Disaster in Afghanistan: why the Taliban won

Submitted by martin on 31 August, 2021 - 5:10 Author: Colin Foster
Afghan map

The peoples of Afghanistan are being overrun. Those who can, will flee; some will submit to a new regime extinguishing women's rights and personal liberties, as well as collective civil rights; some will be massacred.

The Afghan army, nominally over 300,000 strong, equipped, funded, and trained by the USA over 20 years, offered almost no resistance to the Taliban advance, even though the Taliban is still mostly a scrappy militia of young men with Kalashnikovs on motorbikes or pick-up trucks.

The militia warlords of Afghanistan's north who were able to hold their areas against the Taliban from 1994 right through to the US invasion in 2001, and with only modest foreign backing, have also collapsed. They had switched too thoroughly towards fighting each other to pocket the aid money flowing to Afghanistan from the US and other rich powers.

Some elements of "civil society" have emerged in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, but heavily dependent on foreign-financed NGOs. They were unable to organise any resistance to the Taliban advance.

Between 6 and 15 August the Taliban took all Afghanistan's major cities, with no or little resistance.

The USA has been looking for a way out since at least 2010. In May 2014, President Obama promised he would withdraw all troops by 2016.

Seeing the Kabul government as precarious, Obama pulled back on that promise and left the decision to Trump. Trump started with a "surge" of extra US troops, to try to stabilise the Kabul government before quitting.

That didn't work, so in February 2020 Trump signed a deal with the Taliban, over the heads of the Kabul government, to withdraw by May 2021. The deal committed the Taliban only to going through the motions of talks in Qatar with the Kabul government and Afghan civil-society groups.

The Taliban talk now about a milder regime than when they ruled in 1996-2001. Yet in nearly a year of those Doha talks they offered no guarantees and made no deals. They will now want to keep on good terms with China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran, but pressure from those for milder rule within Afghanistan seems unlikely.

In 2020-1 the Taliban stepped up rural operations and assassinations and murder-bombings in the cities, but waited their time before storming the cities. By late 2020 they controlled all Afghanistan's major highways, and could sustain themselves by levying taxes on traffic as well by the opium trade.

They calibrated their advance to be large enough to forestall the USA concluding that after all it had reached a sustainable balance in Afghanistan with only few troops there, and also small enough not to panic Trump or Biden into reversing the drawdown.

Back in 2001, opposing the US invasion, we wrote:

"War by the US and Britain on Afghanistan or neighbouring countries will not halt Islamic-fundamentalist militarism... It will not touch - may even comfort - many of the strong bases of fundamentalism; through its disruptions it may well generate more recruits for fundamentalism".

I remember discussing with an Iranian Marxist at the time. He basically agreed, but thought our statement too general. The Taliban, specifically, he thought, would never revive after being routed and discredited in 2001.

Until maybe 2003 it looked as if he were right. The USA's rulers were convinced in 2002-3 to invade Iraq partly by the illusion that the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan had been an easy victory, that a stable and cooperative Afghan state would soon consolidate, and that the operations of 1991 in Kuwait, 1996 in Bosnia, 1999 in Kosova, had also been easy and solid.

The Taliban regrouped in Pakistan, aided by at least a large section of the country's military establishment. It restarted operations in Afghanistan. It gained ground from 2006 (especially) to 2009. It developed an "economic base" for itself in opium-poppy production in areas it controlled.

The US, unlike the Russians in 1979-89, never attempted a colonial or semi-colonial domination, a "puppet government". The outcome was not a cooperative Afghan government with a real local social and economic base. It was a series of corrupt and ineffectual administrations, led by ex-warlords concerned with enriching themselves.

The USA has turned out even less able to foster a co-operative base in Afghanistan than the Russians were; and less able than the USA itself in South Korea after the Korean war of 1950-3.

The South Korean president then, Syngman Rhee, was dictatorial and corrupt, and Korea was one of the world's poorest countries. Yet Rhee developed a state which had enough elasticity to sustain itself and allow for Rhee himself to be overthrown in 1960 by a student revolt. South Korea's economy grew fast from the 1960s, and successive workers' and democratic struggles made it a functioning bourgeois democracy by the 1990s.

In South Korea the US had pushed through a radical land reform, making most peasants owners of their own land without compensation to the landlords. It supplied more economic than military aid, and much of the economic aid went directly into developing industry.

There were no measures of similar stripe in Afghanistan. The Stalinists had attempted a land reform in 1978-9, and found that the farmers who would have benefited from it rallied to the Islamists and the landlords to oppose it.

US arrogance - Guantanamo, mini-Guantanamos inside Afghanistan at Bagram and elsewhere, "renditions", and large Afghan civilian casualties from the US "surge" after 2009 - made the US military presence unpopular and sapped the political base of Afghan leaders allied to the USA.

US economic aid was large in the scale of Afghanistan's economy, but very small compared to US military spending there.

The country recovered economically in 2001-9, though not to much better a level than before 1978. The proportion of children who die before the age of five has halved; literacy has increased from 8% to 43%; 89% have access to safe drinking water in the cities (only 16% before). It has not been enough to create a functioning political economy.

Since 2012-4 (in some part, paradoxically, because of the drawdown of foreign troops, and consequent loss of economic life generated by servicing them) GDP per capita has declined. Primary school enrolments, still much better, especially for girls, than in the previous Taliban era, have stagnated. Inequality, poverty, unemployment have continued. Some women were able to escape the burqa, but many were not, and large impunity for "honour killings" of women continued. This is not just weight of tradition. Afghanistan legislated for equality between women and men as far back as 1964. The Taliban have historically been stricter about seclusion for women in the cities than in the countryside, where tradition weighs heavier but women work in the fields, without burqas.

Mineral wealth has been found in Afghanistan, but virtually none has been developed. Two Chinese state companies got a contract in 2008 to develop a big copper mine, but have made no progress on it since.

In 2018 a World Bank report found: "Since the early 1990s agricultural GDP [has] remained stagnant. The increased share in agricultural employment, combined with a constant agricultural GDP, indicates a decline in agricultural labor productivity". Afghanistan, a predominantly agricultural country, now imports over a third of its food, and has only minimal food exports (fruit and nuts).

While the Green Zone and some other areas of Kabul had some boom years with NGOs and aid, over 50% of the city's population live in shanty towns.

President Obama attempted a troop "surge" in 2009-10, trying to shift the balance enough to allow US withdrawal. The "surge" (NATO troop numbers rose over 150,000) pushed back the Taliban over the border somewhat, but tacit aid to the Taliban from sections of Pakistan's military continued.

The "surge" also increased Afghan resentment of the US presence, though large civilian casualties. Afghan president Hamid Karzai would long make a show (at least) of refusing to keep US troops in the country after 2014. The US ramped up spending on Afghanistan's armed forces, but produced only an army which would in 2021 collapse in ten days, and an air force whose pilots would fly to refuge in Uzbekistan.

At the end, it seems the US authorities lacked even a good guess about the balance of forces in the country. We didn't expect the collapse to be so quick, either. But we were assessing from a distance, not from a position of having had a large presence in Afghanistan for 20 years.

The new Taliban administration will face huge economic problems. Yet, as Pakistani socialist Farooq Tariq has written: "It seems that the Taliban will remain in the government for a long time now. Just as the Iranian mullahs' government continues after years, these Taliban can now stay in power for a long time, it will not be easy to withdraw them".

He also writes: "The return of the Taliban in the Afghanistan government is a setback for the progressive forces in the world, particularly for South Asia. We condemn the forcible takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban fighters…

"The establishment of another religious fanatic state in South Asia will promote religious sectarianism throughout the region... We apprehend that a theocratic state that the Taliban intends to install will not only be disastrous for Afghanistan but also for its neighbours and beyond..."

He adds: "Only the victory of a truly democratic socialist ideology can stop the future bloodshed in Afghanistan."

We fight for an open door for the refugees. In the longer term we build solidarity with the democratic and socialist forces in the region, especially in Pakistan, which can change the parameters.

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