Just one month ago, Joe Biden assured Americans that it was “highly unlikely” that the Taliban would seize Kabul after US troops withdrew. But this week, the world has watched in shock at scenes of the Taliban capturing province after province across Afghanistan. On Sunday, President Ashraf Ghani abruptly fled the capital and headed for Tajikistan, shortly before insurgents entered the presidential palace — signaling their intention to declare an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
With the collapse of the US-backed regime, banks, airports, and vehicles are full of people desperately trying to flee the country. They hope to join the millions of Afghan refugees who have already been forced to leave over the past four decades of conflict. The number of internally displaced people is also surging, as people all over Afghanistan stand to lose their family members, homes, schools, and workplaces to both Taliban fighters and American bombs.
Last week, Zar Begum, a middle-aged woman at an encampment in Kabul, described why she fled:
Taliban militants forcibly evicted me at gunpoint, killed my sons, and forcibly married my daughters-in-law. They forcibly took three or four girls from each house and married them. We had to leave.
Despite these atrocities, Taliban fighters were met with little resistance from the over three hundred thousand Western-trained and armed Afghan soldiers. Instead, the army has largely facilitated them in taking government buildings and releasing thousands of imprisoned Taliban across the country.
After twenty years of destructive occupation, the United States is now officially abandoning Afghanistan to its fate. This is not a victory for the antiwar movement but the latest shameful display of Washington’s lack of concern for the fallout of its own disastrous actions.
The “Good War”?
The Bush administration announced the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 as a response to the tragic attacks on September 11 in New York. The declared aims of the war were to remove Al-Qaeda from the country, ensure the rights of women and minorities, and establish a democratic republic. As the United States unleashed its military might on Afghanistan, the Taliban quickly retreated from major cities to allow the Northern Alliance, a coalition of former anti-communist mujahideen, to take power.
Neighboring Pakistan, the main ally of the Taliban government, was forced to take an embarrassing policy U-turn to facilitate the US war effort. As a new government was installed in Kabul under Hamid Karzai’s leadership, both the media and policymakers expressed euphoria over the swift victory — and the promise of a more liberal polity in the region.
Within months, however, the United States had already moved on, as the Bush administration built the case for a war against Iraq. The threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime was hysterically exaggerated in order to justify “preemptive” strikes against the country — showing off America’s confidence in its ability to “export freedom” to the rest of the world. In this portrayal, Afghanistan was just another example in the endless success stories, from the reconstruction of Europe and Japan in the aftermath of World War II to the Gulf War in 1991. Yet, beneath the surface, chaos was germinating across the region.
The new Afghan government was an awkwardly woven coalition of warlords, émigré elites, and technocrats from different parts of the world. In 2003, women’s rights activist Malalai Joya made headlines when she publicly challenged the new rulers of the country, calling them out for their “crimes against Afghans” in a Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly of Elders).
In 2005, Joya was elected as a parliamentarian from the Farah province, and she used her platform to highlight the corruption and violence facilitated by the NATO forces. Unfortunately, critical voices like hers were ignored in discussions on the future of the country, as they contradicted the celebratory tone that came to dominate descriptions of the “Good War.”
Descent Into Chaos
Yet the corruption of Afghan elites who had been brought back into power started percolating through international media. In 2012, Afghanistan was ranked at the bottom of Transparency International’s “Corruption Perception Index.”
President Karzai and his family were accused of being involved in murky, corrupt deals with international organizations. One scandal was a cash “gift” from Iran in 2010 to renovate the presidential palace. His brother, Mahmud Karzai, was involved in multiple corruption scandals, including running Ponzi schemes through the Kabul Bank, leading to its spectacular collapse in 2011. In other parts of Afghanistan, reports of extortion and drug trafficking by warlords was common, as the international aid entering Afghanistan hardly trickled down to the country’s poor.
Yet corruption was not merely an Afghan problem — it was part of the design formulated by the occupying forces. A 2013 New York Times report exposed how the CIA was bribing the Karzai government to win favors for its short-term goals. The report revealed that the occupying forces were fueling corrupt practices rather than fighting them.
The Obama administration remained mum on these explosive allegations, revealing its disregard for economic reconstruction in the country. In 2014, Karzai blamed the United States for facilitating corruption in Afghanistan — claiming that the majority of corruption took place through formal contracts, mainly issued by US officials.
The credibility of the Afghan Republic kept eroding as the presidential elections of 2014 and 2019 were marred by widespread accusations of electoral fraud. While Washington was able to cobble together a coalition government with the US-trained academic Ashraf Ghani as president, the increasing tensions within different factions paralyzed the state. The simmering discontent became fuel for the Taliban insurgents who were biding their time and building support bases in the country’s rural hinterlands.
More embarrassingly, Pakistan provided covert support to the Taliban, despite being a frontline state in the US-led “war on terror.” Its dual role is the result of its deep state’s refusal to sever its material and ideological links to the Taliban, despite ostensibly aiding the NATO coalition.
In 2001, under General Pervez Musharraf’s military dictatorship, Pakistan switched sides because it needed financial support to sustain its debt-ridden economy. Yet, even today, Pakistan does not maintain a coherent narrative against the Taliban, and pundits in the local media continue to applaud their atrocities in Afghanistan.
Not only did the Taliban leadership operate through the western Pakistani city of Quetta, but it also managed to develop an infrastructure of support among sections of the deep state. The blowback for the country has been severe: some seventy thousand Pakistani citizens have died due to the Taliban insurgency within Pakistan.
One of the worst incidents of extremist violence was the massacre of school children at the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar in 2014, where terrorists gunned down 144 students. The incident shocked the public and led to popular resolve to fight the Taliban in the country. Yet, even then, there remained a distinction between the “good Taliban” (those carrying out similar atrocities in Afghanistan) and the “bad Taliban” (those targeting Pakistan).
In an interview with Al-Jazeera, the former chief of the ISI, General Asad Durrani, was asked about the blowback effect of Pakistan’s policies, particularly the horrifying APS massacre. He dismissed it as “collateral damage,” as “morality takes a back seat” in strategic decisions. There could not have been a clearer expression of the cynicism that defined Pakistan’s relation to its proxies in the region.
Orchestrating a Collapse
The cowardly manner in which the United States chose to withdraw from Afghanistan can only be termed a shameful flight. In 2020, the United States invited the Taliban for a round of negotiations in Doha, bypassing the Afghan government — a move that lent unprecedented legitimacy to the terrorist group.
As part of the peace deal signed in Doha, the US government directed the Afghan government to release five thousand captive Taliban soldiers, many of whom soon returned to the front lines. The Taliban was represented in the Doha negotiations by its cofounder Mullah Baradar, an earlier captive in a Pakistani prison. He was released at the United States’ request in 2018 in order to make the Taliban “partners in peace.” The United States then announced an abrupt troop pullout, put into effect by the end of July 2021 as the emboldened Taliban were attacking provincial capitals across Afghanistan. Today, Baradar is touted as the most likely leader of a Taliban-led government.
Despite the long-standing instability of the Afghan government, women and minorities took multiple grassroots initiatives to institutionalize their role in the public sphere. Yet the now supposedly “reformed Taliban” swiftly reversed those gains as it conquered various parts of Afghanistan. Women from the Hazara ethnic group are reporting forced marriages of young Hazara women to Taliban commanders. There are widespread reports of extrajudicial killings of soldiers and government officials captured by the militant group. Civil society activists and journalists have fled Afghanistan’s largest city in one of the most depressing exoduses by a country’s intelligentsia.
The Doha agreement in effect emboldened the Taliban and created a wave of demoralization and defections within the Afghan state. The only military intervention the United States made during the Taliban’s assault was geared toward evacuating its embassy staff in Kabul — cementing this withdrawal as one of the most dishonorable exits in modern history. Hundreds of young people were left thronging the airports in a last desperate bid to leave the country. A viral video showed two men who were clinging to a US plane falling from the sky as it took off — a first sign of the tragic refugee crisis about to explode at a global scale.
The United States created a state to meet its counterinsurgency needs rather than to serve the interests of the people, which hastened the collapse of the security forces. Not only did it fuel warlordism and systemic corruption, the United States also used the region as a testing ground for weapons and surveillance.
“Af-Pak” became the first site for the illegal drone warfare that killed thousands of civilians in the region and fueled anti-American sentiment. Incidents of civilian casualties, such as the killing of fifty-one civilians (including twelve children) in a US-led bombing campaign in Herat in 2007, intensified popular anger against the occupying forces.
The covert nature of drone warfare also deepened the infrastructure of surveillance and secrecy associated with the “War on Terror.” Enforced disappearances that began with whisking people away to Guantánamo Bay became an integral method used by the Pakistan and Afghan governments to managing internal dissent — one of the most sordid legacies of the US-led conflict.
Toward an Anti-Imperialist Left
The deteriorating situation points to a new phase of imperialism in which any pretense to development or reconstruction has been wholly discarded. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen are emblematic of how contemporary Western interventions are geared toward creating zones of imperialist control in order to pursue short-term goals.
Once these tasks are fulfilled, the country is abandoned — the promise of democracy and state-building proving to be mere slogans. The veneer of humanitarianism has given way to a logic of terror and destruction imposed upon “enemy states.” The United States today heads this global demolition squad.
The antiwar movement in America should not pat itself on the back for this withdrawal. The manner in which the United States withdrew from Afghanistan only speaks of imperial hubris and arrogance. Instead of accepting responsibility for the situation it created, the United States scapegoated the Afghan government and is now putting the entire blame for its debacle on Pakistan. The United States can shift blame for the disaster precisely because it cannot be held accountable by the international community and is not willing to accept its fate as a declining empire that has lost the ability to impose order on countries it has destroyed.
Today, progressives are terrified, as the Taliban victory has emboldened extremist forces in Afghanistan and the deep state in Pakistan. The stage is set for more repression of human rights activists and dissenting voices, who will be targeted by authoritarian regimes that have swept the region from New Delhi to Kabul. In these circumstances, the American left has a responsibility to extend all forms of solidarity possible to those bearing the brunt of our generation’s “forever wars.”
Fighting Islamophobia, welcoming refugees, and holding the war machine accountable are essential elements to articulating an anti-imperialist vision for contemporary politics. This is particularly urgent as the United States threatens left-wing governments in Latin America (Cuba and Venezuela in particular) while also building its war machine in Asia. The US ruling class will again use the threat of imagined phantoms and mask their aggression under the veil of human rights and democracy. It would be nothing less than tragic if the American people continue to fall for such tactics that cause unimaginable suffering for countries in the Global South.
Without a Left rooted in global solidarity, the twin disasters of imperialist wars and refugee crisis will undermine democracy in the United States itself. The disaster in Afghanistan once again shows that empires are incompatible with global peace and popular sovereignty — and fuel militarism and xenophobia at home.