U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban, and Thoughts on Internationalism

A U.S. gunner looks out the rear cargo doors over the mountains of Afghanistan (Reuters)

Ending a nearly two-decade long presence, U.S. and NATO troops began their “final withdrawal” today from Afghanistan. Is this momentous shift to be celebrated, lamented—both, or neither?

In October 2001, four weeks after the attacks of September 11th, George W. Bush’s administration ordered the invasion of Afghanistan, following the ruling Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s (IEA, or Taliban) refusal to extradite the Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, the presumed material author of 9/11. A decade ago today, when special forces killed bin Laden in a nighttime raid on Abbotabad, Pakistan, there were 100,000 U.S. soldiers occupying Afghanistan, together with 40,000 from other countries. Since 2001, an estimated 71,000 Afghan and Pakistani civilians have been killed in the transnational war zone, whether by occupiers, allied national governments (Afghan/Pakistani), or the Taliban insurgency. Such statistics, of course, do not include casualties from the genocidal Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989); the subsequent Civil Wars (1989-1996); or Taliban rule (1996-2001), which was backed in turn by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). During occupation by the Red Army, an estimated two million Afghans died, and at least six million Afghans became refugees in Iran and Pakistan.

The murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (1958-2018), center with an RPG, reported on the mujahideen in the 1980’s

Though undoubtedly difficult throughout the past two decades, the war’s toll on civilians became especially acute during the Trump administration, which encouraged “relaxed” rules of engagement and an empowerment of local commanders overseeing indiscriminate aerial bombardment. In keeping with Trump’s expressed desire to “win Afghanistan in two days or three days or four days if we wanted,” civilian casualties at the hands of foreign air forces rose 330% between 2016 and 2019. Now, Biden consummates his predecessor’s planned withdrawal of the U.S. military, albeit on a less dramatic timetable: rather than be gone by today, as Trump had envisioned, the remaining 10,000 U.S.-NATO troops will have exited by September 11, 2021.

Interviewed last month on Democracy Now, the Afghan-American professor Zaher Wahab welcomed Biden’s decision to withdraw all remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan, declaring that the U.S. and its allies should “never have attacked and occupied Afghanistan [in the first place]. It was wrong. It was illegal. And I think it was immoral.” At the same time, Wahab distinguishes between the three dimensions of the conflict: domestic, regional, and global. Whereas the regional and global outlook for U.S. imperialism is potentially enhanced by this withdrawal (due to fewer expenditures and casualties, and the possibility of troop redeployment to more critical theaters, such as East Asia), Wahab believes that “leaving now would be highly irresponsible” for the domestic Afghan context: while the war “may end for the United States,” “war amongst the Afghans will definitely continue.” Indeed, the Taliban view this withdrawal as a victory. Considering the entrenched power of warlordism, corruption, and ethnic strife in the devastated country, together with the menace of the so-called Islamic Emirate reconquering all of Afghanistan within mere months, Wahab calls for immediate intervention by a “U.N. security force or peacekeeping force,” and the establishment of a trust fund for development.

The journalists Filippo Rossi and Emanuele Satolli, writing in Newlines Magazine, aptly observe that, “In their quest to end the war, Western powers, the Taliban, and Afghan government have so far excluded the population from discussions” about their future. In this light, for the cause of “lasting peace,” the voices of ordinary Afghans must be heard.

Many Afghan women themselves fear a return of the Taliban, in terms of threats to their right to education, bodily integrity, freedom of movement, and participation in government and society. Metra Mehran, from Feminine Perspectives Afghanistan, concurs with Wahab that, in the absence of concessions from the Taliban, an abrupt withdrawal “would not be responsible.” Raihana Azad, an Afghan member of Parliament, observes that women are the victims of men’s wars—and “of their peace, too.” Members of the mostly Shi’ite Hazara ethno-religious minority are especially anxious about a resurgent Taliban, having been brutalized under their rule and targeted numerous times since in grisly attacks. In the late nineteenth century, in his bid to bring the Hazarajat to heel, the Pashtun Emir Abdur Rahman Khan killed an estimated 60% of the Hazara population, possibly amounting a million people. Taliban rule, which similarly persecuted the ethnic minority as apostates, may have cost the lives of 20,000 Hazara. Indeed, twenty years ago, the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) cited the precedents of atrocities in Cambodia and Bosnia to call on the U.N. to deploy “large peace-keeping forces in Afghanistan” toward the end of defying fundamentalists and disarming all armed groups.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo poses with Taliban Political Deputy Mullah Beradar in Doha, Qatar

Commenting on the peace agreement negotiated between the Taliban and the Trump administration in Doha, Qatar, in February 2020, Zaman Sultany, from Amnesty International South Asia, insisted that

“Any peace process involving the parties to the conflict in Afghanistan must not ignore the voice of victims. It must not disregard their calls for justice, truth, and reparation for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious human rights violations and abuses – committed by all sides in the conflict. It must also guarantee the rights of women and girls and the rights of religious minorities in Afghanistan.

(Emphasis added)

Given that the treaty agreed to between Mike Pompeo and the Taliban excluded consideration of the woman question and the rights of ethno-religious minorities, and that emboldened ultra-misogynist elements have recently been wantonly murdering female journalists and a doctor in targeted killings in Jalalabad, we concur with the urgency of Sultany’s message, and agree with his demands, as with Wahab’s calls for U.N. peacekeepers and an alternative model of development. We would ask the militants of RAWA whether they still see an important place for international peacekeepers disarming the Taliban and the warlords in 2021.

Therefore, in a spirit of self-critique, we reject the reflexive and confused defense of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan we made last week out of fear of the Taliban, in the context of acute illness due to work-related stress. Whether Afghans want foreign troops to help defend against a Taliban takeover is a matter for them to decide. But critically, thinking of Bosnia, Syria, and even World War II, international intervention is not an option which must be dismissed out of hand as “imperialist,” especially when the alternative is fascism and genocide. We must not prioritize the regional and global implications of power politics, overlooking domestic dimensions. To this point, despite the U.S. boycott of the International Criminal Court, we strongly support the project of prosecuting U.S. soldiers and commanders for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Afghanistan and Iraq, just as we support international accountability for crimes perpetrated by Israeli, Syrian, Russian, Indian, Afghan, Burmese, and Chinese State officials (among others), together with the Taliban. We furthermore support the Hazaras Sitarah Mohammadi and Sajjad Askary’s call for Australia—and, by extension, the U.S., U.K., Russia, and other former occupiers—to resettle Afghan refugees, and welcome Afghan asylum seekers.

Afghan Sufi teacher Fahima Mirzaie uses song and dance to promote education. (Stefanie Glinski)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: