Debacle in Afghanistan

By Tariq Ali

The fall of Kabul to the Taliban on 15 August 2021 is a major political and ideological defeat for the American Empire. The crowded helicopters carrying US Embassy staff to Kabul airport were startlingly reminiscent of the scenes in Saigon – now Ho Chi Minh City – in April 1975. The speed with which Taliban forces stormed the country was astonishing; their strategic acumen remarkable. A week-long offensive ended triumphantly in Kabul. The 300,000-strong Afghan army crumbled. Many refused to fight. In fact, thousands of them went over to the Taliban, who immediately demanded the unconditional surrender of the puppet government. President Ashraf Ghani, a favourite of the US media, fled the country and sought refuge in Oman. The flag of the revived Emirate is now fluttering over his Presidential palace. In some respects, the closest analogy is not Saigon but nineteenth-century Sudan, when the forces of the Mahdi swept into Khartoum and martyred General Gordon. William Morris celebrated the Mahdi’s victory as a setback for the British Empire. Yet while the Sudanese insurgents killed an entire garrison, Kabul changed hands with little bloodshed. The Taliban did not even attempt to take the US embassy, let alone target American personnel.

The twentieth anniversary of the ‘War on Terror’ thus ended in predictable and predicted defeat for the US, NATO and others who clambered on the bandwagon. However one regards the Taliban’s policies – I have been a stern critic for many years – their achievement cannot be denied. In a period when the US has wrecked one Arab country after another, no resistance that could challenge the occupiers ever emerged. This defeat may well be a turning point. That is why European politicians are whinging. They backed the US unconditionally in Afghanistan, and they too have suffered a humiliation – none more so than Britain.

Biden was left with no choice. The United States had announced it would withdraw from Afghanistan in September 2021 without fulfilling any of its ‘liberationist’ aims: freedom and democracy, equal rights for women, and the destruction of the Taliban. Though it may be undefeated militarily, the tears being shed by embittered liberals confirm the deeper extent of its loss. Most of them – Frederick Kagan in the NYT, Gideon Rachman in the FT – believe that the drawdown should have been delayed to keep the Taliban at bay. But Biden was simply ratifying the peace process initiated by Trump, with Pentagon backing, which saw an agreement reached in February 2020 in the presence of the US, Taliban, India, China and Pakistan. The American security establishment knew that the invasion had failed: the Taliban could not be subdued no matter how long they stayed. The notion that Biden’s hasty withdrawal has somehow strengthened the militants is poppycock.

The fact is that over twenty years, the US has failed to build anything that might redeem its mission. The brilliantly lit Green Zone was always surrounded by a darkness that the Zoners could not fathom. In one of the poorest countries of the world, billions were spent annually on air-conditioning the barracks that housed US soldiers and officers, while food and clothing were regularly flown in from bases in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. It was hardly a surprise that a huge slum grew on the fringes of Kabul, as the poor assembled to search for pickings in dustbins. The low wages paid to Afghan security services could not convince them to fight against their countrymen. The army, built up over two decades, had been infiltrated at an early stage by Taliban supporters, who received free training in the use of modern military equipment and acted as spies for the Afghan resistance.

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This was the miserable reality of ‘humanitarian intervention’. Though credit where credit is due: the country has witnessed a huge rise in exports. During the Taliban years, opium production was strictly monitored. Since the US invasion it has increased dramatically, and now accounts for 90% of the global heroin market – making one wonder whether this protracted conflict should be seen, partially at least, as a new opium war. Trillions have been made in profits and shared between the Afghan sectors that serviced the occupation. Western officers were handsomely paid off to enable the trade. One in ten young Afghans are now opium addicts. Figures for NATO forces are unavailable.

As for the status of women, nothing much has changed. There has been little social progress outside the NGO-infested Green Zone. One of the country’s leading feminists in exile remarked that Afghan women had three enemies: the Western occupation, the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. With the departure of the United States, she said, they will have two. (At the time of writing this can perhaps be amended to one, as the Taliban’s advances in the north saw off key factions of the Alliance before Kabul was captured). Despite repeated requests from journalists and campaigners, no reliable figures have been released on the sex-work industry that grew to service the occupying armies. Nor are there credible rape statistics – although US soldiers frequently used sexual violence against ‘terror suspects’, raped Afghan civilians and green-lighted child abuse by allied militias. During the Yugoslav civil war, prostitution multiplied and the region became a centre for sex trafficking. UN involvement in this profitable business was well-documented. In Afghanistan, the full details are yet to emerge.

Over 775,000 US troops have fought in Afghanistan since 2001. Of those, 2,448 were killed, along with almost 4,000 US contractors. Approximately 20,589 were wounded in action according to the Defense Department. Afghan casualty figures are difficult to calculate, since ‘enemy deaths’ that include civilians are not counted. Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives estimated that at least 4,200–4,500 civilians were killed by mid-January 2002 as a consequence of the US assault, both directly as casualties of the aerial bombing campaign and indirectly in the humanitarian crisis that ensued. By 2021, the Associated Press were reporting that 47,245 civilians had perished because of the occupation. Afghan civil rights activists gave a higher total, insisting that 100,000 Afghans (many of them non-combatants) had died, and three times that number had been wounded.

In 2019, the Washington Post published a 2,000-page internal report commissioned by the US federal government to anatomise the failures of its longest war: ‘The Afghanistan Papers’. It was based on a series of interviews with US Generals (retired and serving), political advisers, diplomats, aid workers and so on. Their combined assessment was damning. General Douglas Lute, the ‘Afghan war czar’ under Bush and Obama, confessed that ‘We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn’t know what we were doing…We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we’re undertaking…If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction.’ Another witness, Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy Seal and a White House staffer under Bush and Obama, highlighted the vast waste of resources: ‘What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth $1 trillion? … After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.’ He could have added: ‘And we still lost’.

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Who was the enemy? The Taliban, Pakistan, all Afghans? A long-serving US soldier was convinced that at least one-third of Afghan police were addicted to drugs and another sizeable chunk were Taliban supporters. This posed a major problem for US soldiers, as an unnamed Special Forces honcho testified in 2017: ‘They thought I was going to come to them with a map to show them where the good guys and bad guys live…It took several conversations for them to understand that I did not have that information in my hands. At first, they just kept asking: “But who are the bad guys, where are they?”’.

Donald Rumsfeld expressed the same sentiment back in 2003. ‘I have no visibility into who the bad guys are in Afghanistan or Iraq’, he wrote. ‘I read all the intel from the community, and it sounds as though we know a great deal, but in fact, when you push at it, you find out we haven’t got anything that is actionable. We are woefully deficient in human intelligence.’ The inability to distinguish between a friend and an enemy is a serious issue – not just on a Schmittean level, but on a practical one. If you can’t tell the difference between allies and adversaries after an IED attack in a crowded city market, you respond by lashing out at everyone, and create more enemies in the process.

Colonel Christopher Kolenda, an adviser to three serving Generals, pointed to another problem with the US mission. Corruption was rampant from the beginning, he said; the Karzai government was ‘self-organised into a kleptocracy.’ That undermined the post-2002 strategy of building a state that could outlast the occupation. ‘Petty corruption is like skin cancer, there are ways to deal with it and you’ll probably be just fine. Corruption within the ministries, higher level, is like colon cancer; it’s worse, but if you catch it in time, you’re probably okay. Kleptocracy, however, is like brain cancer; it’s fatal.’ Of course, the Pakistani state – where kleptocracy is embedded at every level – has survived for decades. But things weren’t so easy in Afghanistan, where nation-building efforts were led by an occupying army and the central government had scant popular support.

What of the fake reports that the Taliban were routed, never to return? A senior figure in the National Security Council reflected on the lies broadcast by his colleagues: ‘It was their explanations. For example, [Taliban] attacks are getting worse? “That’s because there are more targets for them to fire at, so more attacks are a false indicator of instability.” Then, three months later, attacks are still getting worse? “It’s because the Taliban are getting desperate, so it’s actually an indicator that we’re winning”…And this went on and on for two reasons, to make everyone involved look good, and to make it look like the troops and resources were having the kind of effect where removing them would cause the country to deteriorate.’

All this was an open secret in the chanceries and defence ministries of NATO Europe. In October 2014, the British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon admitted that ‘Mistakes were made militarily, mistakes were made by the politicians at the time and this goes back 10, 13 years…We’re not going to send combat troops back into Afghanistan, under any circumstances.’ Four years later, Prime Minister Theresa May redeployed British troops to Afghanistan, doubling its fighters ‘to help tackle the fragile security situation’. Now the UK media is echoing the Foreign Office and criticising Biden for having made the wrong move at the wrong time, with the head of the British armed forces Sir Nick Carter suggesting a new invasion might be necessary. Tory backbenchers, colonial nostalgists, stooge-journalists and Blair-toadies are lining up to call for a permanent British presence in the war-torn state.

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What’s astonishing is that neither General Carter nor his relays appear to have acknowledged the scale of the crisis confronted by the US war machine, as set out in ‘The Afghanistan Papers’. While American military planners have slowly woken up to reality, their British counterparts still cling to a fantasy image of Afghanistan. Some argue that the withdrawal will put Europe’s security at risk, as al-Qaeda regroups under the new Islamic Emirate. But these forecasts are disingenuous. The US and UK have spent years arming and assisting al-Qaeda in Syria, as they did in Bosnia and in Libya. Such fearmongering can only function in a swamp of ignorance. For the British public, at least, it does not seem to have cut through. History sometimes presses urgent truths on a country through a vivid demonstration of facts or an exposure of elites. The current withdrawal is likely to be one such moment. Britons, already hostile to the War on Terror, could harden in their opposition to future military conquests.

What does the future hold? Replicating the model developed for Iraq and Syria, the US has announced a permanent special military unit, staffed by 2,500 troops, to be stationed at a Kuwaiti base, ready to fly to Afghanistan and bomb, kill and maim should it become necessary. Meanwhile, a high-powered Taliban delegation visited China last July, pledging that their country would never again be used as a launch pad for attacks on other states. Cordial discussions were held with the Chinese Foreign Minister, reportedly covering trade and economic ties. The summit recalled similar meetings between Afghan mujahideen and Western leaders during the 1980s: the former appearing with their Wahhabi costumes and regulation beard-cuts against the spectacular backdrop of the White House or 10 Downing Street. But now, with NATO in retreat, the key players are China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan (which has undoubtedly provided strategic assistance to the Taliban, and for whom this is a huge politico-military triumph). None of them wants a new civil war, in polar contrast to the US and its allies after the Soviet withdrawal. China’s close relations with Tehran and Moscow might enable it to work towards securing some fragile peace for the citizens of this traumatised country, aided by continuing Russian influence in the north.

Much emphasis has been placed on the average age in Afghanistan: 18, in a population of 40 million. On its own this means nothing. But there is hope that young Afghans will strive for a better life after the forty-year conflict. For Afghan women the struggle is by no means over, even if only a single enemy remains. In Britain and elsewhere, all those who want to fight on must shift their focus to the refugees who will soon be knocking on NATO’s door. At the very least, refuge is what the West owes them: a minor reparation for an unnecessary war.

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