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THERAPISTS of the mind often try to trace pathological delusions back to repressed trauma.
Both the trauma, and the delusions arising from an unhealthy refusal to ackowledge it, were on display in the House of Commons this week. The emergency sitting to discuss the Afghanistan crisis was a portrait of a governing class in decline and denial.
First, the trauma. The scale, speed and chaos of the collapse of the Western presence and of its preferred government in Afghanistan have produced a profound shock throughout the governing classes of the Nato states. All of them. “The West’s Shipwreck In Afghanistan” splashed the Greek equivalent of the Times.
It is a world-historic moment and comes after a succession of defeats and debacles from Iraq to Libya. It ought not to be underestimated. But some people are doing so. There is a ludicrous argument that the sheer speed of the collapse is evidence of a carefully controlled plan for the US-led domination in Afghanistan to transition smoothly to Taliban control.
Some form of shift to a hybrid regime was envisaged. But not this. If that were planned, then you would not get the president of the US to pronounce six weeks ago that there will be no helicopters evacuating the embassy in Kabul only for exactly that to take place. Joe Biden’s vacant look to camera is reminiscent of Jimmy Carter’s following the Iranian revolution in 1979.
The echo of helicopters in Saigon in 1975 is obvious. Thus the laboured claims from US politicians that this “is not a Vietnam moment.” The Taliban are, of course, not the National Liberation Front of Vietnam.
But the defeat for US imperial ambitions and the ending of a foreign occupation are common to Afghanistan 2021 and Vietnam 1975. A pro-communist peasant army in Vietnam. An anti-communist peasant army in Afghanistan. Two US defeats at the hands of forces that opposed all foreign occupation.
Anguished Tory voices at least partially recognised that this week. Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith paid lip service to the sanctimony that passed for debate. Then he got to the nub.
The West had fought and won the Cold War, he said. It had then projected the Western capitalist model around the world, not least through the expansion of Nato and the wars of intervention of the last 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Now, it looks like the West is in retreat. From his own Thatcher-Reaganite point of view he touched upon the gravity of what the last 10 days have revealed. “This will be noted in Moscow and Beijing,” he warned, before prophesying that the government of Taiwan would doubt that it could enjoy US military support in the event of military action by the Chinese state.
Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt summoned up the dread that in a decade “the largest economy in the world will not be a democracy when China overtakes the US.”
In a way, it was refreshing to hear these interventions. For they inadvertently cut through the rest of the saccharine speechifying to identify exactly what this catastrophic 20-year occupation has been about.
And it has had precious little to do with the lifting up of the mass of Afghan people, the liberation of women or any of the other glosses given for the richest countries in the world bombing and then occupying one of the poorest.
Mainstream politicians are studiously avoiding three words: “war on terror.” But the disaster of Afghanistan can be grasped only in that context. Afghanistan was the opening gambit (others in the US administration wanted Iraq first), played by George W Bush and Tony Blair following the 9/11 atrocities.
In the false name of fighting terrorism an alliance of neo-conservative fanatics aiming to arrest US decline and of liberal-imperialists drawing on European traditions of civilising empire set about much more than the trivial aim of toppling the Taliban government in Kabul, who the US had helped to power in 1996 and then cooled on.
Blair at his most frighteningly messianic summed it up at the Labour Party conference in October 2001, five days before the bombing started: “This is a moment to seize. The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux, soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us...”
The fate of ordinary Afghan people, women especially, was as far from his mind as it was from the Thatcher-Reagan officials who channelled the lion’s share of arms and funding via the Pakistani and Saudi Arabian intelligence services to the most reactionary of the forces fighting the Russian-backed government in the 1980s.
It is in no way to trivialise the extreme reaction of the Taliban when it seized power in 1996 nor the reactionary ideology of the second generation Taliban today to be honest about the minimal advance of women and of ordinary Afghans in the last two decades.
The US spent about $100 billion annually on the occupation. That’s nearly twenty times the budget of the Afghan government. Britain and other Nato states spent billions more.
Yet Afghanistan remains at a lower level of development than Nepal. The hot-housed efforts at modernisation by indigenous Afghan governments in the 1970s ultimately failed. The token foreign-led efforts in the 2000s didn’t even get that far – and were not really intended to.
Malalai Joya is one of the Afghan political women and feminists who has pointed out the fiction of grand progress over the last 20 years. What advances there have been – the average schooling for an Afghan girl is under two years – have been won against successive governments of shifting alliances of warlords.
That is because the occupation and its puppet governments were based upon parcelling out governorships, power and riches to rival powerbrokers. And factional chiefs in turn appealed to the occupying power to eliminate rivals who they claimed to be Taliban. This went down to village level.
The excluded Taliban, refurbished as more of a national than chauvinist Pashtun force, has over the last few years been able to present itself as some kind of unifying and anti-corruption national force. You do not have to believe that or their protestations of bringing a more enlightened non-democratic government (and I don’t).
The point is that after 20 years of occupation the West’s presence and its proteges disappeared like a wisp of smoke.
And that is the trauma that led to so much delusion in the British Parliament this week. Former prime minister Theresa May struck out at Boris Johnson using his slogan against him: “Where is ‘Global Britain’ on the streets of Kabul?”
She got accolades of course from the simple-minded media. But the truth is that there is no “global Britain.” It is a fiction. Instead of facing up to that one MP after another, Tory, Labour and SNP, fulminated and emoted like a toddler having a tantrum.
It was Biden’s fault. It was Trump’s fault. It was both of their faults. Where is our moral leadership? Nearly 70 years after Suez these people have yet to grasp the position of Britain in world affairs. As for those hinting that some non-existent European military operation might “step in” as the US pulled out, they should look to the retreat of the French-led intervention in Mali and the Sahel region of north Africa last month.
The only thing that the major European states are doing at this moment is galvanising – from Paris to Berlin to Rome – a reinforcement of the Fortress Europe policy in anticipation of a cascade of refugees from Afghanistan.
This ought to be the end of illusions. The anti-war movement made these points 20 years ago and consistently every year since: the war on terror is a veil for imperialist expansion, and it will fail – though not before one disaster after another.
We publicised the reports and memos from Human Rights Watch and others about the far from benign occupation in Afghanistan and the frankly gangster operations of the government and its allies. Even Hamid Karzai, the preposterous puppet president, had to denounce the occupation forces for bombing a wedding party and killing 47 civilians in 2008.
Just one of myriad massacres. It is on account of those that the mass of people in Afghanistan came to reject the occupation. And to fight it.
It is not that they were pro-Taliban. The extent of positive support for the Taliban will be tested in months to come (months in which emoting Members of Partiament and journalists will move on to other issues). But it is absolutely clear that the Taliban has managed to re-project itself as a national force consolidating opposition to foreign occupation. It has garnered some support and probably more acquiescence on that basis.
Unless that is understood – and even more so the catastrophe of the West’s imperial pretensions – then there will be future avoidable disasters.
The Afghan debacle is not because a benighted people were not ready for our civilising mission or because we did not have the grit to carry it through (one bombed wedding and tortured child after another).
The failure was from the beginning. It is time to pull down the curtain on these imperial adventures.
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