Afghanistan, the Long Goodbye
(Prospettiva Marxista, August 2021)
Foreword by ‘Circolo Internazionalista’, August 27, 2021
We publish on our site a first evaluation by the comrades of Prospettiva Marxista about the situation in Afghanistan, an article of which we fully share the solid structure and would like to underline the seriousness of methodology. Too many times in recent days, in the midst of the media storm, we have had occasion to read articles, posts or statements – especially of certain leftists – in which they have given breath, so much breath, to the trumpets of a self-consoling and mystifying rhetoric, made up of words like “defeat”, “catastrophe”, “expulsion”, “humiliation”, “resistance” and everything else that a lexicon as poor as the ability to interpret facts lucidly, and as poor as the ability not to make desire the father of thought, has been able to produce. There are also those who have defined the advance, following the withdrawal of the US imperialist troops and their allies, of a political-ideological-military reality, the Taliban, which is a direct product of the last forty years of imperialist contention in Afghanistan, as an “anti-imperialist” victory. We have no such illusions and, above all, we have so much consideration and respect for our class as not to offer it the tired re-proposition of schemes – good for all seasons and not requiring a great effort of analysis, nor the necessary interpretative prudence – that the dynamics of capitalism in the last century have made obsolete. Of one thing we are certain, imperialism abhors the void and, with the withdrawal of American imperialism and the consequent rise of the Taliban, Afghanistan has certainly not emancipated itself from imperialist domination. U.S. imperialism has let go, but imperialism continues to keep its claws firmly in place – for now through the Taliban – on a battered country whose true emancipation is now in the sole hands of the international proletariat. The only anti-imperialist class.
Circolo Internazionalista (“coalizione operaia”), August 27, 2021.
Source: Prospettiva Marxista – AFGHANISTAN, IL LUNGO ADDIO, August 27, 2021.
Translation: H.C., August 29, 2021
Afghanistan, the Long Goodbye
Following the Biden administration’s announcement of the end of the military mission in Afghanistan and the withdrawal of US and NATO troops, developments on the ground accelerated dramatically. The advance of the Taliban intensified and in August, within ten days, they had occupied the main cities of the country, also establishing themselves in Kabul. The forces of the Afghan Government supported by the United States contingents and of the other countries involved in the Atlantic Alliance operation evaporated, in fact, without fighting.
The facts have once again catapulted the Afghan question onto the front pages of the international press, triggering wide-ranging debates and a profusion of evaluations and judgments, not infrequently inspired by tones that are as apodictic as they are lacking in a depth of analysis adequate to the complexity of the situation and the multiplicity of interweavings, connections and specificities that have become entangled in it.
The first step in our effort to understand the essential and decisive elements of the Afghan condition, as a necessary prerequisite for the formulation of a judgment and political indications, was to free the view from all those unfounded, superficial and misleading interpretations and keys that swarm in the scenario of the mass media and the industry of international public opinion.
The parallels with Vietnam, with Iraq, (1) the umpteenth jeremiads (or hallelujahs) for the umpteenth collapse of US power and the end of the West’s hegemony, the emphatic and superficial recourse to the formula of the “tomb of the empires” as an expedient to avoid examining the profound political and military differences between the various foreign military operations carried out since the 19th Century on Afghan soil, all of this is of no use in terms of analysis and should be considered only as a reflection, as the ideological bearer, of a confrontation between bourgeois currents and imperialisms.
First point: U.S. imperialism has not suffered any military defeat in Afghanistan. Nor has it withdrawn under the pressure, which became unbearable, of the Taliban offensive. The numbers of American casualties in twenty years of occupation of part of the Afghan territory (numbers paradoxically sometimes indicated as proof of the collapse of the US war apparatus) attest to a very limited commitment in terms of combat operations, a commitment concentrated on targeted operations of special units. U.S. troop bases have never been a target truly within the reach of Taliban guerrillas. The mission had long since become less and less politically justifiable, at least on a certain scale, and the withdrawal of the contingent, as a stabilization force and a prop for the government in Kabul, had become an issue on the agenda of the American leadership for several years. It was necessary, however, that the timing and modalities were as expendable as possible, or at least as little damaging as possible to the image of US power. And here the sore point for Washington comes into being.
Second point: the United States has suffered real damage to its image. In fact, it is difficult to contradict the assessment of George Robertson, the British politician who was NATO Secretary General during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, who defined the fact that we are moving towards the commemoration of September 11 with the Taliban back in control of Kabul as both “ironic” and “tragic”. Nor can the Dantesque scenario that materialized at the airport of the Afghan capital be reduced to an indifferent event for the political profile of U.S. imperialism, where the desperately crowded refugees, targets of terrorist attacks, represent the dramatic testimony of how the social sphere that had coagulated around the Western military presence has crumbled, the remains of a vaunted civilizing mission that evidently never really took root (2) The damage to the image should not, however, be confused with an event that marks a turning point in imperialistic balances. Especially if it is doubtful that the scenario in question really represents a strategic node in the future of relations between powers. It must be acknowledged with lucid sobriety: the United States does not come out of the clumsy Afghan disengagement drastically weakened in the inter-imperialist relations of force. (3) At the same time, it must be considered how the damage to image is not only a question of image. It is a sign, and in the Afghan case all the more intense since it was ignited after twenty years of presence in the field, of a lack of political intelligence (in its etymological meaning of ability to discern, to read through complexity). The timing and modalities of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan represent the second, resounding, “embarrassment” in less than a year on the part of the American political world on a global level. After the assault on the Capitol on January 6 (the final point of a protracted, embarrassing refusal to recognize the presidential result by the outgoing tenant of the White House), the blatant misunderstanding of some essential data of the Afghan situation testifies that some not insignificant cracks are running through the political superstructure of what remains the first imperialism in the world, far beyond the Trumpian camp alone. The damage to the image caused by the concrete configuration of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan is not, however, the result of a completely unforeseen event, of the precipitation of a situation in no way governed by Washington. Rather, it stems from the implementation, from the concretization, in unforeseen forms, of a scheme, of a plot on which the US leadership had presumably been working for several years. A diplomatic work, of preparation, which has known one of its most visible moments in the Doha agreements of February 2020, which saw the US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad agree with the Taliban represented by Mullah Baradar, whose biographies report the significant release in 2018 from the Pakistani prisons, where he had been imprisoned after an operation of the American and Pakistani services in 2010, at the request of the United States. In twenty years, it is very plausible that American imperialism has also intervened in the mechanisms of selection, redefinition and rearrangement of the Taliban leadership (without dwelling on how the very term Taliban, in all likelihood, indicates today a much more composite political and ethnic universe than what defined the movement that started in the Pashtun South of the country in the early 1990s). The Israeli model clearly shows how, when a power has a very clear superiority towards the adversary camp, even a massive action of conditioning of the dynamics of political structuring of this camp is concretely pursuable (targeted assassinations conducted in the adversary leadership are only one of the instruments available). To exclude on forehand that the United States has operated, during its long stay on Afghan soil, also to shape directing the development of components and currents of the Taliban movement more suitable or compatible with its own interests means denying American imperialism a practice and a line of conduct that is and has been proper to regional powers such as Pakistan and – if we extend the range of action of these modes of influence to the various warlords and their various godfathers – such as Iran and other players in the tragic imperialist game that has pivoted on Afghanistan.
It is very plausible that the long negotiations that preceded the start of the US withdrawal and that involved the Taliban leadership (or at least a significant part of it) foresaw a management of the transfer of power that was very different from what was later realized in actual developments. Yet another historical demonstration of the unintended resultant of a parallelogram of forces. An interim and, to use a term very much in vogue today, inclusive government, including the Taliban (or a part of them, presented as finally reformed and converted to moderation), parts of the previous government in Kabul supported by the United States and NATO and other components of the Afghan political framework, would have made it possible to present the American withdrawal in a very different way than the situation today. What was missing in this scheme was the element of continuity with the previous Afghan administration, a component of the agreement fell apart, leaving the Taliban themselves, at first very loyal to the script of the moderate extremist force in view of a participatory form of government, in front of unforeseen gaps and spaces.
Two very different sources fully agree on an assessment in line with this broad reconstruction: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Mullah Baradar himself. The former, during the debate in the Commons on August 18, observed that the developments had proceeded faster than even what “the Taliban had predicted”; the latter, commenting on the sudden seizure of power, significantly declared that his offensive had reached an “unexpected point”, adding that “it was not foreseen that we would have had this success in Afghanistan”. Worthy of attention is also the comment of the exponent of the fundamentalist movement, who exhorted, in light of this clamorous and in some ways unexpected victory, not to become “arrogant”. Singular and interesting counterbalance to this implicit call to the existence of pacts that the Talibans do not have the strength to ignore completely, were the evaluations expressed by General David Petraeus, former commander of the United States forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and former director of the CIA, who, in an interview with ‘Corriere della Sera’, saw an understanding on the part of the Talibans of the “value of caution” and the presence in them “even of a certain degree of humility”. Those who are surprised by the Taliban’s ability to negotiate, by their awareness, at least in some of their leadership circles, of certain factors that limit their actions, by the general inclination of the Afghan political universe to move unscrupulously on several fronts, do not take into account how Afghan society (bearing in mind its considerable internal differences) is very backward from a capitalistic point of view, but not for this reason impolitic.
Answering, therefore, the question of why the United States could not or would not […] equip forces in the field that would allow space and time for negotiations towards an inclusive government, even after the withdrawal of Western forces, requires knowledge, including of the specific Afghan reality and its developments in the last twenty years, as well as military expertise, which we do not possess. What we can record is the convergence of two observers, undoubtedly authoritative in their field, on a point they consider crucial in the defense apparatus of the Kabul government. The aforementioned General Petraeus and British General David Richards, former Chief of Defense Staff and commander of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2007, interviewed by ‘Il Sole 24 Ore’ on the eve of the fall of Kabul, agree on the importance of the air force in holding positions against the Taliban and on how, by leaving the Afghan government forces without the necessary technical and aircraft maintenance capabilities, they suddenly lacked a fundamental resource. This fact is certainly to be taken into account, even if it must be accompanied and included in an overall picture in which at least two other factors have weighed: the repeated signals of American disengagement have over time undoubtedly favored a negotiation and a certain osmosis on the field between Taliban and certain government forces (4) and the choice not to form forces with the degree of competence and the means to independently dispose of an air force could have responded to concerns that were not entirely unfounded. Afghanistan has a history that clearly shows how its territory is open to multiple foreign influences and how the internal political balance is susceptible to relevant changes in relation to the developments of this game of influences and interference. Many of those who deplore today the American attitude not to form military units with significant autonomous capabilities would probably be in the first line to deplore, tomorrow, the passage of these units to the service of other powers as a demonstration of American naivety. In dealing with the nitty-gritty of establishing a military device for the government, Washington has had to proceed in a narrow passage. However, this should not prevent us from seeing how a search for a balance point between two risks – sustaining and training forces that are too autonomous and stopping at a level of preparedness inadequate even to hold the field long enough to allow a political framework to emerge for a non-dishonorable American withdrawal – has failed, unbalancing itself sharply in the direction of the second option.
Afghanistan is not Vietnam and neither is Iraq (for that matter, even these last two war fronts are still limited on the historical scale of inter-imperialist tensions and conflicts). Today, however, there are recurrent evaluations about important potentialities of economic growth and supply from vast deposits of raw materials, with rising powers such as China in a dominant position. Before concluding that this troubled Central Asian country is about to become a crucial and nerve center of the future phases of imperialistic confrontation and that, therefore, the clumsy American retreat has the meaning of abandonment of an area of absolute importance in the global confrontation, it is necessary to keep in mind a possibility, terrible in terms of lives and living conditions of local populations, but real: Afghanistan has been so strategic for a long time that today it is not anymore. For too long the tensions, the costs of the manoeuvres, the interferences, the contradictions and the brutal paradoxes of a game between powers have been unloaded on this country, making this reality a perennial open wound, a distorted crossroads in the imperialistic confrontation. When the process of national formation misses its essential goals, and in the meantime is increasingly absorbed in the coils of imperialistic dynamics, it can hardly escape the destiny of producing a social reality marked by subalternity, by the lack of a dialectic of autonomous forces, by the features of a spurious, unfinished, painfully hybrid socioeconomic conformation. The black hole of a failed state, or a state made to fail, is fatally swallowed up by imperialism, remixed and spat out as a no man’s and everyone’s land. It is condemned to be an open space for the intrusions of powers and now unable to take the road of a state configuration based on a capitalistic maturation capable of taking root in a local background. Certain historical passages cannot be skipped at zero cost, and to think that today Afghanistan, free from the American military presence (or rather, from a presence visible to public opinion and easily quantifiable in terms of regular military units) and for this reason – mystery of faith and miracle of one-way anti-imperialism – removed from the combination of interference and influence of other powers, can resume the path of a national capitalist development according to the classical canons experimented in Europe and North America or even according to the scheme of national realities sprung from decolonization, means strongly underestimating the depth, the pervasiveness of today’s imperialist dynamics. The historical horizon seems to present only two possible alternatives to the permanence of Afghanistan, and above all of its tormented populations, in the larval condition of crossroads of moves and tensions between powers. One is the incorporation (de facto if not de jure) into the orbit of a state that has the strength to oust other influences and impose a path of capitalist development commensurate with its interests. The other is that of a gigantic and radical paradigm shift, which would see the tragic Afghan question welcomed in the progress of a revolutionary movement centered on the proletariat of the imperialist metropolises and capable of questioning all those prerogatives, those spaces for maneuvering that have their original sources in the same metropolises and that have contributed so much to making the Afghan territory a land of partition, the fierce paradox of a very modern backwardness, daughter of imperialism. Both these perspectives appear distant today, with little chance of materializing in a foreseeable time frame. It is much more probable that there will be a change in the relations of force between powers and between local actors linked to them, but always with the continuity, for Afghanistan, of its condition of object of partition and theater of confrontation.
The old and the young
If the strategic value of the game between the spheres of influence in Afghanistan can be doubted, nevertheless this Central Asian country remains a litmus test, a brutal test of the changing strength and power relations between the powers involved at various levels. Of the actors in the bloody Afghan game, some, in the twenty years since September 11 and the start of Western military commitment on Afghan soil, have grown stronger, others have been weakened and all, to varying degrees, have changed.
The Taliban, who arrived in Kabul almost without a shot in the arm, actually show different traits from the Koranic students who emerged as a unifying force on the ground in the 1990s. Their attitude towards issues such as women’s and minority rights should not be identified as the basic and most profound element of change. If, on this level, there should really be changes with respect to the conduct of the Taliban when they first constituted the Afghan Emirate, this would be due to social changes and the need to reposition themselves in the network of influences and international relations. What appears evident, as a difference from the past, is the modality of the advance and the takeover of power (this time a maneuver was carried out substantially in unison around the major cities of the country), a difference that would suggest a participation of different ethnic components and various communities. Did the Taliban manage to become a “national” movement (and, moreover, achieve or maintain this goal after twenty years of marginalization from the main urban centers and dispersion in the countryside of a country that is larger than metropolitan France or Germany)? Or, behind the convenient label of the term Taliban, does a very heterogeneous entity move, which has found a moment of convergence or perhaps even a sort of federated structure? If this heterogeneity should also have behind it a decisive multiplicity of external referents, it cannot be ruled out that Afghanistan’s belligerent future may also hold something similar to an “inter-Taliban” conflict.
If Pakistan probably maintains a leading role in relation to Afghan developments and the Taliban phenomenon, a role that cannot be separated from the tensions that cross the same Pakistani space, Iran and Turkey show a very different profile compared to the past. To think that historical, deep-rooted factors of Persian influence on part of Afghanistan have disappeared would undoubtedly be an obvious exaggeration. However, it does not seem that Tehran is assuming a role and visibility similar to those that accompanied the years following the end of the war against the Soviets and the rise of the Koranic students’ movement. Turkey, on the other hand, is showing an activism without comparison with the attitude taken at the beginning of NATO operations. The question remains of how much or how long Ankara will be able to stand up to a test, including a more or less directly military one, which now ranges from Libya to Afghanistan, through Syria and the Caucasus.
The years that separate us from 2001 have undoubtedly seen a continuation of the increase in China’s imperialistic status. Today in Afghanistan and elsewhere, Beijing has the resources and capitalist background to assume a role that was still unsustainable at the beginning of the millennium. This fact does not imply the acceptance of the hasty narratives according to which China would now inevitably constitute the triumphant actor in practically every area of global imperialist confrontation or, more prosaically, the easy totalizing explanation in the face of the unknowns and the still unclear steps of the future of relations between powers.
For European imperialisms and their ability to constitute a unitary pole in the global confrontation the formula applies: ‘like before, more than before’. If in 2001 the powers of the Old Continent followed the US initiative (except then, with the German-French axis, expressing an attempt to oppose the extension of operations to Iraq, which was defeated and revealed the deep European disunity), at least on that occasion it was possible to resort to the ideological mantle of the emotional wave following September 11 (that climate that found a synthesis in the “we are all Americans” of the famous title of the editorial of ‘Le Monde’). Today the subalternity to Washington is aridly manifest, naked. General Richards’ references to the unsuccessful British attempt to set up an international contingent even without American forces only confirm this condition. (5) The ritual invocations, raised by more or less high positions in the European and pro-European hierarchies, of the fateful moment, this time imposed by the factual evidence offered by the Afghan developments, to proceed to the constitution of a European army (6) appear as a vague, paradoxical counterbalance to the irrepressible divisions produced between EU countries when faced with the mere hypothesis of flows of Afghan refugees.
In the European context, Italian imperialism could claim a degrading primacy. Already at the beginning of this century it had inaugurated, on a vast and pre-eminent scale, political forms, languages and communicative codes destined to multiply on the international scene in the era of the affirmation of the populist formula. The political sphere of Italian imperialism, increasingly directed towards assuming the rhythms and priorities of the permanent electoral campaign, was already experiencing a growing disinterest in foreign policy, a reflection of a thinning (also in terms of political grip on the whole of social dynamics) of that dimension of large capitalist groups historically more connected to international projection, of a stubborn petty-bourgeois and parasitic presence, and even politically expanding, of a growing distance from the enlivening influence on the whole capitalist organism of the phases of the vast proletarian class struggle. The decay of the profile, of the political character of Italian imperialism has continued since then. The miserable spectacle of the Afghan convulsions (in a country in whose western part the Italian forces have assumed a stable role for years, posing in fact a question of influence on the territory) reduced to the flimsy formulas of rhetoric of rights without history, without class matrix and without conflict, tailored to the slogan against the internal electoral enemy is yet another moment of verification and confirmation of a degradation. The impoverishment of the resources of political intelligence that crosses the Italian social formation (a criticality that also concerns other capitalist realities, but that the Italian case shows at a level of gravity not easily found in the panorama of imperialist metropolises and emerging powers) is absolutely not confined to the political sphere, of representation and superstructure. It calls into question deep social dynamics and at the same time the tasks, efforts and challenges of the work for the revolutionary party.
Prospettiva Marxista, August 2021.
Source: AFGHANISTAN, IL LUNGO ADDIO.
Translation: H.C., August 29, 2021. Emphasis by the editor. Some clauses in the text have been transferred to the notes.
1 (also erroneously associated with a presumed Vietnamese precedent, in the uninterrupted continuity of a constant American checkmate).
2 (it was probably much more decanted than it was actually pursued).
3 (the analysis of enemy forces, of their assets, can never be confused, in the activity of revolutionaries, with propaganda needs, with the search for the bombastic and “recruiting” phrase or with the sursum corda).
4 (to objective social ties that go beyond the differentiation between supporters and opponents of the American-backed power has probably been added, with decisive effects, the feeling of a forthcoming and drastic change in the power relations on the field).
5 (‘la Repubblica’ on the other hand, offered the reconstruction of an effort, equally unsuccessful, to contest the general withdrawal established by the United States that would have seen Italy flank London).
6 (as if the formation of a European state, to which continental armed forces capable of taking over from national forces should be attributed, was a matter of enlightenment, of reaching the awareness of the necessity/convenience of unification and not a matter for the exercise of an adequate centralizing force).