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Demystifying Geopolitical Crime and Afghan Debacle

26 Aug

Further Thoughts on Demystifying the Afghan Tragedy and the US-led NATO Geopolitical Crime

The CNN and other liberal media focus on deciphering the humanitarian chaos surrounding the airport at Kabul encourages a mindless preoccupation with the tactical considerations relating to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, diverting attention from its core significance whether by design or selective perception. It seems affirmatively preoccupied with the political necessity for Biden to complete the withdrawal of American citizens, especially members of the armed forces and government officials without the loss of a single American life. Perhaps, this priority is accepted as natural given the continuing privileging of ultra-nationalist values. It has the unspoken implication that the loss of Afghan lives, no matter how great and at what scale, are regrettable especially if the victims were associated with the American presence, but is nevertheless treated as not nearly as vital in the same sense as the loss of a single American life.

Such an implicit hierarchy of human worth has many unsavory implications, including the stark fact of Washington’s refusal to take any responsibility for having endangered Afghan lives by compromising their loyalty to their own country. This issue is never even addressed by the Biden presidency or the media beyond facilitating evacuation of those Afghans compromised by their relations with the American occupation of their country, which has failed to accept any responsibility for the permanent settlement of Afghans presumed to be refugees. If Afghans are killed during or immediately after the bungled withdrawal process it is likely to be presented as one more facet of a humanitarian crisis, the magnitude of which will be explained away as at worst a further display of imperial ineptitude in the manner the withdrawal was carried out evoking memories of Vietnam over forty years ago, or more likely, presented as a confirmation of the alleged continuing barbarity of the Taliban.

It is with this foregrounding of the scenes at the Kabul Airport that I turn to three aspects of these events that has been insufficiently commented upon:
(1) A state-building regime-changing intervention by the West in a non-Western country should be understood in the 21st century as a species of ‘geopolitical crime’ under post-colonial conditions. One element of this crime is the recruitment of a large number oof ‘natives’ as facilitators and collaborators, who live well as long as the intervention lasts, but are alienated from the resistance movements going on in their own country, and are merged in the minds of national anti-interventionists as integral to the imperial project and, hence, widely regarded as corrupt sellouts and treasonous enemies of self-determination of their nation, who must escape their own country to avoid retribution.

As a result this cohort of Afghans who worked with and for the Americans, including their families, become fearful for their lives and wellbeing when such an imposed state-building project ends in abject failure. This leaves such individuals and their families with no good choices. They can remain in Afghanistan and face the pentup fury or vengeful impulse of the victors or they can head for the exits. Imperial propaganda to the effect that Afghan anti-interventionists are bloodthirsty, may be true although likely exaggerated, but functions to shift blame and responsibility away from Washington, and prevents learning the lesson that this kind of geopolitical crime when it fails, destroys the lives of those in the society that were earlier proclaimed the greatest beneficiaries of such a regime-change and state-building undertaking. The irresponsibility of the intervenors is underscored by their refusal to accept the burden of providing a permanent safe haven for Afghans who chose the losing and wrong side in a just war of national resistance. Among the justifications for using such pejorative language is the evident lack of deep support for this coercive American state-building project as evidenced by the failure to mount any sort of defense against the poorly armed Taliban after the US signaled its intention to withdraw from the internal Afghan war. Such a moment of illuminating truth recalls Washington surprise that the supposedly secure and formidable Shah’s modernizing regime in Iran fell without much of a fight to an unarmed popular resistance movement in 1978-79.

(2) Drawing an Afghan analogy to the fall of Saigon in 1975 is suggestive of the absence of self-criticism in America’s political class, producing repetition, and gratuitous suffering for those aligned with the occupation and a gross state-building failure. As well those innocent segments of the Afghan population that opposed the popular movement for ideological or human rights reasons are left to suffer the consequences of the political outcome without being offered a safe exit or safe haven.

But there are important differences between what happened in Saigon and what is happening these days in Kabul that are taken into account in a perceptive article by Paul Street, “Eight Key Points on America’s Defeat in Afghanistan,” CounterPunch, Aug. 24, 2021. Street’s main observation is that the failures of anticipation were far more inexcusable in Kabul than in Saigon because the victorious National Liberation Front was in mainstream of national resistance movements, while the Taliban did have a bloody past with an unrepudiated jihadist code of behavior that was especially threatening for women and girls. This alone should have at least alerted those in the Pentagon and elsewhere in Washinton to the necessity of devising withdrawal and resettlement plans that took better account of the wellbeing of Afghans, and not worry only about those Afghans who had staffed the NATO state-building undertaking for the past twenty years. There was no reason to rely on Taliban pledges of amnesty and protection of human rights, given their past but there was also every reason to encourage its leader to live up to thes pledges of a more benign approach given that the Taliban had achieved a second chance to implement a kinder version of Islamic governance.

This is especially true given the earlier American-led effort to give the Soviets in Byzezinski’s muscular geopolitics as providing Washington an opportunity to give Moscow its own ‘Vietnam War’ in the Afghanistan of the 1980s. Such an objective led the U.S. Government to arm, support, and subsidize jihadist resistance, including forces under the leadership of Osama Bin Laden that formed the nucleus of Al Qaeda that was to attack the United States twenty years later. Many informed commentators believe that without the American counter-intervention to defeat the Soviet mission in Afghanistan the Taliban would never have been able to take over control over the whole country in 1996, and maybe never. The largely unacknowledged boomerang or blowback effects of instrumentalizing Islamic extremism for Cold War geopolitics has played out in Afghanistan in particularly tragic ways for the people of the country. It remains to be seen whether Afghanistan’s neighbors are able and willing, especially Pakistan, to make massive contributions to undo some of the massive damage done by the anguishing decades of combat, corruption, and occupation, which includes manipulating the international drug trade for nefarious political purposes. Even so, the primary responsibility for mitigating the collateral humanitarian damage for this severe geopolitical crime belongs to the United States and its NATO partners, G-7 allies.

(3) I had the opportunity to listen on August 23rd to retired General David Petraeus answer some questions put to him by a fawning and craven moderator during an on the record event sponsored by the Atlantic Council. I was shocked to hear this eminent, articulate, and highly intelligent former military commander lament what he called the lack of ‘strategic patience’ by the United States as constituting his primary worry about the course of events generated by what he regarded as an abrupt, ill-considered, and imprudent withdrawal by American forces. Twenty years, the longest war in American history, was evidently not enough. Petraeus went on to argue that the drawdown of American forces to between 2,500 and 3,000 was a sustainable presence, making it highly affordable and a good security investment, which could also be counted on keeping the Kabul government afloat a bit longer. Its main strategic benefit would be allow Americans to have military bases that would be regionally useful in relation to anticipated renewed counterterrorism operations and, above all, to engage China competitively in the region.

What I found startling at the height of the panic observed the world over on TV, was the unabashed agreement of Petraeus and the fawning moderator, that the US would again need to be intervening and state-building in the future, and must not be led by its Afghan failure to interpret the experience as a signal to the political class to repudiate imperial post-colonial militarized geopolitics in Asia and elsewhere. No mention was made of China’s rise with its minimal dependence on military capabilities, which was characterized mainly by win/win economistic internationalism and a hands off approach to military intervention in foreign societies.

I was struck by the utter unwillingness of Petraeus to confront either the realities of imperial decline or its reliance on obsolete geopolitics in a global setting that was making it clear that the future security for the West, and even human survival, depended on leading states making strong commitments to on behalf of imperative global public goods, which would entail an abandonment of global militarism as anachronistic and unaffordable.

The tone of the discussion was one of how to do better ‘going forward’ rather than to waste energy by crying over the ‘spilt milk’ of past mistakes including investing trillion to construct a ghost state that could hardly extend its writ beyond the city limits of Kabul. What depressed me most about the Petraeus performance, and a related Atlantic Council discussion the next day of the humanitarian crisis generated by the chaotic withdrawal was the steadfast refusal of the political class to engage in strategic self-criticism as distinct from bemoaning existing tactical errors of judgment prompted by domestic partisan politics. As evidenced by the choice of homogenous participants in these staged events channeled to elites in the United States is that the definitive voices of national policy are retired generals and diplomats as cheered on by journalist from the Wall Street Journal, CNN, NY Times, and Washington Post, pillars of the political class ruling the electorate in 2021. It was a depressing display of how the political class in the United States continues to seem incapable of thinking strategically outside of a militarist box, a sure sign of imperial morbidity.

What the prolonged intervention leaves behind is an impoverished country of nearly 40 million, with virtually no capacity to sustain itself without massive outside economic assistance. Given this reality after twenty years of occupation and supposed guardianship the most fundamental failure of the American post-9/11 operation was its utter inability to improve living standards and help Afghanistan gain some measure of self-sufficiency and self-governing capability. The feeling at this stage is that the American-led Western agenda in the country was nothing more than a convenient platform for an extended counterterrorism operation with scant concern for the people of the country. This overlooks the many heroic efforts of Western NGOs to improve the life experience of the Afghan people, especially that of women, but without the protective capabilities of an Afghan government with authentic indigenous roots this has again become a mission impossible. The bottom line as of the end of August 2021 is that the Afghan refugees and the Afghan nation need and deserve massive international assistance led by the United States, and if this is not forthcoming tragedy will be added to tragedy.  


23 Aug

[Prefatory Note: Modified responses on Aug. 23rd to questions posed by Zahra Mirzafarjouyan, Mehr New Agency, Aug. 17, 2021.]


1-Why could the Taliban capture Kabul and gain power so rapidly without considerable resistance from people and the army?
The U.S. led NATO Afghan intervention and occupation was flawed in mission from its outset in 2001, and indeed in the period before the attack and large-scale, ambitious regime-changing, state-building occupation. In the post-colonial world, the military superiority of Western intervening powers has proved unable to shape the political outcomes of a prolonged struggle for the control of non-Western sovereign spaces, especially if the society is beset by unresolved tribal and ethnic conflicts, as well as by warlordism and drug cartels. In Afghanistan, as elsewhere, this line of observation proved to be once again validated, despite trillions of dollars spent in devastating parts of the country and supposedly building armed forces and police capabilities and institutional competence sufficient to bring order and stability to post-Taliban Afghanistan.
The fundamental explanation of the rapid collapse of the Kabul government is that it had no legs of its own to stand upon, which became evident as soon as the U.S. made clear its intention to withdraw its occupying army. Afghan collaboration with the intervenors was largely left to secularists, opportunists, corrupt politicians and private sector entrepreneurs, and ambitious careerists, as well as the alignment of some ethnic groups, and the support of secularized social elites in the larger cities. The Taliban despite its abysmal human rights record during its five-year period in power at the end of the last century (1996-2001) never lost its credibility as a defender of the Afghani homeland, and retained the loyalty of many nationalist elements in this overwhelmingly religious country.
To explain the unexpectantly quick and dramatic collapse of the Kabul government so elaborately constructed by the Western intervenors over a twenty-year period of occupation defied expectations on all sides. Taliban reassurances of peace and reconciliation undoubtedly weakened whatever will to resist survived the impending American military withdrawal, and gave Afghan collaborators with the Americans a stark choice between cutting their ties to imposed, defeated government or abandoning the sinking ship of state by leaving the country. These 2021 Taliban reassurances touched many of the concerns prompting the West to act in 2001, included proclaiming the end of the war for control of the country, amnesty for those who worked in and on behalf of the Kabul government, promises of the protection of the rights of women, tolerance of diversity, and pledges not to allow its territory to be used in the future as it was in the past as a base for projecting terrorism beyond its borders. The Biden diplomacy never seemed influenced by these reassurances, especially their reliability, as it had unconditionally announced its intention to withdraw and end at least one ‘forever war’ for the sake of ‘national interests.’
Yet the basic explanation of the unexpectedly quick collapse of anti-Taliban resistance also exhibited a series of political misjudgments of the United States despite 20 years of experience in the country. It obviously did not appreciate that its investment in the Afghan army, police force, and state-building failed to create even the semblance of a countervailing force to the technologically war-fighting techniques of the Taliban. Had Washington realized this vulnerability to the chaotic collapse that ensued, it would have handled its own withdrawal differently, getting Americans and their Afghan collaborators out while it still could exert effective control the main cities. If ever, a politics of spectacle made a sensible decision by Washington to withdraw from Afghanistan greeted favorably around the world, including the United States, into a public relations disaster, it was on media display for the past two weeks on TV screens worldwide.
2-How do you assess the US policy in Afghanistan during the past 20 years? To what extent the US policy is responsible for the current instability in the country?
To some extent, my response to the prior question covers these issues. The viability of intervening in a non-Western state in the post-colonial era should have been discredited long ago, and certainly after the decade of maximum effort in Vietnam with its Kabul-like ending. The success of the anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa should have demonstrated to the West that military intervention on the basis of acceptable costs in lives and resources was no longer a policy option, however great the temptation, however strong the insider pressures of special mercenary interests, and however deep the geopolitical memories of ‘the good old days’ when the West could intervene at will confident of a high rate of success (with the ironic exception of Afghanistan that proved unconquerable even in colonial times!). The result of such post-colonial missions, mainly led by the U.S., is their eventual failure preceded by years of devastation, widespread human suffering, what might be called ‘combat capitalism’ (with an appreciative nod to Naomi Klein). ‘Intervention fatigue’ over time grows among the American public and leadership, generally expressed by a growing political consensus that the undertaking, whatever its ideological or imperial rationalization, is not worth the effort. The undertaking is fundamentally illegitimate from the perspective of law and morality. It is increasingly perceived as too costly materially and reputationally, and as essentially irrelevant as a security threat. The senseless ordeal of prolonged killing and dying are viewed as evidence that America has lost its way, lacking credible justifications and stumbling toward a humiliating defeat. Because American lives and taxpayer dollars were increasing seen as wasted, the resulting political fallout is disguised by the leadership with a lame rationale that convinces almost no one except a compliant Western media, yet prepared the way for the next geopolitical fiasco of a similar kind. Such rationales are rejected in the short run, including by returning American soldiers who felt cheated, understanding that their patriotic sacrifices were in vain even misguided, and that the whole imperial venture had been built on delusions and lies. And yet memories are far shorter and weaker than the interests at stake.
These patterns of failed interventions are likely to be repeated in the future, oblivious to this record of failure. The fact that such perverse behavior persists reveals the absence of the moral and political imagination needed to comprehend and act upon the changed international circumstances of the 21st century. This absence includes a stubborn refusal to learn from China about how an ambitious state should go about expanding and heightening its prosperity along with its regional and world influence in a post-colonial era. In part, this failure stems from systemic sources. It is associated with the bureaucratic and entrenched interests in the United States that benefit from a high defense budget and a militarized approach to security that became ingrained in the American internal balance of forces during the long Cold War. From its outset in the late 1940s this approach to security and geopolitical response depends on exaggerating, and even inventing, international threats as well as denying the tectonic global shift in the balance of forces from geopolitical intervenors. National forces of resistance motivated by an ethos of self-determination as the most basic of human rights and by a historical knowledge that intervenors can be defeated if nationalist energies remain united.
3-How do you see the future of Afghanistan? What US approach should be taken toward the country in future?

It is very difficult at this time so soon after the Taliban victory to anticipate the future of Afghanistan. It will depend, first of all, on the behavior of the Taliban as the governing force, and how this is portrayed in and manipulated by foreign countries, especially in the West. The US in particular will likely maintain a very critical attitude toward Taliban governance partly to continue the myth that its intervention was justified was based on good intentions and the attempt to make life better for the Afghan people. The Taliban will also react, especially on the basis of its perceptions of whether the US has genuinely respected the outcome of the struggle, becoming respectful of Afghan sovereignty, and does not lend support to counterrevolutionary movements or impose sanctions. After all, Afghanistan was victimized by two decades of American-led NATO intervention, and will naturally give a high priority to defending the security of the country and its governing process.

There is bound to be hostile propaganda from a growing, aggrieved, and frightened Afghan refugee community, which might be manipulated by American militarist and reactionary forces to restore political will in the United States, reviving its reputation as a self-confident custodian of global security and promoter of human rights and liberal constitutionalism. It is instructive to look back at the behavior of the United States in the decade after its withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 under somewhat similar circumstances when it tried, among other evasions of defeat, to sell the hysterical idea that the alternative to fighting against Communism in Vietnam was for the American people to fight its enemies on the city streets of the United States. The American people have been exposed for decades to a disastrous bipartisan combination of fear at home and aggression abroad, which is being translated into a posture of imperial decline, exemplified by leadership that is either extremist in embracing denialism or depressing in its effort to face up to the overwhelming challenges of misjudging changing global realities for decades.

The best approach for the United States at this point in Afghanistan, although unlikely, is to encourage Taliban moderation by exhibiting in deeds and words its acceptance of the outcome in Afghanistan. This could be expressed by a rapid grant of diplomatic recognition to the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan in all international arenas, followed by the provision of significant levels of humanitarian assistance. It is also important that the departures from Afghanistan should be handled in a non-provocative manner, stressing humanitarian responsibilities, and appreciating that many of those departing from Afghanistan partook of corruption and opportunism during the American presence, collaborating with a foreign intervention by a political actor with geopolitical motives and a Western secular orientation.

In the wider context of international relations, I would hope that the failures of the US approach to Iran ever since at least 1979 would finally lead the political class in Washington to switch its strategic engagement with the non-West from confrontation to accommodation. It is never too late for this to happen. I wish I could conclude these responses by expressing the belief that this altered course of behavior will actually happen in the near future. I am not presently hopeful.