In late 2001, after the United States invaded Afghanistan, a Time magazine boastfully declared: “The Last Days of the Taliban.” Nearly 20 years later, think pieces across mainstream media are instead dissecting what could be called “The Last Days of the United States” in Afghanistan. After nearly 20 years, the longest war in U.S. history is now a part of history itself.
As the U.S. attempts to grapple with its diminished standing in the world in the wake of the 20 year old conflict, former victims of the CIA’s torture program at Guantánamo Bay are filling leadership posts in the new reactionary Afghan government.
For the Biden administration, the withdrawal — symbolically architected to be completed on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — has opened up one of the biggest crises of his presidency thus far. Biden’s approval rating took an eight-point hit in response to the crisis in Afghanistan, the sharpest dip since he took office and the first time his approval rating has dropped below 50 percent.
The tragedy surrounding the fall of Kabul and the rest of the country has been dominated by finger pointing from both sides of the aisle, despite that the intervention in Afghanistan and the subsequent withdrawal are both bipartisan affairs. While Trump and Biden take shots at each other for a “lack of competence” in orchestrating the withdrawal, the reality is that the disaster has the fingerprints of no fewer than four U.S. presidents of imperialist parties.
Meanwhile, others sectors of the U.S. bourgeois regime have adopted a reactionary pro-war narrative in response to the chaos of the withdrawal, with some military thinkers and establishment figures such as Henry Kissinger in open denial of the situation at hand.
These foreign policy “experts” conveniently ignore the atrocities U.S. imperialism has committed and the way the “war on terror” began in the first place. The story of how radical Islam became the main antagonist of the United States has roots in U.S. strategic aims to secure unrivalled control over oil-rich Middle East reserves. After the Iranian Revolution that began in 1978 signaled the loss of an important U.S. client and regional stronghold (and access to the country’s oil wealth) and threatened to bolster the revolutionary sentiments of the masses throughout the region, the United States — in alliance with Saudi Arabia, other Gulf States, and Pakistan — sponsored the Afghan mujahideen to counter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In the course of a few years, factions of these Islamist guerrillas became America’s greatest enemies.
Among the American-backed “heroes of jihad,” it was the Saudi Osama bin Laden who most definitively harbored resentment toward the United States after the strengthening of the Saudi-U.S. alliance during the Gulf War. Bin Laden condemned the American military deployment and argued that the Quran prohibits non-Muslims from setting foot in the Arabian Peninsula, which is the site of the religion’s two holiest shrines.
Beyond al Qaeda, however, the Muslim world harbored a deep sense of anti-Americanism, the product of decades of imperialist and pro-Zionist policies and the U.S. support and installation of despotic and dictatorial governments throughout the region. In turn, the rise of radical Islamist movements represents a distorted expression of the processes of radicalization in the region. This phenomena can be explained only through the lens of the retreat of the working-class movement, especially during the neoliberal offensive — a retreat during which vanguard sectors in imperialist and semicolonial countries alike failed to put forward an alternative for the peoples oppressed by imperialism.
Al Qaeda, as a deeply reactionary manifestation of these contradictions, carried out its attacks on 9/11, indiscriminately attacking civilians — although the Pentagon and, it appears, either the White House or the Capitol were also targeted. In the end, most of those who died in the 9/11 attacks were workers who bore no responsibility for the crimes committed by their imperialist government (for instance, an estimated 400-plus undocummented immigrants were working at the twin towers on that day). The attacks came at a moment in which U.S. hegemony had already shown markers of an advance in its relative decline after a decade of almost unquestioned hegemony in the post-Cold War years. Thus, 9/11 fuelled the contradictions that were already developing, both in terms of the international situation and within the United States itself.
The United States. used the smokescreen of 9/11 to implement a reactionary and unilateral strategy conceived by the hawkish neoconservative sector of the Bush administration, which sought to reaffirm U.S. standing in the world more aggressively . The United States flexed its military muscles and invaded and occupied Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, under the guise of dismantling al Qaeda and denying it a safe base of operations by removing the Taliban government from power. In an instant, the former Soviet air base at Bagram was secured with the help of the UK. Afghanistan was once again a backyard for U.S. foreign intervention.
Ideologically, almost overnight, Islam replaced communism as the most “imminent threat” to Western society, and 9/11 became a slap in the face to the “End of History” narratives pedaled by liberal commentators promoting the idea that a peaceful, globalized reality was imminent.
In fact, the war launched in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 was just the start. The United States next invaded Iraq, in 2003, under the similar pretext of a war on terror. The neocon dream for Iraq was regime change in a country with access to oil resources. The geopolitical contradictions of a greatly destabilized region opened up proxy wars in Syria and Yemen as well, and again the United States intervened as part of the war on terror. The early 21st century was far from peaceful for the people in the countries assaulted by U.S. imperialism. The results of imperialist intervention was more death, devastation, and misery.
In the post 9/11 context, U.S. imperialism’s jingoistic response to the heightened political situation at home took the form of some of the harshest attacks on on civil liberties and democratic freedoms since the COINTELPRO era, with a massive expansion of surveillance programs and security measures, the legitimization of torture, and attacks on Muslims.
During these times, support for the war among broad sectors of the U.S. population was high, with about 88 percent backing military action in Afghanistan. Immediately after the attacks, there was a palpable change in the political and cultural temperament of the United States. Everyone from liberal feminists to chauvinistic union leaders supported the invasion, and protests against the war were smaller in comparison to the anti-war protests in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which unlike Afghanistan was not a response to an attack against the United States.
Fast forward to 2021, and the longest war is also now one of the most unpopular. Donald Trump knew that when he campaigned to end the “forever wars.” But despite the withdrawal, neither Biden nor Trump (whose administration set the stage) carried it out for progressive reasons. In fact, the withdrawal only underscores greater confrontations ahead on much a wider scale, not only in the region but as a byproduct of rising tensions between an ascendent China and a weakened United States.
America’s New Bogeyman
The seismic shift in the geopolitical situation since the war on terror began has been the gradual rise of China in the context of a declining U.S. empire. As this process developed, Sinophobic tendencies took center stage in U.S. foreign policy, supplanting the Islamophobic view that a “clash of civilizations” would play out in the Muslim world.
As a strategic calculation, the withdrawal from Afghanistan is just as much a redeployment as it is a retreat. Far from being an anti-war measure, the Biden administration is finishing the job that past imperialist administrations started — to prepare for the growing confrontation with China.
Yet the current crisis is proving that this strategic realignment is easier said than done. Even Barack Obama — ironically awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — campaigned on ending the war; he also attempted a Pivot to Asia. But Obama ended up doubling down on bombing campaigns in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Iraq. While the Biden administration understands that the United States is no longer in a position to be the “world’s cop,” imperialism and its interventionism in one form or another is here to stay. The swift bombings that Biden recently authorized in Afghanistan is the proof.
While the “Great Game” for the United States in the Middle East and central Asia is far from over, U.S. military planners are attempting to reacclimate — after nearly two decades of battling guerillas — to conventional approaches to warfare in advance of the growing U.S.-China competition. It’s a sign that despite the fallout from the withdrawal in Afghanistan, U.S. imperialism is doubling down on its capacities rather than scaling back, as evidenced by the historic military budget proposed by the Biden administration.
Though the full geopolitical impact of the crisis in Afghanistan remains to be seen, there is no doubt that the crisis has accelerated the decline of U.S. hegemony and strengthened U.S. rivals — including, but not limited to, China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran.
For China, the Taliban represents a lesser of two evils. But despite Beijing’s initially cautious approval of the new Afghan government, China has been steadfast in recent days to secure itself as the Taliban’s primary foreign partner, with the support of a Taliban leadership that is desperately seeking international recognition and financial support. China recently announced at least $31 million in emergency aid, including food supplies and coronavirus vaccines, during a meeting with the foreign ministers of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries, including Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.
China’s pragmatic approach to the Taliban, though, comes with risks. On the one hand, China is likely fearful of having a militant Islamist group right at its doorstep in the midst of its brutal campaign targeting the Muslim Uyghur population for its “extremism.” And its close and continued collaboration with the unpopular Taliban risks alienating not only its own population but the masses of the semicolonial world it aims to influence. This deepening relationship with the Taliban also throws a wrench into China’s vaccine diplomacy programs, which aim at strengthening Beijing’s soft power.
The Next Chapter in the Afghan Struggle
Resistance against the Taliban has been mounting in recent weeks as their consolidation of power becomes more and more imminent. These protests, led predominantly by fearless women and youth, have been met with fierce repression and remain fragmented. Nevertheless, they have the potential to ignite a national movement that tests the Taliban’s brutal and reactionary regime.
Demonstrations in Kabul and smaller cities have ranged in size from several hundred to a few dozen people mostly putting forward the slogan “Freedom.” The protesters have been dispersed by Taliban militants firing at them with live rounds. More than 100 protestors and journalists have been injured and at least 10 have been killed, although the unofficial numbers are likely higher.
As the protests have become more widespread, the Taliban have sought to ban them. The number of arrests has increased, subjecting demonstrators to abuse in overcrowded jails. But protestors have said that their demonstrations will continue in the coming days, with more and more protests being planned online by local activists. One Afghan protester, a mother of four children (including a newborn), recently said:
The Taliban aren’t here for a few days. They’re here for the long run. We need to demand our rights, not just for us, but for our next generation, our children. We know the Taliban will find us and might target us. But we don’t have a choice. We have to continue.
In the midst of this acute situation, some sectors of Afghans and even some on the Left have put their hopes in misplaced support for the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRFA), a successor group of the Northern Alliance led by the son of the famed Afghan guerilla commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud. The group is based in Panjshir province, which has a Tajik-majority population. Panjshir province was the last of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces to fall to the Taliban, after an offensive earlier this week. Despite the NRFA’s antagonism toward the Taliban, many Afghans remember the Northern Alliance as just as oppressive as the Taliban, if not more so, after their brief time in power in the early 1990s.
During the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the group allied with U.S. imperialism and acted as a middleman during the occupation, extracting enormous profits while inflicting arbitrary violence on the Afghan people. With the NRFA in retreat, perhaps ISIS-K, another right-wing fundamentalist group will seek to recruit those who are discontented by having the Taliban in power. Anti-Taliban opposition groups like these are clearly not the solution to the misery of the Afghan people.
In the past decade, people across the broader region have repeatedly demonstrated their aspirations for political alternatives that go beyond the reactionary perspectives of fundamentalist groups such as Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS. The wave of class struggle that gave rise to Iran’s Green Movement and the Arab Spring, as well as more recent protests in Lebanon, Iraq, and across occupied Palestine, speak to the willingness of broader sectors to struggle in the context of regional instability and imperialist influence.
Perhaps this reality is felt most acutely among the generation of youth who grew up under the shadow of the war on terror within countries that have some of the youngest populations in the world, which includes Afghanistan. This generation, which has no clear path to a better quality of life and feels that it owes nothing to this rotten system, has stood courageously at the forefront of important struggles, such as the ongoing one in Palestine.
Alongside the youth and women, oppressed minorities such as the Hazaras in Afghanistan, who have been targeted by the ethno-nationalist Pashtun-majority Taliban, also have a key role to play in unifying struggles and driving them struggles. Just as the recent uprising in Iran’s Khuzestan region has shown, alliances between oppressed nationalities such as Iranian Arabs and other sectors can play a key role in struggles among the region’s multi-ethnic populations.
Taking these examples into consideration, the only viable path out of the crisis facing the oppressed and exploited in Afghanistan is one in which workers and they take charge of determining their own destiny against their local foes, who are committed to maintaining a system based on that very oppression and exploitation. These same protagonists must also exercise their democratic right to self-determination and decide the course of their country independently of any imperialist and foreign interference.
This struggle, though, should not occur in a vacuum. A responsibility falls on the shoulders of workers and the oppressed throughout the region and throughout the world to demonstrate active solidarity with the fight of the Afghan masses. This is not about using imperialist weapons such as calling for sanctions on Pakistan and other Taliban-friendly countries In Pakistan, that would primarily hurt the downtrodden, including the millions of Afghan refugees who live there. It is about employing our own weapons and methods.
Drawing on the example of the youth and workers that participated in the anti-war movement of the 1960s, we need a renewed anti-imperialist movement. This is even more urgent 20 years after 9/11, with a looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan that has been met with more bombs.
Looking forward, building the foundations for an anti-imperialist movement now, with the combativeness of the generation that grew up under the shadow of 9/11, will put us in a better position to forcefully confront an imperialist system marked by the growing competition between the United States and China. Our fight is not only to get the United States out of Afghanistan and the region, but also to close all U.S. bases around the world, fight against the war machine that is so central to U.S. capitalist profits and U.S. hegemony, and fight against our enemies at home that oppress working-class people across the world.