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The Delusions of Decline: Biden Quits Afghanistan
This is the editorial essay from Salvage 11: Already, Not Yet.
‘We want you to get up the arse of the White House and stay there.’
– Jonathan Powell, Downing Street Chief of Staff under Tony Blair, to Christopher Meyer, the British Ambassador to the United States.
The US was defeated in Afghanistan after twenty years, at a cost of $822 billion, and 241,000 Afghan lives. The victors were not just the Taliban, but Pakistan’s secret police and the network of donors from Iran to Balochistan that supported the Taliban. The choice, at the end of this trail of carnage, was between different brutalities administered by different reactionaries and mercenaries, for different ends – none, of course, with the lives of the mass of Afghan people as priorities.
This outcome should not come as a surprise. Whatever the liberal and humanitarian rationalisations for war, imperialism does not build effective control of a nation, by pulverising opposition from day one, and then generate a liberal democracy with a pluralist culture. In Iraq and Afghanistan, wherever the US chose to ‘liberate’ directly, and whatever the legal or political mandate for it, control was obtained though some combination of airborne death, secret prisons, torture, rent-seeking mercenaries, religious reactionaries and death squads copiously supplied with American weapons and training, all coordinated from Green Zoned enclaves habituated by American businesses and cheerfully coopted NGOs. From this ‘murderous humanitarianism’, as the Parisian Surrealists once described the civilising mission, only a carnival of reaction could follow.
The Taliban took power while scarcely breaking a sweat. The US has spent $83 billion training up the Afghan army to hold the country for the unpopular president, Ashraf Ghani. Once the US pulled out, however, it folded. Those weapons and that investment became Taliban assets. This is because the Taliban had already established a shadow state across most of the country. They had appointed governors and police chiefs in areas under their control, taken control of health and education policy and appointed personnel, taken charge of vaccination programmes, forced NGOs to cooperate and hand over their donors’ money, and collected taxes. Where ‘law and order’ had been at the whim of thieving, brutal officials, the Sharia courts they introduced were frequently welcomed, if not necessarily enthusiastically, as a lesser evil than such chaos and ad hoc caprice. This has long been absolutely self-evident. As long ago as 2009, Gilles Dorronsoro described the ‘regional strongmen’ put in place by Karzai, with US backing, enriching themselves rather than strengthening or building local resources – and the ‘administrative and security void’ in which the Taliban were ‘building an alternative administration, discrediting the central government, and extending their influence into areas where they initially had no support’. The Taliban had, over recent years, begun private dialogue with the United Nations, adjusting their military strategy to undercut public UN censure. They had begun to negotiate with public opinion, relying on the mediation of tribal elders.
The sheer shock, among those uninterested in the Taliban or Afghanistan until very recently, at the Taliban takeover, reflects the racist underestimation of a social force traduced by liberalism as ‘backward’ and ‘medieval’, rather than effective, reasonably efficient and flexible – if ideologically committed and reactionary. The Taliban had long been in the business of building ‘soft power’. They had set up a Commission for Prevention of Civilian Casualties and Inquiry of Complaints. The specific complaints were usually not dealt with seriously. Complainants were often arrested. Nonetheless, the Commission operated as both a pressure valve and a feedback mechanism allowing the Taliban to adjust their military operations. For example, their appalling and unpopular tactics of forcing school closures and attacking clinics run by Kabul were abandoned. The purpose and design of such attacks, to deprive the government of material support, could be met by letting the schools and clinics run as Taliban operations, for which they would get the credit. As they approached victory, they began to claim that they would include women in a new government and allow girls to be educated to university level.
The Taliban had long ceased, in other words, merely to plant IEDs and assassinate rivals: they were building public authority by securing a degree of public support – of at minimum a grudging kind, in a desert of alternatives – well beyond their narrow, theocratic niche.
In the winter of 2001, this outcome would have seemed staggeringly implausible. The Taliban had, upon first taking power from the ex-mujahideen and warlord factions, enjoyed a degree of popular support – again, through a strategy of relative stabilisation, ending, as they did with their victory, four years of bloody fighting among militant groups between 1992 and 1996. As Anand Gopal reports of his interviews with Afghan women in the New Yorker, they ‘were unwilling to judge the movement against some universal standard – only against what had come before’. The Taliban were considered ‘softer’ compared to their predecessors. But by the time the regime was overthrown by the United States, it had lost most of that support through its brutality, its suppression of opium farming at the height of a rural crisis, and its decision to host Al Qaeda.
That the Taliban’s repeated and openly reported offers to the US, in 2001, to hand Osama Bin Laden over for trial to a neutral third country in return for an end to US bombing were dismissed out of hand with imperial disdain at the time is hardly surprising. Barely more so is the mainstream media’s mendacious amnesia over that fact since the recent Taliban victory. The mythical ‘refusal to hand over’ Bin Laden and Al Qaeda leaders has indeed recently been cited by Reuters and the often more hard-headedly serious Financial Times as the reason behind the US invasion. The BBC has enshrined the same claim with the po-faced Orientalist hermeneutics of Islam beloved of right liberalism: ‘Al-Qaeda is bound to the Taliban by a pledge of allegiance – or “bay’ah” … [which was] probably a factor in Mullah Omar’s refusal to hand Bin Laden over to the Americans after the 9/11 attacks, leading to the US-led invasion in 2001’.
At the time of the invasion, the US appeared to enjoy overwhelming global strength, with no serious rival to its military supremacy. Wall Street dominated the global economy, the Treasury was rewriting its rules along neoliberal lines, Russia was encircled, eastern Europe subjected to shock therapy, and the relics of social democracy were Americanised (with New Labour in the vanguard). The opposition to this had been an incipient anticapitalist movement that, as soon as the jihadis flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, was immediately on the defensive. Bush seemed to have assembled an enthusiastic international coalition for war, with a domestic coalition led by gung-ho Democrats as much as neoconservatives, and shored up by mandatory patriotism. Antiwar movements were initially subject to a violently McCarthyite policing effort, charged with ‘anti-Americanism’ by a coalition ranging from Fox News to the haggard husks of the soixant-huitard left. A clatch of triumphalist liberal imperialists and neoconservatives declared out loud for blood and empire, while official liberalism put up no resistance to the emerging security-state, extraordinary rendition, secret prisons and the torture centres in Bagram and Guantanamo. Pugnacious liberals, who had proclaimed the US military the ‘armed wing of Amnesty International’, entertained the most outré apologias for torture once the practice thereof was undeniable. Given all of which, the most predictable outcome seemed to be that Afghanistan would be quickly subdued, a client-state implanted, the vengeful mood leveraged into permanent regime-change under the rubric of the Project for a New American Century, the rules of global order rewritten, the American state implanted more firmly within allied states, and public opinion driven sharply to the right by the imperial fever.
Such was the initial outcome. By early 2002, the Taliban had been defeated, a fifth of its men killed during the US-led invasion. Mullah Omar and his confederates were hiding out in Quetta, Pakistan. Several of Omar’s subordinates, led by Mullah Obaidullah, had written a letter to the US-installed Hamid Karzai administration accepting defeat, acknowledging the legitimacy of the new regime, and requesting immunity in exchange for retiring from political life. Obaidullah and several allies even surrendered to interim government forces in 2002. There was little appetite among the remaining Talibs for a jihad, and little local support. Had the new government developed coherent state structures with popularly supported services it would likely have faced no insurrection.
The social basis of the occupation necessitated otherwise. The ground war had been won by the warlord factions grouped as the Northern Alliance: the same butchers whom the majority had been glad to see the back of when the Taliban took power in 1996. Anand Gopal’s New Yorker piece powerfully documents the shock of the Afghan villagers he interviews when ‘liberation’ from the Taliban turned out to mean the return of the sadistic warlords. They, not the Armani-clad Karzai, took over the day-to-day running of the country. Governing institutions remained shrivelled. Police forces were populated by warlord allies but given scant arms and left to their own devices by the Ministry of Interior. The few trained officers acted as clerks. Salaries were rarely paid on time, and often embezzled by corrupt superiors. US Special Forces threw their weight and finances hard behind the warlords, while the arbitration of social interests was left to a tribal system creaking and thrown into disarray by the manoeuvring and clientelism of occupation forces.
The new rulers embarked on a campaign of arbitrary arrests, torture, targeted assassinations, revenge campaigns and night raids. Occupier cash created perverse incentives, as when warlord soldiers would arrest Taliban suspects on dubious evidence to collect the reward. Some generals controlled their own prisons. Asadullah Khalid, one of the first governors of the Kandahar province under the occupation, later appointed chief of intelligence by Karzai, was a notorious torturer. The country’s first vice-president under occupation was former Northern Alliance leader General Dostum, ‘a courageous, relatively liberal leader’ according to one sage writing for the New York Times, but more generally known as a torturer, murderer and rapist. The ‘vice and virtue squads’, first deployed with Saudi funding under the pro-American mujahideen leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, continued to operate. Most female prisoners had been prosecuted for ‘moral crimes’, such as sex outside marriage.
Decommissioned Taliban fighters denied amnesty went into exile alongside Mullah Omar. By early 2003, they were engaging in cross-border raids from Quetta. When Omar’s close ally Mullah Gul Agha Ishakzai launched a jihad against the occupation, there were many citizens ready, with the help of local clerics, to be recruited. Mahazes (military fronts) were constructed for the first time inside Afghanistan, in Spin Ghar, Tora Bora and Ijraya. While the leadership was organised as the Quetta Shura, low-level Taliban officials set up their own Shuras in the country. There began a campaign of propaganda, intimidation and selective assassinations of collaborators and pro-occupation clerics. The Nishan village in Kandahar was captured by 400 troops, without any opposition from government forces. By 2005, much of the old Taliban leadership had been recruited to fight Kabul and the occupation. The cadres of this neo-Taliban had a similar social profile to the movement that had taken power in the 1990s: sharecroppers, subsistence farmers and the rural poor. But their motives were more secular.
The number one factor driving Taliban recruitment and activity in a given area was the frequency of US military assaults. The aerial campaign, far more important in Afghanistan than in Iraq, produced a string of massacres, particularly at weddings. Marc Garlasco, the Pentagon’s expert in high-profile targets, explained that major strikes were expected to produce civilian casualties. Only if the anticipated number of deaths exceeded thirty did they have to be personally signed off on by the notorious bleeding-heart Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Over the twenty years of the war, close to 50,000 Afghan civilians are estimated to have died, and – allowing the extremely hazy boundaries between various of these categories – larger numbers of both opposition fighters and Afghan military and police. And not only are the numbers involved enormous, even given the undoubted responsibility of the Taliban itself in civilian casualties. The indefinite detention without charge and torture of Afghans, the suspension of Afghan law – the very law that the invaders claimed to be building – at Bagram Air Base, Special Forces operations leading to the deaths of innocents, the sequestering of thousands of well-paid foreigners in Kabul into protected zones rendering half the city off-limits to Afghans, and above all those mass casualties occasioned by bombing and the sheer disdain for the local populace from the occupying forces and their infrastructure, were all – entirely predictably, and as was predicted – strongly antagonising. Even in 2009, Dorronsoro noted, ‘the violence attributed to the IC’ – the remote, opaque, arrogant international coalition – ‘seems to produce more popular resentment than any violence committed by the Taliban’.
Another secular cause of resentment and recruitment was the Bush administration’s ‘war on drugs’. DynCorp was recruited to spray poison on opium crops. Kabul’s Poppy Eradication Force was often used by local governors to destroy the fields of rivals to boost their own profits. The Taliban interceded, styling themselves as capable defenders of the farmers and opponents of abusive local governors. From the ranks of the rural poor and those alienated, marginalised, exploited and brutalised by predatory officials and commanders, they recruited. This was the picture given by General Sir Richard Dannatt, then head of the British Army, in 2007. The ‘great majority’ of those fighting the occupation were doing so for ‘financial, social and tribal reasons’ rather than for theological reasons. One day, the occupiers would ‘need to deal with and eventually reconcile the elected Government with the majority of these people’. Within a month, it emerged that the US was indeed encouraging Kabul to negotiate with the Taliban, to bring them into the government.
Whatever those peace negotiations might have delivered, the Obama administration was not buying. The priority of Obama, and Vice-President Biden, upon taking office was a geopolitical ‘pivot to Asia’. To encircle the People’s Republic of China, Obama emphasised the securing of US military and commercial power across south and eastern Asia. To this end, for example, the Trans-Pacific Partnership would have been a major tool, generating hundreds of billions in revenue for US corporations while reducing markets for Chinese capital. In foreign policy terms, this meant a ‘drawdown’ in Iraq and a major escalation in Afghanistan. Ground troop numbers peaked in 2011, at 132,000. Obama favoured negotiations with the Taliban but preferred them to take place after their power in the south of the country was destroyed. The escalating ground and air war devastated the Taliban leadership in Kandahar, and reduced the authority of the Quetta Shura to which it was allied. The Taliban had already been losing public support with its brutal tactics and was ruling through fear rather than authority.
However, the Taliban’s strategic advantage in this situation was its polycentric structure. The insurgency was more decentralised than the Taliban had been in the 1990s, with kinship-based alliances and the Haqqani network acting autonomously. As Antonio Giustozzi argues, the decentralised nature of the insurgency was a vital asset in asymmetric warfare. The Pakistani government, and wealthy donors in Balochistan, were able, when the Quetta Shura lost authority, to switch funds and allegiance to different leaderships. It also enabled the Taliban as a whole to adapt better to changing situations, and to the public mood. This organisational flexibility, and the political pragmatism it generated, contributed significantly to the eventual US defeat, reflecting what Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou would call the decolonisation of war. By 2014, the Obama administration had declared the end of combat operations under US Operation Enduring Freedom. From then on, troops were nominally there only to support the Afghan National Security Forces who had assumed responsibility for security.
The US was also facing deeper problems. The bloody hubris in Iraq, and the astonishing global protest movement that it had produced, was destroying the fabric of support for the occupation even among ruling classes allied to the US. The US could physically crush its enemies. It could override Afghan opposition to the occupation, escalate the air war indefinitely, accumulate more bodies, dispatch more ground troops and deploy death squads a la the ‘Salvador Option’. However, the international and domestic support that it had enjoyed, and which allowed it to contemplate dangerous and vicious behaviour, had dried up. The Bush administration was broken, the neoconservatives out of favour, and the ideological éclat touting war as a civilising mission had soured. There had, despite the international support for America’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, never been a real ‘international coalition’ behind it. At the outset of the war, Rumsfeld had insisted that ‘the mission determines the coalition’. The result was that member-states of NATO, ‘the West’s premier legacy institution’ as Andrew Bacevich calls it, contributed the bare minimum of money and military engagement. Enthusiasm for that engagement, already falling, all but collapsed when Trump took office: hence the distinct note of pissing-in-the-wind when he demanded NATO allies, their state finances devastated by the global recession, spend more on defence.
Trump’s main foreign policy was to do whatever the Pentagon told him. In Afghanistan, as elsewhere, this entailed a more aggressive version of the last administration’s policies. The rate of aerial bombardment shot up in the years between 2016 and 2020, and the rate of documented civilian casualties trebled. The intention was to achieve what Obama hadn’t: to use overwhelming kinetic force to drive the Taliban to accept a peace with their power greatly reduced. It was no more successful, in fact considerably less so, than Obama’s efforts. The result was that in the summer of 2020, Trump negotiated a peace with the Taliban in Doha, which accepted that they would be part of a future government. A year later, Biden took the chance and ended the war.
If truth is the first casualty of war, perhaps the last thing to die is bloodthirsty sanctimony. Biden, once a hawkish advocate of the ‘war on terror’, had little choice but to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. US military strategy had collapsed, as even the Pentagon had finally recognised. The fictitious state in Kabul had no independent means of survival. Afghanistan had overwhelmingly turned against the occupation. The domestic constituencies for empire had moved on to other concerns. There was nothing to save after the longest war in US history. Yet the end of the occupation occasioned a remarkable shift in feeling about Biden among his erstwhile supporters. Suddenly, the man who had saved the US from both Trump and Sanders was discovered to be a buffoon and a traitor.
Jake Tapper of CNN, which effectively works as a faction of the Democratic Party establishment, condemned Biden’s ‘tragic foreign policy disaster’. On the same channel, presidential historian Tim Naftali called it Biden’s ‘Saigon moment’. The Atlantic ran an essay from the recalcitrant liberal imperialist, George Packer, headlined ‘Biden’s Betrayal of Afghans Will Live in Infamy’. MSNBC scorned ‘Biden’s disastrous Afghanistan charade’. The normally docile press corps turned a whiter shade of pale, throwing hostile questions at administration spokespeople. One journalist countered Biden’s claim that there was no US national interest in remaining in Afghanistan by pointing out that these troops were effectively on the doorsteps of Iran and China. Was Biden saying ‘we should just give that up?’ That knee-jerk ‘we’ of the press corps tells you all you need to know.
Even more bitter were the bourgeois Brit belligerati. The Times discovered that he was ‘faltering’, a ‘faintly comical figure’ who may not be up to the job. Newsnight ran an extraordinarily ill-informed report, in which an outraged Emily Maitlis described Biden as having been an old ‘dove’, going back to the beginning of the Afghanistan war. His popularity, it was alleged, was plunging; though it was rarely mentioned that his loss of face was over a resurgence of Covid-19, and that the withdrawal policy was popular. The predictable comparisons with Jimmy Carter appeared punctually. Edward Luce in the Financial Times observed that Biden seemed not to be ‘master of his brief’. The increasingly eldritch and cadaverous Tony Blair was, yet again, paraded on every television channel to offer his view. Which, in this case, was that Biden’s policy was ‘imbecilic’, an ‘epoch-changing retreat’ that would cheer Russia, Iran, China and ‘Radical Islam’ while unforgiveably reducing Britain to a ‘second division’ power. Rarely has the British delusion, that the ‘Atlantic alliance’ after 1945 would spare it the loss of global power as its empire fell apart, been so brazenly expressed.
Worked into the grid of this imperial consciousness is the tradition of ‘imperial feminism’, as Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar once dubbed it. At the very outset of the war in Afghanistan, Laura Bush argued that ‘the central goal of the terrorists is the brutal oppression of women’: the humane warriors of the new American century would liberate them. This, needless to say, did not happen. The suppression of Afghan women had not been merely an emanation of Taliban ideology. Rather, the embedded social practices of the most conservative parts of Afghan society had hardened, under several decades of foreign occupation, civil war, and lawless chaos in which leaders of the mujahideen became brutal and exploitative warlords, into a militant war against ‘sin’ and ‘vice’: female desire was made a key scapegoat of a plundered and pulverised society.
Female rights under the American occupation applied only to a small minority of girls and women, particularly those living in Kabul. For that minority, the material gains were substantial – education, womens’ shelters, laws forbidding violence against women, and declining maternal mortality – and are manifestly threatened by the Taliban’s return to power. The protests over Biden’s retreat, from the Afghan ambassador to the US and civil society leaders such as Malalai Joya, are based on a reality. However, in part because the US was allied with right-wing warlords, and depended on negotiating with the conservative parts of civil society, the majority of girls would never see the inside of a school, and the majority of women would only ‘escape’ domesticity when their homes came under aerial assault. The expansion of female education was certainly marked after the last overthrow of the Taliban, but the recent outpouring of liberal bluster about a betrayal of the women and girls of Afghanistan rarely mentioned the fact that, after two decades of US rule, not even 40 per cent of girls were in school, and only 37 per cent literate – compared to 66 per cent of boys, nor that of the 3.5 million children not in school in 2017, 85 per cent were girls. Clearly, it was not with the withdrawal of the US that ‘promises’ to the women and girls of Afghanistan were broken. During the occupation, there was a great deal of money for liberal NGOs, but the political capital and bullets were put behind the patriarchy. This was not a question of glacially slow but sure progress: so unimportant was ‘female empowerment’ to the imperium that even the direction of travel in this arena was not assured. Already in its 2017 report ‘“I Won’t Be a Doctor, and One Day You’ll Be Sick”: Girls’ Access to Education in Afghanistan’, Human Rights Watch was warning that ‘overstated high numbers have helped give the impression that there is a continued positive trajectory, when in fact numbers are actually decreasing in some parts of the country’ and that there were ‘indications that access to education for girls in some parts of Afghanistan is in decline’. The report made clear that this decline was linked, among other factors, to the decline in foreign aid.
While the US occupied Afghanistan, husbands continued to burn their wives with impunity. Women continued to be stoned to death, as for example when tribal elders in the village of Ghalmeen buried a nineteen-year-old woman up to her neck in the earth and killed her for adultery. Women continued to be given the lash, as when government judges ordered that a couple should receive a hundred lashes each for adultery: a sentence defended by the female regional governor, Seema Jowenda, as fitting and based on Sharia. Though much of this violence was inflicted by America’s client-state, the US often found it expedient to blame the Taliban. The defenders of the ‘forever wars’ habitually ignore the situation of the majority of Afghan women whose lives not only didn’t improve, but were wrecked by the violence of occupation. Not only did women and children make up approximately half of the civilian casualties during the last year’s mayhem, caused by aerial bombardment, but the women left widowed face an intolerably hard future. A study by UNIFEM in the early years of the occupation found that, even among women in Kabul, the majority of war widows were left so destitute and solitary that they were contemplating suicide.
The Wall Street Journal, a would-be mouthpiece of capital adopting the language of rescue-feminism, scolds that Biden ‘abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban’ and its ‘medieval approach to girls and women’ discredits his ‘liberal humanitarian project’. As if that project had not already disgraced itself with hundreds of thousands of deaths, torture, secret prisons, wedding massacres, and the perpetuation of misogyny at all levels of state and civil society.
The neo-Taliban has, notably, been extremely careful to manage its image on this front, not entirely pandering to the tradwife fantasies of an admiring alt-right. It claims, for example, that girls will continue to be educated, and that there will be no return to the 1990s. This is probably a concession to popular opinion which, insofar as it can be reliably measured, suggests most Afghans want girls to go to school. However, the Taliban are not exactly liberalising. Even under Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s issue with the education of girls was not principled or coherent, or invulnerable to pressure. An edict issued by Omar in 2000, for example, permitted the expansion of mosque schools for girls, as the only means of educating girls acceptable to hard-line officials and clerics. Their model, ironically, was the Islamic Republic of Iran. In all likelihood, the new Taliban regime will try to build support for a theocratic education system. The oppressive dangers in this are very real; they are just not worse than the dangers of being vaporised by a daisy-cutter bomb, incinerated by tank shells, or cut to pieces by bullets.
It is unsurprising that, in the murderous sanctimony of imperialism, the majority of Afghan women are simply ignored. Although contemporary expressions of ‘imperial feminism’ tend to highlight the agency of female civil society, NGO and government leaders temporarily empowered by the United States, its origins lie in an age in which, as historian Clare Midgley explains, the colonised woman was seen as ‘helpless, voiceless, hopeless’, a ‘dumb animal’ to be rescued – not from colonialism, but from her male counterpart. Apologies for empire frequently mobilise the condition of women as an index of the superior civilisation of colonizing states. According to the historian James Mill, in his History of British India, ‘nothing can exceed the habitual contempt which Hindus entertain for their women’. His son, John Stuart Mill, wrote similarly in his capacity as the East India Company’s Examiner of Indian Correspondence. Following the bloody suppression of the Great Indian Rebellion of 1857, which resulted in some criticism of the Company’s impact on India, he argued that the Company’s contribution to civilization included the suppression of ‘Hindoo prejudice’, particularly infanticide, sati (the burning of widows on the deceased husband’s pyre), human sacrifice, and laws against remarriage.
Then, as now, the executors and apologists of imperialism have appropriated the idiom of women’s struggle to justify what has in fact been an explosion of coercive violence by armed men, with devastating results for women. That struggle, having been set back by decades of occupation and civil war, now has to be waged against a theocratic regime that is its legacy.