. If the occupying forces had remained any longer, they would have only faced further humiliation.

The Taliban are now reportedly advancing in many districts across the country, and claim to control 85% of Afghan territory. This might be an exaggeration, but they certainly occupy at least 40% of the country’s districts, while contesting the Afghan National Army’s control of another 42%. In many cities, the Afghan National Army is abandoning its positions, either without a fight, or surrendering to and even joining the Taliban. The Taliban are taking hold of many of the abandoned posts, seizing the ammunition and artillery of the departing American forces, and capturing their supplies, although they still lack the numbers to take hold of many large areas.

One can sense, however, that while people may be happy to see the end of the foreign intervention, there is a feeling of foreboding about the Taliban taking over. Among the masses there is a fear of bloodshed and civil war ensuing, as thousands flee Taliban-occupied areas. The lack of support for the Taliban is further reflected in the fact that they have been forced to launch recruitment campaigns in the border regions of Pakistan, with the tacit support of the Pakistani state. The dead bodies of hundreds of Taliban fighters are regularly being brought back to Pakistan for burial.

Regional powers meddle

Seeing the impending defeat of the US and the potential for a destabilizing civil war in Afghanistan following US withdrawal, the Iranian regime, in coordination with Russia and China, has been establishing ties with the Taliban.

Hoping to gain influence in the future government of the country, Iran has helped the Taliban regroup in the last years on the condition that it increases attacks on US forces and supports the fight against Islamic State which has been gaining ground amongst Afghan Islamists. In the last few months, a Taliban delegation has also visited Tehran seeking the protection of the draconian Mullah regime of Iran. The Iranian leaders are not only supporting the Taliban by providing training camps and weapons, but are also directing the Shia population in Afghanistan to support them, despite their ethnic and sectarian differences.

Iran’s aim is to promote a future regime built on the basis of a coalition of sectarian and national warlords and local elites, in which it could assert its influence and protect its interests, which are primarily to reduce instability that could penetrate its borders. This is all the more important after the Taliban also captured the Islam Qala crossing: one of the biggest trade gateways into Iran, in scenes widely shared in the Iranian media, again without evidence of a struggle. This crossing is the source of $20 million a month for the Iranian government.

Afghan troops Image public domain
Taliban forces have met little resistance from troops of the Afghan National Army. In response, many of the persecuted communities, such as Hazara Shias, Tajiks, and Uzbeks, are taking to self-defense. / Image: public domain

Needless to say, the Taliban, an overwhelmingly Pushtoon Wahhabi force, has no problem linking arms with the Shia regime, which is supposedly its religious enemy—as long as the money and arms keep coming.

Russia and China have similar interests, these also reaching out to the Taliban, to secure their influence over a future regime in which the Taliban is set to become a major, if not the major force. Russia, for its part, is seeking assurances from the Taliban that Afghanistan’s northern borders will not be used as a base for attacks on former Soviet republics. India also recently sent its representatives to the Taliban embassy in Doha, Qatar for a possible deal with the future Afghan leadership. It may seem ironic that India, led by the Hindu fundamentalist Modi, has reached out to the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban, but there is a logic in it in the sense that the Indian ruling class also wants to gain influence with the force they believe can govern the country.

In the last few weeks, the Taliban have captured some areas in the north of the country, including some districts in the Badakhshan province bordering western China. These are mostly populated by non-Pashtun nationalities, and were traditionally considered to be strongholds of anti-Taliban forces. These few victories have been played up by the supporters of the Taliban, including Pakistan, as a big development, signaling the imminent takeover of Kabul. But a complete Taliban takeover seems implausible, as they lack the overwhelming support of the masses across the whole country. It would seem more likely that the Taliban would have to form a coalition with a ragtag of other groups.

Such a perspective is however far from certain. Instability is built into the situation. The persecuted communities like the Hazara Shias, Tajiks, and Uzbeks of Afghanistan are not welcoming the Taliban, and are preparing for self-defense in case of a civil war. The Kabul government has also allowed local tribal armies, warlords, and militias to organize and regroup to defend themselves in case of a Taliban onslaught. In effect, this is an admission of failure by the Kabul government and the Afghan National Army. Local warlords, tribal leaders, and small nationalities will arm themselves to defend their localities, and ultimately this could lead to civil war across the country.

In this situation, the Americans have frantically sought to save face. They have even appealed to Russia and China to take control of things in Afghanistan, so that the US can leave this bloody war claiming at least a partial “victory.” Indeed, Afghanistan was one of the topics on the agenda in recent meetings between Biden and Putin. However, despite efforts by Russia, China, Turkey and other powers, none of the agreements have amounted to anything. The end of the war and withdrawal of imperialist forces will not end instability, on the contrary, it will give it a new lease of life.

Moscow and Beijing have also arranged many talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban during the last few years, but these have not led to any concrete conclusions. This is a war with weak forces on all sides, and no one is able to claim a complete victory, despite support from regional powers. China has pursued a lucrative policy of looting and plundering mineral resources, and of exploiting the strategic location of Afghanistan for its own interests. But it is wary of dedicating the necessary financial and military resources to bring the whole situation under control.

China is not as powerful as the US and its allies. If two decades of military intervention by the wealthiest and mightiest power on earth couldn’t stabilize Afghanistan, how can China, Russia or any other regional power be expected to do any better? Nevertheless, to defend its interests, China is likely to become increasingly embroiled in Afghanistan and it too has sought a modus vivendi with the Taliban—to protect its current and potential future investments, particularly related to the Belt and Road Initiative. According to Iranian sources, Beijing has promised to help the Taliban rebuild Afghanistan’s crumbling infrastructure for this purpose. China also seeks to isolate separatists in Xinjiang province from support from the jihadi groups across the border.

Pakistan

Decades of US imperialist meddling in Afghanistan have had a profound impact on Pakistan, a country that has benefited from the patronage of US imperialism for the entirety of its 73-year history. Acting as a stooge of US imperialism in the region for decades, it supported the bloodshed in Afghanistan during both the “Dollar Jihad” of the 1980s, and later in the so-called “War on Terror.” The ruling class of Pakistan has become filthy rich in this bloody business and has used the reactionary forces of the Taliban to spread terror among the working class of Pakistan as well.

But the latest developments in Afghanistan have shaken the foundations of the Pakistani state. The Americans are putting all the blame for their failures of the last two decades on Pakistan. They correctly claim that Pakistan played a double role in this war. They accuse Pakistan of having pocketed a fortune from the US ($33 billion according to Donald Trump) to support their so-called “War on Terror,” while providing a sanctuary and safe haven for the Taliban leadership inside Pakistan. Now, the US is planning to teach its former stooge in the region a lesson.

That US imperialism has been unable to tame its long-time stooge is another illustration of its own crisis. Nevertheless, it is now using its muscle on the world stage to strangle the capability of the Pakistani state, and limit the importance of its regional role.

At the behest of the US, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has placed Pakistan on a grey list for the last three years and is threatening to blacklist the country if it doesn’t comply with its regulations against the financing of terror and money laundering. In fact, all these crimes—along with the global heroin trade—were staples of the “Dollar Jihad” of the 1980s, when Pakistan was a frontline state of US imperialism in its war against Soviet Union. Today, these criminal activities run like lifeblood in the veins of Pakistani state.

The US imperialists are also using their influence in the IMF, World Bank, and other financial institutions to throttle the economy in Pakistan. The Pakistani economy from the beginning has been reliant on the IMF, which dictates all its financial policies and budgets. The US has used the IMF and other imperialist institutions to drain the wealth produced by the working class of this country through loans and interest, while also keeping the ruling class under its sway.

Under these imperialist financial policies, a 700,000-strong army in Pakistan, in addition to nuclear weapons, have been supported by some of the poorest people on this planet. For the last seven decades, this arrangement has been used to pursue the interests of imperialist powers, with Pakistan adopting a policy of “Strategic Depth” in Afghanistan, to install a compliant government in Kabul.

Pakistan has repeatedly requested the US ruling class continue the war in Afghanistan. This is because withdrawal will mean the US will lose its dependence on Pakistan, thus ending the stream of dollars flowing into the coffers of the Pakistani ruling class. But despite all the pleas, the Americans are finally leaving this whole region—for now. As the US ruling class has developed cordial relations with India in the last decade or so in its confrontation with China, Pakistan has been relegated to an inferior status.

An indication of the changed relations between the US and Pakistan can be seen in the fact that last week, the Americans included Pakistan in the list of countries using child soldiers in war, which will ban Pakistan from receiving military and financial aid from many countries. This action alone expresses the anger of their imperialist masters, who are abandoning their favorite stooge for better options in the region.

The Pakistani ruling class, however, is trying to woo the US ruling class, while on the other hand supporting the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in order to acquire leverage. But neither of these options will realize all their objectives, which are full of contradictions. The problem facing the Pakistani ruling class is that the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan doesn’t rely solely on Pakistan, and wouldn’t be able to survive without the support of Iran, Russia and other powers. And even with that support, they don’t have enough forces to control the whole country.

Horror without end

If, eventually, the Taliban successfully take over Kabul, this will be a weak and unstable regime. Infighting and splits will begin, along with the resistance of opposition forces, consisting of local landlords and tribal leaders.

Social instability is built into the foundations of this poor country, a problem that cannot be solved via the heroin trade and other criminal activities. Neither will financial support from China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and others be sufficient to alleviate the main cause of instability, the extreme poverty and misery of the masses. It is worth recalling how the billions of dollars coming from US and allies in the last two decades only had the effect of filling the coffers of the warlords, tribal chiefs and NGOs and of course US civilian contractors.

Iran, Russia, and China all following their own narrow interests, want to stabilize Afghanistan. They want to avoid instability spilling over into their own countries and they want to secure a new regime which is friendly to their interests. But there is no prospect of real stability returning to Afghanistan anytime soon. Sectarian conflict, the proliferation of local militias and proxy battles will persist in one way or another and, leading to continued bloodshed and killings and prolonging the suffering of the Afghan masses. This will lead to a mass exodus of Afghan refugees into the neighboring countries. The imperialist powers of the west, which are responsible for this mess, are already denying visas to Afghanis and are condemning them to live in the bloody hell that imperialism has created.

Neighboring countries like Pakistani have ruthlessly exploited Afghan refugees over the last four decades. On the one hand, the plight of these refugees is used to appeal for aid from rich countries of the world, which ultimately merely stuffs the pockets of the wealthy. On the other hand, the cheap labor of these undocumented refugees is exploited by local capitalists to generate superprofits and drive down average wages. In the past, refugees have also been the source of recruitment for reactionary forces, to conduct terrorist activities under state-sponsored institutions. But now, the situation has changed considerably, as there is widespread hatred against the Taliban and their supporters.

Today, in those areas of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan that were used as a launching pad for jihad in the 1980s, and which provided a base for reaction, there is now a simmering mood of revolt against the policies of the ruling class. A powerful movement has emerged against so-called army operations, war and terrorism in the name of religion and imperialist designs. Unfortunately, the leadership of this movement has not been able to connect this with the working class of the whole region to build a movement on a class basis. Rather, they have relied on US imperialism for their salvation against the onslaught of the Taliban, like a lamb appealing to the wolf for help.

The situation has also exposed the real character of so-called “leftists” and “nationalists” in the whole region, who have been supporting US imperialism for the last two decades. If a class war had been waged simultaneously against US imperialism and the reaction of the Taliban 20 years ago, as the Marxists advocated, things would have been entirely different today. A revolutionary alternative would have been available to the masses in Afghanistan. A class war could have been fought with the support of the working class of neighboring countries, especially Iran and Pakistan. Eventually, they would have sought the solidarity of the workers of the whole world, including the US. But the ex-leftists and nationalists denied such a possibility, and grasped the bloodstained hands of one or other imperialist power, and the latter led the whole country into an abyss.

It is time to draw the necessary lessons from this ongoing mayhem and build a revolutionary alternative on the basis of the genuine ideas of revolutionary Marxism. Only the working class of the region has the potential and the will to defeat all the reactionary forces in Afghanistan and bring peace and prosperity to this war-torn region. On the basis of capitalism, all roads lead to ruin and destruction, which will throw the next generations of Afghans into a spiral of conflict and destruction.

The socialist transformation of Afghanistan is the only way forward, and this is linked with the fate of the revolutions in Iran, Pakistan and other countries in the region. All efforts must be made to build a revolutionary force on the basis of these ideas. Only this will end the perpetual war in Afghanistan, and put an end to this bloodshed once and for all.


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