Tue May 21, 2024
May 21, 2024

Afghanistan: The final chapter of an imperialist failure

The forces of the Taliban have entered the capital Kabul and taken power. Prior, they had taken most other cities from a national army that was in a state of collapse. Simultaneously, the last remaining US troops in the country began their retreat (by order of president Joe Biden) and tried to secure the escape of thousands of people by plane, including former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani as well as many employees of the defeated regime. What significance does this have?
By the International Secretariat of the IWL-FI
Some leftist media outlets believe these recent events are equivalent to the US defeat in the Vietnam War during the 70’s. Others focus on and repudiate the deeply reactionary and oppressive politics of the previous Taliban regime (1996-2001, particularly against women and ethnic minorities). This debate mirrors the intense debate occurring inside the main imperialist powers and their bourgeois institutions to make an assessment of what happened, and of whether Biden’s decision was right or wrong[1]. Against this complex backdrop, what should the analysis and the politics of socialist revolutionaries be?

Bush’s “War on Terror”

We must start by pointing what that what is happening right now is the last episode of a long story that began in 2001, when Republican then-President George W. Bush used the political chaos produced by the 9/11 terrorist attacks to push forward his international project entitled “The New American Century”. Bush launched the “War on Terror” against what he called the “Axis of Evil” (among others, the governments of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, North Korea and Iran).
The first episode of this war was the invasion of Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime (accused of having aided the perpetrators of 9/11), in October 2001, troops from the United Kingdom and other countries also forming a small portion of the US-led coalition, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The next step was the invasion of Iraq, in March 2003, to destroy the government of Saddam Hussein (charged with possessing “weapons of mass destruction”).
Both regimes were pushed out of power, but imperialism was forced to keep permanent military occupations to fight national liberation wars in ever worsening conditions[2]. Trying to revert these dynamics, imperialism doubled down and deployed over 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan during the beginning of the Barack Obama administration. This bet failed, however, and an imperialist defeat seemed almost inevitable (the same was happening in Iraq), something acknowledged even by the imperialist bourgeoisie, their press and their military leaders. During that time, the notion of “Iraq syndrome” (an analogy to Vietnam) was created to explain the situation that happened after a defeat, as well as the need to steer towards other alternatives[3].

Obama’s Turn

It was during those years that the main phases of the imperialist military defeat occurred. Again, imperialism was taught the same lesson as in Vietnam: when it comes to rapid military actions against weaker countries, its military and technological superiority are effective, such as with the toppling of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein regimes. If these actions transform into occupations or long-term wars against a national resistance, however, they become unwinnable for imperialist forces. A sign of this defeat was that by 2014 the ISAF was dissolved, the other countries removed their forces, and only US soldiers remained.
Obama was already turning the rudder: he gradually removed US troops, leaving a maximum of 10,000 soldiers in the Bagram base to protect Kabul, as well as propping up the institutions of the puppet regime and the central districts. Meanwhile, it organized  “selective assassinations” against Taliban leaders. The strategic objective was to prepare to withdraw from the country.
Within this plan, Obama provided weapons, training and generous funding for an “Afghan national army” to defend the Kabul regime and contain the Taliban. In theory, this army had 300,000 well-trained, well-equipped soldiers, but in practice it ended up being a sand castle, especially in the interior of the country, where its units were commanded by regional tribal leaders (transformed into “warlords”) that often lied about the amount of soldiers they had in order to extort more money from their American patrons.
In the following years, whenever the Afghan national army faced a fierce offensive by the Taliban, they would surrender the central city of the region and, many times, even made deals to jointly administer the territory with the Taliban. When Biden’s decision to remove all US soldiers from Bagram became public, this collapse of the Afghan forces sped up, leaving little resistance in the way of the Taliban as it advanced to control the vast majority of the country, eventually including the capital of Kabul.

“We are leaving”

It needs to be mentioned that the decision to retreat permanently from Afghanistan had already been made by Donald Trump, publicly stating that no more effort should be spent on “useless wars” in regions that he did not consider strategic for US interests.
“After all these years, it is time to bring our people back home”, said the then-president, adding that on February 2020, the United States of America and Taliban made a ‘agreement to bring peace’ to Afghanistan” (without the participation of the Afghan regime). Nearly 5,000 Taliban militants were liberated in the months following this deal.
In other words, though Trump now insists that the outcome would have been “better” with him in power, Biden did no more than to continue and materialize a political decision which US imperialism had already made years ago. That is why he made a deal directly with the Taliban, prompting them to intentionally delay their entry into Kabul to allow for the retreat of the US troops and for the employees of the toppled regime to flee through the airport. While it is not the central point of this article, we can say that Biden’s politics for Afghanistan are consistent with the strategic objectives he defined for his administration: trying to solve the economic-social problems nationally, and focusing on fighting China on the international level.

A first assessment

We have said that some leftist organizations define the Taliban’s conquer of Kabul as a “new Vietnam”, often presenting similar side by side pictures of a US military helicopter evacuating forces from Kabul and Saigon. If we only compare these pictures, however, we will have a mistakeen sense of what is actually happening.
Let us attempt a first assessment: there has indeed been a defeat of US imperialism and its policies of invading coutries and imposing its will through military might. That is why, just as we supported the national resistance of the Afghan people against imperialism, we recognize this defeat as a triumph of the struggle of the masses. It is a demonstration that it is possible to defeat imperialism, that it is not an irresistible force, and that it has serious weaknesses. In this sense, we can draw a parallel with the Vietnam war.
However, as we have analyzed, what is now happening is the realization of a defeat that, really had already occurred years ago (in Afghanistan and in Iraq), and that the most important consequences of this defeat had begun well before the Taliban marched on Kabul. For example, the political crisis of US imperialism and Obama’s turn away from Bush’s foreign policy and the great revolutionary upheaval in the Arab and Muslim world after 2011 were both motivated by the ongoing failure of US military interventions in the region. It was in those years that the “Vietnam effect” was produced.
What we are seeing now is like a “slow-motion” ending to a process that has long been undereway. The expectation that the Taliban’s victory will automatically unleash a similar revolutionary surge to what was seen following Vietnam, or the rapid expansion of a new revolutionary upheaval in the Arab and Muslim world, is likely mistaken. The reactions to the fall of Kabul in 2021 will be less straightforward.

Now the Taliban is the problem

Finally, another very important difference exists. The imperialist defeat in Vietnam opened the way for a new workers’ state in the newly-unified country, even if it was a bureaucratic and led by the Vietnamese Communist Party.
Thanks to the Taliban, it is impossible for anything analogous to happen in Afghanistan right now. This organization became the political-military leadership of the national resistance against imperialism, and thus is the architect of the imperialist defeat. This was a progressive struggle of the Afghan masses against imperialism and we supported this fight.
However, we must not forget two aspects. On one hand, that the Taliban’s bourgeois character means that they will not complete the struggle against imperialism. On the other hand, Taliban has already ruled the country between 1996 and 2001, and did it with a regime that we called a “theocratic dictatorship”, with laws based on an extremist and intolerant interpretation of Islamic law.
These laws were extremely oppressive towards women, who were forced to wear burkas in public, forbidden drive vehicles, and stopped from attending school past the age of 8 (and girls younger than that were only allowed learn reading and writing by studying the Quran). Women were not allowed to have medical appointments with male physicians without a man accompanying them (which often resulted in women simply forgoing medical services), etc.
The Taliban regime also committed a series of massacres against the ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities of the country “especially against Shiites and Hazara, which they considered ‘sub-human’ because they were ‘disbelievers’ that deserved no rights”[4]. It was precisely these repressive, reactionary traits of the Taliban dictatorship that led some middle-class individuals, and even the working classes of important cities such as Kabul, to prefer the US occupation and its puppet regime, supporting and collaborating with it to varying degrees. The images of crowds of people trying to escape Kabul is evidence of these allegiances.
We have, then, this contradictory combination: a triumph of the Afghan national resistance against imperialism (even though, as we said, it has happened gradually), but, as a result, the near-certain rise of a new theocratic dictatorship. We celebrate the triumph, while believing that the task at hand for the Afghan masses (especially women and oppressed minorities) is the struggle against this dictatorship.
To sum it all up, the recent events in Afghanistan are the consolidation of an imperialist defeat. This strenghtens the struggles of the workers and masses against imperialism in the world, and we must double down on our support for them. At the same time, the organization that takes power in Afghanistan plans on installing a theocratic dictatorship, and thus the new task in Afghanistan is the struggle against the Taliban regime.


[1] On this subject, see the dossier published on https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/experts-react-the-taliban-has-taken-kabul-now-what/ or the article of British BBC Newsin https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-internacional-57762858
[2] See Martín Hernández’s article “¿Qué guerra es esta?” in the Marxism Alive No 4 (December 2001) and that of Alejandro Iturbe published in our site in: https://litci.org/es/la-reaccion-democratica-del-sindrome-de-vietnam-al-sindrome-de-irak/.
[3] About the situation that already existed in 2009, we suggest reading the articles by Bernardo Cerdeira in the dossier called “Middle East. A new, immense Vietnam for imperialism”. Published in Marxism Alive No 22 (December 2009).
[4] Yousufzai, Rahimyllah, «Pakistani Taliban at work», The News (18/12/1998)

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