After twenty years of war and attempts at state-building, the West’s Afghanistan crashed to the ground. It is a disaster that requires we ask what was political responsible for it. Yet already before people could be rescued, the blame game began among Western politicians – each condemning the other for this catastrophe.
The repeatedly asked question is: How, after so many years and billions of euros, could the Afghan government collapse so completely without a struggle? The answers are coming too quickly to be honest. US President Joe Biden lays the blame above all with Kabul – surely to distract from his own mistakes. The Afghanis, he and many others incessantly claim, did not fight for their country. This ignores the fact that it was the Afghanis who in the last twenty years fought the actual battles against the Taliban, sacrificing their lives in the hundreds of thousands to do so.
Honest answers to these questions will not be so easy to find.
An important cause of the current events is the fact that former US President Donald Trump worked out a deal with the Taliban that was not secure and which offered the Taliban a timetable for victory. Trump’s deal left both the Afghan government and civil society out in the cold. He neither asked their opinion nor compelled the Taliban to separately carry out peace negotiations with these groups. It was soon clear to the Taliban that the US would no longer interfere after its withdrawal, and so they no longer spoke with both groups.
Trumps successor Joe Biden, acting up to that point just as amateurishly in foreign-policy matters, took over the catastrophic deal almost thankfully. Afghanistan experts could no longer keep him from stumbling in the direction of exit. Biden relied on the strategy of the notoriously shady US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad. It was thus by no means the fleeing Afghan soldiers who offered the Taliban the Hindu Kush territory on a silver platter but these three men at the zenith of their power who with their complete ignorance threw the Afghani people and their accomplishments of the last two decades under the wheels of the Taliban.
Other and more complex answers to the questions about the causes of the collapse will have to be elaborated in the next weeks and months, possibly years. At the same time, the mistakes made since the beginning of the intervention are blatant. Here are some of them:
Afghanistan is a country in which several ethnic groups with diverse religious tendencies and conceptions as well as numerous social groups with the most differing interests live. Geopolitically, the Hindu Kush is like a black hole for all neighbouring countries into which all who come too near to it fall. A conciliation of the interests of all groups and neighbouring regions has almost never succeeded, as Afghan history shows.
For this reason too it is not only in the last 20 years but for 40 years that Afghanistan has been plagued by war. It began with the decision of Islamist groups in 1977 to wage war in the mountains of Afghanistan against the country’s then ruling elite – but still before the so-called Saur Revolution in 1978, and long before it occurred to the Soviets to intervene. Whether the almost endless war will now really end with the rushed withdrawal of Western troops, as the Taliban claims, remains to be seen.
‘War on Terror’ and the disempowering of Afghan parties
More than a few Western critics of the Afghan War think that one of the cardinal errors was the very attempt to introduce democratic conditions into Afghanistan. They condescendingly criticise it as an ‘export of democracy’, and it sounds as if the desire of Afghanis and their international partners for a good state was never a serious one. In this view, the balancing of interests in such a fragmented country as Afghanistan can only succeed through democratic means and diplomatic initiatives in the region.
However, from the very beginning the US made clear that it had no interest in creating democratic conditions. Its war aim was and remained to drive Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and liquidate Bin Laden. In this sense they did not fail in Afghanistan. But they already achieved this objective years ago. In fact, from Washington’s perspective, the withdrawal came much too late. This in the end also explains the rush.
Added to this is the fact that the US and its allies continually undermined the results of democratic processes in Afghanistan because they did not produce the results they wanted. From the US point of view, the Afghanis always elected the wrong representatives and pursued the wrong ideas.
Probably the most fatal mistake is that the West imposed on Afghanis a presidential system on the US model. The constitution was welcomed by the inexperienced Afghanis. But its text was written by US advisors. In this model the parliament played a weak role. Political parties, which are numerous in Afghanistan – among them ones with rich traditions – were disregarded and disempowered. But it was exactly these parties that would have been instruments to create and continue to enable the so urgently needed balancing of interests through democratic methods.
A further stumbling block, finally, was the holding of elections, especially the last two presidential elections. To this day their actual results have not been made public. But despite many restrictions for security or technical reasons they were democratically organised and carried out. Despite severe threats from the Taliban, many Afghanis wanted to cast their vote and risked their lives to do so. And the political battles already began during the tally so that the votes cast through such sacrifice could never be fully counted. Washington, not known for its patience, put their oar in and decreed a president for the country with the outsider Ashraf Ghani, and the designated opposition were assigned their places at the children’s table.
Neoliberalism and corruption
Overall, the West obstinately strove to install a system in Afghanistan that fit in with the neoliberal world order. The completely impoverished country was not to be allowed to flirt in any way with socialist models; Kabul was to become a member of the WTO, open its borders to all imports, and solve the major questions of existence with consistently private-sector economic methods. They supported entrepreneurs and disregarded trade unions. Ex-president Ashraf Ghani even had the headquarters of the Afghan trade-union confederation raided by police and military units.
Above all the US showed no interest in the domestic-political situation of the country. They pursued their self-defined objectives and in so doing always chose the shortest route from A to B. They brought back into power exiled elites – with bad reputations but pro-American. They bribed and wheeled and dealed with warlords and enabled new ones to become strong. CIA operatives literally brought dollars in plastic bags to those willing to cooperate. In this way they themselves ensured that corruption flourished, through which moreover many Western advisors earned handsome sums.
Without a knowledge of the history and complexity of this country a central state was established. Resources and the attention economy were concentrated in the very few large cities. Western tax revenues seldom made it to Afghanistan’s vast expanses. Worse still, the country’s elites – surely because they themselves hardly believed in the project of democratisation – promptly threw the money in suitcases and carried it out of the country – to Dubai, Turkey, or to Malaysia where this aid revenue was transformed into ‘concrete gold’ and kitsch palaces.
Afghanistan in pieces: Is war and military buildup next?
Afghanistan is now in ruins. Ghani, the US puppet, fled in his slippers. The remaining politicians tried to cut their losses. Meanwhile, the Taliban, ever since they took Kabul, repeat the mantra that they will form an inclusive government, but considering they were not ready to compromise even when they were down and out, it is improbable that they will now be ready to share power with others. It is much more likely that the war will briefly abate only to flare up again. The first protest demonstrations in Jalalabad, the armed resistance that is forming in the Panjshir Valley, the utterances of several politicians who want to rebuild the Northern Alliance in Uzbekistan – all this suggests that things will not remain peaceful for long.
On the other hand, this defeat all across the line, the embarrassing, irresponsible withdrawal, will painfully prey on the West and its military alliance. For now it will become clear that, on the one hand, the US is losing its role as a world power and that its allies can no longer rely on Washington. At the same time, ambitions to construct a European army will boom.
Left positions are needed
In conclusion, one more danger has to be mentioned that awaits the radical left in the West. It can no longer rest on the comfortable fact that it had rejected this war from the beginning. Because in this way it has to this day had neither a concept nor a strategy for how it might be able to accompany the many diverse progressive forces in a country like Afghanistan in such a way that changes – rooted in Afghanistan’s multi-layered societies, in the cultures and modes of live of its peoples and sustained by the people locally – are possible not just in cities. The left will have to take clear positions against any form of orientalism and cultural racism. Instead, it too must seriously contemplate and discuss the concept of internationalism and international solidarity and practices – including left projects in the area of development work.
– Statement of the Party of the European Left: The EL Firmly Stands by the Afghan Population Facing the last Act of the War on Terror
– Statement of the Left in the European Parliament (formerly GUE/NGL): Protection of Asylum Seekers Fleeing Afghanistan Must Be Top Priority