Withdrawal from Afghanistan Bruises U.S. Imperialism

by Elisabeth Wichser

On August 10th, Biden announced that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was “not inevitable.” Five days later, Kabul fell to the Taliban. The images of people storming the U.S.-controlled airport, clinging to planes that were taking off, and filling cargo planes give a sense of the fear and chaos in Kabul. There have been reports of women and children being whipped by the Taliban. An ISIS-K suicide bomb went off near the Kabul airport on Thursday, August 26th, killing at least 80 Afghanis (including numerous children) and 13 American troops. It’s possible that civil war could break out again and the country could break up into smaller states. The U.S. retreat from Afghanistan also opens up new opportunities for China, and possibly Russia and Pakistan, to expand their influence in the region. 

This was a defeat for U.S. imperialism, but the Taliban offer no alternative to the violence and suffering that Afghanis faced under U.S. occupation and under the original Taliban regime from 1996-2001. The Taliban are a violent right-wing regime that will crush workers organizing for more rights and will continue capitalism in Afghanistan. The victory of the Taliban could embolden other fundamentalist forces around the world, some of whom are celebrating the Taliban victory. It’s likely that more terrorist attacks will happen in the region. It’s also possible that terrorist groups from the region could attack other parts of the world. Only revolutionary socialist organizations—organized by the people of Afghanistan—not intervention by imperialist powers like the U.S. or China can challenge Taliban rule and other far-right terrorist organizations.

It’s clear the ruling class in the U.S. is divided on whether or not pulling all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan was necessary. Of those that supported leaving Afghanistan, there’s blame going around about how the troop withdrawal was executed. Both Trump and Biden promised in their campaigns to end the “forever wars,” Afghanistan being one of them. Trump’s 2020 “peace deal” with the Taliban paved the way for withdrawing U.S. forces, and Biden decided to continue with Trump’s plan. Trump and Biden both share culpability, along with twenty years of other U.S. rulers and corporate politicians, in the invasion, occupation, the trail of destruction and death, and the chaotic withdrawal.

9/11 and the subsequent “war on terror” were used by the U.S. to try and justify invading Afghanistan in 2001. However, the majority of terrorists who participated in 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia, which the U.S. maintained friendly relations with. None were from Afghanistan. The real reasons for the invasion were to further U.S. interests in Afghanistan. One interest was retaliation against Al-Qaeda and trying to show that U.S. imperialism had not been weakened by the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. was also trying to gain control in Afghanistan (a country rich in untapped minerals and an important trade passage from Europe to Asia) to increase control in Central Asia and the Middle East. 

The “war on terror” attempted to target groups like Al-Qaeda and other fundamentalist groups, despite the fact that the U.S. gave financial and military support to Islamic fundamentalism. In the 1980s, the U.S. supported the right-wing Islamist Mujahedeen against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. John Pilger reports, “Recruited from all over the Muslim world, America’s secret army was trained in camps in Pakistan run by Pakistani intelligence, the CIA and Britain’s MI6. Others were recruited at an Islamic College in Brooklyn, New York – within sight of the doomed Twin Towers. One of the recruits was a Saudi engineer called Osama bin Laden.” The U.S. supported these movements without any regard to their reactionary views against women in order to destabilize the pro-Soviet government. Recently, the U.S. government and the corporate media used “supporting women’s rights” as a reason to justify the war in Afghanistan, though women’s rights only marginally improved under U.S. occupation as the U.S. government made deals with fundamentalist warlords and groups within Afghanistan who continued severe repression of women.

Afghanistan, the U.S., and China 

Biden blames the Afghan military and former president Ashraf Ghani for not fighting the Taliban in Kabul. The Afghan state created by the U.S. and NATO occupation was far from democratic; it was one of the most corrupt institutions in the world. The military was rife with corruption, including rations skimming, corrupt contracts, and military leadership appointments based on personal ties. From 2009 to 2019, over $19 billion in U.S. military spending was “lost to waste, fraud, and abuse.” In total, the U.S. spent $2 trillion on military efforts in Afghanistan. Despite spending all this money, life for the Afghan people improved little. The U.S. occupation did not challenge warlords and even bribed them for their support. The U.S. did little to seriously challenge Islamic fundamentalism or the conditions that led to its growth. Economic inequality and a lack of women’s rights continued under U.S. rule, with half the population still living under the poverty line. The unpopularity of the U.S. occupation and the Afghan state due to corruption and violence made it easier for the Taliban to swiftly take over on promises of anti-corruption and peace. The Taliban was also supported by the Pakistani government and private Pakistani companies, who provided funds, training, and weaponry. The Taliban are promising to be more moderate than they were when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001 so they can access billions of dollars of foreign aid provided by Western governments and banks. There is no doubt that the Taliban will continue capitalism, poverty, and inequality in Afghanistan.  

While economic conditions in Afghanistan improved slightly during the U.S. occupation, living standards are the worst in the region. According to the Financial Times, “On measures of health, personal freedom, living conditions, trust in institutions, safety and security, Afghanistan is still among the worst in the world.” Since the Taliban takeover, prices have skyrocketed, people can’t access their money in the banks, and civil servants, construction workers, and countless others have lost their jobs. 

China began “investing” in Afghanistan, similar to their investments in other projects where they seek economic influence and control, like in Zimbabwe and other Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) countries. While Afghanistan isn’t officially part of the BRI, “China provided Afghanistan millions of dollars in aid for medical assistance, hospitals, a solar power station, and more. All the while, Beijing was fostering stronger trade relations, eventually becoming one of Afghanistan’s largest trading partners,” according to Zhou Bo (New York Times). Shortly after the Taliban takeover, China stated they are ready to have “friendly and cooperative” relations with the Taliban. This is in part because of China’s imperialist interests, including trying to gain access to $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits. But China would also have a better position to curtail the Uyghur Muslim separatist movement, which the Taliban have so far agreed to help them do. Western China currently has a number of internment camps where Uyghur Muslims are imprisoned. 

Those defending Biden argue that ultimately the disaster in Afghanistan is justified because the U.S.’s larger focus should be taking on its chief economic and military rival, China. Taking on China will do nothing to improve the lives of American or Chinese workers. Instead, it looks like the two largest economies in the world will continue to battle for political and economic control so capitalists can reap the benefits.

The way forward

Thousands of people are trying to leave Afghanistan, but many lack the resources to get out. Almost 3 million refugees already live in Pakistan, many in deeply impoverished refugee camps. Pakistan is working on closing its border with Afghanistan and keeping Afghan refugees close to the border. It’s likely that Pakistan and Iran, not the U.S. and Europe, will take in the most Afghan refugees, though the U.S. and Europe will still be affected. Workers around the world should fight for the rights of Afghani refugees, and all refugees, to safe passage, better-funded resettlement programs, and keeping families together, to name a few. But more military intervention in Afghanistan is not the answer. Years of U.S. airstrikes and drone attacks, indiscriminately killing civilians, including bombing schools and hospitals show that the U.S. has no interest in helping ordinary Afghans and instead has further stoked the flames of fundamentalism in the region.

There have already been protests against the new Taliban regime. Any left or working class progressive movement emerging in Afghanistan will need to organize self-defense against the Taliban capitalist state and the repression it will use against any open political opposition. As our co-thinkers in the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) put it, “In all of this renewed chaos, destruction and death, it is the working people and poor of Afghanistan who, once again, suffer most. Socialists support armed self-defense by working people in Afghanistan – which is democratically organized and non-sectarian  – against attacks from the Taliban or warlords. Moreover, the last few decades of misrule under the reactionary Taliban, western occupation, or warlords amply shows that working-class people in Afghanistan need their own independent political force, with bold socialist policies, that can unite across all the ethnic, tribal, and sectarian divisions. A voluntary federation of socialist states in the region is the only way to end wars, exploitation, oppression, extreme inequalities, and endless imperialist meddling.”

Image Credit: David Lineman via WikiMedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0