Editorial: War in Afghanistan

There are a number of lessons to be drawn from the war in Afghanistan. In the first place, it confirms the overwhelming military and technological superiority of the United States. Of course the result of America deploying its high-tech weaponry against one of the poorest countries in the world was hardly in doubt. But the Afghan operation has also demonstrated once again that the US is the only power in the world today capable of conducting such a war essentially with its own resources. The very modest British contribution to the war had a symbolic value, a concretisation of Blair's political solidarity with Washington. Militarily, it was quite irrelevant.

But the outcome of the war so far also underlines the disproportion between America's military and political power. Washington cannot simply impose its will. America's war aims, apart from catching Osama bin Laden dead or alive, were to replace the Taliban regime with a suitable alternative and to strengthen US imperialism's political and military presence in Central Asia. What is euphemistically called the "search for a political solution" has evidently nothing to do with helping the Afghan people determine their own destiny. It is about installing a government that would be sufficiently pliable and assure enough stability to let the oil and gas of the Caspian region transit via Afghanistan. That is what the Taliban regime was supposed to do when Washington authorised Pakistan to put it in power five years ago. Washington's plans also involve a permanent military presence of the US and its allies in Afghanistan, suitably endorsed by the UN, which would make the country a protectorate along the lines of Bosnia and Kosovo.

However, America is far from having achieved its aims. In the first place, with the defeat of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan is rapidly reverting to a patchwork of warlord fiefdoms, of which the Talibans themselves will now be one element. There is little sign of a stable government emerging. Secondly, even the force that America used against the Talibans, the Northern Alliance, is proving reticent about the long-term presence of foreign troops. And just as Washington had to painstakingly put together a 'coalition against terrorism' to legitimate its intervention in Afghanistan, it now has to take into account the special interests of Afghanistan's neighbours, such as Iran, Russia and Pakistan. In particular, the Pakistani regime, having been forced to abandon its Taliban allies, is seeking desperately to retain some influence on post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Another lesson of the Afghan events is that if Islamic fundamentalism is not exactly a paper tiger, it is not quite as invincible as some superficial observers have tended to think, certainly in Afghanistan. The population of Kabul may not be enthusiastic about the Northern Alliance but the relief at the departure of the Talibans appears to have been unfeigned. The Talibans had little or no real social base. Their victory was above all a product of Pakistani support and disillusionment with the quarrelling mudjaheedin, who during the four years they held Kabul from 1992 to 1996 killed 50,000 of its inhabitants and destroyed much of the city. In Pakistan also, the government of Musharaf has been faced with widespread opposition to its support for the war, but the pro-Taliban fundamentalists have only very partially succeeded in canalising it.

In the West the building of an antiwar movement has confronted socialists with a problem that is now becoming familiar. In the past American power was usually used against forces that were actually opposed to capitalism and imperialism. Whether or not they politically supported their leaderships, socialists were on the side of revolutionary movements in the Third World against imperialism. But in the three major conflicts of the last decade, the Gulf War, the Balkans War and Afghanistan, as well as some minor conflicts, we have seen imperialism confront enemies who have nothing progressive about them, and who although they have come into conflict with imperialism, cannot be characterised as anti-imperialist, though they sometimes pretend to be. In fact, Saddam Hussein, Milosevic, Osama bin Laden and the Talibans were all people who were previously used by the imperialists: Saddam Hussein against Iran in the 1980s, Milosevic to impose the Dayton accords on the Bosnian Serbs, Osama bin Laden against the Soviets, the Talibans in an attempt to get an oil pipeline through Afghanistan. In the case of the Talibans we are dealing with a very recent period. Both the Clinton administration, and from February to the beginning of August this year, the Bush administration, conducted serious negotiations with the Talibans, promising recognition and financial aid if they agreed to hand over bin Laden and allow the contruction of a pipeline across Afghanistan. So much for the high moral tone of the recent denunciations of Taliban totalitarianism and the newly-found concern for the rights of Afghan women. Not to mention that when it comes to democracy and women's rights most of Washington's new friends in Afghanistan are little better than the Talibans.

In spite of the unsavoury nature of the regimes in question it is still necessary for socialists in the imperialist centres to oppose imperialism's wars. These wars are not conducted in defence of Kurds, Kuwaitis, Kosovars or Afghan women. They are conducted in order to assert authority and extend influence. They do not solve any of the problems of the country they attack or invade. We are about to see a magisterial demonstration of that in Afghanistan. Death and destruction are wreaked on ordinary Iraqis, Serbs or Afghans who are paying for the fact that the thieves who govern them have fallen foul of even bigger thieves.

In a speech to US troops in Kentucky on November 21, George W Bush declared : "Afghanistan is just the beginning of the war against terror", adding that "there are other nations who will not be secure until their threat is dealt with". Iraq is increasingly spoken of as a next possible target, which may cause more problems with Bush's European allies than Afghanistan has done. But we should not rely on inter-imperialist contradictions to prevent the 'war against terrorism' spreading. Socialists must build a mass movement against imperialist war at the same time as we fight the system that made the 20th century the most violent in human history and is continuing to drag the world towards barbarism.