Reruns and failures
Eddie Ford is unsurprised by America’s failure to get a smooth, South Africa-type transition of power
We were recently bombarded by stories about the ‘plucky’ National Resistance Front holding out against the Taliban in the Panjshir valley north-east of Kabul. Some 200,000 people live there and it has a reputation for being virtually impenetrable. Therefore, in theory, it is an area easily defended.
According to the western media, eager to portray the NRF as the good guys, what we have is a rerun of the Mujahedin resistance against Soviet forces between 1979 and 1989 - which we are meant to applaud. The Mujahedin were, of course, decidedly reactionary and decidedly murderous. Little more than feudal chiefs and robber bands. Lifted into the saddle of power with Saudi, Pakistani and US direct and indirect aid, their regime, which began in 1992 and almost immediately descended into internecine civil war. This is when the Taliban came in, that is until 2001 and the US/Nato invasion (in alliance with various paid for Mujahedin groups).
This time round, the ‘lion of Panjshir’, Ahmad Shah Massoud - who was assassinated in 2001 and compared to Josip Broz Tito, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara by the credulous - has been replaced by his son, Ahmad Massoud. Also reportedly holed up in the Pansjshir valley is the former vice-president of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh. The latter, citing provisions of the Afghan constitution that no-one gives a damn about, declared himself president of the country on August 17 and claimed this move was endorsed by Massoud and the Afghan embassy in Tajikistan (as if they have any constitutional status).
Rather pathetically, the NRF has been described as “the west’s hope” - which tells you a lot about the desperate state of imperialist foreign policy. But everything indicates that it has been rendered more or less insignificant by Taliban forces, the group posting pictures on social media showing its fighters raising their white and black Shahada flag in Panjshir’s provincial capital, Bazarak. Others were shown proudly standing in front of the gates of the governor’s compound. This is not in the least bit surprising. The NRF is not on the receiving end of any western largesse (or air cover). Nor is it in the forefront of a generalised uprising. Indeed, there is for the moment an assertive Taliban now equipped with tons and tons of American equipment either left behind by the US or just abandoned by the collapsing ‘national’ Afghan army. That not only includes mine resistant vehicles (MRAPs), Humvees and small arms but also Black Hawk helicopters and A-29 Tucano attack aircraft (whether or not the Taliban can learn to use and maintain such sophisticated kit is another matter).
On September 7 the Taliban formally declared its new caretaker government in Kabul under mullah Mohammad Hassan (his deputy is co-founder and chief negotiator mullah Abdul Baradar). It was announced rather unsurprisingly that it would be all-male and include an interior minister wanted by the FBI. But it will not include any former ministers of the old government - something else that is not surprising, given the Taliban’s commanding strength in the country and self-belief that they are all conquering.
Meanwhile, further south in Kandahar, there is the real (?) religious-cum-political authority headed by Hibatullah Akhundzada - who is now the third emir of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, or Amir al-Mu'minin (‘Commander of the Faithful’). It is an arrangement roughly along the lines of Iran. There is a president who is responsible for the day-to-day running of the country and a supreme leader who makes the final decisions. Of course, it needs to be stressed that Taliban’s model is not Iran, for obvious theocratic, religious and political reasons.
Significantly, we have had the visit to Kabul of lieutenant-general Faiz Hameed, head of the Pakistani ISI – its intelligence services. We all know that historically the role of the ISI in Afghanistan was to act as the conduit of American weapons and finances to the counterrevolutionary Mujahedin fighting Soviet forces and the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) government in Kabul. It is also common knowledge that the ISI is responsible for the formation of the Taliban into a potent military force, successfully pushing from the south all the way to Kabul in 1996, as Mujahedin forces engaged in all but destroying the capital. The ISI supplied not only weapons to the Taliban, but also experienced military advisors.
Why is it significant? So far, though it could change rapidly, Pakistan is the only country that has genuinely celebrated the victory of the Taliban. No other government is happy about the new turn of events, which is certainly the case with Russia and China. Whilst gloating over the humiliation of the US, understandably enough, they have their own fears and worries about the new Taliban government and the jihadist organisations it might willingly or unwillingly harbour. Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan, on the other hand, has described the advent to power of the Taliban as “breaking the chains of slavery”.
Now, it is conceivable that the Pakistani government and ISI could find themselves with a Frankenstein’s monster. The Taliban is dominated by Pashto, the largest nationality in the country, comprising 42% the population. And in Pakistan itself, Pashto-speakers make up 18% of the population, concentrated heavily in the north - where Islamabad’s rule hardly extends. We are talking about tribal, mountainous territory - lawless areas, as far as the central government in Pakistan is concerned. It is far from impossible that the Taliban, now finding themselves in power, could give various types of support to their fellow Pashtuns in the south, perhaps with a view of creating a Pashtunistan.
In terms of China, it has maintained its embassy in Kabul and is now trying to cut a deal with the Taliban - which makes strategic sense for Beijing for two main reasons: because of its eastern Muslim areas and its overall grand strategy. Beijing understandably viewed the American presence in Afghanistan for the last 20 years as part of a US grand strategy designed to encircle China. The collapse of the pro-US puppet regime in Kabul enables China, though it does not have a long border with Afghanistan, to link up with its ally, Pakistan - whose existential enemy is India (now being heavily courted by the US and UK).
Another thing fixated upon by the media are the women’s demonstrations in Kabul and other cities. However, unlike the impression given by the excitable BBC and the like, photographic and video evidence reveals how small they are - dozens not hundreds of people. As for its social composition, they were clearly from affluent areas, not ordinary women. As opposed to the huge upsurge in Iran, when the veil was imposed by the theocrats - possibly up to 100,000 or more turned up in Tehran to voice resistance. Quite frankly, what we have here is the type of footage that western outlets will do almost anything to get hold of - women’s protests, pro-western demonstrations, the execution of a poet or musician, or whatever. Anything to whip up a steady lather of anti-Taliban propaganda, no matter how crass.
Again, we had the trivial stories about the former Tory prime minister, John Major, wringing his hands and describing Joe Biden’s pull-out from Afghanistan’s as “shameful”, a “strategic blunder” and so on. Of course, we all know that if only John Major had been in charge of operations, he would have done things completely differently - right? The simple reality is that occupation forces had been in Afghanistan for 20 years and - unless the project was to transform the country into a full-blown US colony - the result was complete failure. You had the US running its army presence, using bribery to buy local satraps and deploying drones and airstrikes to contain the Taliban - whilst preserving the old social structures. Clearly that was not sustainable. Barack Obama had his unsuccessful surge and it was none other than Donald Trump who negotiated and agreed the date for the American pullout.
What we know for sure is that, if America had not kept to that deadline, the Taliban would have started striking at US/Nato forces - which they had agreed not to do. What exactly would John Major have done under the circumstances? Did he, unlike the British government, have access to intelligence showing that the Afghan army would not fight? Whilst nobody could have been surprised that it collapsed, the breakneck speed of it was not anticipated at all. Hence the chaotic scenes at Kabul airport, with people desperately trying to get out of the country and all the rest of it.
At the end of the day, however much you might say that this or that should have been done instead, events could not have turned out very much differently from what actually happened. Send US troops back in to occupy the airport? Then what happens if the Taliban started mortaring the place and aiming Stinger missiles at planes - carpetbomb the city? Once you start asking these basic questions, nothing adds up - you quickly see that no other scenario or outcome was really likely. The Taliban made it perfectly clear from the beginning that the US and its allies had to stick to the timetable, and there would be no attacks if they did. Yes, there was an attack from the Afghan branch of Islamic State - but that was obviously nothing to with the Taliban regime. After all, they are in conflict with IS.
Now we are being told that western governments cannot and will not recognise the new Taliban government because - listen to this - it came to power ‘using force’. What a laugh. It is hard to think of a regime on the planet that did not come to power using force or staying in power through the threat of force. All this prattle is just another way of saying, fairly obviously, that the Taliban refused to play the game. What the Americans and its stooges wanted was a smooth transition, whereby the Taliban shared power - something along the lines of South Africa, with the transition from apartheid to the African National Congress government. Essentially the deal was that the ANC could run the show just so long as it left the state machine intact and did not interfere with foreign investments and the smooth running of capitalism. But the Taliban refused to give, hence the talk about illegitimacy, coming to power using force, and all the rest of the silly nonsense.
As a sorry footnote to this story, the social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has been saying the American pullout shows that it is not a colonial power. Well, only in the sense that, when the US took over world hegemony from the Britain empire, it did not send in regional governors, a whole civil service apparatus, an occupying army, etc. In the main, the US rules because of its economic power, backed up - when push comes to shove - by overwhelming military superiority.
The AWL is making this point because it wants to contrast America favourably to the Soviet Union. We read that “the US, unlike the Russians in 1979-89, never attempted a colonial or semi-colonial domination”.1 This is a truly nonsensical argument. The Soviets sent their forces into Afghanistan because they feared that a US-Saudi-Pakistani sponsored counterrevolution would come to power in Kabul. It was not because the Moscow bureaucracy wanted to extract raw materials or exploit the labour-power of the peasants and workers in Afghanistan. Rather, it was a straightforward strategic decision.
After Soviet forces pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, what is remarkable is the fact that the PDPA government in Kabul outlived the Soviet Union itself - hanging on until 1992.