U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan: What‘s next under Taliban rule?

Afghan women march for their rights under Taliban rule in Kabul on Sept. 3, 2021. (HOSHANG HASHIMI / AFP)


As the U.S. military concludes its protracted withdrawal from Afghanistan, the question of what comes next for the war-torn country is a burning one for the region. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine what an unoccupied Afghanistan will look like at all. The last 40 years have seen foreign forces’ actively maintaining troops in the country, with a brief “respite” during the period of civil war and Taliban rule between 1996-2001.

The defeat of the United States brings an entirely new situation to Afghanistan, and is an example of the new situation in both the region and the world. After spending more than $2 trillion to maintain an occupation for almost 20 years, the U.S. has virtually nothing to show for it. Instead, Russia, China, Pakistan, and Iran are now positioned to profit from the utter failure of the United States’ military adventure in Afghanistan, Iraq, and dozens of other countries. Over a century of imperialism has led to a world situation in which production has a truly global character, yet national frictions and competition between blocs of capital remains a fundamental component of the world system. The Afghanistan war shows that capitalism has no solution to these conflicts and the drive for ever-increasing profits has only war and despair in store for working people everywhere.

Afghanistan and the imperialist gun

The United States put the NATO occupation of Afghanistan into motion under its leadership in October 2001. According to the Brown University Cost of War program, over 71,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a result of this occupation, including hundreds of workers on various infrastructure projects. In total, 241,000 people have died in the fighting. Responsibility for all of the deaths lies squarely at the feet of the United States and NATO, which began and maintained the conflict.

Going back to its initial relationship with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) during the first period of Taliban rule, the U.S. goals were fundamentally based on ensuring that the Afghan government prioritized U.S. and allied interests over those of the Afghan people. This was clearly demonstrated through the singular emphasis on “combating terrorism,” e.g., protecting U.S. interests and allies against attack.

The main excuse for the U.S. war and occupation was that Afghanistan was harboring the architects of the 9/11 attack, including al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. That trajectory is clearly documented through Jonathan Cristol’s diplomatic history of relations between the U.S. and the IEA, titled “The United States and the Taliban before and after 9/11.” It is also summed up in a more general way with a quote from Afghan expert Barnett Rubin, “For the U.S. … the war started in 2001. The Bonn Agreement and civilian operations in Afghanistan were part of the war effort against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, not part of a peace effort on behalf of the people of Afghanistan” (“Afghanistan: What Everyone Needs to Know,” p. 136)

The Republic of Afghanistan, set up by the United States, was corrupt and undemocratic to the core and based itself on rule by terror. Christoph Reuter, writing for Der Spiegel, sums up the character of the regime through an account of its creation. He writes that “[U.S. Special Representative Zalmay] Khalilzad and others forced the tribal council [transitional government] to include 50 additional men on top of the elected representatives—militia leaders who had ruled with fear and aggression before the arrival of the Taliban. They were men like Mohammed “Marshal” Fahim, a Tajik leader who stood accused of perpetrating massacres and kidnappings. And Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek leader who murdered several hundred imprisoned Taliban and later had his opponents raped with bottles. Both of them would go on to serve as vice presidents of the country. The new holders of power remained uncompromising. They immediately set about exacting revenge on their former enemies and plundering the new government.”

Throughout its reign of terror the U.S. military carried out a number of atrocities, including mass killings, rapes, and torture. Occupation breeds sadism and racism in virtually uncontrollable quantities. That fundamental and strategic embrace of terror by the U.S. military came to a head in an institutional way, leading up to the negotiations between the U.S. and Taliban in Doha, Qatar. Between 2017 and 2020, when the most serious attempt to reach a diplomatic solution took place, civilian casualties increased in the midst of almost unparalleled bombing campaigns.

A report from Costs of War details that “the U.S., its allies, and the Afghan Government, which the United Nations calls Pro-Government Forces (PGF) … escalated their operations in the period immediately before and during the negotiations in hopes of retaking disputed territory and gaining leverage. As a consequence, the number of civilians killed and injured by pro-government forces also grew in the years prior to the U.S. peace agreement in early 2020. From 2007 to 2016, PGF killed an average of 582 civilians each year; from 2017 through 2019, Pro-Government forces killed an average of 1,134 civilians each year, a nearly 95% increase.” This period of arbitrary shows of force included dropping the infamous MOAB bombs, the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal.

Women’s liberation during and after the occupation

The first days of Taliban rule ushered in a new phase of attack on women’s rights in Afghanistan. Under the 1996-2001 IAE, women suffered under laws formally banning them from work, school, and traveling without a male “guardian.” Despite the Taliban’s promises that they are now more enlightened on gender relations, early evidence suggests more continuity than rupture with past practices. Already, the deputy head of the Taliban’s political office, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, told BBC Pashto in an interview that there would likely be no place for women in the leadership of the new government. Similarly, a number of supposedly “temporary” measures restricting women’s movement and activities, as well as compulsory veiling, have been reinstated.

Afghan women have heroically taken to the streets demanding positions in the new government and securing basic rights. The Taliban brutally attacked these demonstrations, brutalizing and arresting activists. 

While the situation is bad, the imperialists have created a false narrative that singles out the Taliban as a unilateral evil in order to attack Afghanistan’s national sovereignty. In reality, the U.S. and its partners are not at all interested in the plight of Afghan women. The government that was backed by the “international community” was filled with anti-women figures. According to a 2013 Human Rights Watch report, 50% of women and 95% of girls in Afghan prisons were there on the basis of “moral crimes.” 

Former-president Hamid Karzai supported broad restrictions on women’s rights in a controversial “code of conduct” developed by clerics in the Ulema Council. Since 2015, the Afghan government and international institutions have had broad rapprochement with the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, known for carrying out some of the most brutal terror attacks in the country and throwing acid on unveiled women in his youth. As representatives of the Revolutionary Association of the Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) stated in an interview, “The puppet regime of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani were calling Taliban “dissatisfied brothers” for years, and released many of their most ruthless commanders and leaders from prisons.”

The political situation is difficult, but ending the occupation and war can be a major axis of relief for women in Afghanistan. Women were the largest group of casualties in general and also major victims of U.S. and allied bombings. A 2018 UN report details that “women and children continued to comprise more than half of all aerial attack civilian casualties.” Similarly, around half of all health-care professionals and a little under 30% of civil servants in the old government were women. There is a significant social base for women in the cities and countryside to lead a movement fighting for expansive demands around rights and inclusion.

Taliban: National resistance fighters?

One question that is developing on the left is how to characterize the Taliban and its victory against the U.S. occupation. The U.S. military’s main strategic goal in Afghanistan from the initial invasion shifted from keeping the Taliban out of the government (from 2000 to about 2010) to negotiating a settlement with the Taliban that would be amenable to the United States and its partners, most especially Pakistan. While it is true that a section of the U.S. ruling class, representing the political interests of weapons manufacturers, constantly fought to maintain the U.S. occupation and increase troop numbers, the general desire of U.S. capital has not been for an economically and politically costly “forever war.”

The Taliban first emerged out of the civil war in the 1990s following the Soviet withdrawal. Funded largely by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and even with some of its members in their organizational structure, the Taliban grew as a group known to fight the warlords and aiming for national stability. At the same time, during their initial period of rule over what they termed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, they maintained power by means of terror alone. This cannot be abstracted from the conditions that prevailed at the time, which remained basically those of civil war, but they do reflect the lack of social programs and perspective for the Taliban and their Pakistani backers.

After the initial U.S. invasion in the later months of 2001, the Taliban was effectively defeated—both organizationally and militarily. Antonio Giuseppe, an important military analyst of the Afghan conflict and rival Islamist groups, described the situation in this way: “Between late 2001 and the first half of 2002, the Taliban movement had effectively imploded. It had no functioning leadership, and only some sparse groups were still carrying out acts of resistance in isolated pockets, with no external support” (“Afghanistan,” p. 230). Immediately after the rout, the then-chosen leader of the Republic of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, who himself had attempted to work for the Taliban’s civil administration during their rule, began diplomatic discussions with the Taliban’s leadership. The United States rejected the rapprochement and, in an obvious example of the character of the Republic’s “democracy,” unilaterally ended the relationships between the government and the Taliban.

While responding to the pressures of local, regional, and international organizations attempting to achieve relative dominance in the country, the Taliban fought the U.S. occupation and its puppet government in Kabul. But it cannot be said to represent the “national aspirations” of the Afghan people. 

The Taliban was never able to create a centralized organization of concerted struggle for self-determination, evidenced by various intra-Taliban wars and personality conflicts. Instead of building a movement of the Afghan masses to militarily and politically defeat the U.S.-backed regime, the Taliban has maintained itself through foreign funding, foreign and disaster-based recruitment, and terror. Even in this regard, there is no unity, as the Taliban has been repeatedly factionalized based on funding from different, competing governments, especially Pakistan and Iran. Starting in 2018, the Taliban found itself in alignment with Russian imperialism to combat the now famous ISIS-K, itself a split-off from the Taliban.

There are certainly rank-and-file elements of the Taliban drawn from the farming, oppressed, and working-class Afghan communities who will ultimately join the full liberation struggle against imperialism, warlordism, and capitalism in Afghanistan. Revolutionaries in the country have a duty to win over these Afghans to working-class organizations. The withdrawal of the United States and collapse of its puppet government, which is as much a product of foreign sponsorship and reactionary Islamism as the Taliban, is a victory for the working class and oppressed everywhere. Revolutionaries can recognize that fact while opposing the treacherous and reactionary policies of its leadership.

The Taliban is not in any way capable of actually ending the rule of imperialism in Afghanistan. As has been stated many times in this and innumerable other articles, the Taliban are beholden to their foreign benefactors. Internally, the Taliban leadership is intimately connected “by a thousand strings” with global capital, as evidenced by the late leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansur’s estimated $2 billion in investments held in Dubai. The social base for the Taliban’s leadership is definitively located in the medium and large landowners and businessmen, various regional state departments, and amongst national capital. The trajectory for the Taliban regime will definitely be to align with one or more, possibly conflicting, imperialist and regional powers in order to gain the best position for themselves at the expense of the Afghan masses.

An example of the Taliban’s trajectory and program is given by a recent study published by Afghanistan Analysis reviewing the concrete reality of Taliban rule in Dasht-e Archi district of the Kunduz province. What the study observes is effectively nothing more than gangsterism and favoritism towards this or that petty capitalist at the expense of their competitors. Similarly, the daily lives of working people in the area was deeply disrupted as they were forced to find new ways to secure basic supplies with shop closures and relocations.

“Vietnam Syndrome” forever?

Although it may sound strange, visceral hatred of war among U.S. workers and oppressed peoples was a major factor shaping the inevitable collapse of the American occupation in Afghanistan. While the bourgeois press and all manners of ruling class cultural production glorify patriotism, racism, and militarism—see, for example, the 2014 Hollywood film “American Sniper”—an international mass movement rose in opposition to responding to the 9/11 attacks with force. By the end of the month, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated against proposed invasion plans in dozens of countries all around the world. On Sept. 29, 2001, over 20,000 marched in Washington, D.C., alone.

The antiwar movement continued to grow over the next decade, providing demonstrations of hundred of thousands in the United States, Britain, and other countries. As U.S. imperial aims extended into Iraq (invaded in 2003), and covertly into a dozen more countries, U.S. antiwar coalitions organized mass meetings where strategy, tactics, and programs could be debated to build the largest actions possible.

While the organized antiwar movement has been the vanguard of opposition to the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as militarism generally, those sentiments are quite extensive among the U.S. public. That fact has real operational significance to the ability of the U.S. ruling class to wage unending war. From as early as 2005, there has been a deep crisis of recruitment and retention in the armed forces. From anecdotal experience, the first reasons young people join the military are fundamentally economic and social, due to the extreme austerity and general alienation endemic to the United States. “Patriotic” reasons are a secondary justification. Indeed, the headline of a 2019 Military Times article says it all: “Student loan crisis, not Mideast wars, helped Army leaders exceed recruiting goals this year.”

The crisis for the U.S. ruling class in military recruitment and retention has pushed forward a regime of extreme exploitation of rank-and-file soldiers, while military contractors receive lavish sums to fill in the gaps. At one point in 2004, Bush assigned “37,000 members of the National Guard to go to fight in the deserts of Iraq,” the largest since the Korean War. The bipartisan desire to maintain a well staffed, anti-democratic military regime based on the suffering of young working people is exemplified by constant attempts by the Democrats to reestablish the draft during Bush’s presidency.

Author Matt Kennard (“Irregular Army”) quotes now-retired Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel’s 2006 statement: “Every day that the military option is on the table, as declared by the president in his State of the Union address, in Iran, North Korea, and Syria, reinstatement of the military draft is an option that must also be considered, whether we like it or not. If the military is already having trouble getting the recruits they need, what can we do to fill the ranks if the war spreads from Iraq to other countries? We may have no other choice but a draft.”

The extreme unpopularity of this sentiment is a constant thorn in the side of the generals and their allies in government. At the same time, so-called “divisions” within the ruling class’s political representatives have been constantly utilized to convince the petit bourgeois, non-profit, and otherwise bureaucratic elements of the antiwar movement to demobilize in favor of electing the more “progressive” candidates. The continuity between all administrations for the last 20 years gives an obvious counterpoint to that idea.

While the U.S. has officially withdrawn, the imperialist government will continue to take whatever openings are available within their strategic prerogatives to continue to carry out military operations in the country. Biden has maintained the “make ISIS pay” position, which has concretely manifested in a drone strike killing 10 civilians, including children. All pretenses to maintaining any military or political intervention in Afghanistan must be resolutely opposed by working people in the United States.

Uneven and combined development on a heating Earth

In many ways, Afghanistan is one of the most “underdeveloped” countries in the world. During the period of colonialism and then neo-colonialism, the modern imperialist powers have seen the country as a “buffer” between different spheres of influence. Afghanistan is positioned at the crossroads of Central and South Asia and the Middle East. It is on the one hand a landlocked country among landlocked countries. On the other hand, it offers important trade routes between regional economies.

Barnett Rubin, a U.S.-based Afghanistan expert and advisor to various Afghan administrations, explained this dynamic: “Afghanistan was structured by the British to be dependent, and the erosion and collapse of the Anglo-Russian agreement on how to manage that dependence culminated in the war that began in 1978 and continues [today].” The reality of “dependency” was to maintain Afghanistan as an agricultural, even nomadic, society amidst the rapid growth of productive forces in the epoch of imperialism. At the same time, the political and economic fragmentation of the country since the 1980s is not a product of eternal “backwardness” but rather the direct result of foreign intervention. Ironically, these same forces are also part of the conditions that can lead to national unity. The fight against foreign occupation and meddling, combined with the need for domestic control of foreign investment and “aid,” are fundamental moments in the struggle for self-determination in Afghanistan.

There are multiple ways that the “whip of external necessity” is restructuring the subjective and objective factors in the country. All condition the others. In the first place are the wars and occupations themselves. Foreign bases and funding strategic necessities for the imperialists and their domestic allies have been a significant channel within which money and resources enter the country. Nemat Bizhan, a researcher in international relations and ruling-class diplomat based in Australia, used figures from the former government’s Ministry of Finance to show that between 2003-2011 over 51% of foreign aid went directly into the security sector, and the vast majority of the rest was prioritized based on strategic calculations. Examples of the latter category include the development of a number of roads and border crossings financed by India, meant primarily to secure a foothold against Pakistan. Foreign investment in health care made up only 3% of the total for this period. The vast majority of foreign aid was made outside of the control of the Afghan state. Two-thirds of this “aid” was contributed by the United States.

The reality of “aid” distribution was that the influx of money from private capital to domestic, and often competing, military partners “[i]nduced institutional rivalry and fragmentation and strengthened non-state power holders on whom donors relied for logistics and security,” according to Bizan. He continued, “A common form of such patronage was the employment of private security companies led by former warlords” (quoted in Barnett R. Rubin, “Afghanistan: What Everyone Needs to Know”, 195). Similarly, due to the dynamic of interests that shaped distribution being fundamentally outside of the control of Afghan peoples, very little positive investment was made possible, while a huge amount of graft was institutionalized both inside and outside of the Republic of Afghanistan’s “puppet” state. As of 2017, of the approximately 30,000 kilometers of road, only slightly over half are paved.

While productive investment has been low, the needs of modern militaries meant that this bastion of so-called “tribalism” has come into contact with some of the highest forms of communication and weapons technology. Importantly, cell phones and internet access have become widely accessible to the Afghan population. Around 80% of the people say they can easily use a cellphone, and U.S. sources estimate that well over 100,000 Afghans are now employed in the industry. Interestingly, one of the potential problems identified as a possible hindrance on the continued growth of the sector is lack of reliable access to electricity.

Another factor in shaping the anti-provincial consciousness of the Afghan population is the refugee crisis. Over the period of 40 years, civil war, and two brutal occupations, around half of the country has been displaced. That means former rural dwellers necessarily came to reside in urban areas and densely populated refugee camps, both inside and outside of the country.

The ultimate “external” force is the accelerating effects of climate change on weather and water patterns in the region. Afghanistan ranks toward the top tier of countries already suffering from environmental catastrophe. Water has been a problem since the innovations of modern mass irrigation remained largely outside of the country, with its neighbors redirecting liquid resources away from it. Now that situation is greatly exacerbated by extreme and worsening floods and droughts. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been displaced due to these conditions within the last four years alone, with many unlikely to return.

The fragile environmental situation, while not the primary cause, is a driver pushing both poppy production and militarization in Afghanistan. Changing weather conditions, especially draughts, are making cultivation of “legal” crops (e.g. wheat) difficult in an already-difficult area. Meanwhile, poppy thrives in the drying climate. One especially ironic episode illustrating this dynamic, although not directly linked to climate, was the “Helmand Food Zone” project. International development agencies attempted to create a program that would replace poppy production with wheat production in the province. Instead, the end result was an extension of poppy cultivation into the desert, using fertilizers meant to curtail poppy production. That program also led to mass displacement of landless farmers and sharecroppers in Helmand province.

As Cara Korte recently reported for CBS News, “Whether from drought or flood-ravaged soil, farmers in the region struggle to maintain productive crops and livestock. When they cannot profitably farm, they’re forced to borrow funds to survive. … The Taliban has capitalized on the agricultural stress and distrust in government to recruit supporters. … [T]he group has the means to pay fighters more, $5-$10 per day, than what they can make farming.” While that article characteristically focused on the Taliban, the situation is likely similar for farmers in provinces that were controlled by warlords and the former Afghan National Army throughout the country.

The situation in Afghanistan is emblematic of the current conjuncture of capitalist crises. A fundamental dynamic is the cyclical reconfigurations of allegiance and opposition between different local, regional, and international forces. The defeat of the United States in Afghanistan cannot be seen separately from the overwhelming decision of U.S. imperialism to shift its military focus from “counterterrorism” to preparing for a new war with Russia and China.

Concurrently, the United States is not the only power at play. Pakistan and India have both been heavily involved militarily in attempts to develop regional allies in order to be in a position to overpower the other. Similarly, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran, and the Gulf states have all been involved on various sides of the conflict, giving material support or otherwise aiding in transportation, communication, etc. as a means of positioning themselves to benefit from both the war and its eventual resolution at the expense of other national capitals.

The transformation of Russia and China from workers’ states to imperialist countries, the relative growth of regional powers vis a vis the United States (see chart below), and the increasing ambitions of so-called “small states” are all powerful components of the current equation of global politics. The frictions and fragmentations of these competing forces make unthinkable the possibility of capitalism solving its own crises. As Lenin wrote (Imperialism): “Is it ‘conceivable’ that in ten or twenty years’ time the relative strength of the imperialist powers will have remained unchanged? It is out of the question.”

 (Chart from “Afghanistan: What Everyone Needs to Know,” by Barnett Rubin)

  The world situation means that international and regional powers will continue to fight for control of Afghanistan’s strategic and material resources. Capitalism has no solution for the country other than continued underdevelopment and war. The only way out of calamity will be the construction of a revolutionary leadership built out of the overwhelmingly young, increasingly urban, and defiantly connected workers and farmers that is capable of winning the multi-ethnic laboring masses to a program based on self-determination, socialist development, and internationalism.

Given the high level of inter-connectivity and arbitrary borders, such a party and movement will inevitably be regional from the start. This should be a source of inspiration for readers, who can be reminded of the ongoing, over three-year-long strike wave in Iran; the militant student struggle in Pakistan; massive mobilizations of millions of workers and farmers in India; and struggles for national liberation and against Chinese imperialism in Balochistan.

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