The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Afghanistan:
A Human Catastrophe Based on Four Decades of Imperialist Maneuvers

Jul 19, 2021

The following article was translated from an article appearing in issue #214, Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), March 2021, the magazine of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the revolutionary workers group (Trotskyist) active in France. It was updated in mid-July, to take account of steps taken by the U.S. since February.

On July 2, troops from the United States evacuated the massive U.S. Bagram airbase, about 30 miles outside Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. It was another step toward a possible definitive U.S. exit from Afghanistan, which Biden had earlier announced would be September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center. Whatever other reasons existed for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan nearly 20 years ago, it was a spectacular show of U.S. force after the World Trade Center attack. Its intent was to demonstrate to the world that the U.S., despite suffering an incursion on its own soil, was to be feared more than ever. Afghanistan was one of the poorest countries on earth, largely rural, with its population scattered in small, impoverished villages. It had already been devastated by 22 years of war. At the time, it might have seemed like the perfect target for demonstrating that the U.S. remained the dominant super power, able to impose itself when and how it chose.

When the U.S. invaded, the Afghan resistance led by the Taliban regime in Kabul crumbled. In a matter of weeks, then U.S. President George Bush, standing in front of a banner which declared “Mission Accomplished,” announced the end of major combat operations in Afghanistan.

In fact, it was only the beginning of what would become the longest U.S. war in history, one in which 800,000 U.S. troops were deployed to Afghanistan, almost half of them more than once. The U.S. had created a quagmire for its own military, and an enormous human catastrophe for the people living in Afghanistan.

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War continues to rage on in Afghanistan today. The population faces the bombings, attacks, and exactions by different armies—those of NATO, those of the government led by Ashraf Ghani and put in place by the United States, those of the armed bands of the Taliban who hope to return to power after being driven out in 2001, and many others.

On May 8, the explosion of bombs in front of a school for girls in Kabul, resulted in at least 50 deaths and a hundred more wounded, most of whom were the young female students. At the beginning of June, a bomb exploded on a bus in the Badghis region in the northeast of the country, resulting in 11 deaths, three of whom were infants. During the same week, four other minibuses were attacked in Shiite neighborhoods of Kabul, with a total of 12 people killed among these attacks. Two of the attacks were claimed by the Islamic State, which aims its attacks specifically against the Shiite Hazara minority. These are only examples of what has long been “daily” life for the Afghan population.

The army and police are not exempt from such attacks. On January 16, in the capital city of Kabul, two police officers died from a roadside bomb explosion. The following day, two female judges who worked for the Afghan Supreme Court were assassinated in broad daylight in the capital. The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ross Wilson, accused the Taliban of being responsible. But these attacks have gone on for months. Not all of them are claimed by the Taliban. As the U.S. departure draws nearer, attacks carried out against the Afghan army have been increasing.

For its part, the Afghan army has been ramping up so-called targeted airstrikes, which have killed dozens of civilians. For example, on January 9, the Afghan air force killed 18 members of the same family in the south. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, almost 300 civilians have been killed, and a similar number wounded, just from Afghan air force bombings. This is a 70% increase over previous years.

The Islamic State in Afghanistan has become a growing presence in the country since its defeats in Iraq and Syria. At the beginning of November 2020, an attack claimed by the Islamic State killed 22 students at the University of Kabul.

The hundreds of thousands of deaths from these years of war, the seven million refugees, and the countless destruction are all the tragic result of imperialism’s interventions and maneuvers over the past decades.

Forty Years of War and Imperialist Maneuvers

Afghanistan—this Central Asian country bordered by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China to the north, Pakistan to the southwest, and Iran to the west—has long been at the center of the devastating storms unleashed by great power rivalries. This has been the case since the 19th century, when Afghanistan found itself in British imperialism’s sphere of influence, challenged by Czarist Russia. Stuck in between two empires, this country became a buffer state, isolated in its under-development. Its borders were drawn according to the changing balance of forces between these great powers, breaking up peoples into different neighboring countries. The largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, the Pashtuns, were also dumped into Pakistan. The Tajiks and Uzbeks, who live in the north of the country, are also present in several Central Asian countries. The Hazaras are of Mongolian origin and tend to practice Shia Islam, as in Iran. Imperialism has pushed to take advantage of these divisions.

Starting in 1947, the date of India’s independence and the formation of Pakistan, Afghanistan found itself in the orbit of the USSR. The country’s regime rested on the USSR for aid and support.

On December 27, 1979, the Soviet army intervened militarily in order to prevent the pro-Russian regime in Afghanistan from collapsing. A war began against the occupiers, waged by the mujahideen, who were warlords relying on their own ethnic group, or even their tribe, and fighting in the name of Islam. This was the start of 10 years of war. The brutality of the Soviet army’s intervention contributed to the recruitment efforts of the armed bands in rebellion, but most of the aid came from abroad. The United States took covert action, seeing a chance to weaken the USSR.

This aid had started before the Soviet intervention, with the opening of mujahideen training camps in Pakistan. The CIA worked with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to overthrow the Afghan government that was supported by the USSR. It funded training camps and arms for the most fundamentalist of these guerrillas, such as those of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the head of Hezb-e-Islami, one of the many Islamist parties. John Gunther Dean, who was U.S. ambassador to India at the time, described the situation in the 1980s as follows: “With Saudi Arabia, the U.S. helped to finance Arab volunteers from many countries to put military pressure on the Soviet Union to leave Afghanistan. The Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in February 1989. During my stay as U.S. ambassador in India, I passed messages from President Reagan to President Gorbachev of the Soviet Union via Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi … to obtain the establishment of an acceptable successor government in Kabul.… The U.S. and Saudi Arabia supported Gulbuddin Hekmatyar during the anti-Soviet war, but he and his fighters turned, over time, into staunch opponents of the United States.” (Les Crises en Afghanistan depuis le XIXe siècle, IRSEM, 2010, p. 75)

These were not the only forces backed by imperialism that turned against their former masters. In the same period, a certain Osama bin Laden, working for the secret services of Saudi Arabia, his own country, built a network of jihadists from different Muslim countries, including Pakistan, to form al-Qaeda in 1987, which would go on to commit the September 11, 2001 attacks.

On April 4, 1988, an accord was finally signed in Geneva between the Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the “acceptable” government of Mohammad Najibullah for the retreat of Soviet troops, taking effect on February 15, 1989. But the country continued to fall prey to clashes between the different armed bands led by the warlords who had fought the Soviet army and now contested each other for power. The rivalries between regional powers continued to fan these conflicts. The Afghan ethnic groups who had ties to one or several neighboring countries used them as bases for militias funded by regional powers according to their own interests. Pakistan, one of the main local supporters of imperialism, clearly illustrates this reality. Pakistan contains most of the world’s Pashtun population, with the other part across the Afghan border, and the Pakistani government considers Afghanistan to be part of its zone of influence, which it defends tooth and nail from the possibility of any encroachment coming from India.

Eight years of civil war ended in 1996 with the Taliban coming to power. These were militias made up of young religious students, of Pashtun origin, many thousands of them in refugee camps in Pakistan. Pakistan organized and armed them. U.S. imperialism greeted their seizure of power as a sign that order was being reestablished in the country. The Washington Post, a newspaper close to then U.S. president, Bill Clinton, spoke of “the best chance in years of ending the anarchy that has wracked Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979.” It mattered little to these commentators that the Taliban imposed a regime of terror.

New economic possibilities were opening up for imperialism. With the end of the USSR in 1991, it became possible to access the resources of the former Soviet Republics, three of which bordered Afghanistan. Gas and oil pipeline projects, among others, drew the appetites of capitalist corporations. Turkmenistan’s enormous natural gas reserves, the fourth largest in the world with 10% of the total, and Kazakhstan’s oil reserves, had long interested companies like the U.S. Unocal and the Saudi Delta Oil.

Milton Bearden, the CIA station chief across the border from Afghanistan during the war against the Soviet occupation, explained: “The Taliban were not considered the worst: they were young and hot-headed, but that was better than civil war. They controlled all the territory between Pakistan and Turkmenistan’s gas fields, which might be as good as it would be possible to get to build a pipeline across Afghanistan and supply gas and energy to the new market. Everyone was happy.” (Quoted in: “The U.S. and the Taliban: A Done Deal,” Le Monde Diplomatique, January 2002) Transporting oil and gas to Western markets across Afghanistan and Pakistan seemed to be a possibility. The United States hoped to slightly loosen its dependence on the oil monarchies of the Persian Gulf and break the Russian monopoly on energy transportation in the region.

This was the core of the project set in motion by the U.S. corporation Unocal, which the U.S. current negotiator in Doha, Qatar, Zalmay Khalilzad, served as a consultant in the 1990s. The California-based company formed a consortium, Central Asia Gas Pipeline, Ltd. (CentGas), in order to build a pipeline across Afghanistan. In 1997, with the active support of the Clinton administration and the Pakistani secret services, Unocal made contact with the Taliban regime in power. With a little luck, Washington believed at the time, the Taliban could become acceptable partners like the Saudis. The bloody terrorist attacks which al-Qaeda organized in 1998 against the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya put an end to these hopes, since bin Laden was protected by the Taliban. Rising instability would discourage the big energy companies from investing in such projects, even though they were not completely abandoned.

The September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York once again thrust Afghanistan into war. The United States, supported by NATO countries like France, launched an offensive against the Taliban which it cynically called Operation Enduring Freedom. Under the pretext of hunting for bin Laden and the surviving forces of al-Qaeda, or for Mullah Omar, the former leader of the Taliban, it reduced entire villages to dust. In 5 weeks, the Taliban regime was wiped out, at the cost of thousands of civilian deaths and the destruction of the country. A government and an interim president, Hamid Karzai, who was a former CIA collaborator, arrived in U.S. convoys. This puppet government could hardly have held the country without the presence of NATO troops. But what was intended as only a rapid blitz soon turned into a very long occupation by hundreds of thousands of U.S., British, French, and other NATO troops.

Twenty years later, the United States is once again trying to extricate itself from this conflict it created. It has recently been negotiating with those who had been its enemies after 2001 and—even earlier—its friends in the 1990s. Imperialism is accustomed to these shifting alliances. But the possibility of a new “Taliban” regime controlling the country seems less viable today, since, after years of war, the number of jihadist groups with varying allegiances have multiplied, as have the armed bands led by different warlords and organized crime networks, which are sometimes the same. At the beginning of February, the Pentagon estimated that al-Qaeda had reinstalled itself in Afghanistan in 2020, mostly by relying on Taliban networks. The U.S. Treasury services tasked with fighting against the financing of terrorism estimated in an official report that “as of 2020, al-Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection.” (Memorandum for Department of Defense, OIG-CA-21–012, Department of the Treasury, January 4, 2021) The jihadists of the Islamic State, whom the Taliban claims to be fighting, also seem to have regrouped in their new battlefield of Afghanistan.

The United States Bogged Down in War

This 20-year war is a defeat for U.S. imperialism. Afghan civilians have paid by far the steepest price. But the U.S.’s own soldiers paid heavily—between October 2001 and October 2018, 2,400 troops died in Afghanistan, and ten times that suffered serious injuries. The cost of these past 20 years of conflict is dizzying. By 2018, the U.S. had spent 900 billion dollars, even higher than that of the Marshall Plan that followed World War Two. The U.S. army has been in Afghanistan for more total days than for both world wars and the Korean War combined.

For years, U.S. imperialism has tried to find a way out of this quagmire it created. What worries it is not that armed bands might continue to kill each other in Afghanistan, but that the instability there might spread to the entire region. Although the Taliban has only the ambition to impose an emirate based on Sharia law within the boundaries of the nation, the same cannot be said for al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

In 2003, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, had already announced “the end of major combat operations.” Seven years later, the number of troops stationed had ratcheted

up again to 100,000. In November 2009, after having sent 30,000 additional soldiers to Afghanistan, Barack Obama declared that he wanted to put an end to the “endless wars” and promised a definitive withdrawal of U.S. troops by 2014. More than six years after that target date, 3,500 U.S. troops still remained in the country, plus another 6,000 from other NATO member states. To this must be added all of the personnel who allow the military bases to function and the growing presence of “military contractors.” These mercenaries are commanded by former U.S. officers, hired by private companies like Academi (formerly known as Blackwater), DynCorp, and KBR, Inc. (formerly a subsidiary of Halliburton)—a market valued at more than $80 billion per year.

When he took office, Donald Trump made the same promise as his predecessors: “To bring our people back home.” In 2018, negotiations started between the representative of the United States, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the representative of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the founders of the movement, who was arrested in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2010 and let out of prison for the occasion at the request of the U.S. government. The official Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani was not invited to the discussions, which says a great deal about the importance it holds in U.S. eyes. Finally, months later, on February 29, 2020 in Doha, Qatar, Trump announced that he had reached an agreement with the Taliban.

As part of this so-called peace accord, in exchange for the definitive departure of U.S. troops, supposedly set for May 1, 2021, the Taliban would commit to a cease-fire and take part in discussions with the Afghan government. They had apparently promised to cut ties with terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda, a promise which they are unable to keep given how much the different networks blend together. To give just one example, the Taliban’s second-in-command, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the former leader of the terrorist network that bears his name, serves as the main interface with al-Qaeda among the Taliban leadership. In this sense, he is continuing the role his father played with regards to Mullah Omar, who invited Osama bin Laden to establish al-Qaeda’s first base in Afghanistan. The cease-fire engagement fell apart on March 1, 2020, the day when the Taliban took up arms again. The U.S. website “Long War Journal” counted 147 attacks committed between March 1 and 10 in 27 out of 35 provinces. They did not target foreign armed forces, which was the only commitment upheld by the Taliban.

Discussions nevertheless opened six months later, in September 2020, between representatives of the Taliban and those of the Afghan government, with the goal of finding a way out of the crisis. But this so-called “intra-Afghan reconciliation process” remains effectively stillborn. The Taliban feels that it has the advantage over Ashraf Ghani’s government, which controls only Kabul and the surrounding area but does not want to concede anything. The violence continued, with the negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban contributing to it. The Taliban enjoys a military superiority over a worn-out Afghan army undermined by corruption and desertion. Accordingly, it increased its attacks on the ground to demonstrate its strength. The head of Afghan intelligence services has attributed 18,000 attacks to the Taliban in the year 2020 alone.

After taking office, Joe Biden said he wanted to revisit the accord signed last year, threatening to postpone indefinitely the U.S. army’s withdrawal if the level of violence did not decrease. “There is still a need for the Taliban to do more when it comes to delivering on their commitments,” the Secretary-General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, declared on February 15. Nonetheless, even as violence continued, Biden set a new date for the supposedly complete withdrawal of U.S. forces, pushing it back to the symbolic date of September 11, 2021.

The Mirage of a Political Settlement

Despite its many tries to leave, U.S. imperialism keeps running into the same problem. It does not have a solid enough intermediary in Afghanistan to allow for a political stabilization. Its goal is not—and has never been—to protect the population and support women’s rights, as it claims in its propaganda. Under the governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani which the United States put in place, women may have seen their situation improve, but only in the cities, and only a very little. For the immense majority of the population, all that these puppet governments have stabilized is poverty. The political solution which imperialism desires is one that would allow multinational corporations to access new markets and new opportunities to plunder this part of the world. Certainly, the economy of war has thrived. The United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on it, which has enriched weapons manufacturers and companies that hire mercenaries. But many other projects remain unfulfilled, such as the above-mentioned TAPI Pipeline, which would transport natural gas across Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

On January 3, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, began a tour in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar, and Turkmenistan, with the goal of compelling these countries to pursue what the U.S. State Department described as “plans for expanded regional connectivity, trade, and development which will be aided by an Afghan peace agreement and will help sustain peace.” At the beginning of February, a Taliban delegation made a surprise visit to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, in order to promise its support for the construction of the pipeline across Afghanistan. This visit was very likely arranged by the United States. Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban’s Qatar-based negotiation team, told reporters that his movement was offering “full support for the implementation and security of TAPI and other developmental projects in our country.” (“Taliban vows to guarantee safety of trans-Afghanistan gas pipeline,” Eurasianet, February 6, 2021) However, it is not certain that these declarations of intent will be enough to reassure possible investors, or even the government of Turkmenistan itself, so long as any political settlement continues to be a mirage. Nonetheless, negotiations over pipelines and other projects go on.

Imperialism has always tried to maintain its domination by relying on the most reactionary forces and fanning rivalries between regional powers. From Iraq to Syria to Afghanistan, the results can be seen: chaos continues to spread. The Afghan population is trapped between the dictatorship of U.S. imperialism, via the corrupt and venal government of Ashraf Ghani; the presence of the armed forces of the Taliban, who once in power will impose the same despotic regime as in 1996; and other forces which are just as reactionary. Putting an end to this situation means taking on an entire system of domination, which includes imperialist interventions, local ruling classes, and militias acting autonomously. Overthrowing this system can only be done on the basis of a revolutionary, proletarian, and internationalist policy, making it the common goal of the exploited masses of the entire region.

February 22, 2021 (Updated, July 19, 2021)