The chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan has triggered a flurry of different responses.
The US establishment sees only disaster: proof that their empire is in decline and that the Biden administration has abandoned its unshakeable commitment to freedom and democracy. The front pages of the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and other elite publications are dedicated to propagating this kind of imperial guff, modern-day Kiplings bemoaning the US’s defeat at the hands of savages. “Beijing will welcome further evidence that the post-American world is upon us” concluded Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times for example.
Few of these commentators believe that maintaining US forces in Afghanistan could have substantially improved conditions on the ground for the Afghan people. To them, US prestige and global hegemony is the end that justifies all conceivable means. In a piece for the New York Times, Frederick Kagan argues “reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom of keeping American military forces in Afghanistan indefinitely...I and others have argued that the investment, including the risk to American personnel, is worth it”.
Not being an advocate for perpetual war myself, I expected to feel some sense of relief, if not joy, at the withdrawal. After all, 20 long years of grinding and brutal warfare have finally been brought to an end. Australian soldiers will no longer be in a position to massacre unarmed famers and their children, as was recently documented in the Brereton Report. The families of the estimated 240,000 people killed in the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including 71,000 civilians, can begin to find peace, if not justice.
Yet it is difficult to feel anything but rage. The war has left Afghanistan in ruins. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of casualties, more than 50 percent of the population live in poverty. The country’s economy and people are more subordinate to the opium trade than ever, with horrific levels of drug addiction particularly in rural areas. Many feminists argued that women would benefit from the war, yet Afghan women’s lives and bodies continue to be brutalised and their dreams crushed under occupation. Women are responsible for up to 80 percent of all suicide attempts in Afghanistan according to a 2018 report quoted by the BBC, an inversion of the pattern seen almost everywhere else.
Attempts by the US to establish a functioning governing infrastructure have collapsed virtually overnight, demonstrated most dramatically by the sight of its president, Ashraf Ghani, abandoning his country almost at the same time as the occupying power. As his people suffer untold miseries, this millionaire has found sanctuary in the oil-fuelled opulence of Oman.
History tells us that foreign powers overwhelmingly fail to construct legitimate and respected institutions in the countries they occupy. In this case, the occupiers’ opportunist collaboration with various corrupt and often reviled warlords, including those in the “Northern Alliance”, made success impossible. These figures acted as middlemen for the US occupation when it served their purposes, extracting enormous profits while inflicting arbitrary violence on the Afghan people.
Elizabeth Threlkeld, a former US state department official, explained the mass defections from the Afghan army in a recent interview with the Financial Times: “If you’re in one of those provincial capitals that remains, you have to ask yourself, ‘what am I fighting for and what are my odds of success?’”
Many have compared the evacuation of the embassy in Kabul with the final days of the South Vietnamese republic. But this comparison is misleading in some important ways. The US was forced to withdraw from Vietnam by the combination of heroic popular resistance from the Vietnamese people, widespread mutinies that disabled their army, and growing anti-war sentiment at home.
None of these factors exist in this case. The war in Afghanistan was never anywhere near as unpopular as the invasion of Iraq, and even then, the US anti-war movement was long ago disarmed by liberals’ slavish support for the candidacies of John Kerry and Barack Obama. In the absence of a broader radicalisation or social movement, there has been no rebellion among the US military. Grievances among the troops have instead manifested in extraordinarily high suicide rates, responsible for more troop deaths than the war itself.
Even more important is the fact that the Taliban is not the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, which for all its Stalinism was an immensely popular national liberation movement. The NLF led decades of heroic resistance, and its government was more or less respected by millions of Vietnamese peasants, workers and students. It represented the aspirations of the majority of the Vietnamese people for national self-determination.
By contrast, the Taliban is a hated and feared reactionary force that rules through violence and repression. The horrific experience of a Taliban government led many Afghans to support the US invasion in the first place. While it gained some support in the worst parts of the war, a survey of more than 15,000 people by the Asia Foundation in 2019 found that 85 percent had “no sympathy at all” for armed opposition groups, the highest figure ever recorded. In July of this year, a Guardian journalist based in Kabul documented armed protests of women expressing their determination to resist Taliban restrictions on their right to attend school, work and be out in public.
A video widely circulated on Twitter shows hundreds of Afghans blocking runways and trying to board US military planes departing from Kabul. Some even held on to the wheels and wings through take-off, risking their lives in their desperation to flee their broken country.
In this context, it is vital that we are sensitive to the legitimate concerns of Afghan people, the majority of whom will be terrified at the prospect of a new Taliban government. While we can welcome the withdrawal, it is not a victory for ordinary Afghans.
The tragedy of the current situation and 20 years of occupation before it bears out what many argued back in 2001, Socialist Alternative amongst them. Despite the humanitarian bleating of liberal defenders of the international order, capitalist states do not act benevolently. The invasion was not about helping women, nor was it about creating democracy. It was the opening salvo in an imperial enterprise designed to preserve US power into the new millennium.
The US withdrawal is being widely discussed as a major defeat. This is undeniably the case. For the world’s most powerful military to be defeated by poorly armed villagers and clerics is embarrassing, to say the least. So too is the rapidity at which its 20-year-long efforts of “state construction” collapsed at the first sign of trouble.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to conclude from this that we now live in a “post-America world”. The US defeat in Afghanistan did not happen this month, it happened more than a decade ago with the failure of Obama’s surge in 2009. When adding more than 100,000 US combat forces failed to achieve any measurable outcome, it was clear that the war was unwinnable. The issue for every president since 2010 was how to leave without causing a scene.
It was Donald Trump, who as a politician was somewhat independent from the imperial apparatchiks in the Pentagon, CIA and state department, who sharply attacked the idea of “endless wars”, and promised to withdraw all troops from the Middle East. In office he was successfully constrained by the Pentagon, though eventually the final withdrawal was scheduled for May of this year. Biden’s victory saw the departure date delayed by months, but the withdrawal remained in place.
It goes without saying that neither Biden nor Trump took this step for progressive reasons. Rather, the so-called War on Terror is yesterday’s war, just as the jihadis are yesterday’s bogeymen. The trillions spent, the thousands of lives ruined in Guantanamo Bay and other torture camps, the Islamophobia that oppressed millions and provoked atrocities like the Christchurch massacre, have served their purpose and it’s time to move on.
Both men would have us believe that it is now China that poses the biggest threat to world peace. From their perspective, and that of the US empire, global hegemony will be decided not in the Middle East or Central Asia, but in the conflict between the US and China based in the Indo-Pacific. The withdrawal from Afghanistan is therefore not so much a retreat as a redeployment.
This brings us back to the final difference between the defeats in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Withdrawal from Vietnam marked the end of a period of militarism and war for the US. Though the CIA and other institutions remained highly active agents of counter-revolutionary policy the world over, the US was not willing to engage in direct military conflicts for decades after it was forced out of Vietnam.
In the case of Afghanistan however, the final departure of the US from Afghanistan signals the intensification of what is set to be a long-term conflict between the US and China. A war between these countries, even in proxy form, will lead to destruction on an even greater scale than anything seen in Afghanistan. Which is why any and all steps in that direction must be opposed, including greater arms spending, diplomatic brinksmanship, and the deployment of Australian forces in the Indo-Pacific.
It is too early to judge the full geopolitical impact of Biden’s move. If it frees the US up to pursue China more effectively, it will be judged a painful but necessary episode. If, as is being speculated, it leads to a crisis in NATO and a loss of faith among traditional US allies, then it could end up being a fillip for the Chinese ruling class. It is also an open question whether the Taliban will seek to export their ideas across the region, including the Uighurs territory in China and the nuclear-armed Pakistan, or will they settle for pragmatic coexistence.
In the meantime, the US withdrawal will generate a wave of refugees who refuse to subject themselves to the reactionary whims of the Taliban. We know from past experience that Western politicians, who are so adept at crying crocodile tears over the treatment of women under the Taliban, will refuse to accept these same women when they knock on their doors seeking protection. Already, Macron has signalled the need to establish a European mechanism to stop asylum seekers entering the bloc in large numbers.
We urgently need to demand that the refugee intake is increased dramatically, so that those who flee the ruins of a ravaged nation can be resettled safely and with full citizenship rights. It’s not much, but it’s the least the Australian government can do after destroying their country.