14th August 2021
The Western media are not using the words defeat or retreat when reporting on the withdrawal of US and British troops from Afghanistan but it is hard to characterise the present situation in any other way.
Nowhere in the NATO objectives will the return of the Taliban have been on the list of desirable outcomes after 20 years of occupation. The British media wheels out US generals and pundits by the hour to wax lyrical about the amount of time, effort and training NATO forces have expended on supporting the Afghan armed forces over this period.
Yet, when it comes to the crunch, the Afghan army appears to be walking off the job. Like the Afghan government itself, the army is fragile and reliant on the West to such a degree that it has little or no independent identity.
The Afghan crisis is yet another international humanitarian disaster of the West’s making going back, not to the intervention following 9/11 in 2001, but to the late 1970’s when the will of the Afghan people to choose a new road, a socialist road was thwarted by the machinations of the West and the foundations for what became the Taliban and al-Qaeda were laid.
Geo-politically Afghanistan has for centuries been an important trade route, linking China, India (the long border which is now Pakistan) and Iran as well as the former Soviet Republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan on its Northern border. Landlocked and mountainous it has always relied on neighbours for overland trade routes and itself been a conduit for trade between its more prosperous neighbours.
That role has historically meant that, given the tribal nature of Afghan society, key routes were controlled by local leaders, looking to benefit from granting safe passage for goods and travellers passing thorough their territory. Inevitably this resulted in the enrichment of a few tribal warlords but was of little benefit to the mass of the impoverished population.
As British imperialism expanded its grip across the Middle East and beyond it was not hard to see that whoever controlled the warlords controlled key strategic trade routes. One of the key trades through Afghanistan, has been opium, making it a centre for the international drugs trade and into the 20th century a major supplier for the heroin trade. Much of the enrichment of tribal leaders has historically relied upon access to the opium crop and links to the criminal underworld which has benefitted across the West.
Tensions between the impoverished many and the enriched few came to a head in Afghanistan in 1978 when the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) came to power, on a programme of stamping out the heroin trade, lifting the population out of poverty and backing education and equality for women, bringing light to the Islamic darkness of the largely feudal structure of the country.
This challenge to the entrenched orthodoxy and the prospect of further socialist expansion into the Middle East was not a prospect the West could tolerate. Moves were quickly made to strangle any revolutionary momentum at birth with the CIA funding mujahadeen opposition operating out of Pakistan in order to undermine efforts of the Afghan government.
The decision of the Afghan government under the PDPA to call upon support from the Soviet Union, widely reported in the West as a ‘Soviet invasion’, was precisely to defend against the return to feudalism which the CIA backed mujahadeen represented. The ten year presence of Soviet troops, until their withdrawal in 1989, provided a bulwark against the worst excesses of the reactionary forces backed by the West. The defeat of the Soviet Union in 1991 however turned the tide internationally and precipitated a degeneration into civil war in Afghanistan from which the Taliban emerged as victors in 1996.
The five year reign of terror by the Taliban was effectively ended by Western intervention in 2001 following the 9/11 attack in the United States, widely believed to have originated with Islamist militant groups based in Afghanistan, ironically previously funded by the US to fight the Soviet forces stationed there.
For Western politicians and the Western media it is convenient to talk about the past twenty years in relation to Afghanistan, the point at which the West was forced to overtly intervene to defeat the Taliban. It is less comfortable to focus on the preceding twenty years when Western arms and training effectively built the forces which went on to perpetrate terror attacks upon Western targets.
Taliban forces have captured much of the country again at present and are on the brink of mobilising their forces for an assault on the capital Kabul. The US are planning to employ 3,000 troops to ensure the safe passage of American diplomats and aid workers from Kabul, the British army is deploying 600 troops to do the same for British nationals.
Billions of dollars spent, thousands of working class lives lost, in an unwinnable war, and another foreign policy calamity for the West. The real losers over the past forty years have been the Afghan people who have seen their hopes of progress to a democratic future thwarted at every turn.
If a Taliban led Afghanistan once again becomes a training ground for Islamist militant attacks on the West the bloodletting may not yet be over. The West halted the possibility of social progress in Afghanistan with its initial interference in the 1970’s. There can be no doubt though that achieving that objective has come at a heavy price.