Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2770

Dangerous wounded beasts—the failures of imperialism

This article is over 2 years, 5 months old
Nick Clark looks at the US and Britain's huge defeats in Afghanistan
Issue 2770
Joe Biden and Boris Johnson are left cleaning up their own messes after a 20 year war
Joe Biden and Boris Johnson are left cleaning up their own messes after a 20 year war

Evidence of just how complete the US’s defeat was in Afghanistan is painted all over its final withdrawal from Kabul.

There was the bombing at Kabul airport, killing several US soldiers in an apparent attempt to pressure them to leave before the Taliban’s deadline.

There’s the fact that the US—and so no other military in the occupying forces—wanted to defy the Taliban’s deadline in the first place.

And there’s the US’s reliance on Taliban fighters—not only to protect it from Islamic State attacks, but to shut refugees out of the airport.

It’s another echo of the US’s defeat in Iraq.

That was also a war launched two decades ago in a bid to reassert the US’s dominance across the globe and begin a “second American century.” But as in Afghanistan, the US was forced to ­withdraw by resistance made up of some of the poorest victims of its invasion.

There too, the US had to rely on one of its enemies to try and get to grips with the chaos left in its wake.


Unable to reinvade in 2014, the US left it to ­Iranian-backed militias to fight Islamic State—one product of Iraq’s destroyed society.

Just as the US’s defeat in Iraq allowed Iran to grow as a challenge to its dominance, its defeat in Afghanistan has given openings to China.

China is the greatest threat to the US’s global dominance as an economic and military power. Its share of global GDP—the value of all goods and services produced in the world—is already higher than the US’s. And it has spent the past decades developing trade deals and alliances in countries around the world—along with huge infrastructure projects to support them.

That’s why US president Joe Biden has called China the US’s “top challenge”, and is fixated on corralling the West into confronting it.

Taliban officials have held meetings with Chinese diplomats and politicians, including one last week with China’s foreign minister Wang Yi. China also apparently hopes to build further trade links with Afghanistan.

So the retreat in Afghanistan ­represents the culmination of a historic defeat two decades in the making—and for which Biden could shoulder lasting political damage.

Yet despite all this, Biden and the rest of the ruling class in the US seemed ready to accept the loss. The ­withdrawal was a conscious decision to give up on Afghanistan.

US secretary of state Anthony Blinken even seemed to welcome China’s relationship with the Taliban as something that could keep a lid on Central Asia.

“Neighbouring countries of Afghanistan have an interest in the region,” he said. “But no one has an ­interest in the region falling into an enduring civil war or the hands of the Taliban. If China and other countries are working on that interest, then it’s a ­positive thing.”

On one level, that’s another sign of the US’s weakness. It has to rely on its greatest rival to keep control of Afghanistan and Central Asia.

What does Afghan defeat mean for US imperialism?
What does Afghan defeat mean for US imperialism?
  Read More

But at the same time, it shows Biden thinks he’s got something he wanted out of the withdrawal—for Afghanistan to stop being the US’s problem.

Some ten years ago, the US’s previous Democratic president Barak Obama also tried to scale down the US’s occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, he wanted to begin a “pivot to Asia.”

This meant not only new trade deals with allies in the Pacific to beat China, but also to build up the US’s military forces there. He was held back by his ­failures to stop the resistance ­movements in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Donald Trump wanted to do the same. He was the one who announced the US’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Now Biden has actually done it and insists he won’t be dragged back—not even by Islamic State. He made sure to say the US would “get” Islamic State leaders for last week’s bombing “without large military operations.”

Biden might not be so worried about China’s links with the Taliban either. The Chinese government’s adviser, professor and Central Asia expert Zhu Yongbiao, says China wants to take advantage of the US’s defeat in Afghanistan.

But he also says China doesn’t have much to gain economically in Afghanistan, while its rulers are worried about growing US military forces in the Pacific.

The US still has by far the most powerful military in the world. Biden and the US’s allies will rely on that strength more than ever. They’re already talking up the threat of a Chinese invasion of the island of Taiwan in the South China Sea.

This just so happens to be a major shipping channel that China relies on. Now Biden wants to make it the new focus for US imperialism.

Tory MP admits worst British crisis ‘since Suez’

The defeat in Afghanistan is even more devastating for Britain than it is for the US.

Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, a former soldier who chairs parliament’s foreign affairs select committee, called it Britain’s “worst foreign policy failure since the Suez crisis of 1956.”

This was a defining moment in the collapse of the British Empire. Egypt’s president Gamal Abdul Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal—a hugely important shipping channel effectively controlled by Britain, key to its dominance in the Middle East.

Britain invaded Egypt, along with France, and without the knowledge of the US. US president Dwight Eisenhower was outraged, and feared the outcome of the invasion would threaten its own interests in the Middle East.

It intervened in the United Nations (UN) to demand Britain and France withdraw. It was a humiliation for Britain’s rulers, and the moment they realised they could never act independently of the US again.

Since then, Britain tried to build itself a “special relationship” as the US’s junior partner. British governments thought this relationship would give it influence with the European Union (EU), and that its standing in the EU would give it influence with the US.

It was backed up by massive military spending in the hope that this would give Britain special status as a military power.

Tony Blair relied on this, as much of the evidence submitted to the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war revealed.

Britain had bloody role in war on Afghanistan
Britain had bloody role in war on Afghanistan
  Read More

He sold himself to George Bush as someone who could win support for the war among the EU. He would present Britain to the EU and the UN as a moderating influence, all the while arguing the case for invasion.

Instead, the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan were another humiliation for Britain. Its military was defeated by resistance in Basra in Iraq, and Helmand in Afghanistan.

Now the US’s withdrawal exposes just how little influence Britain really has left.

Biden pushed ahead with retreating from Afghanistan, even as many European states wanted to continue the occupation seemingly indefinitely. He ignored them all, including Britain.

German chancellor Angela Merkel said no European country had the power to act independently of the US. Britain’s supposedly close relationship with the US couldn’t convince the US to stay.

The idea that Britain has influence as a bridge between the EU and the US has been shattered. The fact that many of the people pining after permanent war in Afghanistan wail about Britain’s lost influence after Brexit is one reason to celebrate leaving the EU.

A major foreign policy document published by Britain in March said that, after Brexit, Britain’s close support for the US against China would give it special influence.

But now, though Britain clearly depends totally on the US, it has no real influence at all. For everyone who hates Britain’s blood soaked history as an imperial power, that can only be a good thing.

Myth of Blair’s ‘good wars’— the origins of ‘humanitarian intervention’

Wars rarely start with governments admitting that bloodthirst and greed drive them to battle.

Instead, far more laudable aims are proclaimed.

More than 100 years ago, Britain entered the First World War ostensibly to defend “gallant little Belgium” from German aggressors. Meanwhile, Germany said it was fighting the war to end Russian oppression of Poland.

In fact, both were fighting for imperial power.

The ruling class tradition of finding “atrocities” in selected foreign countries which demand a military response has since been repeated over and over.

But in the wake of the Vietnam War something changed.

That war had, by 1973, ended in a huge defeat for US imperialism. This was brought about by the combination of Vietnamese liberation fighters and a powerful anti-war movement in America itself.


The generation of people who lived through that era were far less likely to be taken in by the slew of misinformation and propaganda, such as that which had been used in the late 1960s.

The establishment needed a new strategy to promote war—and the man to deliver it was Tony Blair.

Blair talked of ending global poverty, healing great injustices, and cutting support to despotic regimes.

But he also insisted that it would be necessary to take “tough” action against states which flouted the authority of the West.

This, he said, would be done for the benefit of suffering people, rather than any big power politics.

The Balkan War of 1999 was an early test of what Blair said was “a war for values” waged for humanitarian purposes.

Blair and US president Bill Clinton unleashed waves of Nato bombing against Serbia after its leader, Slobodan Milosevic launched a programme of expansion into neighbouring Kosovo.

Bombs fell nightly on Belgrade and destroyed hospitals, schools, monuments and bridges. Even the Chinese embassy was hit.

By attacking one side in a many sided civil war, Nato triggered waves of ethnic cleansing.

Ultimately, the US, the European Union and Russia carved up the whole territory on sectarian lines, and handed the resulting ethnic parcels of land over to gangsters to run. Such naked imperialism should have provoked a howl of outrage from the whole left.

But a section of its intellectuals and commentators peeled away to embrace the bombing.

This pro-war group espoused the philosophy of “good wars”. They invoked the moral superiority of the West when faced with the dictatorship, and even “fascism”, of Milosevic and his Yugoslavian army.

Five crucial questions about end of Afghanistan occupation
Five crucial questions about end of Afghanistan occupation
  Read More

But their targets were selective. Vicious dictators backed by West were never in their sights, neither were the West’s own history of war crimes.

Crucially, this group served as a “radical” veneer for Blair’s imperial project.

Less than a year later, the same process began again—this time with British military intervention in Sierra Leone in west Africa. And, again a selection of one-time radicals turned out to cheer.

The atrocities in Sierra Leone’s civil war real. But they were used by Britain as an excuse to show off military power—and to satisfy the multinational mining corporations.

Even the pro-intervention International Crisis Group admitted the British invasion had failed to produce a state “that will be stable and capable of exercising the full range of sovereign responsibilities on behalf of its long-suffering population”.

Soon after the “successful” mission, malnutrition and disease ravaged the country in ways that were every bit as terrible as the civil war.

But by then the pro-war left had moved on. They never saw critiquing the system that stood behind conflict and poverty as part of their remit.

Nevertheless, the stage was set for the group to play its greatest role so far—in defence of the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.

They insisted the war, though motivated by revenge for the 9/11 attacks in the US, could help spread “liberty and democracy”.

Though that sham has now been thoroughly exposed, don’t expect to hear many apologies.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Related News

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance