11 July 2011. A World to Win News Service. The US has announced it will start withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan this month and hand over the country's security to the Afghan government by the end of 2014. What is the real nature of this "drawdown"? Does it reflect success or failure for the decade-long US-led occupation of Afghanistan? In order to understand this we have to examine the American plan and the situation of the war as a whole.
President Barack Obama announced a more detailed plan for the withdrawal on 22 June. He said that 5,000 US soldiers will be pulled out by the end of this summer, when this year's "fighting season" comes to end, and another 5,000 by the end of 2011. An additional 23,000 US forces are to leave in 2012.
The US has about 110,000 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, including those assigned to Nato (which has about 50,000 soldiers in addition to those under the US flag). Withdrawing 33,000 of them by the end of 2012 will still leave almost 80,000. There are also tens of thousands of employees of private security companies in Afghanistan that are not included in this plan.
Some other Nato countries such as France and the UK have followed the US in announcing the reduction of their own forces in Afghanistan. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that the UK will withdraw all its troops by 2015. However, when the details were released, it seems that the UK plans to pull out no more than 500 soldiers by the end of 2012, none of them combat forces. With 9,000 troops, the UK is the second-largest occupier after the US. Similarly, France, the third, says it will withdraw a quarter of its 4,000 soldiers by the end of 2012, but this actually postpones a planned earlier pullout.
The cost of the war that started 10 years ago has been a real burden on the imperialists, especially the US, which has recently been spending more than two billion dollars a week on the Afghan war. This will amounts to nearly 110 billion dollars a year. This has had negative effect on an economy that was already in trouble.
The Afghan war has gone through ebb and flows in the last decade. Despite their huge military advantages, the imperialists have suffered humiliating set-backs, first when their inability to deal with the situation as they had originally planned compelled the US to more than triple its forces to today's levels, and now in the increasingly public admissions from Washington and elsewhere that military victory is impossible unless the Taliban can be brought to negotiate.
Even if the invaders stick to their plan for the next year and a half, they will simply be withdrawing the forces that Obama ordered to Afghanistan in 2009. The withdrawals announced for the next 18 months would still leave the US with more than twice as many troops occupying the country as when Obama took office. The announcement that security control of Afghanistan will supposedly be handed over to Afghan forces doesn’t mean that the US will all leave Afghanistan. Although rarely mentioned, there have been well-informed reports that the US hopes "to keep upward of 25,000 American forces in Afghanistan” indefinitely, even after 2014. (The New York Times, 22 June)
This is not far from the number of invaders that first occupied all of Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban in 2001. According to this source, the US plans to keep permanent, strategic military bases in Afghanistan. They would be tasked with securing American global interests in the region, including by threatening Pakistan and if need be carrying out military action in that country.
Why the US has decided to reduce its forces at this point
The drawdown seems to represent a recognition of necessity by US imperialism, even though there are some differences within the American ruling class about the pace. The US is trying to change its war strategy and tactics in Afghanistan in order to make them more efficient and better correspond with the US's overall present situation in the region and world.
A war that was meant to increase and consolidate the global superiority of US imperialism could have the opposite effect and even has the potential to endanger America's present position if continued in the same way.
One aspect of this is the economic burden, although this doesn't seem to be the main aspect. As Obama confessed in his speech, "Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war at a time of rising debt and hard economic times."
Opposition to the war in Afghanistan is growing all over the world as well as in the US. At the same time and more importantly for US imperialism, there is a growing frustration within the American ruling class regarding the lack of success in Afghanistan.
A fear of being bogged down in Afghanistan for a long time and with little positive result for the empire is growing within the ruling class. While the spectre of Vietnam war still is most present in the minds of the US ruling class, it also cannot ignore the Soviet experience in Afghanistan.
Concentrating such a massive force in one place, with the expenses associated with that, could reduce the manoeuvrability of the US in an especially turbulent world. That is something that the US cannot afford at the present time.
Not only did the US totally fail to keep any of the promises of liberation that it made to the Afghan people at the time of the invasion, it even failed to meet its own declared war aims. It was unable to build a solid state, or reconstruct the economy of Afghanistan in accordance with its own needs and interests.
In another words, the US clearly failed in "reconstructing" a country that it had totally destroyed over the previous four decades, starting when the US backed jihadi forces in the war against the Soviet occupation, continuing with the civil war between warlords after the Soviet withdrawal and the Taliban's coming to power with US approval, and then the 2001 bombardment and invasion and the installation of the government led by Hamid Karzai, whom the US and its allies had picked out as their man to lead a motley mix of pro-US jihadist forces.
The occupiers have come up with a state, government and president that some observers believe will collapse as soon as the US and Nato forces pull out.
As the International Crisis Group report of 20 November 2010 said, "Nearly a decade after the U.S. engagement began, Afghanistan operates as a complex system of multi-layered fiefdoms in which insurgents control parallel justice and security organs in many if not most rural areas, while Kabul’s kleptocratic elites control the engines of graft and international contracts countrywide. The inflow of billions in international funds has cemented the linkages between corrupt members of the Afghan government and violent local commanders – insurgent and criminal, alike."
The "reconstruction" of Afghanistan's economy comprises little more than the destructive "aid" from the imperialist countries through government agencies and NGOs, on the one hand, and on the other the opium cultivation and drug production that procures foreign currency for the country's domestic rulers.
"Nearly a decade after the US-led military intervention began, little has been done to challenge the perverse incentives of continued conflict in Afghanistan. Insecurity and the inflow of billions of dollars in international assistance has failed to significantly strengthen the state's capacity to provide security or basic services and has instead, by progressively fusing the interests of political gatekeepers and insurgent commanders, provided new opportunities for criminals and insurgents to expand their influence inside the government. The economy as a result is increasingly dominated by a criminal oligarchy of politically connected businessmen." (ICG, Asia Report No. 207, 27 June 2011)
Another ICG report on Afghanistan shows that despite their emphasis on building an Afghan army, the US and Nato have not been successful. They might have an army of 300,000 men by the end of this year, its quality reflects the mess that the invaders have created in Afghanistan. As this ICG report put it:
"Persistent structural flaws meanwhile have undermined the military's ability to operate independently. Ethnic frictions and political factionalism among high-level players in the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the general staff have also stunted the army's growth. As a result, the army is a fragmented force, serving disparate interests, and far from attaining the unified national character needed to confront numerous security threats.
"The lack of consensus between Kabul, Washington and Brussels has hobbled the Afghan military's capacity to respond effectively to threats confronting the state. Failure to develop a sustainable, comprehensive long-term defence posture could risk the army's disintegration after the withdrawal of international forces.” (ICG report no. 190, 12 May 2010)
All this shows that the US has realized that it cannot meet the goals that it had set at the time of the invasion, for the creation of an Afghan puppet state and economic and social reform of the kind that could make American domination sustainable in the long run. Now Obama has publicly dropped some of those goals.
But the Obama government is very clear that it will not stop waging the war against the Taliban that the US still seeks to win by a combination of military and political means. It argues that what's needed is a switch in emphasis away from the use of massive numbers of occupation troops to hold ground and instead concentrating more on what it believes have been shown to be more efficient and effective tactics: spy networks, commando operations, and drone strikes to assassinate Taliban activists and leaders who are said to have been forced to move their bases into Pakistan. Obama's authorities point to the killing of Bin Laden in a compound in Abbotabad in Pakistan, as an example of how this war could be waged.
According to a report "The official made clear that the administration's primary focus now was a much larger, and more dangerous, presence of insurgents remaining in Pakistan." (NYT, 22 June)
In his speech, Obama indicated his preference for more focused covert operations of the kind that the US is conducting in Pakistan. "When threatened, we must respond with force… But when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas."
In other words, Obama is arguing that this is a better way to continue the war and especially to maintain US domination in Afghanistan and the region, not to end it.
In line with this, the US counting on being able to integrate an important section of the Taliban and other Islamic opposition forces into the Afghan government. The US recently officially admitted that it seeks negotiations with the Taliban and has had initial talks with them. However, some Taliban elements have already been integrated into various governmental institutions. There have been innumerable official moves by the Karzai government to please the fundamentalists, in particular by denying women's rights and maintaining other backward relations. After all, what the US is looking for in Afghanistan is not a fundamentally different world than what the Taliban are seeking, so it is not impossible for a reconciliation to take place. This issue requires a separate and more thorough examination in a future article.
So considering all the problems that the US has encountered in its drive to secure control over Afghanistan and the whole region, it has had to change its strategy and especially tactics. Some of the most important aspects of this new approach can be summarised as follows:
1) Drawdown of its forces gradually over the next three years. 2) Building permanent bases in Afghanistan and keeping around 25,000 soldiers for an indefinite period after 2014. 3) Relying on Afghan soldiers in the forefront of the war to secure the interests of US imperialism in the country and region. 4) Turning more to the assassination of activists and leaders of the opposition groups and using more drone strikes in Pakistan, while still keeping lots of "boots on the ground".
This means that the US war in Afghanistan is far from over. It will continue, even if in different ways and in accord with a changing situation. Whether or not it is successful in forcing the Taliban to enter a US-backed government – and both sides are fighting more fiercely than ever to seize a military advantageous situation from which to negotiate – the US will do its best to keep the country politically, militarily and economically at the mercy of imperialism.
Not only will the war will go on, there is no sign that the US will leave the region in the near future. Instead, it will continue to pursue regional domination in pursuit of its global interests.
Nevertheless the situation has brought to the surface some of the weaknesses and frustrations facing US imperialism.