As Afghanistan is gripped by catastrophe – fight for the socialist alternative to British imperialism’s bloody legacy
Two decades of imperialist occupation and brutality have ended in humiliating defeat for western forces in Afghanistan. For the country’s people, a fresh nightmare is now beginning. The Taliban takeover comes after two decades of bloodshed and trauma. The estimated death toll for the invasion stands at more than 240,000 – with Afghans suffering the great majority of the fatalities. 456 UK military personnel lost their lives – with many of the families, along with the thousands who suffered live changing injuries, both physical and mental, asking ‘what was it for?’ For the tens of thousands now attempting to flee violence and persecution, terror and desperation abound. The doors of Europe and America are firmly shut to all but a tiny few. A refugee crisis on a similar scale to that of 2014, which itself included huge numbers of fleeing Afghans, looks set to develop.
This horror is the real legacy of the Afghanistan war. It tragically vindicates the position of all those who stood firmly against the invasion from the start, socialists included. Of the capitalist politicians, headed up by the likes of Tony Blair, who cheered on this sanguinary imperialist adventure, it is utterly damning.
The declining power of Britain
Britain is a decidedly second-rate imperialist power and its role in this military intervention was, in line with this, secondary. But perhaps partially because of this, the ruling class here feels the humiliation of this defeat especially acutely. The hubristic and ignorant rhetoric that filled the airwaves on both sides of the Atlantic in the run up to the war – that which claimed ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ would be brought to the people of Afghanistan at the point of a Nato gun – now finds a sickening new echo in the performative soul-searching of Britain’s capitalist politicians in the wake of this disaster. The parliamentary debate on the subject brought to the fore the weakness of Johnson’s government and his precarious hold over the Tory party. He faced harsh and angry criticism (much of it breathtakingly hypocritical) from all corners of the house and especially his back benches.
Yet Britain’s entry into the war in the first place was an illustration of the total subordination of British foreign policy to the whims of the White House. Despite the nostalgic imperialist fantasies of some right-wing MPs, any notion that Britain could play a genuinely independent role in the Middle East, let alone remain in Afghanistan after US forces have left, as some now demand in parliament, is utter nonsense. It is even more laughable when you consider that most UK troops actually left Afghanistan years ago, back in 2014.
Corrupt Afghan government
The fact that the so-called intelligence upon which Boris Johnson based his claim to MPs that there would be “no path” to military victory for the Taliban was so disastrously wrong is itself evidence of the complete lack of support that existed in Afghanistan for the occupation and the corrupt Afghan government associated with it. This left both American and British forces utterly blind to the realities right in front of them. Just 20% of people participated in the elections which brought the now deposed Afghan president Ghani to power – far from a resounding democratic mandate. As he and a small elite enriched themselves, the immense firepower of the US helped his civilian government to defy gravity. As soon as it became clear that this military might would eventually be withdrawn, the writing was on the wall.
While the Taliban has a certain base, which will have grown rather than shrunk due to its status as the biggest and best organised force opposing the occupiers, it too is hated by the majority of Afghans. Its rule, just as it was prior to the invasion, will be murderous and reactionary. Desperate poverty, conflict, and misery will continue to be the bitter reality in a country in which the average monthly income is just $42.
Labour offer no alternative
Far from learning the lessons of this, just one of a long line of catastrophic imperialist military interventions in the Middle East and elsewhere, politicians on both sides of the House of Commons instead attempt to pin twenty years of failure and defeat on the flaws in Biden’s withdrawal plans. Meanwhile the official ‘opposition’ in the form of Stamer’s New Blairite Labour Party, fails to offer anything but hand wringing and imperialist apologism. With grim symbolism, Jeremy Corbyn, one of a tiny handful of principled MPs who opposed this war from the off, sits outcast from the Labour benches, the whip withdrawn. On the front benches, his right-wing successor dodges questions about accommodating refugees while at the same time hinting that, twenty years on from the initial invasion, the real mistake was that the withdrawal of US and British troops came too soon.
As the crisis continues to escalate, the shameful reality that was poorly masked by the Tories’ alleged commitment to leaving no man behind is being exposed. Dominic Raab’s ‘forgotten’ phone call to the Afghan government on behalf of interpreters in need of evacuation sums up a cruelly casual attitude to the lives of even those who worked for British forces directly. At the same time, Priti Patel pledges that a limit of 20,000 refugees, a tiny number, will be allowed to settle in Britain. What’s more, the vast majority will have to ‘find their own way’ here. On arrival, they can expect to be housed by local authorities which are already engaged in drastic cutbacks and which the government has no plans to fund adequately. The tragic death of a five-year-old Afghan boy, who this week fell from the window of a hotel in Sheffield, shows the squalid and potentially dangerous conditions asylum seekers can expect to ‘enjoy’ on arrival. Worse still, thousands will die en route, with many more finding themselves in hellish refugee camps or detention centres.
The victims need safety
Those who are victims of catastrophic imperialist policies should indeed be welcomed when they seek safety from the results. There really is a moral obligation for this that goes beyond the lofty words of right-wing politicians. But genuinely meeting this obligation means arbitrary limits on numbers should be immediately removed. Meanwhile a massive programme of investment is needed – funded by taking wealth from the super-rich capitalists who profit from war. This could be used to build hundreds of thousands of genuinely affordable houses, to create socially useful jobs, and to support and expand public services, providing both for refugees and for the already existing population.
Rightly, many people, including some former soldiers and families of those who died in Afghanistan, are demanding an inquiry into the war. Such a demand is pertinent, but to bring to light the real role played by politicians and senior military figures responsible for the bloodshed in Afghanistan it must not be led not by judges or other pillars of the capitalist establishment. Instead, an inquiry led by democratic organisations of the working class, such as trade unions, would have the potential to get to the truth. This is what our movement must call for.
Fight for an end to all imperialist wars
Indeed, in the wake of this catastrophe, the anti-war and workers’ movements must now be mobilised again, not only to demand an immediate end to all imperialist operations in the Middle East and fight for the rights of refugees, but to fight for justice for all the victims, Afghan and British, of these disastrous wars. Real justice means holding to account the individuals responsible for this particular imperialist misadventure – placing the likes of Tony Blair on trial for these crimes. But it also means putting in the dock the ruling class, which relies on war to win access to markets and resources, along with the blood-soaked capitalist system itself.
Only socialist ideas, which are based on the international solidarity of working-class people, consistently oppose imperialist war. And only socialist change – based on public ownership of the big monopolies and democratic planning of the economy – offers the possibility of genuine freedom and equality, won through mass struggle not military conquest, to people the world over. The struggle for peace and the struggle for socialism are therefore one and the same.
Image licenced by CC 2.0.