By Steve Bell
The ending of NATO’s war on Afghanistan is a defeat for US imperialism. The Taliban has returned to government, despite the war’s aim to exclude them.
The reactionary character of the Taliban will limit the social progress that can be achieved through the establishment of an independent state in Afghanistan. It also threatens the viability of that state, as a genuinely national and inclusive policy is vital to avoid a break up of the state.
The problem of government
The announcement of the formation of a “caretaker” government demonstrates the problem. Of the 33 members, not one is a woman – unfortunately not a surprise. All of them are Taliban members. 31 are from the Pashtun ethnicity, with one a Tajik, and the other an Uzbek. Precise figures on Afghanistan’s ethnic composition are not available as there has never been a countrywide census. Most estimates put the Pashtuns at just over 40%. 94% of government occupancy is obviously unbalanced.
With the withdrawal of NATO, the neighbouring countries are decisive to the future development of Afghanistan. China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan all share its borders. And all, with the exception of China, have major kin overlaps with Afghanistan’s ethnic-linguistic communities. India and Russia are close neighbours with historic ties and common concerns for regional development and stability.
As the Taliban will need international recognition, it is quite possible that the “caretaker” nature of the government is to allow for negotiations on additional personnel from the country’s diverse communities. Such an option would aid its domestic and international security.
For over-enthusiastic people suggesting the Taliban has fundamentally changed, the government includes 14 people who were officials from the 1996-2001 Taliban government. It also includes 5 former prisoners of Guantanamo. Some of the ministers remain on the US Foreign Terrorist Organisation list – which the Taliban is claiming breaches the Doha agreement, negotiated with President Trump. Doubtless the years of exile and insurgency have greatly elaborated the Taliban’s political and military skills, without apparently having changed its fundamental programme.
The best scenario is that the Taliban’s interest in securing its power leads to systematic cooperation in economic development with its neighbours. Taliban spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen said that it sees China as its “main partner” in rebuilding Afghanistan. It has strong links to Pakistan, who had recognised the first Taliban government, and sheltered it since 2001. Iran and the Taliban have been in serious contact for some years.
A country emerging from war and occupation
The economic and social situation after the war is dire. Afghanistan is the poorest Asian nation, and is poorer that Haiti. There was almost no expansion of capital investment from the start of the 1950’s to 2003. The growth of the country’s GDP after 2001 was primarily artificial, being linked to servicing the NATO occupation. According to the UN, 75% of public expenditure comes from foreign donors.
Imperialism’s response to its defeat has been to freeze Afghan assets and aid. Afghanistan’s GDP has been around $20 billion a year. Afghan assets overseas worth $9.5 billion cannot now be accessed by the Afghan Central Bank. Aid to Afghanistan has been frozen by the US, UK, EU and others. There was a donor’s conference on Monday 13 September. There is an obvious danger that the choice of using “leverage” against the Taliban will have limitted the conference outcome. No representative of the new authorities was invited to the conference.
The current humanitarian crisis is profound. Only surpassed by Yemen, Afghanistan has nearly half of its population in humanitarian need. More than half of its children will face acute malnutrition in 2021.
72% of Afghans are living on no more than one dollar a day. According to the UN’s Asia Director, Kanni Wignaraja, this could rise to 97% by mid 2022, if aid dries up and a third wave of COVID-19 is unaddressed. China has offered an immediate $31 million in aid, including vaccines.
Despite these circumstances, the Biden administration may still opt for destabilisation via aid restrictions and sanctions. US imperialism may also utilise the internal armed opposition of the “National Resistance Front”. The value of preventing stabilisation would be to ensure that China and Iran are unable to cooperate in economic development due to a precarious security situation.
This needs to be followed. One sign is the coordination of Iranian “reformists” with Afghan refugees in protests inside Iran. These rallies condemned the Iranian government for not supporting armed resistance inside Afghanistan, and called the Taliban “terrorists”. Portraits of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud were carried. He was responsible for major war crimes in Kabul in 1993, during the civil war. The Iranian government is pursuing a line of dialogue, and aiming particularly for the peaceful inclusion of the Farsi speaking Hazara people in the country’s future.
Fallout amongst NATO allies
The failure of the US, and its abrupt withdrawal, has impacted upon NATO allies. Inside the EU the Defence Ministers meeting on 2 September concluded that the EU needs to accelerate building the EU’s military capabilities to ensure its strategic autonomy. EU High Representatives on Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, stated that Afghanistan showed that the EU had “an inability to respond”, and needed a “first entry force”. French President Macron had previously spoken of the EU being unable to accept a “bi-polar world made up of the US and China”.
The impact of the defeat has been even greater in Britain, given its glaring international isolation. This was highlighted by Boris Johnson’s failure at the G7 conference, and elsewhere, to create some sort of alliance to maintain the intervention. This confirmed the collapse of a major plank of the foreign policy pursued by successive British governments since 2001.
To weigh this impact we have to consider comparisons like the Suez debacle of 1956, which demonstrated the inability of the British government to pursue a foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa independent of the US. Or the defeat experienced by British imperialism in Aden and South Yemen which led to withdrawal in 1967; the abandonment of military bases east of Suez, and the independence of some Gulf states.
The immediate response of pro-war British politicians has been to deny the failure. Johnson has argued that the intervention was a success because Al Qaeda were defeated in Afghanistan, and there was some social progress. Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy have argued in a similar manner. They have confined their criticisms of the Tory government to its evident lack of preparedness in the face of Trump’s endorsement of the Doha agreement on withdrawal. Yet they cannot claim to have alerted the British public to the need to prepare for withdrawal after the February 2020 signing. On the contrary, they wished to maintain the intervention and were as unprepared as the Tories.
Yet the extent of the failure of the pro-war policy cannot be hidden. The “Global Britain” policy, endorsed by both the Tories and Labour’s Front Bench, lies in tatters. Britain’s international influence has been shown to be non-existent on such a serious issue. No wonder Tony Blair was prompted to an hysterical defence of his legacy failure, when he characterised Biden’s withdrawal as “imbecilic”. Theresa May bemoaned in parliament the obvious inability of the British government to make a difference.
No cover up for the failure – support the Afghan people
The British ruling class will want to pass over this debate as quickly and quietly as possible. The labour and progressive movement must insist upon a real reckoning of the failure. Twenty years of warfare and occupation is the issue, not just the manner of leaving.
To do this, we must first make clear that the withdrawal is an unmitigated good – whatever the justifiable criticisms of its execution. The people of Afghanistan now have the possibility of deciding upon their own future. It is easier to address a domestically reactionary government if it is not supported by US imperialism’s military.
Most of the social “gains” under the occupation were confined to the cities. The trumpeted growth in education, health services, and involvement of women were confined to urban areas. Many facilities recorded by western powers had the same ghostly character as the Afghan security forces. These facilities were mostly paper expressions of overseas finances disappearing into government aligned networks of warlords and militias. Documentation of this corruption is abundant and available.
Socialists must insist that the people of Afghanistan are not now subjected to sanctions, a freeze of assets or aid reduction. We must highlight the fact that the humanitarian crisis is a direct result of the NATO intervention.
Along with Stop the War, we must demand “no more foreign wars”. Immediately there must be an end to the British government support for the war and siege of Yemen. This must include a freeze on arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – and withdrawal of British armed forces from Yemen, and the Saudi command centre. Equally, the British government’s support for Biden’s shift to concentrate on the cold war against China must be rejected.
The campaigns welcoming Afghan refugees are a major and excellent initiative. The government’s refusal to end deportations, and refusal to accept Afghan refugees who cross the English Channel must be condemned. The government’s decision to bar entry to dozens of interpreters who worked with the army should be overturned.
Some caution is required in dealing with calls to isolate the Taliban from a “left” perspective. It is certainly right to support Afghan women’s rights, limited though they are. But it is vital that the labour movement does not take up slogans such as “Don’t recognise the Taliban”. Asking the British government to act in such a manner is to endorse forms of hybrid war against Afghanistan. Effective solidarity needs broad unity.
There must be no cover-up for the failure of imperialist intervention. The people of Afghanistan need our continuing practical support.