The Afghanistan war, like Vietnam, represents a major loss for U.S. imperialism. Socialists should celebrate.
The U.S. war in Afghanistan — the longest-running war in United States’ history — has finally come to an end. And the outcome is indisputably clear: America lost. No sooner had U.S. military forces begun their formal withdrawal from Afghanistan, than the Taliban swiftly took over most of the region.
The outcome represents a stunning failure for U.S. imperialism and hegemony — something socialists should cheer, frankly. Not since its loss in Vietnam has America’s ruling class suffered such a humiliating defeat and loss of imperialist “credibility.”
“The Graveyard of Empires”
As in Vietnam, the 20-year-long occupation of Afghanistan again found the United States mired in a protracted quagmire of a war against a people and culture it did not understand. From the beginning, the goals in Afghanistan were nebulous and ever-shifting. And we know, from the release of the “Afghanistan Papers,” that presidents and military personnel have consistently lied about our “progress” in Afghanistan from the beginning. There was never any military solution to this war.
It is not for nothing that Afghanistan is known as the “graveyard of empires.” Just look at the similar failed efforts to conquer the mountainous region by the Soviet Union and Great Britain. Both also ended in tragic defeat for the once unrivaled superpowers. It was hubris and arrogance that the United States believed it could fare any better.
President Joe Biden is now being savaged by members of both capitalist parties for his “hasty,” “premature” withdrawal from Afghanistan. Yet, Biden is merely carrying out a planned withdrawal negotiated by Donald Trump in 2020. Trump’s flimsy deal with the Taliban effectively handed the country over to the group, with little to no safeguards made for the Afghan puppet government. Biden is likely hoping that by finally cutting its ties in Afghanistan, the U.S. can focus on its “current” rivals — Russia and China. Biden’s former boss, Barack Obama, had similar plans to “pivot to Asia.”
The capitalist media (including and especially supposedly “left-wing” outlets like NPR, the New York Times, and MSNBC) now lament the rolling back of the few rights women gained in Afghanistan during the U.S. occupation. But do not be fooled: This is pseudo-feminism at its worst.
Where was the media’s concern for women and girls while the U.S. was launching drone strikes on weddings and birthday parties in Afghanistan? Where was their concern for children when Obama murdered 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki? Or for Abdulrahman’s father, the U.S.-born cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, whom Obama also ordered assassinated? Neither al-Awlaki, nor his son had ever been charged with a crime.
The hand-wringing is pure hypocrisy. The U.S never invaded Afghanistan to promote women’s rights or so that girls could attend school. Nor did it do so to establish any sort of “democracy” in the country. The United States launched the war in Afghanistan for the same reason it launches wars in any other country: For capitalist global domination, for natural resources, and for geopolitical power. As such, Lenin deemed imperialism the “highest stage of capitalism.”
Just consider the real “winners” of the Afghanistan war: Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics. (The latter is the owner of Maine’s celebrated WMD-manufacturer, Bath Iron Works.) These weapons manufacturers made billions of dollars off the two-decade war. War may, indeed, be a racket, as Smedley Butler famously proclaimed. But, under the perversity of capitalism, it is insanely profitable for a handful of corporations.
A War Stretching Out Over Four Presidents
The U.S. initially invaded Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. President George W. Bush’s goal was to root out al-Qaeda and hunt down Osama bin Laden. (The wannabe-cowboy Bush proclaimed he wanted bin Laden, “Dead or alive!”) The fact that Afghanistan did not attack the United States on Sept. 11 — rather, the 9/11 hijackers were mostly from Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally — was of little concern to the neoconservative members of the Bush regime. They would go on to use similar lies and fabrications to justify the war in Iraq a few months later.
Barack Obama campaigned as a quasi-anti-war candidate — or at least, he fooled enough liberal voters into believing he was. But in truth, Obama was really only opposed to, in his words, “stupid wars,” like Bush’s war in Iraq. The Afghanistan War — now that is the “good war,” Obama claimed. That is where the U.S. should have been focusing its military attention. Once in office, Obama’s “strategy” for winning in Afghanistan was merely to send more troops in. This was the essence of the so-called “surge,” which both Obama and then-vice-president Joe Biden oversaw.
Shortly after Obama’s escalation of the Afghanistan war, he was absurdly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, joining the ranks of other warmonger recipients, like Henry Kissinger.
But the history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan stretches back long before Sept. 11. Indeed, the great irony of the U.S.’s 20-year war with al-Qaeda and the Taliban is that both organizations were essentially created by the United States in the first place.
Prior to the CIA’s covert involvement, Afghanistan was a stable country with a “healthy middle class,” according to the late Chalmers Johnson. Yet the CIA and the Soviet Union turned Afghanistan into a “warring collection of tribes, Islamic sects, and heroin-producing warlords,” Johnson wrote in his 2006 book, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic.
The administration of President Jimmy Carter deliberately provoked the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Carter and his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski aimed to both crush the Afghan communist government, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, and to entangle the USSR in an intractable war or its “own Vietnam,” in Brzezinski’s words. The Carter administration aided and funded the anti-communist, ultra-conservative rebel forces, the mujahideen, which later developed into al-Qaeda and the Taliban, respectively. The U.S.’s chief combatant in the mujahideen was none other than Osama bin Laden.
“In human terms, the effort cost 1.8 million Afghan casualties and sent 2.6 million fleeing as refugees,” Johnson wrote of the Soviet war, “while ten million unexploded land mines were left strewn around the country. It also took the lives of about 15,000 Soviet soldiers and contributed to the dissolution of the USSR.”
Thus, the United States’ decades-long campaign in Afghanistan, like most of its Cold War “dirty wars,” has anti-communist roots.
Yet, being an imperialist superpower (even one in its flagging days…) means never having to say you are sorry. Such was the thrust of Biden’s address last week in which he firmly stood by his decision to formally end the Afghanistan war in the face of mounting criticism. Biden blamed the Afghan puppet government, the Afghan military, and, by extension, the Afghan people for the Taliban’s rise to power.
“Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country,” said Biden. “The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.”
This is, indeed, the most grotesque form of victim blaming. Maybe — just maybe — the U.S. never should have invaded Afghanistan in the first place! But such a conclusion runs counter to the official boundaries of “acceptable discourse,” and, a such, is simply not permissible.
Wither the Anti-War Movement?
The situation in Afghanistan is no doubt dire. It is true that the Taliban’s return to power now poses a severe threat to women and girls — to say nothing of the working-class Afghan men, who are apparently of little concern to the elite media’s celebrity anchors. On the one hand, socialists should celebrate the American empire’s latest loss. On the other, the reactionary, fundamentalist politics of the Taliban offer the international working-class little to cheer.
The resurgence in socialism in the last six years has, sadly, yet to lead to a renewed anti-war movement. Much of the Bernie Sanders/DSA left is more oriented around domestic reforms like Medicare for All and electoral politics than anti-war activism. And this is despite the fact that the Afghanistan war has been deeply unpopular for years now. Donald Trump managed to tap into some of this anti-war sentiment during his 2016 campaign, posing as a “critic” of the U.S.’s “forever wars.”
The lack of a viable anti-war movement is a major weakness for the burgeoning new left— one it must overcome if there is to be any hope of building an international working-class movement capable of challenging capitalism and imperialism. In the meantime, the U.S. should offer asylum to all fleeing Afghans. It is the least we can do for destroying their country.
The left’s long term goal must be to revive the anemic anti-war movement. Working-class people, as Eugene Debs once put it, have nothing to gain and all to lose from such imperialist wars — especially their lives.
We want no war but class war!