Afghanistan: US pulls out, supports warlord takeover

US military helicopters arrive at Bagram airbase after an operation in 2008. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

After nearly two decades of war, occupation and political meddling, the occupying United States and NATO forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan, leaving Afghans to pick up the pieces.

US forces up and left the huge Bagram air base on July 6, apparently without telling the new Afghan commander. It serves as a reminder of the imperialists’ disdain even for their Afghan partners.

The US shut down the electricity and slipped away, an Afghan commander told AP News on July 6. The Afghans only discovered the evacuation two hours later.

“In one night, the [US forces] lost all the goodwill of 20 years by leaving the way they did, in the night, without telling the Afghan soldiers who were outside patrolling the area,” Afghan soldier Naematullah said.

Bagram air base is now the size of a small city. It is the biggest of six bases previously operated by the US Army and Air Force.

Bagram was used by Soviet troops between 1979 and 1989 and the Taliban and the Northern Alliance struggled for control against British special forces between 1999 and 2001. The 10th Mountain Division of the US Army took over in December 2001.

AP reporters Kathy Gannon and Tameem Akhgar described the base: “The sheer size is extraordinary, with roadways weaving through barracks and past hangar-like buildings. There are two runways and over 100 parking spots for fighter jets known as revetments because of the blast walls that protect each aircraft.

“One of the two runways is 12,000 feet (3,660 meters) long and was built in 2006.

“There’s a passenger lounge, a 50-bed hospital and giant hangar-size tents filled with supplies such as furniture.”

Only the best for the occupiers. Meanwhile, Afghanistan has been reduced to rubble, its people stripped of their livelihoods and culture. Religious fundamentalism and sectarian violence is on the rise, as are attacks by the Taliban.

According to the United Nations (UN), Afghanistan’s poverty rate could rise from 50% to more than 70%. The UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Deborah Lyons said on June 22 that in addition to the devastation caused by the war, Afghanistan is now in the midst of a severe third wave of COVID-19 and a drought. Lyons said it means “the slide towards some dire scenarios is undeniable”.

The World Bank (WB) reported in March that about 75% of public spending in the country is funded by international grants. Spending on security remains high (28% of GDP in 2019) compared to other low-income countries, which average about 3% of GDP. Opium production, smuggling and illegal mining — the illicit economy — still account for a significant share of production, exports and employment.

Afghanistan’s economy grew in 2002 as the war and occupation ramped up. According to the WB, “annual growth averaged 9.4% between 2003 and 2012, driven by a booming aid-driven services sector, and strong agricultural growth”. In 2015–2020, GDP growth slowed to 2.5 % per annum, with “gains against development indicators slowing or — in some cases — reversing”.

“Aid”, the WB said, decreased from 100% of GDP in 2009 to 42.9% last year. The reduction in international funds followed the cut in the number of occupying troops, which declined from more than 130,000 in 2011, to about 15,000 by the end of 2014, and 10,000 in March.

The cuts in international funds “led to a protracted contraction of the services sector, with an associated deterioration in employment and incomes”. Alongside this, the Taliban insurgency gained control over more territory and intensified its attacks on military and civilian targets.

The WB estimates that more than 10,000 civilians died each year between 2014 and 2019. According to the Watson Institute at Brown University, as of April, about 241,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan and Pakistan war zone since 2001. More than 71,000 of those killed were civilians.

Afghan democratic rights activist Malalai Joya puts the figure of those directly or indirectly killed as a result of the war closer to 1 million.

Taliban gains strength

As a US general officially relinquished command on July 12, the Taliban was taking more territory, in particular along the borders with Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

According to Al Jazeera, the Taliban control more than one-third of Afghanistan’s 421 districts and district centres, although it claims the figure to be 85% of districts. According to the UN, more than 50 of Afghanistan’s 370 districts “have fallen” to the Taliban since the beginning of May.

Most mainstream commentary puts the Taliban’s rapid advance down to the US military’s “rapid” withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, this narrative ignores the push by former US President Donald Trump for a peace deal to be stitched up between the US and the Taliban.

The US military’s withdrawal was one of four agreements Trump made in February last year, which the UN endorsed. It led to the Taliban reducing its attacks on the US military, and redirecting them to ordinary Afghans.

The Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) reported on the Taliban’s advance into a key district in the northern Kunduz province on June 22.

RAWA is logging the atrocities being committed, in particular against women.

Young news anchor Mina Khairi and her mother were killed by a bomb blast in Kabul on June 4. Khairi, only 23, had worked for Ariana and Ariana News for five years.

Khairi’s uncle Yusuf told TOLO News that his niece had “made efforts to serve her country”, adding that the fate of the youth are now under the control of the jihadis. Sharif Hassanyar, head of Ariana News, vowed the media agency would continue its work. “Freedom of speech was a red line for Mina Khairi and was one of her wishes and we will continue her path,” Hassanyar said.

‘Peace’ deal

The UN’s hand wringing that the February agreement had “generated hope” to “create the space for a peace to be made among Afghans” is not just naïve, it is a smokescreen for the imperialist powers to claim they did their best to help Afghanistan.

In reality, the US, NATO and — to a lesser extent — Australia wanted to secure their strategic interests in poor, de-developed Afghanistan. After the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, President George W Bush backed the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, vowing to “win the war against terrorism” even though none of the 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks were Afghan nationals.

The majority of ordinary Afghans objected to the occupation and war, not trusting the Northern Alliance warlords, the Taliban nor the occupation forces. They were right, because as soon as Kabul fell, the US invited the warlords — mostly from the Iranian-backed Northern Alliance and a group led by a former king — to a conference in Germany where the Bonn Agreement was signed in December 2001.

Since then, the imperialist powers have installed compliant presidents and vice-presidents, starting with Hamid Karzai. Former Northern Alliance general Abdul Rashid Dostrum — who served as a fighter for the Soviet Union, was vice president from 2014–20 and now lives in Turkey — is said to have Ankara’s backing to return and take charge.

The destruction the US and NATO forces have left behind is, of course, a major concern. But, the political mess is worse: ordinary Afghans look set to suffer more as the warlords now want a “second resistance” against the Taliban.

If 100,000 US troops, supported by NATO troops and contingents from Australia and elsewhere, did not bring democracy and restore women’s rights to Afghanistan, backing the old criminal gangs is only going to make life more miserable for ordinary Afghans.

The US’ “peace deal” with the Taliban is “deceitful”, Joya said. “This ‘peace’ is nothing but lies … The current devastating war is far from coming to an end because a crooked deal with the most animal[istic] terrorist armed groups in support of foreign intelligence organisations can never bring true peace … Peace without justice is meaningless.”