The hasty retreat of US and other western forces from Afghanistan is a stark manifestation of capitalism’s inability to offer anything but increasing barbarism. The summer of 2021 has already seen an acceleration of inter-linked events which show that the planet is already on fire: the outbreak of heatwaves and of uncontrollable fires from the west coast of the USA to Siberia, floods, the continuing ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic dislocation it has caused. All of this is “a revelation of the level of putrefaction reached during the 30 last years" . As marxists, our role is not merely to comment on this growing chaos but to analyse its roots, which lie in the historical crisis of capitalism, and to show the perspectives for the working class and the whole of humanity.
The historic background to the events in Afghanistan
The Taliban are presented as the enemies of civilisation, a danger to human rights and the rights of women in particular. They are certainly brutal and are driven by a vision that harks back to the worst aspects of the Middle Ages. However, they are not some rare exception to the times we are living in. They are the product of a reactionary social system: decadent capitalism. In particular their rise is a manifestation of decomposition, the final stage of capitalism’s decadence.
The second half of the 70s saw an escalation of the Cold War between the US and Russian imperialist blocs, with the US placing cruise missiles in Western Europe and forcing the USSR to engage in an arms race it could less and less afford. However, in 1979 one of the pillars of the western bloc in the Middle East, Iran, collapsed into chaos. All attempts by intelligent fractions of the bourgeoisie to impose order failed and the most backward elements of the clergy took advantage of this chaos to come to power. The new regime broke from the western bloc but also refused to join the Russian bloc. Iran has an extensive border with Russia and had thus acted as a key player in the west’s strategy of encircling the USSR. Now it had become a loose cannon in the region. This new disorder encouraged the USSR to invade Afghanistan when the West tried to overthrow the pro-Russian regime that it had managed to install in Kabul in 1978. By invading Afghanistan, Russia had hoped that at a later stage it would also be able to gain access to the Indian ocean.
In Afghanistan we now witnessed a terrible explosion of military barbarity. The USSR unleashed the full might of its arsenal on the Mujahedin (“freedom fighters”) and the population in general. On the other side the US bloc armed, financed and trained the Mujahedin and the Afghan warlords opposed to the Russians. These included many Islamic fundamentalists and also a growing influx of jihadis from across the world. These “freedom fighters” were taught all the arts of terror and warfare by the US and its allies. This war for “freedom” killed between 500,000 and 2 million people and left the country devastated. It was also the birthplace of a more global form of Islamic terrorism, typified by the rise of Bin Laden and Al-Qaida.
At the same time the US pushed Iraq into an eight-year long war against Iran, in which around 1.4 million were slaughtered. While Russia exhausted itself in Afghanistan, which contributed strongly to the collapse of the Russian bloc in 1989, and Iran and Iraq were being drawn into the spiral of war, the dynamic in the region showed that the point of departure, Iran’s transformation into a “rogue” state, was one of the first indications that the deepening contradictions of capitalism were starting to undermine the ability of the major powers to impose their authority in different regions of the planet. Behind this tendency lay something deeper: the inability of the ruling class to impose its solution to the crisis of the system – another world war – on a world working class which had shown its unwillingness to sacrifice itself on behalf of capitalism in a series of struggles between 1968 and the late 80s, without, however, being able to put forward a revolutionary alternative to the system. In short, an impasse between the two major classes determined capitalism’s entry into its final phase, the phase of decomposition, characterised, at the imperialist level, by the end of the two-bloc system and the acceleration of “every man for himself”
Afghanistan at the heart of the imperialist free for all
In the 1990s, after the departure of the Russians from Afghanistan, the victorious warlords turned on each other, using all the weapons and knowledge of war given to them by the West for control of the ruins. Wholesale slaughter, destruction and mass rape destroyed what little social cohesion was left by the war.
The social impact of this war was not confined to Afghanistan. The plague of heroin addiction that exploded from the 1980s onwards, bringing misery and death throughout the world, was one of the direct consequences of the war. The West encouraged the opposition to the Taliban to cultivate opium in order to finance the fighting.
The ruthless religious fanaticism of the Taliban was thus a product of decades of barbarity. They were also manipulated by Pakistan, in order to try and impose some form of order on its doorstep.
The US invasion in 2001, launched with the excuse of getting rid of Al-Qaida and the Taliban, along with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, were attempts by US imperialism to impose its authority faced with the consequences of its decline. It tried to get other powers, especially the Europeans, to act in response to the attack on one of its members. Apart from the UK, all the other powers were lukewarm. Indeed, Germany had already set out a new “independent” path in the early 90s, by supporting the secession of Croatia which in turn provoked the horrible slaughter in the Balkans. In the next two decades, America’s rivals became further emboldened as they watched the US getting embroiled in unwinnable wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The attempt of the USA to assert its dominance as the sole remaining superpower would more and more reveal the veritable decline of America’s imperialist ‘leadership’; and far from succeeding in imposing a monolithic order on the rest of the planet, the USA had now become the main vector of the chaos and instability which marks the phase of capitalist decomposition.
Biden’s Realpolitik in continuity with Trump’s
The policy of withdrawing from Afghanistan is a clear example of realpolitik. The US has to free itself of these expensive and debilitating wars in order to concentrate its resources on reinforcing its efforts to contain and undermine China and Russia. The Biden administration has shown itself to be no less cynical in the pursuit of US ambitions than Trump.
At the same time, the conditions of the US withdrawal have meant that the message of the Biden administration, “America is Back” - that America is a reliable ally - has been dealt a serious blow. In the long-term the administration is probably relying on the fear of China to force countries like Japan, South Korea, and Australia into cooperating with the US “pivot to the east”, aimed at containing China in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the region.
It would be a mistake to conclude from this that the US has simply walked away from the Middle East and Central Asia. Biden has made clear the US will pursue an “Over the Horizon” policy in relation to terrorist threats (in other words, through air strikes). This means that it will use its military bases around the world, its navy and air-force to inflict destruction on states in these regions if they endanger the US. This threat is also related to the increasingly chaotic situation in Africa, where failed states such as Somalia could be joined by Ethiopia as it is ravaged by civil war, with its neighbours supporting either side. This list will grow longer as Islamic terrorist groups in Nigeria, Chad, and elsewhere are emboldened by the victory of the Taliban to step up their campaigns.
If the withdrawal from Afghanistan is motivated by the need to focus on the danger posed by the rise of China and the revival of Russia as world powers, its limitations seem obvious, even offering Chinese and Russian imperialism a way into Afghanistan itself. China has already invested massively in its New Silk Road project in Afghanistan and both states have begun diplomatic relations with the Taliban. But neither of these states can rise above an increasingly contradictory world disorder. The wave of instability spreading across Africa, the Middle East (the collapse of the Lebanese economy being the most recent), Central Asia and the Far East (Myanmar in particular) is as much a danger to China and Russia as the US. They are fully aware that Afghanistan has no real functioning state and that the Taliban will not be able to build one. The threat to the new government from the warlords is well known. Parts of the Northern Alliance have already said they will not accept the government, and ISIS, which has also been involved in Afghanistan, considers the Taliban to be apostates because they are prepared to make deals with the infidel West. Parts of Afghanistan’s old ruling class may seek to work with the Taliban, and many foreign governments are opening up channels, but this is because they are terrified of the county descending again into warlordism and chaos which will spill over into the whole region.
The victory of the Taliban can only encourage the Uyghurs Islamic terrorists that are active in China, even if the Taliban did not support them. Russian imperialism knows the bitter cost of entanglement in Afghanistan and can see that the victory of the Taliban will provide a new impetus to the fundamentalist groups in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, states that form a buffer between the two countries. It will take advantage of this threat to strengthen its military influence on these states and elsewhere, but it can see that even the might of the US war machine could not crush such an insurgency if the latter gets enough support from other states.
The US was unable to defeat the Taliban and establish a cohesive state. It has withdrawn in the knowledge that while it has had to suffer a real humiliation, it has left a timebomb of instability in its wake. Russia and China now have to seek to contain this chaos. Any idea that capitalism can bring stability and some form of future to this region is a pure illusion.
Barbarism with a humanitarian face
The US, Britain and all the other powers have used the Taliban bogeyman to hide the terror and destruction they have inflicted on the population of Afghanistan over the past 40 years. The US-backed mujahidin slaughtered, raped, tortured and pillaged as much as the Russians. As with the Taliban they waged terror campaigns in the urban centres controlled by the Russians. However, this was carefully hidden from view by the West. It has been the same over the last 20 years. The terrible brutality of the Taliban has been highlighted in the Western media, whilst news of the causalities, killings, rapes and torture inflicted by the “democratic” government and its backers was cynically swept under the carpet. Somehow the blowing to pieces of young and old, women and men, by the shells, bombs and bullets of the government backed by the ‘democratic’, ‘human rights’ loving US and UK are not worth mentioning. In fact, even the full extent of the terror the Taliban has inflicted has not been reported. It is seen as being not ‘news-worthy’ unless it could help to justify the war.
The parliaments of Europe have echoed US and British politicians in bewailing the terrible fate of women and others in Afghanistan under the Taliban. The same politicians have imposed immigration laws that have led thousands of desperate refugees, including many Afghans, to risk their lives try to cross the Mediterranean or the Channel. Where is their wailing for the thousands who have drowned in the Mediterranean in recent years? What concern do they show for those refugees forced to live in little better than concentration camps in Turkey or Jordan (financed by the EU and Britain) or sold in the slave markets of Libya? These bourgeois mouthpieces that condemn the Taliban for its inhumanity are encouraging the construction of a wall of steel and concrete around Eastern Europe to stop the movement of refugees. The stench of hypocrisy is almost overwhelming.
The proletariat is the only force able to put an end to this hell
The vista of war, pandemic, economic crisis and climate change is indeed fearful. This is why the ruling class fills its media with them. It wants the proletariat to be subdued, to cower in fear from the grim reality of this rotting social system. They want us to be like children clutching onto the skirts of the ruling class and its state. The great difficulties the proletariat has had in the struggle to defend its interests over the last 30 years allow this fear to take a greater hold. The idea that the proletariat is the only force able to offer a future, a completely new society, can appear absurd. But the proletariat is the revolutionary class and three decades of retreat has not eradicated this, even if the length and depth of this retreat does make it harder for the international working class to regain confidence in its ability to resist the growing attacks on its economic conditions. But is only through these struggles that the working class can re-develop its strength. As Rosa Luxemburg said the proletariat is the only class that develops its consciousness through the experience of defeats. There is no guarantee the proletariat will be able to live up to its historical responsibility to offer a future to the rest of humanity. This certainly will not take place if the proletariat and its revolutionary minorities succumb to the crushing atmosphere of despair and hopelessness promoted by our class enemy. The proletariat can only carry out its revolutionary role by looking the grim reality of decomposing capitalism in the face and by refusing to accept the attacks on its economic and social conditions, replacing isolation and helplessness with solidarity, organisation and growing class consciousness.