A few days ago United States Intelligence (sic) said that Kabul could hold out for 3 months. Ashraf Ghani the Afghan president told his people on TV that he was organising the city’s defence. The US were carefully planning their announced withdrawal and setting up diplomatic talks in Doha with the Taliban.
Today Taliban soldiers are inside the Presidential palace. Ghani has fled to Tajikistan. American embassy staff are desperately tried to burn their sensitive documentation. All the NATO US-supporting countries are evacuating their personnel and making increasingly vague and shaky promises to protect all those Afghans who collaborated. In scenes reminiscent of Saigon in 1975 our TV screens are full of helicopters airlifting Western nationals from the green compound to the airport. They are showing thousands of Afghans occupying the airport runways desperate to get away. Russia, China and Iran are staying put and hoping this defeat for the American empire will work to their advantage.
Boris Johnson has defended the 20 year ‘war on terror’ as protecting national security and plaintively warning the Taliban not to harbour Islamist terrorists. Biden’s botched withdrawal has left him criticised and isolated at home even if Trump had already given the green light to the Taliban several years earlier when he boasted of bringing the disaster to an end. It is hard to find much difference in the reaction of Keir Starmer, the Labour Party Leader of the Opposition:
There is a real risk that international terrorism will take hold again in Afghanistan, so we can’t walk away and undermine the legacy of the last 20 years.”Guardian 14 August
He appears to think there is a worthwhile legacy to defend and celebrate and seems to have a complete disconnect about the effectiveness of this legacy and the actual facts on the ground. Twenty years after the Western forces threw out the Taliban they are back stronger than ever. Perhaps he might have made a more relevant and useful statement if he had consulted the man who he has kicked out of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, who was right about Afghanistan just as he was on Iraq. Once again we are seeing in practice a bipartisan British foreign policy that is more or less aligned with US imperialism.
Why have the Taliban come back?
The mainstream mass media have been full of technical analysis comparing the size, the weapons, tactics and strategy of the two armies. But – and this is a real commonality with the Vietnam war – armed conflict is politics by other means. Consequently a materially weaker anti-imperialist, nationalist political force will defeat a richer, stronger imperialist one:
- if you present yourselves as defending local communities against indiscriminate drone attacks of weddings and other civilian targets;
- if you are in practice a lot less corrupt than the Afghan national and local politicians;
- if you are fighting for national sovereignty against a puppet government totally sustained by foreign imperialists;
- if you have an ideology that is able to provide some sort of basis for uniting the majority against a government riven by tribal/regional interests and
- finally if you look like you are going to win …. then that is what is going to happen.
Billions of dollars were spent on training and equipping the Afghan army as well as bankrolling basic government operations. A lot of this money went into the pockets of corrupt officers and politicians. Unit commanders would inflate their actual numbers of combatants with ‘ghost’ solders in order to trouser their wages. The government relied on deals with regional and local tribal leaders who had their own loyalties and quickly changed sides once they saw which way the wind was blowing.
Military analysts will tell you that willingness to fight and die is key to understanding who will win a war. Whatever you may think of the reactionary Islamist ideology of the Taliban at least it provided a motivation and a glue to keep their fighters going forward. On the other side the average pro-government solder just saw their leaders lining their pockets.
Does this mean that the fall of Kabul is the same as the fall of Saigon?
The similarities begin and end with it being a defeat for the US imperialism and a further sign of the decline of its empire.
The victory of the Vietnamese people, led by the Vietnamese Communist Party, was an inspiration for revolutionaries and anti-imperialist fighters throughout the world. I still remember the enthusiasm at a hastily organised meeting in Essex University. Young people in particular had been involved since before 1968 in mass solidarity campaigns. The resistance of the Vietnamese people was directly linked to the people on the streets in Paris, Mexico City or Berlin as well as the armed struggles in places like Angola. The victory showed that the number one imperialist power could be defeated. Inside Vietnam the changes implemented by the leadership of the revolution were progressive in terms of education, health and the general standard of living. Unifying the country met the needs for national self determination. Despite the restoration of a capitalism, albeit regulated by a strong state, and the continuation of a one party system, the long war against imperialism was justified and defeat would have led to a worse outcome for the people.
On the other hand the programme and methods of the Taliban do not inspire young revolutionaries or progressive activists throughout the world. Their record when in government after 1996 was neither very progressive in terms of material development nor of democratic rights. Women and young girls were not allowed to be educated and kept strictly controlled by men in a very narrow interpretation of Islamic sharia law. Music was not permitted nor any cultural creation which fell outside the Taliban’s notion of Islam. Even kite flying – a big national pastime – was stopped.
It is still unclear whether the Taliban has evolved its conception of theocratic government over the last twenty years. Internationally there is a range of theocratic systems that include quite different systems whether the absolute hell of the Isis state in Syria, Saudi Arabia or Iran. For example it has been reported that girls have been allowed to go to school in a northern region under Taliban control. The early statements by their leadership say that they will amnesty people who worked with the government or foreign forces. The immediate bloodletting and stringing people up on lamp posts may not happen. It is pointless to speculate at this stage.
What should the left’s attitude be to the new situation?
First we welcome the defeat of US and British imperialism. Direct intervention to impose regime change in a badly thought out war on terror has been shown to be a catastrophic mistake. Labour should follow Corbyn’s position and break with any bipartisan approach with this Tory government.
Second, we should encourage the international community to send aid and material help to rebuild the country. A huge internal refugee crisis is emerging. This could be achieved through the UN and other international aid organisations. Terrorists are more likely to be created when their country is occupied, bombed and underdeveloped. Giving young people hope that life can improve is one way of changing people from a violent dead end ideology. If the same amount of money that was spent on arms could be allocated to development projects we might see a more positive outcome.
Third, the imperialists should at least have the decency to look after the thousands of people they took on as translators or in other roles. Visas to leave Afghanistan should be provided. Of course the recent conversion of the British mainstream media to some sort of sympathy with these Afghans contrasts with their attacks on asylum seekers, many of whom are Afghans.
Fourth, we do not support any reactionary, theocratic regime that the Taliban will set up. We are for full democratic rights in terms of political organising, culture, gender and identity. We support those forces inside Afghanistan who will continue to struggle for such rights. The victory of the Taliban allows the possibility of the Afghan people to develop their own solutions without imperialist intervention. It is only in this sense that the defeat of the imperialists is progressive. However this possibility depends on the sort of regime that is established.
Finally here in Britain we need to engage politically with those – particularly younger – activists from the Muslim communities who may be sympathetic to the politics of a Taliban government. We need to put forward reasoned alternatives to theocratic systems of government.
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