Beijing, Moscow ready to seize ‘golden opportunity’
This is the second part of a two-part series. The first can be found here.
By Argiris Malapanis
August 31, 2021—Washington’s setback in Afghanistan is only the latest in a long list of examples pointing to the decline of U.S. imperialism, signaled in 1975 by its defeat in Vietnam.
The 10-year-long civil war in Syria, which started in 2011 and is largely over, is one such illustration. Faced with a popular rebellion that was part of the Arab Spring, the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad unleashed brutal repression. With Moscow’s military and economic aid Assad emerged victorious. Among the intervening powers, Moscow was the main winner in that conflict. Washington, which backed some of the groups fighting Assad, on the other hand, was forced to cut its losses and pull most of its forces out of the area.
In 2011, Washington and NATO overthrew Libya’s president Muammar Gaddafi who was captured and murdered by U.S. allies. Subsequently a war raged between competing bourgeois forces for control of the country, which is rich in oil and natural gas. Intervention by various capitalist powers fueled the conflict. The official regime in Tripoli led by Fayez al-Sarraj had its origins in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and was backed by Turkey, Islamist groups in Syria and Qatar, as well as Italy, the country’s previous colonial master that continues to dominate its natural resources.
The competing Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Haftar controlled large swaths of the country and fought against Tripoli. Moscow deployed 1,000 troops, bombers, and other military hardware backing Haftar’s forces, which were also supported by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France, and Greece.
The competing factions recently agreed to a UN-brokered peace deal, establishing a “unity” government that is scheduled to oversee elections in December. Washington, bogged down with its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, did little to intervene in the conflict and has seen its influence wane.
After two massive invasions, the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime, and an 18-year-long occupation of Iraq, a government has emerged in Baghdad with close ties to Iran, the U.S. nemesis in the region. Washington is scheduled to draw down its remaining 2,500 troops in that country by the end of this year.
In 2019, Iranian-made missiles and drones evaded U.S. radar and Patriot anti-missile batteries over the Persian Gulf and destroyed key Saudi oil fields. Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in nearby Yemen claimed responsibility but evidence pointed to Tehran as the culprit. Unable to provide unambiguous proof for such responsibility, the Saudi and U.S. governments howled murder but took no action against Iran.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the launch in 2001 of the “war on terror,” U.S. forces deployed to a number of former Soviet republics in Central Asia. These included Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Washington established a large military presence in the latter and used the country’s Khanabad base extensively. U.S. military presence, however, lasted only several years. Even Uzbekistan’s regime, which had the friendliest relations with the Pentagon, ordered U.S. troops out in 2005, after Washington criticized the Uzbek government for using force to suppress protesters.
Moscow, Beijing ready ‘to seize golden opportunity’
As the Afghan government collapsed and Washington closed its embassy in Kabul, U.S. and allied diplomats scrambled to flee the country. Moscow kept its embassy open, however, hoping to build on diplomatic ties it has cultivated with the Taliban for years, while labeling the group a “terrorist” organization, largely for domestic purposes aimed at Muslims inside Russia in the Chechen Republic and elsewhere. The Taliban pledged to provide security for Russian diplomats.
At the same time hundreds of Russian armored vehicles and artillery pieces were clearly visible hundreds of miles away, on the border with Tajikistan. They were part of a high-profile military exercise involving Russian, Uzbek, and Tajiki troops taking place just 12 miles from a Taliban position. They were there to make a point, Russian Gen. Anatoly Sidorov, commander of the forces involved in the drill, said, according to an article in the August 19 New York Times. “They are all visible,” Sidorov pointed out. “They are not hiding.”
Moscow’s border military exercises represent another side of its strategy. It was a show of force to demonstrate its willingness to punish the Taliban should they step out of line. “You can talk to the Taliban but you also need to show them a fist,” Daniel Kiselyov, editor of Fergana, a Russian-language outlet focused on Central Asia, told the Times.
It is the government of China, however, that stands to gain the most from Washington’s Afghanistan debacle.
“The speed and scope of the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan have prompted introspection in the West over what went wrong,” wrote Zhou Bo in a guest essay in the August 20 New York Times. “China, though, is looking forward. It is ready to step into the void left by the hasty U.S. retreat to seize a golden opportunity.”
Zhou was a senior colonel in China’s People’s Liberation Army from 2003 to 2010 and “is an expert on the Chinese Army’s strategic thinking on international security,” according to the Times.
“Beijing has few qualms about fostering a closer relationship with the Taliban and is ready to assert itself as the most influential outside player in an Afghanistan now all but abandoned by the United States,” the Chinese official said.
“Beijing watched as Washington’s foray in Afghanistan became a messy and costly morass,” Zhou noted. “In the meantime, China provided Afghanistan millions of dollars in aid for medical assistance, hospitals, a solar power station and more. All the while, Beijing was fostering stronger trade relations, eventually becoming one of Afghanistan’s largest trading partners.
“With the U.S. withdrawal, Beijing can offer what Kabul needs most: political impartiality and economic investment. Afghanistan in turn has what China most prizes: opportunities in infrastructure and industry building—areas in which China’s capabilities are arguably unmatched—and access to $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits, including critical industrial metals such as lithium, iron, copper and cobalt [emphasis added].” Access to such minerals is priceless for Beijing as China pushes ahead with mass production of electric car batteries, for which lithium is essential, as well as related industrial development. “Though critics have raised the point that Chinese investment is not a strategic priority in a less secure Afghanistan, I believe otherwise,” Zhou emphasized.
“Although the presence of U.S. troops went some way toward preventing armed groups from using Afghanistan as a haven, their exit also means that a 20-year war with the Taliban has ended,” Zhou asserted. “Therefore, the barriers for Chinese investment on a large scale are removed. China is of course a major buyer of the world’s industrial metals and minerals to fund its economic engine.”
He pointed out that Beijing is ready to use its “Belt and Road” infrastructure initiative to extend a motorway from China to Pakistan and Afghanistan, opening a shorter land route for easier access to Middle Eastern markets.
To secure its investments and broader interests, Beijing has registered with the United Nations a “peacekeeping standby force of 8,000 troops—a move that could make it one of the largest contributors overall,” the Chinese official explained. “If a U.N. peacekeeping mission is deployed to Afghanistan, Chinese peacekeepers, coming from a friendly neighboring country, will almost certainly be more welcome than those from afar,” he said.
“Afghanistan has long been considered a graveyard for conquerors—Alexander the Great, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and now the United States,” Zhou concluded. “Now China enters—armed not with bombs but construction blueprints, and a chance to prove the curse can be broken.”
In the August 23 Israeli daily Haaretz, Alon Pinkas, a long serving Israeli foreign policy official and political advisor, wrote an opinion column typical of pundits fed up with those criticizing Washington. “Enough with the Hyperbole: Leaving Afghanistan Won’t Harm America’s International Standing” read the headline. The pullout was necessary to re-focus U.S. foreign policy on other priorities, especially confronting China’s growing economic prowess and influence around the world, Pinkas argued. A case in point was the August 24 speech by Kamala Harris in Singapore. The U.S. vice president attacked China for its claims in the South China Sea and argued things will be run better by Washington, more than 7,000 miles away.
Beijing’s strategy to seek to move into a Taliban-led Afghanistan, outlined in Zhou Bo’s op-ed, is another direct challenge to efforts by Washington to limit China’s reach and power.
Iran to join Shanghai Cooperation Organization
On August 11, as Taliban fighters were closing in on Kabul, the Iranian daily Tehran Times announced that Iran would soon join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a permanent member. The SCO is a security alliance of the East, headquartered in China.
Launched in June 2001, the SCO’s founding member states were China, Russia, and four former Soviet Central Asian republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Since then, SCO membership has expanded to include India and Pakistan. The addition of Iran means the SCO alliance would cover the vast majority of Asia.
Iran had observer status in the SCO for years. It sought permanent membership for some time, but that was vetoed by Moscow until now, in a sign of growing confluence between Russia, China, and Iran.
Iranian government representatives were elated about the prospects of strengthening Tehran’s ties with both Moscow and Beijing. Iranian officials told the Tehran Times that the SCO expansion would improve the prospects for re-opening the “Silk Road.”
The Silk Road is an ancient trade route, linking China with the West. Traders used it to carry goods between Rome and China more than 2,000 years ago. Silk went westward, and wool, gold, and silver went east. The 4,000-mile route traversed China, Afghanistan, Iran and reached to the Mediterranean Sea. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Arabian power, the road became increasingly unsafe and untraveled. Under the Mongols, China revived the trade route in the 13th and 14th centuries; at that time, the Venetian Marco Polo used it to travel to China.
These new developments indicate that Iran is also poised to strengthen its standing vis-à-vis its competitors in Central Asia and the Middle East. Tehran is emboldened by the U.S. failure in Afghanistan and its disastrous withdrawal accelerated by the swift Taliban takeover.
Demise of 1978 revolution spawned Taliban
The forces that became the Taliban emerged after the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, which tried to prop up the Kabul government led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The PDPA was a Stalinist-influenced party that came to power during a popular revolution the year before.
That revolution awakened the hopes of millions. The PDPA regime began distributing land to peasants and cancelling some of their debts to landlords. It allowed oppressed nationalities to publish and broadcast in their own languages for the first time. It legalized unions.
This regime, however, looked to Stalinism and Moscow for guidance and political inspiration. It treated peasants and other working people as objects to be administered bureaucratically instead of leading them to take greater control over their lives and backing their efforts, as they acted to transform their social and economic conditions.
Kabul, for example, sent emissaries to the countryside to hand land deeds to peasants. Many rural dwellers, however, were reluctant to accept these titles as they were left to fend for themselves in face of landlords who controlled access to machinery, seeds, and fertilizers and had private armies to punish anyone who stood up to them. The government literacy campaign was compulsory, alienating many. It stood in stark contrast to the voluntary and highly successful literacy campaign carried out by Cuban revolutionaries in the 1960s.
When met with questions or resistance among the population, the PDPA’s reflex response was to emulate Stalinist coercion, rounding up perceived opponents at gunpoint, or punishing entire villages for opposition by individuals.
As a result, the PDPA regime became increasingly isolated. Mullahs who held large tracts of land, and other landlords, organized armed opposition that gained popular support as a form of rejection of government coercion.
Moscow sent in troops to prop up the PDPA regime and orchestrated the murder of one section of its leadership. Washington fomented and backed the reactionary rebellion of landlords and Islamist forces against the PDPA. These forces eventually spawned both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Moscow was forced to withdraw its troops after an unsuccessful 10-year occupation, which had become increasingly unpopular at home. Its defeat in Afghanistan fueled revulsion toward the regime in the USSR, contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
After years of bloody conflict between rival warlords following the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, the Taliban swept to power in 1996, enforcing reactionary political, social and cultural conditions.
The Taliban had emerged only a few years earlier, in 1994, as an amalgam of anti-communist factions of mujahedeen groups fighting the government in Kabul. The Pakistani regime served as their principal moneyman and gave them safe haven. Financial and military support also flowed from the United States and Saudi Arabia. The CIA and its Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, provided covert backing for the forces that eventually formed the Taliban.
The Taliban is a reactionary bourgeois organization with many similarities to other Islamist groups such as Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Iran’s clerical regime. These Islamist currents have remained viable for decades because revolutionary leadership among working people and oppressed nations has failed to develop for nearly half a century. The main reasons for this historic crisis of working-class leadership are the betrayals of national liberation and other revolutionary struggles by Stalinism for decades and the breathing room world capitalism has acquired from the re-establishment of the capitalist system in the former USSR and Eastern Europe as well as the deep inroads capitalism has made in China and Vietnam.
Drawing out the lessons of this history is essential to understanding the events unfolding in Afghanistan today, and those that may follow. That requires more space and goes beyond the scope of this analysis. It will be the subject of an upcoming article.
 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.”
 Stalinism originated as the political and ideological justification for the policies of the privileged social caste that developed in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. In 1917, the working class and peasantry of Russia carried out one of the most deep-going revolutions in the world history. In a matter of months, the revolution led to an unprecedented leap in the country from a semi-feudal monarchy to a republic run by working people of city and countryside, opening the possibility of the socialist transformation of society in the former Tsarist empire and around the world. But the new workers and peasants’ republic remained isolated internationally when opportunities to extend the revolution in Germany and other advanced capitalist countries in Europe were lost. Under the pressure of unrelenting hostility from the capitalist powers, reaction set in within 10 years. A privileged bureaucratic caste led by Joseph Stalin violently crushed the opposition to its policies in the Bolshevik Party, which had led the revolution, and drove workers and peasants from political power.
Stalinism replaced internationalism, which is fundamental to Marxism, with the idea of “socialism in one country.” It used thuggery and outright murder against those who defended Marxism around the world. It transformed the parties of the Communist International into subservient appendages of Stalin’s regime in the USSR. Over decades, it became the cumulative expression of the corruption of communism and Marxism, in the name of communism and Marxism.
In his book, The Revolution Betrayed, Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, who was exiled by Stalin’s regime and eventually assassinated by its agents, gives the clearest and most detailed explanation of how and why this bureaucratic social layer was able to take and hold political power in the USSR.
Categories: World Politics
A very good article. I think however that you underestimate the impact of how the backwardness of the traditional tribal structure – regarding the position of women – had to do with the defeat of the PDPA, and in fact the victory of the taliban in the current epoch.