Afghanistan and empire

Issue: 172

Joseph Choonara

As United States personnel scrabbled from their embassy in the Afghan capital of Kabul in August, it marked the climax of a vile 20 year saga.1 The outcome vindicates those on the left who opposed George Bush’s “War on Terrorism”, launched in 2001. The aims of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan that year were ostensibly to eradicate Al Qaeda, who launched the 9/11 attacks, and topple the Taliban government harbouring them. However, the deeper strategy informing the neoconservatives surrounding Bush was to use the US’s unrivalled military might to shore up its global hegemony. War on Afghanistan, and Iraq in 2003, was seen as part of a broader process to refashion the global order and undermine potential rivals such as China.2

At both levels, the project failed catastrophically. In Afghanistan the Taliban are back in power. Iraq has a sectarian Shia government, allowing Iran to extend its influence and helping to fuel the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. A chain of instability has been created from Pakistan through to the Maghreb. As for US imperial ambitions, grinding defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq have weakened its capacity to impose its interests abroad.

History’s crucible

Much of the mainstream debate on Afghanistan sets “embittered liberals”, who believe the US should have remained to “keep the Taliban at bay”, against Joe Biden and the US security establishment, who accepted the hopelessness of the situation.3 This debate rests on the same warped premise as 20 years ago: should we leave the people of Afghanistan, in particular women, to suffer under the Taliban or rain down bombs on the country to impose our version of freedom? It neglects two fundamental dimensions: the agency of the Afghan people and role of imperialist interventions in creating the conditions for the Taliban’s rise.4

Afghanistan’s great misfortune has been to lie at a seamline of empires. The state carved out by Ahmed Shah in the 18th century briefly stretched from Kashmir to present-day Iran. His kingdom possessed weak roots in society and was overseen by a fragile administration that struggled to raise taxes from local landowners, relying instead on revenues extracted from trade routes and conquered territories. By the 1830s, the state had lost these lands and faced deepening crisis. However, by now the country was at the centre of the “Great Game”, the conflict between Russia and Britain for control of Central Asia. This offered a means of filling the state’s coffers: attracting subsidies from rival imperialist powers.

Britain, the dominant force in the Indian subcontinent, was a key source of revenue, but this came at a price. The moment Afghanistan’s rulers seemed no longer capable of acting as a reliable buffer against Russian intervention, invasion became likely. Three Anglo-Afghan wars were fought to secure British interests in the region. The first, in 1838, was a calamity for the British invaders. They entered the country to dethrone Emir Dost Mohammed Khan and install an unpopular but pliant alternative. By bribing local rulers and brutalising those who resisted, the British were able to reach Kabul. However, their occupation soon faced a series of uprisings, defections and fatwahs announcing jihad against the invaders, as well as desertion and mutiny by their own troops. Dost Mohammed regained the throne, but now received substantial subsidies in exchange for supporting British foreign policy. The second and third wars, in 1878 and 1919, did not result in similar British humiliation, but each saw significant popular uprisings.

The 1919 invasion was triggered in part by the declaration of independence by the country’s ruler, Amanullah Khan. Confronted by the logic of a global system of competing nation-states, Amanullah, like other rulers of his day, sought to create a modern Europeanised state of his own. However, the decline of British support, and his incapacity to break the power of local rulers, led to him squeezing the peasantry and taxing civil servants and soldiers. What little was raised was squandered on “white elephant projects that benefited only his immediate family”.5 The top-down programme of modernisation also sought to limit Sharia law and other customary practices. There was fierce resistance and in 1924 Amanullah felt obliged to officially declare Afghanistan Islamic. Nonetheless, four years later he again sought to impose his reforms. A new rebellion fused outrage over taxation, conscription, corruption and secularisation. Within months Kabul had fallen and Amanullah had fled into exile.

As Neale succinctly puts it: “The Afghans had fought three holy wars against the British invaders and one holy war against Amanullah”.6 A tradition had been forged in which occupation and injustice were identified with the imposition of alien norms, and in which Islam helped provide a common language of struggle for a people divided by class, tribe, language and ethnicity.7

The Cold War

During the Cold War, Afghanistan remained neutral and relied on external aid amounting to half the state’s budget, with US and Soviet subsidies replacing British ones.8 The Afghan state now sought to create a military and civil service, along with an education system to train its officers, civil servants and other professionals. The expanding state machine swallowed much of the government’s revenue, with little directed towards industrial or agricultural development.

In 1972-3, the country was hit by famine. US subsidies were, by then, in decline. As a result, Soviet influence was growing. Mohammed Daoud, a cousin of the then king, was able to take power in a bloodless coup, declaring a republic and positioning Afghanistan closer to the Soviet Union. However, the anticipated increase in Soviet subsidies did not materialise and, by 1978, Daoud himself fell to a coup, this time led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA).

The PDPA was drawn from urban professionals, students and army officers emerging from the expanded education system. They looked to a Stalinist model of state-led development to create a modern Afghanistan.9 This involved imposition of land reform on the countryside. They also espoused an interpretation of Islam that threatened not just religious leaders and landowners but existing patterns of village life, one element of which was what Neale calls “an Islam born of poverty and shame, hardened in great holy wars against the infidel and small local wars against the government”.10 Top-down attempts to transform village life combined with problems in imposing land reform. As Jonathan Lee argues:

The PDPA had seized power in a military coup and had no popular mandate… Landlords whose land had been seized called in their tenants’ debts and refused to advance them credit, seed and fertiliser… Peasants who accepted grants of confiscated land lost all irrigation rights… In order to pay for seed and other costs the peasants borrowed from urban moneylenders who charged exorbitant levels of compound interest. When they were unable to make ends meet or repay their debts, they sold the land or had it seized by debt collectors.11

When villagers protested, again with Islam providing a common language of struggle, the PDPA turned to repression. In 1979, with the government on the verge of collapse, the Soviet Union invaded. As with earlier invasions, the conflict appeared as a “war against the infidel”.12 As repression grew, mujahideen groups formed. The groups were linked to one of a number of rival Islamist parties, based in Peshawar, north western Pakistan, where many of those exiled under Daoud or driven out by the Soviet invasion sought refuge. These parties sponsored the mujahideen groups with funds and arms provided lavishly by the US and its allies such as Saudi Arabia. Money and weapons were channelled to the parties by Pakistan’s version of the CIA, the Inter-Service Intelligence.13 The beneficiaries included a Saudi citizen, Osama bin Laden, sent to recruit a network of Arabs to join the jihad, forming the basis of what would later become Al Qaeda.

By 1987, the Soviet Union realised it was bogged down in an unwinnable war. US funding to the mujahideen had reached $300 million and included “the effective anti-aircraft Stinger missile, 120mm mortars and anti-minefield weapons systems”, along with $60 million of non-lethal military equipment.14

Afghan Islamism

Islam as practiced in the Afghan countryside was interwoven with pre-Islamic beliefs and mystical Sufi practices, such as worshipping at the shrines of local saints.15 The religion played an important role in village life, with the mosque the site of village gatherings, and prayers structuring daily life. Practices such as the concealment of women were, to differing degrees in different areas, practiced long before the rise of the Taliban.16 Villages had a mullah who was generally poor and chosen by villagers. Often he was the only person in the village with an education.17

Islamism—primarily a political current—differs radically from this traditional Islamic practice. In his path-breaking work, The Prophet and the Proletariat, Chris Harman argues that Islamist currents do not represent a rejection of modern society, but rather a contradictory attempt to come to terms with the traumatic impact of capitalist development and imperialism.18

Islamism can appeal to old exploiting classes threated by capitalist development, such as landowners and merchants, or to emerging networks of Islamic capitalists. However, the cadre tends to come from layers of educated professionals created by modernisation. This group seeks, as Olivier Roy puts it, “a modern political ideology based on Islam, which they see as the only way to come to terms with the modern world and the best means of confronting foreign imperialism”.19 Islamists can also draw behind them layers of displaced rural poor who gravitate towards urban areas and face the loss of their old way of life “without gaining a secure material existence or a stable way of life”.20 The oppression they face can be expressed in Islamic language, with mosques and religious networks providing social support and reassurance in a rapidly changing world.

The politics of Islamism reflect the contradictory position of its cadre: a product of development that also reacts against its iniquities. It espouses a utopian vision of a society reconstituted along “authentic” Islamic lines, rejecting existing elites and rulers. As such, Islamists can clash with their own state and with imperialism. Equally, these current can lash out at women, those who reject their religious views and other minorities. Strategically, too, there are contradictions: “Islamism is always caught between rebelling in order to bring about a complete resurrection of the Islamic community, and compromising in order to impose Islamic ‘reforms’”. It can move towards radicalism, acts of terrorism or compromise.21

Islamism emerged as a major force in Afghanistan contemporaneously with the PDPA and from the same social base. The Islamists were “almost all products of the government education system”, and frequently clashed with the Communists in the universities and schools.22 Many of the early Islamist leaders studied in Cairo, coming into contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, a major Islamist force in the Arab world.23

In the confrontation with the Soviet Union, the mujahideen had varying degrees of commitment to the ideas of the Islamist parties in Peshawar. Local leaders would pledge their support to one of the parties to obtain arms and funds but frequently changed allegiance.24 The Peshawar parties were widely considered corrupt, retaining much of the foreign aid for their own purposes and constantly jockeying for power. When the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989, the mujahideen no longer felt committed to fight for their Islamist sponsors, who rapidly descended into brutal infighting.25 Afghanistan collapsed into civil war, and, as warlords sought an ideological basis to attract support, this assumed an ethnic character. Although Pashtuns, who make up about 40 percent of the population, were the predominant group in the early history of the Afghan state, ethnicity had not previously been a major galvanising force. Now, in the vacuum created by the failure of various political currents, it rose to prominence. General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former Communist commander of an Uzbek militia, mobilised anti-Pashtun sentiment. He allied with Ahmed Shah Massoud, an Islamist who controlled the Tajik Panjshir Valley north of Kabul. Army officers from among one of the Communist factions, the Khalkis, “reinvented themselves as Pashtun chauvinists”, many uniting with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Islamist whose artillery would soon pound Kabul.26

The Taliban emerged out of this chaos. They grew around Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second city, based among the Pashtun population. They espoused a new version of Islamism, rejecting the corruption of both the warlords and the Islamist parties. Unlike the earlier Islamists, they were not university educated, but consisted of mullahs and those who had spent a couple of years at the madrasas constructed in Afghanistan and Peshawar, often with Saudi support.27 Taliban ideology was not modelled on existing Islamist currents such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Instead, it “grew out of a reaction against all intellectual strands that were associated with ‘modernisation’, Islamist as well as secular…the pathological product of the harm inflicted on Afghanistan once it became the plaything of the great powers”.28 It also drew on the Deobandi tradition that had developed in the Indian subcontinent in the 19th century. Deobandis sought to purify Islam of such practices as worship at the tombs of saints, but it was also influenced by the Indian anti-colonial struggle of the time. Saudi sponsorship of Deobandi madrassas saw their ideology shift closer to the puritanical version of Islam promoted by Riyadh.29

The Taliban enjoyed the support of the Pakistan, which hoped to construct a trade route to Central Asia and an oil and gas pipeline from Turkmenistan. They also briefly enjoyed US support—largely at the behest of a California-based firm, Unocol, involved in the pipeline project.30 The Taliban stormed the frontier post of Spin Buldak in October 1994. A month later, they took Kandahar; by September 1996, Kabul. Their opposition to corruption and promise to end the civil war won support in the countryside and, as they captured territory, local commanders came over to their side. Their rule was “a brutal attempt to restore order in a society torn apart by brutality” by mobilising “the religious message as taught in the madrassas, but also as interpreted by those who knew little about the world apart from the isolated and impoverished village, the refugee camp and the army”.31

The stability they promised would be short-lived. Soon the 9/11 attacks would lead to retaliation. Bombs rained down from warplanes as special forces from the US and Britain distributed millions of dollars in bribes, with General Dostum’s Northern Alliance leading the fighting on the ground.

The Taliban revival

Initially the invasion met little resistance. The Taliban had been accepted, at least in Pashtun areas, as the least bad option during the civil war, but that did not mean people were prepared to defend the regime to the death.32 The Taliban itself lost about a fifth of its fighters in the early months of invasion.33 It is also likely that after endless brutality and war, some hoped the US might at least offer peace and the alleviation of poverty.34

Such hopes were misplaced. With the occupation came raids by US and British troops as well as their Afghan allies. Repression forced people to choose sides. One eyewitness reports:

At the end of 2002 the Afghan police raided our mosque. They grabbed my father and hauled him in front of the villagers, accusing him of being with the Taliban… They personally insulted him and then threw him in jail. He was 70. The faithful at our mosque went to the police and complained… I was just a kid, but the police arrested me too, twice… They interrogated me, asking stupid questions like: “Where are the Taliban?” or “Where are the weapons hidden?”35

Frequent airstrikes, called in by pro-government forces, killed civilians and combatants alike. As one Afghan farmer put it: “People hoped the US would come and release them from the violence of the Taliban, but all the US does is attack us… They should hit specific centres of the Taliban, not civilians”.36 The government’s destruction of poppy crops, on which many farmers now relied, also caused ire.37

Added to this was the nature of the government led by Hamid Karzai and his successor, former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani, who won the presidential election of 2019 with the votes of just 4.9 percent of the adult population. Under their rule money has certainly poured into Afghanistan. By one estimate, the war and its aftermath cost the US $2.3 trillion, 575 years’ worth of pre-invasion GDP. Yet, this money has had little impact on the lives of most Afghans:

It went to the people in the new government… It went to the people working with the Americans and the occupying troops of other nations. And it went to the warlords and their entourages… It went to the people lucky enough to own luxury, well-defended homes in Kabul they could rent out to expatriate staff. It went to the men and women who worked in foreign-funded NGOs. Of course, the people in these groups all overlapped.38

Two decades after the fall of the Taliban, 90 percent of the population lived on less than $2 a day; aid made up 43 percent of GDP.39

Corruption also hollowed out Afghan security forces. Increasingly, these forces struck deals with the Taliban, “warning the Taliban of forthcoming offensives, refusing to fight and selling the group weapons and equipment”. Vast numbers of those enlisted were “ghost soldiers”—dead, no longer serving or fictitious—their salary siphoned off by corrupt officers. In 2016, 40 percent of Afghan forces in the province of Helmand fell into this category.40

The brutality and corruption provided the context in which the Taliban could regroup. By 2005, the Taliban were “approaching mullahs and village and tribal elders to invite them to join the jihad”.41 Other groups placed themselves under the Taliban umbrella, further extending the movement’s network. By 2015, they had a force of about 200,000 and controlled significant areas of the country.42

Like earlier invaders, the US decided to cut its losses. In 2013, the Taliban established a headquarters in Doha, Qatar, to formalise its negotiations with its adversaries and, by February 2020, Donald Trump’s administration had agreed a deal to withdraw troops within 14 months. In exchange, the Taliban undertook to prevent terrorist operations against the US being prepared on Afghan soil.43 Biden operated with the same plan, although he delayed the withdrawal until the end of August. As this date approached, Taliban attacks intensified. Around 50 of Afghanistan’s 370 districts fell into Taliban control between May and June, with its fighters ready to seize the provincial capitals once US troops left.44 Ghani fled the capital on 15 August. Without US protection and in the absence of any real base of support, Ghani’s government fell and the Taliban swept to power.

The Taliban has evolved over the past 20 years. They have, for instance, developed some support in Tajik or Uzbek areas by playing down their Pashtun roots.45 They also present themselves as pragmatists, as evidenced by their willingness to negotiate with the US. This matters if they wish to retain aid from abroad, upon which the state continues to depend. Ultimately, a stable Afghanistan might tempt back corporations to open trade routes and pipelines, and to extract some of the country’s estimated $1 trillion mineral wealth. Perhaps with this in mind, China was among the first states to open a line of communication with the Taliban, though it will weigh the potential rewards against its fears of radicalism among its own Muslim minority, particularly in the Xinjiang region.46

However, growing pragmatism has also seen a splintering away of elements among the Taliban, some of whom have allied with Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). Unlike the Taliban, ISKP supports pro-actively waging a global jihad and the group is far closer ideologically to the Salafism of ISIS.47 It remains to be seen how these tensions will play out.

The left and Afghanistan

What should the left make of events in Afghanistan? Here, Harman’s approach to Islamism remains invaluable. In societies pulverised by their incorporation into global capitalism, subject to repeated imperialist intervention, with traditions of mobilisation against invasion in which Islam gives common expression to people’s aspirations, it is unsurprising that resistance is informed by forms of Islamism.

We might prefer that the resistance was under the banner of socialism. However, the failures of the PDPA and the horrors of the Soviet invasion have discredited socialism, and sadly not just its Stalinist caricature, along with feminism, in the eyes of many Afghans.48 Under those circumstances, the oppressed can be drawn behind Islamist organisations with all their contradictions. The Taliban remains a movement capable of lashing out at sections of the oppressed. It is also a movement composed primarily of the sons of impoverished peasants that has, objectively, clashed with imperialism. It is perfectly consistent for socialists to welcome the weakening of US imperialism, without prettifying the actions of the Taliban.

Imperialism has been a prime cause of the horrors to which the Afghan people have been exposed, and it can play no part in their liberation. So, the task of the left in countries such as Britain is to oppose the intervention of our own ruling class and its allies in an effort to expand the space for progressive forces to emerge within Afghanistan itself. This also means rejecting the weaponisation of feminism to justify intervention. As Lindisfarne and Neale argue:

Imagine that the United States was invaded by a foreign power who killed between 12 million and 24 million Americans, tortured people in every town, and drove 100 million Americans into exile. Imagine also that almost all feminists in the United States supported the invaders…how do you think most Americans would feel about a second invasion by another foreign power or about feminism? How do you think most Afghan women feel about another invasion, this time by the Americans, justified by the need to rescue Afghan women?49

There is, anyway, something repulsive in a US government—which allows one of its largest states, Texas, to criminalise abortion for millions and encourages people to prosecute those attempting to control their fertility—claiming to be engaged in the liberation of women.50

This does not mean the left is indifferent to the fate of those in Afghanistan. One concrete way that the left can demonstrate its solidarity, and expose the hypocrisy of our rulers, is to demand that our borders be opened to Afghan refugees—as groups such as Stand up to Racism have argued in Britain.

The future for imperialism

It is also pertinent to ask what these events mean for US imperialism. Withdrawal from the intractable conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq has been among the goals of all three US presidents since Bush, whether Democratic or Republican, but so too has been the redirection of US attention and resources towards China. This preoccupation has intensified under Biden.51 Witness, for example, the Aukus deal between Britain, the US and Australia in September. Aukus provides Australia with the technology required to build nuclear-powered submarines, capable of operating in the South China Sea, in response to China’s growing naval power. As a Financial Times editorial put it:

This is no simple arms deal. The trio presented it as a defence pact…which instantly drew condemnation from Beijing… The timing is certainly propitious for President Joe Biden, coming after the debacle of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. It signals Biden’s commitment to regional alliances to counter China… After all, this is what Biden expressly considers the primary geopolitical threat to US interests.52

The decision comes ahead of a meeting of the “Quad”, consisting of the US, India, Japan and Australia, reinvigorated by Biden in his effort to confront China. Socialists should oppose such moves, which bring closer a new cold war between China and the US.53

The Aukus deal does not just risk the ire of the US’s key rival but also upset France’s President Macron. Not only does it end a multibillion dollar deal in which Australia planned to buy 12 French diesel-powered submarines, but it represents a snub to EU leaders, who have been more equivocal than the US in confronting China. It will amplify talk in Europe about an independent EU military force and greater “strategic autonomy”. In reality, though, the European powers are aware of their ongoing dependence on US firepower in any major conflict—so the result is likely to be continued collaboration along with increasingly fractiousness.54

Recent events in Afghanistan are part of the closing of a chapter in the history of imperialism that began with 9/11. The next chapter will be no less dangerous, and the conflict between the US and China—the key faultline in the imperialist system—its key theme.

Joseph Choonara is the editor of International Socialism. He is the author of A Reader’s Guide to Marx’s Capital (Bookmarks, 2017) and Unravelling Capitalism: A Guide to Marxist Political Economy (2nd edition: Bookmarks, 2017).


1 Thanks to Richard Donnelly, Anne Alexander, Sheila McGregor, Phil Marfleet, Ken Olende and Gareth Jenkins for comments on earlier drafts.

2 Callinicos, 2002.

3 Ali, 2021.

4 These arguments draw on a series writings by Jonathan Neale and Nancy Lindisfarne—Neale, 1981, 2001, 2008; Lindisfarne and Neale, 2021.

5 Lee, 2018, pp469-471.

6 Neale, 2001, p33.

7 Neale, 1981, p9.

8 Neale, 1981, p13.

9 Harman, 2002, pp62-63.

10 Neale, 1981, p18.

11 Lee, 2018, pp599-600.

12 Neale, 1981, p23.

13 Roy, 1990, p172; Lee, 2018, p610.

14 Roy, 1990, p209.

15 Neale, 2001, p34.

16 Attempts to impose the burqa, the full covering sometimes associated with the Taliban, long pre-date their rule. It was also largely an urban phenomenon “since the poor cannot afford elaborately pleated and embroidered garment”. Widely shared 1970s photographs of mini-skirted women in Kabul were, even then, “representative only of a tiny minority of educated state employees and students”—Lee, 2018, p43.

17 Roy, 1990, pp30-53.

18 Harman, 2002.

19 Harman, 2002, pp16-24; Roy, 1990.

20 Harman, 2020, p16.

21 Harman, 2002, p57.

22 Roy, 1990, p69.

23 Lee, 2018, pp564-565.

24 Neale, 2001, p39; Barfield, 2010, pp236-237.

25 Barfield, 2010, pp244, 250. There were also Shia parties, which received support, in a more limited form, from Iran—Dorronsoro, 2005, pp139 and 146-147.

26 Neale, 2001, pp42-43; Harman, 2002, p65.

27 Neale, 2001, p44.

28 Harman, 2002, p68.

29 Metcalf, 2002.

30 Lee, 2018, pp631, 642-643.

31 Harman, 2002, p67.

32 Barfield, 2010, 270; Neale, 2008, pp48-49.

33 Giustozzi, 2019, p18.

34 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2021.

35 Giustozzi, 2019, pp25-26.

36 Cited in Human Rights Watch, 2008.

37 Giustozzi, 2019, p57. The expansion of poppy growing, to produce opiates, took off during the Soviet invasion. It was used to fund the mujahideen groups backed by the US and Pakistan, and has since become essential to the economy—Goodhand, 2005.

38 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2021.

39 Congressional Research Service, 2021; Philip and Mills, 2021.

40 Felbab-Brown, 2021; Rasmussen, 2016.

41 Giustozzi, 2019, p44.

42 Giustozzi, 2019, p195.

44 BBC, 2021.

45 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2021.

46 See Simon Gilbert’s article in this issue of International Socialism.

47 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2021. Khorasan was a region within the Umayyad Caliphate, which extended into present day Afghanistan. For a study of the ISKP’s origins and trajectory, see Giustozzi, 2018.

48 More generally, the rise of Islamism reflects the failure of “secular political movements based on nationalism and Soviet-influenced Communist”—Harman, 2002, p7.

49 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2021.

50 Pilkington, 2021.

51 See my discussion in the previous issue—Choonara, 2021.

52 Financial Times, 2021.

53 See the statement by the Solidarity group in Australia—Glanz, 2021.

54 Callinicos, 2021.


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