The longest of the United States’ “forever wars” in Afghanistan was supposed to end August 31 after President Biden extended his predecessor’s withdrawal date from May of this year. But what will be ending is not clear; certainly not the imperial mission of the world’s superpower. If the US determines that it cannot impose its hegemony on that corner of the world through a compliant client state, it will opt for chaos instead.
Puppeteer departs – puppet forces collapse
In recent weeks, the Taliban military rapidly advanced, taking provincial capitals in Afghanistan and then the capital city of Kabul on August 15. The US-backed former President Ashraf Ghani fled the country in a helicopter packed with cash, the US embassy took down the stars-and-stripes, and Western governments evacuated personnel.
In the leadup to the debacle, the US bombed a country, which has minimal air defenses, in a war that has cost at least 171,000 to 174,000 lives. Along with Qatar-based long-range B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers and AC-130 Spectre gunships, MQ-9 Reaper drones were deployed.
While claiming it would end the war, the US had intended to continue to bomb Afghanistan at will and to keep private military contractors (i.e., mercenaries) there, along with some uniformed US and allied NATO troops such as those from Turkey. The New York Times conceded that: “Instead of declared troops in Afghanistan, the United States will most likely rely on a shadowy combination of clandestine Special Operations forces, Pentagon contractors and covert intelligence operatives to find and attack the most dangerous Qaeda or Islamic State threats, current and former American officials said.” All those plans are now being reevaluated.
Even before the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, tens of thousands of Afghan refugees were slated to come to the US with Washington already releasing $300 million in the effort. Under the US Refugee Admissions Program, the former collaborators with the US occupation of their country will likely form a bastion of rightwing sentiment similar to the role that anti-Cuban Revolution refugees play in the US.
The US had spent $2.3 trillion on the war and over twenty years building the Afghan Armed Forces. In a matter of days that army capitulated. Indications are that the clearly repressive religious extremist Taliban was not so much welcomed by most Afghans as much as the US and its NATO allies were rejected.
Only a month ago, Biden confidently proclaimed a rout of the Afghan Armed Forces by the Taliban was impossible: “Because you have the Afghan troops that’s 300,000 well-equipped — as well-equipped as any army in the world — and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban.” Yet the Taliban with far fewer fighters, backed by no foreign power, and severely inferior in terms of equipment – never a commanding military force – prevailed because their adversary was so profoundly repugnant. They were natives, not occupiers.
US as the midwife to the birth of the Taliban
The antecedents of the Taliban date to the CIA-backed insurgency against the socialist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, which was instituting modernization, emancipation of women, literacy, and land reform programs starting in 1978. The US war in Afghanistan is longer than just two decades. An extension of the old Cold War, the Afghanistan phase started with Ronald Reagan’s support of the mujahadeen “freedom fighters” back in the 1980s in a US jihad against the Soviet Union. And “the longest war” is continuing today with Joe Biden’s New Cold War.
Back then, the Soviet Union was allied with the socialist government in Afghanistan. Soon Moscow was caught in a lose-lose situation of either allowing a nearby country to be subverted by the West or dispatching troops there to defend against a foreign-instigated insurgency. US President Carter’s National Security Advisor Brzezinski saw Afghanistan as a trap to get the US’s adversary into a Vietnam-like quagmire “to make the Soviets bleed for as much and as long as is possible.” The cost of having Soviet troops on the ground in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 is believed to have contributed to the dissolution of the USSR.
Various mujahideen elements backed by foreign powers, particularly the US coordinating with Pakistan, were used to overthrow the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in 1992. In the following Afghan Civil War period, the Taliban arose in 1994 out of the contending mujahideen armies. By 1996, it had emerged triumphant against five rival mujahideen factions.
From being a US ally and asset, the Taliban became the enemy in 2001, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan was somewhat speciously justified with allegations that under Taliban rule the country had harbored terrorists and had links to al-Qaida. More to the point, the long occupation of Afghanistan was a projection of US military capacity into central Asia. Especially after the Islamic Revolution in Iran overthrew the US client regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the US needed military and surveillance bases close to the belly of Russia and China.
Restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the prospects of chaos
With the seizure of Kabul by the Taliban just days ago, the prospect of a nation ruled under strict Sharia law with brutal penalties for noncompliance is chilling. Interference in Afghanistan by the US was never motivated by its abhorrence to fundamentalist theocracies or the Taliban’s repulsive record on women’s rights, as evidenced by Washington’s fawning treatment of the Saudi dictatorship.
The Taliban is primarily drawn from the Pushtun ethnic group, which comprises nearly half of the Afghan population. However, the Taliban does not have consolidated support among other ethnic groups, especially in the north, or even within the Pushtun population. One of the poorest countries in the world with one of the highest birth rates, Afghanistan faces rampant COVID, drug addiction, and food shortages. Further, the Taliban lacks the experience for national rule and is not popular outside their rural bases, making for an extremely volatile situation.
It is not clear what the US role will be now regarding Afghanistan. The precipitous US retreat may not mean a complete defeat; timing should not be confused with the substance. The US could still reach a new accommodation with the Taliban to further US strategic and economic interests, while exploiting the Taliban’s brand of Sunni zealotry to destabilize nearby Shi’ite Iran, Russia with its Chechnya insurgency, and China with its Uyghur insurgency.
Both China and Russia have officially met with the Taliban in the last month precisely to try to forestall the exportation of extremist Islamic insurgency within their borders. Also in July, representatives from the Taliban and the Afghan government were hosted in Tehran, and Iran remains “cautiously open” to the new government in Kabul with whom they share a 572-mile border.
Chaos in Afghanistan with the prospect of disorder spilling over regionally, while perhaps not the preferred option for the US, could have the advantage for the US imperial project of derailing development initiatives in Russia and especially China with its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative extending into Afghanistan. In a not unsimilar situation after the US was forced to withdraw from Vietnam, Brzezinski claimed he encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot and the Thai to help the Khmer Rouge.
Afghanistan is now in far worse a condition than before the US invasion. Afghanistan is the world’s leading source of illicit drugs, followed by the US client state of Colombia. Under US occupation, Afghanistan became the “world’s first true nacro-state.”
While the current military advances of the Taliban look like defeats for the US imperial project, this is not the same as a victory for the Afghans whose progressive secular government, the socialist Democratic Republic, was quashed three decades ago. Once again, the US empire offers the world a binary choice between submission to its “rules-based order,” where the US makes the rules and disregards international law, or chaos.
Meanwhile inside the beltway and beyond, recriminations about US policy failures in Afghanistan are being hurled in all directions. US President George H. W. Bush’s 1991 obituary on the US people’s objection to endless imperial war – “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.” – may yet prove to be premature.