The Fall of Kabul

Image: John Mark-Smith


The fall of the Afghan capital to the Taliban is a major political and ideological defeat for the US Empire.

The fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 15, 2021 is a major political and ideological defeat for the US Empire. The crowded helicopters carrying US Embassy officials to Kabul airport were startlingly reminiscent of scenes in Saigon – now Ho Chi Minh City – in April 1975. The speed with which Taliban forces invaded the country was staggering; his remarkable strategic acumen. A week-long offensive ended triumphantly in Kabul. The 300.000 strong Afghan army crumbled. Many refused to fight. In fact, thousands of them went to the Taliban, who immediately demanded the unconditional surrender of the puppet government. President Ashraf Ghani, a favorite of the US media, fled the country and sought refuge in Oman. The flag of the revived emirate is now flying over its presidential palace. In some respects, the closest analogy is not Saigon but XNUMXth-century Sudan, when Mahdi forces invaded Khartoum and martyred General Gordon. William Morris celebrated the Mahdi's victory as a setback for the British Empire. Still, while Sudanese insurgents killed an entire garrison, Kabul changed hands with little bloodshed. The Taliban didn't even try to take over the US embassy, ​​let alone target US personnel.

The twentieth anniversary of the “War on Terror” thus ended in a predictable and predictable defeat for the US, NATO and others who jumped on the bandwagon. However, if we consider the Taliban's policies – I have been a severe critic for many years – their achievement cannot be denied. In a period when the US destroyed one Arab country after another, no resistance emerged that could challenge the occupiers. That defeat could very well be a tipping point. That's why European politicians are complaining. They supported the US unconditionally in Afghanistan and they also suffered humiliation – none other than Great Britain.

Biden was left with no choice. The United States announced that it would withdraw from Afghanistan in September 2021 without fulfilling any of its “liberationist” goals: freedom and democracy, equal rights for women and the destruction of the Taliban. Though he may be militarily undefeated, the tears shed by embittered liberals confirm the deepest extent of his loss. Most of them – Frederick Kagan on New York Times, Gideon Rachman on Financial Times – believes the withdrawal should have been delayed to keep the Taliban in check. But Biden was simply ratifying the peace process initiated by Trump, with the support of the Pentagon, which saw an agreement reached in February 2020 in the presence of the US, Taliban, India, China and Pakistan. The American security establishment knew that the invasion had failed: the Taliban could not be subdued, no matter how long they remained. The notion that Biden's hasty withdrawal somehow empowered the militants is baloney.

The fact is that, over twenty years, the United States has not managed to build anything that could rescue its mission. The brightly lit Green Zone has always been surrounded by a darkness that Zoners could not fathom. In one of the world's poorest countries, billions were spent annually on air conditioning the barracks housing US soldiers and officers, while food and clothing were regularly flown in from bases in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. It was not surprising that a huge slum grew up on the outskirts of Kabul, as the poor gathered to scavenge for anything in the garbage cans. Low wages paid to Afghan security services have failed to convince them to fight their compatriots. The army, formed over two decades, was infiltrated at an early stage by Taliban supporters, who received free training in the use of modern military equipment and acted as spies for the Afghan resistance.

This was the miserable reality of “humanitarian intervention”. Although there is credit where credit is due: the country has witnessed a huge increase in exports. During the Taliban years, opium production was strictly monitored. Since the US invasion, it has increased dramatically and now accounts for 90% of the global heroin market – making one wonder whether this protracted conflict should be seen, at least in part, as a new opium war. Trillions of dollars were made in profits and divided among the Afghan sectors that served the occupation. Western officials were handsomely paid to allow the trade. One in ten young Afghans is now addicted to opium. NATO force numbers are not available.

As for the status of women, not much has changed. There has been little social progress outside the NGO-infested Green Zone. One of the country's leading feminists-in-exile observed that Afghan women had three enemies: the Western occupation, the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. With the US gone, she said, they will have two. (As of this writing, this could perhaps be changed to one, as Taliban advances in the north wiped out major Alliance factions before Kabul was captured).

Despite repeated requests from journalists and activists, no reliable figures have been released about the sex work industry that grew to serve the occupying armies. Nor are there reliable statistics on rape – although US soldiers frequently use sexual violence against “suspected terrorists”, rape Afghan civilians and give the green light to child abuse by allied militias. During the Yugoslav civil war, prostitution multiplied and the region became a center for sex trafficking. The UN's involvement in this lucrative business has been well documented. In Afghanistan, the full details are yet to be revealed.

More than 775.000 US troops have fought in Afghanistan since 2001. Of these, 2.448 have been killed, along with nearly 4.000 US contractors. Approximately 20.589 were wounded in action, according to the Department of Defense. Afghan casualty figures are difficult to calculate, as “enemy deaths” that include civilians are not counted. Carl Conetta of the Defense Alternatives Project estimated that at least 4.200–4.500 civilians were killed in mid-January 2002 as a consequence of the US strike, both directly as victims of the aerial bombing campaign and indirectly in the humanitarian crisis that followed. . In 2021, the Associated Press reported that 47.245 civilians died because of the occupation. Afghan civil rights activists gave a higher total, insisting that 100.000 Afghans (many of them non-combatants) died and three times that number were wounded.

In 2019 the The Washington Post published a 2.000-page internal report commissioned by the US federal government to anatomize the failures of its longest war: “The Afghanistan Papers”. It was based on a series of interviews with US generals (retired and serving), political advisers, diplomats, aid workers, and so on. Their combined assessment was damning. General Douglas Lute, the “Afghan war czar” under Bush and Obama, confessed that “we didn't have a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn't know what we were doing… Americans knew the magnitude of this dysfunction.” Another witness, Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy seal and White House official under both Bush and Obama, highlighted the massive waste of resources: “What do we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth $1 trillion?… After the death of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave, considering how much we spend in Afghanistan.” He might have added, “And we still lost.”

Who was the enemy? The Taliban, Pakistan, all Afghans? A longtime US soldier was convinced that at least a third of the Afghan police were drug addicts and another sizable part were Taliban supporters. This posed a major problem for US soldiers, as an unnamed Special Forces chief testified in 2017: “They thought I would come to them with a map to show them where the good guys and the bad guys live… It took them several conversations to understand that I didn't have that information in my hands. At first, they kept asking: 'But who are the bad guys, where are they?'”.

Donald Rumsfeld expressed the same sentiment in 2003: “I have no visibility into who the bad guys are in Afghanistan or Iraq,” he wrote. “I've read all the community information and it seems like we know a lot, but really, when you press it, you find that we don't have anything that can be acted on. Sadly, we are deficient in human intelligence.” The inability to distinguish between a friend and an enemy is a serious problem – not just on a Schmittian level, but a practical one. If you can't tell the difference between allies and foes after an IED attack on a crowded urban marketplace, you respond by attacking everyone and creating more enemies in the process.

Colonel Christopher Kolenda, adviser to three serving generals, pointed to another problem with the US mission. “Corruption was rampant from the start,” he said; the Karzai government was "self-organized into a kleptocracy". This undermined the post-2002 strategy of building a state that could survive occupation. “Petty corruption is like skin cancer, there are ways to deal with it and you'll probably be fine. Corruption within ministries, at the top level, is like colon cancer; it's worse, but if you catch it in time, it's probably okay. Kleptocracy, however, is like brain cancer; it is fatal.” Of course, the state of Pakistan – where kleptocracy is embodied at all levels – has survived for decades. But things were not so easy in Afghanistan, where nation-building efforts were led by an occupying army and the central government had scant popular support.

What about the false reports that the Taliban have been defeated, never to return? A leading figure on the National Security Council reflected on the lies spread by his colleagues: “It was their explanations. For example, are [Taliban] attacks getting worse? 'That's because there are more targets for them to shoot at, so more attacks are a false indicator of instability.' So three months later, the attacks are still getting worse? 'It's because the Taliban are getting desperate, so it's actually an indicator that we're winning'… And this went on and on for two reasons, to make everyone involved look good and to make it look like the troops and resources were there. having the kind of effect where removing them would cause the country to deteriorate.”

All of this was an open secret in NATO chancelleries and defense ministries in Europe. In October 2014, British Secretary of Defense Michael Fallon admitted that “Mistakes were made militarily, mistakes were made by politicians at the time and that goes back 10, 13 years… We are not going to send combat troops back to Afghanistan under any circumstances. .” Four years later, Prime Minister Theresa May redeployed British troops to Afghanistan, doubling up her fighters "to help address the fragile security situation". Now the UK media are echoing the Foreign Office and criticizing Biden for making the wrong move at the wrong time, with the head of the British Armed Forces, Sir Nick Carter, suggesting a new invasion might be necessary. Conservative advocates, colonial nostalgists, puppet journalists and Blair sycophants are lining up to demand a permanent British presence in the war-torn state.

What is surprising is that neither General Carter nor his relays seem to have recognized the scale of the crisis facing the US war machine, as set out in “The Afghanistan Papers”. While US military planners are slowly waking up to reality, their British counterparts still cling to a fanciful picture of Afghanistan. Some argue that the withdrawal will jeopardize Europe's security as al-Qaeda regroups under the new Islamic emirate. But these predictions are false. The US and UK spent years arming and aiding al-Qaeda in Syria, as they did in Bosnia and Libya. This fear-mongering can only work in a swamp of ignorance. To the British public, at least, it doesn't seem to have overtaken it. History sometimes impresses urgent truths on a country through a vivid demonstration of facts or an exposure of elites. The current pullback is likely to be one of those times. The British, already hostile to the War on Terror, could harden in their opposition to future military conquests.

What does the future hold? Replicating the model developed for Iraq and Syria, the US has announced a permanent special military unit of 2.500 troops to be stationed at a base in Kuwait, ready to fly into Afghanistan and bomb, kill and maim if necessary. Meanwhile, a powerful Taliban delegation visited China last July, pledging that their country would never again be used as a launching pad for attacks on other states. Cordial discussions were held with China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reportedly covering trade and economic relations. The summit recalled similar encounters between Afghan mujahideen and Western leaders during the 1980s: the former appearing in their Wahhabi dress and regulation beard cuts against the spectacular backdrop of the White House or 10 Downing Street. But now, with NATO in retreat, the main players are China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan (which has undoubtedly provided strategic assistance to the Taliban, and for whom this is a great politico-military triumph). None of them want a new civil war, in stark contrast to the US and its allies after the Soviet withdrawal. China's close relations with Tehran and Moscow may allow it to work towards securing some fragile peace for the citizens of this traumatized country, aided by continued Russian influence in the north.

Much emphasis has been placed on the average age in Afghanistan: 18 years out of a population of 40 million. By itself, this means nothing. But there is hope that young Afghans will strive for a better life after the XNUMX-year conflict. For Afghan women, the fight is not over, even if only one enemy remains. In Britain and elsewhere, all those who want to keep fighting must shift their focus to the refugees who will soon be knocking on NATO's door. At the very least, refuge is what the West owes them: a small reparation for an unnecessary war.

*Tariq Ali is a journalist, historian and writer. Author, among other books, of clash of fundamentalisms (Record).

Translation: Valerio Arcary for the Boitempo's blog.

*Originally published on New Left Review blog, on August 16, 2021.


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