News Analysis

Afghanistan: Latest Sign of U.S. Imperialism’s Decline (I)

Afghan people face new devastation after Taliban takeover


This is the first of a two-part series. The second part can be found here. This article was originally published on August 30 and updated on August 31.


By Argiris Malapanis

August 31, 2021—The chaotic withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops from Afghanistan, which has had deadly consequences for many Afghans and some U.S. troops, is another sign of the decline of U.S. imperialism.[1] While Washington remains the number one military power in the world, its domination and influence are diminishing.

After dropping more than 58,000 bombs and inflicting tens of thousands of civilian casualties, U.S. forces ended their 20-year occupation of the Central Asian country—the longest U.S. war. They left having failed to establish a stable, client regime that could help ensure the country would not be a base for further attacks on U.S. targets.

U.S. and allied politicians claim they spent trillions to bring democracy and carry out “nation building” in Afghanistan. But Washington did nothing to fundamentally change the underlying economic and social relations in one of the world’s most underdeveloped countries. Semifeudal conditions and the rule of competing landlords, moneylenders, merchants, opium smugglers, and other mainstays of the old social order, prevail in Afghanistan to this day.

This setback for the U.S. empire, however, is not a step forward for most Afghans. The swift victory of the Taliban will likely bring new devastation to Afghanistan’s 39 million people, most of whom are impoverished. Brutality and despotism marked the previous Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001. The reactionary group used amputations, stonings, public beheadings and other executions as typical methods of control. It forbade most women from working. It banned education for girls and promoted “taking them as brides,” which is a euphemism for abduction, rape, and sex slavery of children and young women.

The terrifying memories of that half decade, as well as fear of reprisals against those who collaborated with the occupation regime, prompted about a quarter million Afghans—80% of them women and girls—to flee the country this year, ahead of the Taliban advance, as the U.S. government made clear it was pulling its troops out.

Slipping away in middle of night

President Joe Biden announced April 13 he would withdraw all U.S. forces by September 11, making good on a deal his predecessor Donald Trump struck with the Taliban in 2020 to pull out this year. On July 5, U.S. forces abandoned the Bagram Airfield—their main base of operations for nearly 20 years—by shutting off electricity and slipping away in the middle of the night without informing the base’s new Afghan commander.

Already controlling most of the country, the Taliban stepped up their offensive. The Afghan military melted away as U.S. army and air support vanished. Afghan president Ashraf Ghani secretly fled the country as Taliban commanders entered Kabul on August 15 and declared the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the same name they used when they ruled the country in the 1990s.

Biden dispatched 6,000 troops back to Kabul’s airport to evacuate the remaining U.S. personnel and Afghans who had cooperated with the U.S. occupation. Thousands of Afghans besieged the airfield and its runway desperately seeking to flee the Taliban’s grip, some clinging onto departing military planes at the cost of their lives.

Thousands of Afghans besieged Kabul airport August 16, 2021, trying to flee the country after the Taliban takeover, some clinging onto departing military planes at the cost of their lives. (Photo: Screen capture from video posted by Euronews)

On August 26, two blasts in the middle of dense crowds in the perimeter of Kabul’s airport, resulted in death and destruction. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan — known as Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K. Thirteen U.S. service members were killed and local health officials reported a toll of 170 civilians dead and some 200 wounded. The Taliban condemned the attacks. The danger of further ISIS-K attacks continues, both before and after the U.S. leaves the country.

On August 29, a missile believed to have been fired from a U.S. drone in a retaliatory strike targeting ISIS-K, devastated a section of a residential neighborhood of Kabul, killing 10 people, including seven children. Zemari Ahmadi, whose car was blown away, had just returned home from work and had nothing to do with ISIS, according to relatives and friends. “The Pentagon acknowledged the possibility that Afghan civilians had been killed in the drone strike, but suggested that any civilian deaths had resulted from the detonation of explosives in the vehicle that was targeted,” the New York Times reported. The Zemari family disputed that claim. Ahmadi’s daughter Samia Ahmadi, 21, who also lost her fiancé and several siblings in the bombing, said, according to the Times, “America used us to defend itself, and now they’ve destroyed Afghanistan. Whoever dropped this bomb on our family, may God punish you.” 

Meanwhile, Taliban leaders have gone out of their way to paint a softer picture of their government in formation. Taliban commanders said they would welcome former opponents and women in the new cabinet. They announced amnesty for all who opposed them if they laid down their weapons. Taliban representatives met with female health care workers and assured them they will be able to keep their jobs.

Despite these promises, the sense of threat within the capital city of Kabul grew. Women who worked for the state broadcaster were told they no longer had a job. Some were attacked for not covering themselves enough. Taliban fighters carried out house-to-house searches in the city, and there were reports of beatings and relatives taken away. Beyond the capital,  reports of repression were more dire. Amnesty International documented a massacre in the village of Mundarakht, of men from the largely Shia Hazara minority, long targeted by the Taliban.

In this atmosphere, a remarkable display of defiance occurred when protests against Taliban rule took place in Kabul and other cities August 17-19. Demonstrators took to the streets of the capital, including near the presidential palace, for a second day on August 19, Afghanistan’s annual Independence Day. At one such rally in Kabul 200 people gathered before the Taliban broke it up violently.

The Taliban announced a curfew in the southeastern city of Khost after protests there, also on August 19, and several civilians were killed in Asadabad when Taliban fighters fired on people waving the national flag at a rally in the eastern city the same day, according to a witness cited by Reuters.

Videos circulating on social media showed dozens of women protesting in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood of Kabul August 17, holding placards as Taliban fighters looked on. “Afghan women exist,” they chanted. “Work, education, political involvement,” and “Be the voice for women.”

One activist, named Fariha, said she took part in these protests “to show the Taliban that they have to change, because we will not,” according to an article in the August 25 New York Times. “We cannot breathe if we are deprived of our rights to education and work, and if we are not present in the society,” she added. “There are women who haven’t gone to Europe or the U.S.—they have stayed and are ready to fight until death,” she said. “We have worked hard for 20 years to gain education and work. We will not let anyone ignore us.”

Dozens of women protest in Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood of Kabul August 17, 2021, while Taliban fighters stood by (left). Similar protests took place elsewhere in the Afghan capital. One of the activists, Fariha, said she took part in the rallies “to show the Taliban that they have to change, because we will not.” (Photos: Screen capture for social media videos)
Protesters took to the streets of Kabul August 19, 2021, Afghanistan’s annual Independence Day, waving the national flag in defiance of Taliban rule. (Photo: Victor Blue / New York Times)

It is not certain the Taliban will try, or will be able, to re-impose the same kind of brutal rule they enforced the last time they were in power. But hundreds of thousands of Afghans are not willing to take a chance and are trying to flee the country.

US objective ‘not about nation building or democracy’

On August 18, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin caused an uproar from conservative and even liberal politicians when he said the Pentagon may not have the capability to evacuate all of the estimated 10-15,000 U.S. personnel still in Afghanistan, let alone the tens of thousands of Afghans who had been employed by the U.S. occupation forces.

The U.S. is “going to evacuate everybody that we can physically and possibly evacuate and we’ll conduct this process for as long as we possibly can,” Austin said at a Pentagon press conference. “I don’t have the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul.”

Conservative media were livid. “You have to watch Austin deliver this line to grasp its full air of defeatism about a place where our military has moved about with some impunity for two decades,” decried Dan McLaughlin in an August 19 op-ed in the National Review. “This is unacceptable. This is un-American. This is not what our Army is about.”

Criticism even from liberal quarters was so swift that Biden had to walk back some of Austin’s statements. The President told the press U.S. troops would stay as long as needed to complete the evacuation and even foray into Kabul to accomplish this goal.

On August 22, Biden said he might extend the August 31 deadline for complete withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces. The next day, a Taliban spokesperson rejected the evacuation delay. The group warned of “consequences” if foreign troops remained in Afghanistan beyond the end of the month.

Biden ultimately reversed course. On August 24 he rebuffed pleas from Washington’s European allies to extend the deadline. “The sooner we can finish the better,” he said, “[E]very day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport.” Yet U.S. forces could still not get out before the gruesome attack on August 26.

“The abandonment of Afghanistan and its people is tragic, dangerous, unnecessary,” wrote Tony Blair in a self-serving August 21 commentary. Blair was UK prime minister and responsible for giving Washington London’s full blessing and military support for the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.

“In the aftermath of the decision to return Afghanistan to the same group from which the carnage of 9/11 arose, and in a manner that seems almost designed to parade our humiliation, the question posed by allies and enemies alike is: has the West lost its strategic will?” Blair asked. “The disarray of the past weeks needs to be replaced by something resembling coherence, and with a plan that is credible and realistic. But then we must answer that overarching question. What are our strategic interests and are we prepared any longer to commit to upholding them?”

Other spokespeople for big capital were more honest and less pretentious. “The United States’ objective in Afghanistan has always been clear: to ensure that Afghan soil is never again used to plan attacks against the American homeland,” said Ryan Crocker in an op-ed in the August 21 New York Times. Crocker is a career diplomat who has served presidents of both parties. His central role in U.S. policy on Afghanistan began in earnest in 2002. He also played a key role under the Bush administration in Iraq and Pakistan and was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan under President Barack Obama in 2011-12.

“It was not about nation building as an end in itself, or building a new democracy, or even regime change,” Crocker continued. “The message from the Bush administration to the Taliban after 9/11 made this clear: If you hand over Al Qaeda leadership, we will leave you alone. The Taliban chose to fight instead. Once the Taliban were defeated, our fundamental mission of ensuring that Afghanistan was never again the base for an attack on the United States did not change.”

Imperial hubris during 2001 invasion

It is worth noting here that the George W. Bush administration obtained near unanimous approval for unleashing U.S. military might on Afghanistan and beyond. On Sept. 14, 2001, three days after the al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, 420 members of the House of Representatives gave the President open-ended license to wage war. The Senate agreed 98-0. Only one congresswoman, Barbara Lee of California, voted no and she was attacked as a traitor. That authorization remains in force to this day.

At that time, imperial hubris was on full display.

Before the end of 2001, “the Taliban were completely defeated, they had no demands, except amnesty,” recalled Barnett Rubin, who worked with the UN political team in Afghanistan at the time, according to an article in the August 23 New York Times. Taliban leaders had approached Hamid Karzai, who would soon become Afghanistan’s president, to negotiate a deal for surrender.

But Washington, confident that it would wipe out the Taliban forever, was in no mood for a deal. “The United States is not inclined to negotiate surrenders,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in a news conference at the time. He added that Washington had no interest in leaving Taliban leader Mullah Omar to live out his days anywhere in Afghanistan. It wanted him captured or dead.

Turning down the Taliban’s attempt to negotiate back then was a mistake, Carter Malkasian told the Times. Malkasian was a former senior adviser to Gen. Joseph Dunford, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during parts of the Obama and Trump administrations.

“We were hugely overconfident in 2001, and we thought the Taliban had gone away and weren’t going to come back,” Malkasian said. “We also wanted revenge, and so we made a lot of mistakes that we shouldn’t have made.”

U.S. troops fire artillery in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province in 2011. Washington was overconfident during 2001 invasion it would wipe out the Taliban. But after Washington refused to negotiate a surrender the Taliban had proposed after being defeated in 2001, many of the group’s fighters slipped into neighboring Pakistan, regrouped, and continued fighting the U.S.-led occupation for nearly 20 years. (Photo: Bar Rattner / Reuters)

Little more than a year later, Washington would bring the same air of confidence, and arrogance, to its second invasion of Iraq, opening another war that would stretch long past all U.S. government predictions.

Retreating Taliban fighters slipped into Pakistan, regrouped, and continued to fight the U.S. occupation for nearly two decades.

The occupation of Afghanistan and the military assaults on Iraq were a consequence of Washington’s ceaseless drive to maximize profits for U.S. capitalists and extend their domination worldwide. Its display of military might in Afghanistan and Iraq was meant to assert U.S. supremacy against rivals and force governments that stood in its way to submit.

The outcome of these military assaults is telling about the limits on what the world’s top imperialist power can do today.

Balance sheet of 20 years of occupation

The U.S. war devastated working people in Afghanistan. According to the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University, as of April 2021, more than 71,000 Afghan and Pakistani civilians are estimated to have died as a direct result of the war.

According to Associated Press (AP), casualties include: 66,000 members of the Afghan national army and police, 51,000 Taliban and other opposition fighters, more than 47,000 Afghan civilians, nearly 6,300 U.S. troops and contractors, more than 1,100 NATO and other allied soldiers, 444 aid workers, and 72 journalists.

Aftermath of U.S. airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, October 2015. The facility was “accidentally struck,” the occupying forces claimed. The war devastated the country, resulting, by some estimates, in a quarter million casualties in Afghanistan and the border areas of neighboring Pakistan. (Photo: Victor Blue / New York Times)

The U.S. military in 2017 relaxed its rules of engagement for airstrikes in Afghanistan, which resulted in a massive increase in civilian casualties, the Watson Institute reported. The CIA has armed and funded Afghan militia groups that have been implicated in grave human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial killings of civilians. Afghan land is contaminated with unexploded ordnance, which kills and injures tens of thousands of Afghans, especially children, as they travel and go about their daily life.

The war has exacerbated the effects of poverty, malnutrition, poor sanitation, lack of access to health care, and environmental degradation throughout Afghanistan.

Afghanistan, which is rich in untapped mineral resources—including natural gas, oil, and some of the largest deposits of lithium on the globe—experienced negligible investments in productive capacity over the last 20 years. A 2010 Pentagon memo said Afghanistan could become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.” But Washington and its allies did little to promote industrial development, even for their own selfish reasons of plundering wealth from occupied soil, as they were occupied in unending warfare. This is also an example of missed “opportunities” slipping from Washington’s tired claws to be grabbed up by more nimble competitors. In fact, one of the few industrial projects that took off was a $2.8 billion investment from China in 2008 that developed the country’s Ainak copper mine, one of the world’s largest, resulting in $400 million annual income for the Afghan government.

The country’s economy remains largely rural, hardly changed in more than half a century. According to the World Bank, 44% of the total workforce is employed in agriculture today and 60% of households derive some income from agriculture.

Afghan peasants harvest wheat June 24, 2010, outside Kabul. The country’s economy is largely based on agriculture. Semi-feudal relations are prevalent in the countryside to this day. (Photo: Dusan Vranic / AP)

Land ownership and cultivation is mired in feudal and semifeudal relations. Competing warlords use their private armies to fight for control of land and other resources, using conservative Mullahs as support for their fiefs and privileges. “Land ownership disputes are estimated to be the cause of over 70% of all serious crimes (murder and crimes of violence) in Afghanistan,” according to a 2014 report by the Rule of Law Unit of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

Typical annual income in Afghanistan is about $1,000 per year, while 55% of the population live under the official poverty level with little to no income in a country where there is no government safety net.

“Weak institutions and property rights constrain financial inclusion and access to finance, with credit to the private sector equal to only three percent of GDP,” said a March 30, 2021, World Bank report. “The illicit economy accounts for a significant share of production, exports, and employment, and includes opium production, smuggling, and illegal mining.”

The same report said that 75% of public spending comes from “grants,” that is infusions of cash from the International Monetary Fund and other imperialist financial institutions. By official accounts about a third of these “grants” have gone to the pockets of corrupt officials.

Even social gains, such as improved literacy, especially for women and girls, touted by U.S. politicians as one of their accomplishments in Afghanistan, have been limited. According to UNESCO, literacy in Afghanistan increased to 43% as of last year from about 20% in 1979. Even taking these official statistics at face value, this means the majority of the country’s people, 57%, cannot read and write to this day. Among women, illiteracy is still a whopping 70%.

Washington has thus left Afghanistan’s economic conditions and social relations fundamentally the same, and, in some cases worse, than 2001, while utterly failing to accomplish its goal of ensuring the country could not be used again as a base for attacks on U.S. interests.

(To be continued; part 2 can be found here)


ENDNOTES

[1] Imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism. It became predominant at the dawn of the 20th century. Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin gave this economic system the most apt definition in his famous work, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, written in 1916. Imperialism is marked by five basic features, Lenin said: “(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; (2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this ‘finance capital,’ of a financial oligarchy; (3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; (4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and (5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed.”

At the second congress of the Communist International in July 1920, a report on the work of the Commission on the National and Colonial Questions summarized the further development of imperialism this way: “The characteristic feature of imperialism consists in the whole world, as we now see, being divided into a large number of oppressed nations and an insignificant number of oppressor nations, the latter possessing colossal wealth and powerful armed forces. The vast majority of the world’s population…belong to the oppressed nations…This idea of distinction, of dividing the nations into oppressor and oppressed, runs through the theses.”

5 replies »

  1. A good analysis, but I would take issue with just one thing. You use the phrase in relation to Taliban brutality under its previous period of rule “promoted taking them [i.e. women] as brides”. This phrase is a euphemism that only serves to cloak the abject violence of this practice. In actual fact, for the many thousands of women concerned, the reality of being “taken as a bride” is abduction, rape, and sex slavery. Using it as widespread practice is no different from other situations in which the large scale rape and sex slavery of women is used as a weapon of war. I think you ought to correct this with an explanation along these lines.

    • Helen, thank you very much for your input!

      You are right. We went ahead and corrected the sentence you pointed out, which now reads:
      “It [the Taliban] banned education for girls and promoted “taking them as brides,” which is a euphemism for abduction, rape, and sex slavery of children and young women”.

      We appreciate comments by readers like you.

      In solidarity,
      Argiris Malapanis (for the Editors of World-Outlook)

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