The Fall of Afghanistan: Imperial Debacle

David Finkel for the Solidarity National Committee

August 17, 2021

Taliban fighters take control of the presidential palace in Kabul. (Photo: Zabi Karimi/AP)

The lightning conquest of Afghanistan by the Taliban offensive culminates a truly bipartisan U.S. imperial debacle more than 40 (not just 20) years in the making.

The U.S. military withdrawal is one issue where Trump and Biden were on the same track. Naturally, that doesn’t prevent Republicans (and some Democrats) from condemning Biden for the shambolic state of the exit. Like the endless empty noise over “Benghazi” (remember?), the backbiting will continue for quite some time, but isn’t terribly meaningful.

It’s more important to understand the history behind the events, which we’ll briefly sketch.

1. In 1979 president Jimmy Carter, advised by the hawkish Zbigniew Brzezinski, began covertly assisting Islamist mujahideen fighters against a leftwing Afghan government that was trying to modernize the country with assistance from the Soviet Union. This was four short years after the final U.S. defeat in Vietnam.

2. When the Soviet regime invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 to save its allies, Carter responded with a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and escalated the CIA’s covert operations supporting the mujahideen fundamentalists.

3. During the 1980s the United States and Soviet Union waged a bloody proxy war between Afghan forces, in which U.S. “strategic allies” Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were also heavily involved. This was when the Ronald Reagan administration threw U.S. support behind Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan (as well as Saddam Hussein in Iraq at the same time). All this had “bipartisan” support. Reagan’s presidency, now warmly remembered as a kind of golden age, was also the era of the U.S.-sponsored genocidal counterrevolutionary wars in Central America.

4. With the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan in 1989 and the USSR’s dissolution in 1991, U.S. attention under George H.W. Bush diverted from Afghanistan to the First Gulf War against Iraq. Without Soviet support, the Afghan government was overthrown in 1992 and its president Najibullah brutally lynched, leaving a power vacuum and a bloody civil war among Afghan warlords. This lasted until 1996 when a new Islamist fundamentalist force, the Taliban, backed by Pakistani military and intelligence services and by Saudi Arabia, took power.

5.Taliban rule from 1996-2001 was marked by notorious atrocities and particularly the hideous subjugation of women, not to mention the wanton destruction of “non-Islamic” cultural treasures. But when Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization based in Afghanistan carried out the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 the U.S. Congress almost unanimously — with the courageous dissent of only Representative Barbara Lee — approved president George W. Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan that has lasted until August, 2021.

6.The war in Afghanistan was one in which the United States would never lose a battle — but could never win the war. Money that poured into the country for development was often diverted to the pockets of extraordinarily corrupt elites, to say nothing of huge profits for U.S. contractors. Just as in the Vietnam war, U.S. military leadership consistently hid the truth of what was happening behind the facades of “liberating Afghan women” and “building an effective national Afghan army,” much of it consisting of ghost soldiers.

7.Meanwhile, fatally, the neoconservative ideologues who dominated the GW Bush administration saw Afghanistan as just the start — a launching point for sweeping regime-change wars in Iraq, Iran and Syria to “transform the Middle East.” We know how all that has turned out.

8.Under president Obama the United States succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan hideout. Yet the war in Afghanistan continued, including a U.S. troop “surge” that accomplished little more than previous efforts since the Taliban always had their secure place to retreat in Pakistan. The carnage of civilians escalated with U.S. drone strikes, U.S. and Afghan military raids, and increasingly violent Taliban attacks. (As the heroic imprisoned whistleblower Daniel Hale revealed, 90 percent of victims of drone strikes were not the supposed targets.)

9.Donald Trump’s political rise was partly fuelled by popular disgust in the U.S. public over the endless war and by his promise to end it. Acting in his usual impulsive opportunist fashion, Trump sent U.S. envoys to negotiate a deal with the Taliban, without involvement of the Afghan government, for a U.S. military withdrawal by May 2021 and the release of 5000 Taliban fighters in Afghan prisons — in exchange for Taliban promises that of course wouldn’t be kept, except for refraining from most direct attacks on U.S. troops.

10.Biden inherited this reality, and had made his own promise to get out. There was, however, apparently a rather spectacular “intelligence failure” where our highly-paid strategic geniuses overlooked an elementary fact: Once the Afghan government was reduced to irrelevance by the Trump-Taliban deal, of course Afghan regional and tribal leaders would cut their own deals with the Taliban. Naturally there would be limited resistance as they swept through the country.

11.The Taliban takeover is truly catastrophic for much of the population. One of the very few silver linings is that there wasn’t street-by-street urban fighting in Kabul, which would have entailed horrific civilian casualties and murderous reprisals afterward.

12.This is only the briefest sketch, obviously, of how superpower conflict and then the hubris of “the only remaining global superpower” have done so much damage to one country, to say nothing of so many other places. So what went wrong? In short, everything. And the story is not over yet.

As Taliban control consolidates what might happen next depends on multiple unknown variables, including:

  • How concerned are the Taliban leadership with their international legitimacy, recognition and development assistance as they govern a fractured country.
  • What the Taliban’s sponsors in Pakistan’s military and intelligence advise them to do.
  • The Taliban leadership’s relations with the local and regional leaders with whom they obviously made agreements before their final offensive.
  • How fully the Taliban leaders control their own commanders and fighters in the countryside.

The Taliban will be judged not by their promises but by their actions. So, of course, will the United States and the other imperial powers who contributed to this debacle. Right now regardless of so-called “strategic” calculations or politics, as U.S. combat veterans insist, the evacuation of the Afghan interpreters and ordinary folks who worked with the occupation is an absolute moral humanitarian imperative. The failure to have done so before now, with the absurd bureaucratic processes involved, is shameful.

Going forward, the overriding question is whether U.S. imperialism — after Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and other disasters it created — has learned anything from multiple bloody failures. There’s little reason to expect our political elites to do so, particularly as many of them make handsome livings from the military-political-ideological complex. Changing the terms of “foreign policy” debate and the worship of military power is the responsibility of a popular peace and anti-imperialist movement that needs to be built at home.

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