Imperialism cuts its losses

The 'longest running war in US history' is nearing its end. Eddie Ford looks at the wreckage

Carnage continues in Afghanistan, of course. On June 29 a Taliban suicide bomber team attacked the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, killing at least 10 people. Afghan officials said a meeting of provincial governors taking place there might have been the target, though it is just as likely that the hotel was selected because the next day it was due to host a conference addressing the transition of civil and military responsibilities from the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) to the Afghan authorities. Unsurprisingly, the Taliban - albeit in their own distinctive way - wanted to make their presence, and increasing reach, felt: who rules the country? Isaf responded to this strike on such a high-profile target by claiming to have killed all the assailants in a five-hour battle involving the use of two helicopters.

The assault on the Intercontinental Hotel follows last week’s suicide bomb attack on a medical clinic in the east of the country, killing 35 people and injuring more than 50. The victims, mostly women and children, included patients, visitors and medical staff. The Taliban denied responsibility for the attack; indeed, denounced it - and there is no special reason to disbelieve them. On the same day another blast, this time caused by explosives rigged up to a bicycle, ripped through a bazaar in the Kunduz province, killing at least 10 people and wounding 24. So far, no-one has claimed responsibility for that attack either. So take your pick, as the list of potential attackers is very long - cynical freelancer, criminal gang, rival Islamist group, local warlord, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, Iranian agents, etc.

Last year saw more than 2,700 civilians killed - a 15% increase on 2009, according to UN-compiled figures. Three-quarters were caused by “insurgents” - mainly a euphemism for the Taliban - and most of those deaths were the result of suicide bombings and roadside ‘improvised explosive devices’, or IEDs. According to the UN, May 2011 was the deadliest month for civilians since it began systematically recording such fatalities in 2007 - with June and July, unfortunately, looking set to break new records.

The upsurge in violence from the Taliban is partly attributable to the killing on May 2 of Osama bin Laden, which coincides with their traditional ‘spring offensive’. However, the main reason is more basic - imperialism is pulling out of Afghanistan and the Taliban, like the rest of the world, know it. Therefore time to start seriously flexing muscles. Not without reason the Taliban feel that their time has come again - the organisation’s writ holds sway in large parts of the south and even the prize of Kabul glitters once more. All that is required is time and patience, of which the Taliban have plenty.

Unlike US imperialism, needless to say - which to date has suffered 1,600 fatalities and has a presidential election looming. Plus the small matter that the Afghan war is costing $120 billion a year to fight. So we had the June 22 announcement in a prime-time speech by Barack Obama that 10,000 US troops would withdraw from Afghanistan this year and another 23,000 by the end of September 2012 (a few weeks before he is due for re-election) out of a total of 100,000 US troops deployed in the country. This would mark the “beginning of the end” for the longest running war in US history, he stated. The remaining troops are “scheduled” to leave by 2014, provided that Afghan forces are “ready” to take over the ‘security’ of the country - a very big proviso, to put it mildly.

But, details aside, the direction is clear - US imperialism wants to get the hell out of Afghanistan, preferably not clutching to the skids of helicopters. And, of course, where the US leads, the UK follows - being the second largest contributor to Nato’s Afghanistan operation, with more than 10,000 troops (not to mention the 500 or so ‘special forces’). Hence David Cameron duly “welcomed” Obama’s statement and pledged to pull back British forces by 2015 - even earlier “where conditions on the ground allow”.

End game

Obviously, Obama’s June 22 speech hardly came as a bolt from the blue. He had openly declared that July 2011 would see the start of a “disengagement” from Afghanistan when he first unveiled the “surge” strategy in December 2009 - though the suspicion at the time was that Obama had in fact been boxed into a corner by general Stanley McChrystal’s leaking of the need for additional troops, dubbed by the New York Magazine as the “McChrystal risk”.[1] Regardless of that, Obama’s strategy has ended in predictable and bloody failure. Surging to nowhere. However, Obama never said in 2009 how fast or extensive that troop withdrawal would be. Now we know: end game. None of which prevented an editorial in The Nation, a Lahore-based English language daily newspaper, from excoriating Obama’s withdrawal proposals as “just a misnomer” and a “clever attempt at sophistry” - which “does not give much of a solace to the beleaguered Pakistanis who have been the victim of persistent militant backlash of the war on terror”.[2]

Inevitably, Obama’s announcement has opened up the tensions - and divisions - between the ‘hawks’ and the ‘doves’ in the US political establishment. Not that the split falls into neat Republican-Democrat party lines. For example, last month a large number of House Democrats joined with a handful of Republicans to establish a definite “timetable” for full withdrawal - but they lost on a close 215-204 vote. This grouping, which has been growing in strength, is not likely to be appeased by Obama’s announcement. A fact indicated by the remarks of the Democratic leader in the House and former speaker, Nancy Pelosi, who offered the view that it is the “hope of many in Congress and across the country” that the complete removal of all US forces from Afghanistan “would happen sooner than the president laid out”.

On the other hand, hawkish opinion is vexed by the thought that Obama is wimping out - the goddamned liberals are selling out the military again, even if they are not quite stabbing us in the back this time (yet). So John McCain, the former Republican nominee for the 2008 presidential elections (who, disastrously for him, got saddled with the screwball Sarah Palin as his running mate), and Lindsey Olin Graham quickly complained that Obama’s plan “poses an unnecessary risk to the hard-won gains that our troops have made thus far in Afghanistan”. They also moaned, again, that Obama had ignored the advice of the top US commander in Afghanistan, general David Petraeus - who had urged only “modest” withdrawals, especially as there had been no noticeable “dividend” from the death of bin Laden. Instead, he and other senior military figures in Nato had urged Obama to keep in place the “bulk” of the extra 30,000 troops he committed as part of the “surge” until the end of 2012 - with a phased “drawdown” beginning in 2013. This would give, they argued, the military another full “fighting season” to attack Taliban strongholds and further “target” insurgent leaders.

Either way though, the Republicans are likely to enter the presidential primaries with at least three different positions on Afghanistan. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman has gone on record to say that Obama’s withdrawal is “too slow”. But, alternatively, Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, has called for a “slower” withdrawal. Meanwhile, the former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, has adopted a sort of ‘halfway house’ stance - asserting that the US government should not “adhere to an arbitrary timetable” on troop withdrawal. Neither slower nor faster? Not that the Democrats exactly present a shiny picture of unity on the question. Rather, the US ruling class is riven with unease over its role in Afghanistan and elsewhere, a reflection of the general decline - and malaise - of US imperialism itself.


Bluntly, imperialism is once more cutting its losses in Afghanistan - and what will be left behind? One thing is guaranteed: it will not be a stable or ‘democratic’ government - a fantasy equal to the notion that the “surge” against the Taliban was a “success”. Quite self-evidently, to begin with the US/UK-led invasion never had anything to do with promoting democracy or stable government. Let alone, as some on the left stupidly insist, a grab for resources like minerals and oil pipeline projects - as if imperialism looked at Afghanistan and then rubbed its hands thinking of the opportunities it provided to make a buck.

No, imperialism got involved in Afghanistan because it had become a nuisance - not least by having bin Laden as an honoured ‘guest’ and letting him use the country as a base for military operations - crucially, of course, the September 11 2001 attacks on New York and Washington DC. For that the Taliban government had to be removed in the name of the ‘war on terror’. Of course, this foreign adventure was the product of the Bush administration’s imperial hubris, which genuinely believed that the US military could just march into any country it liked and then mount a dignified - if not noble - withdrawal at the moment of their own pleasing. Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld promised a swift militarily victory ... and got one. However, the few thousand US and other troops could not impose and kind of order. Indeed warlordism, banditry and opium production were “given a new lease of life”. Moreover, the Taliban, who shifted the centre of their operation to Pakistan, were soon back in control of the southern half of the country.

In this way, inexorably - and against its own inclinations - US imperialism found itself engaged in an obscenely costly nation-building exercise in Afghanistan; but one which it could never bring to fruition because of the country’s extreme economic backwardness, ethnic diversity and the return of the Taliban. In the process it got stuck with a former protégé devoid of political or moral legitimacy, Hamid Karzai - who in the 2009 presidential elections, with almost farcical incompetence, was unable to secure the 50% of the vote needed to declare himself an outright winner despite having engaged in systematic electoral fraud. Yet under both Bush and Obama US imperialism just dug in, disregarding the obvious hopelessness of the situation, on the near primal basis that to pull out would invite humiliation - and, it was said, encourage other regimes (such as China or India) to aggressively push forward their own geopolitical standing and interests in the region. But now, finally, Afghanistan is just not worth the candle any more - mission over.

As always, it is the Afghan masses who end up the victims - pulverised between the competing, wretched players in the ‘great game’ that has dismembered and impoverished that country for some two centuries. Now, of course, the Taliban and their allies are vying to become the dominant power in Afghanistan again - with elements within the Inter-Services Intelligence viewing them as an extension of Pakistan: a valuable tool in the endless regional power struggles with India.

By a final twist of irony, though hardly unforeseen, the US occupation of Afghanistan has done nothing but add to the further potential disintegration of Pakistan - an extraordinarily unstable (and artificial) country with a very large population and armed with nuclear weapons. The ‘Talibanisation’ of Pakistan, or even an Islamist takeover of the entire state, would make the Afghan nightmare almost dwarf into insignificance by comparison, and not just for US imperialism. Such a counterrevolutionary outcome would represent a potentially deadly setback for the workers’ movement in Pakistan and the region as a whole.


  1. New York Magazine April 18.
  2. The Nation June 24.