The fall of Kabul

In April 1975 the United States withdrew its forces from Vietnam in a humiliating defeat and after years of barbaric war, where they used saturation bombing, including in neighbouring Cambodia, and chemical agents like napalm and Agent Orange. As many as 2 million civilians died, as well as 1.1 million North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong fighters, between 200,000 and 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers, over 58,000 American troops, as well as several thousand soldiers from among American allies.

Like the fall of Saigon, the fall of Kabul is a major defeat for the USA and its allies, and symbolises another stage in the decline of the United States as the top World Power. It was significant that this happened around the 20th anniversary of the Al Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers. That attack allowed the US, and its allies, in particular the UK, to launch the War against Terror and bombings and invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The defeat of the US in Afghanistan is equally a defeat for its chief ally Britain, as well as for NATO.

Almost 2,500 US troops as well as 4,000 American contractors have died in Afghanistan as well as 453 British military personnel, whilst as many as 100,000 Afghans have perished during the 20 year occupation of Afghanistan, with many others crippled and mutilated. The US expended $1 trillion in its occupation, with severe consequences for its own economy.

The US has known for a long time that it had not accomplished its goals in Afghanistan. Trump started the process of withdrawal and Biden has finished it. America’s declared aims were democracy, equal rights for women, and the smashing of the Taliban. None of these aims was achieved. The puppet government put in by the US was deeply corrupt and enriched itself from the huge American subsidies that were handed out. It was so corrupt and incompetent that it could not pay its own soldiers for months on end, hence their reluctance to fight the Taliban. Meanwhile the mass of the population have been living in poverty, with Afghanistan classed as one of the poorest countries in the world. When the Taliban swept all before them President Ashraf Ghani absconded to the United Arab Emirates with $169 million that he had looted.

Meanwhile Afghanistan grows opium poppies on a vast scale so that they count for 90% of the world’s heroin market. Whether this will continue under the Taliban remains to be seen. Millions of pounds have been made in profits from this by local Afghan entrepreneurs, whilst one in ten amongst Afghan youth are now addicted to opium.

The withdrawal of the USA and Britain does not mean that aggression against Afghanistan will end. The US has a permanent military unit of 2,500 troops stationed in Kuwait ready for further attacks if necessary.

Despite this defeat, hawks in both the US and Britain, including Sir Nick Carter, head of British armed forces, are talking about another invasion of Afghanistan. In all of this, there is at least one crumb of comfort. The expenditure in both materials, cash and human lives have made many in Britain totally opposed to any further foreign military interventions, and any UK government will have to take this into consideration in future foreign policy. One British soldier, who has lost both legs in the conflict, asked “Was it worth it?”

Pakistan has pay-rolled the Taliban and provided assistance in other ways and hopes to benefit from the new situation in the region.

Artificial

Afghanistan as it exists today is an artificially constructed State, developed out of the clash between Iran, and the British and Russian Empires in the 19th century. The 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention formalised Afghanistan as a buffer state between the Russian and British Empires. As such, it is made up of many different ethnic and religious groupings. The biggest ethnic group are the Pashtuns, who make up 38% of the population, and among whom the Taliban has their main support. Ethnic Tajiks make up another 25% of the population and the Hazaras, 19%, with other smaller groups like the Aimaks, Baluch, Turkmen and Uzbeks.

Language also divides this artificial country. Half the population speak an Afghan version of Iranian, whilst the Pashtun speak Pashtu, and ten per cent of the population speak various Turkic languages. Tribal divisions among the various ethnic groups also compound the situation, as do religious differences. 84% are Sunni Muslims, whilst the Hazaras belong to a particular sect of Shi’ite Islam, whilst in the north east, there are many members of the Ismaili sect of Shi’ite Islam among the Tajiks.

Afghanistan has been fought over by the Great Powers for a long time, with the British fighting several wars there and including the killing of 17,000 British and Indian women, children and men there in 1842 during the first Anglo- Afghan War. The Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan after the Communist Party there took power in a 1978 coup. Worried about continued support the Soviets invaded and installed a Soviet loyalist regime in late 1979. This began a nine year war, with Soviet troops suffering 15,000 dead and 35,000 wounded. The US, along with the UK, Pakistan, Iran and China armed and payrolled various groups of mujahideen, Muslim armed bands who resented the Communist Party’s policies and the Soviet invasion. In the end the Soviets had to withdraw and that defeat contributed towards the collapse of the Soviet Union.

After the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the pro-Soviet President Najibullah managed to hang on to power for another three years. However he was overthrown and murdered by Tajik mujahideen in 1992. The different ethnic mujahideen forces soon fell out with each other. Warlords controlled different areas of Afghanistan. This internecine warfare led to the appearance of the Taliban, not just in Afghanistan but in exile among Afghan refugees in Pakistan. It was a movement led by the Pashtun Mullah Muhammad Umar, and it called for an ending of the fighting, disarmament of the population, and a new Afghanistan under strict Sharia law.

The Taliban gained support by defending local populations from rapists from amongst the various military bands of both young women and boys. This began a protracted war with the different mujahideen factions.

The Taliban’s origin lies in the religious schools (madaris) among Afghan refugees in Pakistan. The state of Pakistan has provided arms, military training and finance to the Taliban in line with its support for Islamist groups in the region. Thousands of Pakistanis volunteered to fight with the Taliban.

The USA originally intervened in Afghanistan to prevent the increase of Soviet influence in the region, arming and training mujahideen forces. In doing this, it needed an alliance with Pakistan. Pakistan has pursued its own interests in this alliance. It is fearful of nationalist demands, having been traumatised by the loss of West Pakistan, now Bangladesh, and dreading further disintegration of the Pakistan state. As a result, it fosters Islamist rather than nationalist groups. In its conflict with Russia, the USA had to accommodate to Pakistan’s interests.

However, the USA continued to support Pakistan after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and failed to challenge its continuing support for Islamic fundamentalism, allowing Pakistan to increase its sphere of influence in Afghanistan via the Taliban.

What now?

The Taliban are now in control in most of Afghanistan. They are already instituting strict sharia law and will move against the Shi’ites who they see as heretics, in particular the Hazaras. The gains that women have made over the last period, with increased education for girls, women in public life, and the adoption of Western style clothing, will all now disappear. Women will be driven out of public life and back into the home and female education will be severely curtailed.

However, the average age in Afghanistan is now 18, and the more open nature of Afghan society in the last period, with increased electrification and education, have created expectations that the Taliban will not be able to respond to, making for a situation similar to neighbouring Iran where an increasingly disaffected population is in opposition to the Shi’ite clerical regime there. In addition, the whole nature of Taliban rule could run aground over ethnic, tribal and religious divisions and Afghanistan might not be able to maintain State cohesion. This remains to be seen.

In the meantime, the US and Britain have abandoned the Afghan people to the Taliban and clerical reaction. The dreadful scenes at Kabul airport demonstrate the fear many Afghans feel about Taliban rule. It is imperative that the large numbers of people fleeing the Taliban should be offered asylum, here and in the rest of Europe and the USA. Priti Patel’s grudging acceptance of 20,000 refugees here, staggered over a long period, is atrocious as is her insistence that Afghans attempting to gain asylum by crossing the Channel will be treated as criminals.

Britain and the USA created this situation, and now they must take responsibility for the consequences. This and Pakistan’s role in supporting the Taliban must be highlighted.

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