America’s bungled withdrawal after twenty years of catastrophic intervention in Afghanistan has focused attention on their long history of destabilisation in all parts of the world, and especially their recent adventures in the Middle East. It has also highlighted rumbling questions about their future role in Iraq and Syria.
In 1941, in an editorial that has echoed down the decades, Life Magazine called on the United States of America to prepare itself for global leadership and ‘accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world’. The article declared that ‘The 20th Century is the American Century’, and the claim was updated in the Neocon ‘Project for the New American Century’ in 1996. The stance of the 1941 article is very much that of taking up the ‘white man’s burden’, and the darkness coming down on Afghanistan is only the latest example of the nightmares brought on by a long tradition of capitalist imperialism.
Twenty years after the Life Magazine editorial, President Eisenhower gave his farewell speech to the nation, which included this prescient warning: ‘This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience… In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.’ In all the disasters that US imperialism has brought to the world, the military industrial complex has provided a consistent drive for military expansion and armed intervention, and the military industrial complex has also been a constant winner.
During the cold war, military development was targeted against the Eastern Bloc, but in 1987, diplomat and historian George F Kennan observed, “Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military–industrial complex would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy.”
In a 1992 lecture, later developed into a book, Samuel P Huntington argued that ‘The dangerous clashes of the future are likely to arise from the interaction of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance, and Sinic assertiveness.’ – what he called the ‘clash of civilisations’ – and that peace would only be possible through acceptance and preservation of these geographically distinct cultural divisions. This simplistic, but nevertheless influential, thesis, conveniently lets off the hook all political and economic drivers of conflict; and – crucially – it supplies new adversaries to fuel the military industrial complex, with the Red Scare being replaced by the War on Terror. Huntingdon’s thesis also fed into the myths being created by groups such as Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS, helping them recruit an international following.
Geopolitical chaos is not, of course, solely the product of the United States. There are other competing imperialist powers, both world powers and more local ones. The Kurdish regions are also prey to the competing ambitions of Russia, Turkey and Iran. However, the US has not only been the most powerful nation in the world, it has also – along with its western allies – been responsible for preventing the emergence of a progressive alternative to the destructive logic of capitalist imperialism. Socialism has always been America’s arch enemy and the US has made every effort to snuff out its development. With hopes of a better world under constant attack, it is not surprising that people have fallen back on the deceptions of right-wing populists or looked for security in religious movements with their promises of hope beyond the grave. To compound this, the US has supported all sorts of organisations that shared their antagonism to socialism, regardless of their position on the freedoms that Americans purport to hold dear. They have backed oppressive regimes and reactionary opposition movements and promoted the growth of brutal secret state networks.
In an interview with Al-Monitor, journalist Shelly Kittleson notes that the retreat of the US will boost all extreme Islamist groups and act as a ‘tool for further recruitment’. The Taliban’s victory was celebrated by other Islamist organisations, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib Both Al-Qaeda and Islamic State are present in Afghanistan itself, and the former still have close relations with the Taliban, though relations between the Taliban and the Islamic State have historically been more difficult. Since their earlier taste of power in the 1990s, the Taliban has learnt the importance of tactical diplomacy, and Kittleson stresses that they have moved on from their former brutal hostility towards Shia Muslims and have been building closer relations with Iran. Iran News Wire reports that Iranian state television has claimed that the Taliban treat people well, and that state media has been told not to use words such as ‘brutality’ in their reporting of the Taliban.
The Taliban’s rapid take over has led other countries to reassess their relationship with the extremist group now controlling this strategic country rich in natural resources. Each is looking to maximise their own advantage, and any worries are largely focussed on the risk of instability spilling over the border to affect their regional allies or to radicalise elements of their own population. China is ready to extend its economic imperialism and has announced that they are ‘willing to continue to develop… friendly and cooperative relations with Afghanistan’. The Russian embassy in Kabul remains open and a representative had met with the Taliban within two days of the takeover. The EU is ready to talk with the Taliban, with Josep Borrell admitting that hopes to use their leverage to ensure respect of human rights ‘looks a little bit wishful thinking’. A driving fear for the EU is the possibility of a mass exodus of Afghan refugees seeking to come to Europe. While the United States scrambles to evacuate American citizens in scenes reminiscent of Vietnam, their diplomats continue to talk with the Taliban, as they have for the last year.
The contrast with the way representatives of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria have been systematically excluded from all international discussions on Syria’s future is striking. The Autonomous Administration has brought peace and democracy to a third of Syria, but is not given international recognition and can’t even receive international aid. The hypocrisy is especially evident when we look at how women’s rights were used as a pretext for America’s Afghan invasion. Like the Taliban, the reactionary deeply misogynist groups supported by Turkey are invited to negotiations, while the people who put women’s rights at the centre of their political ideology and practice are shut out.
Turkey has been positioning itself as a power broker, able to work with both Islamist groups and the big imperialists. Control of Kabul International Airport may no longer be in the gift of the Americans, but that hasn’t stopped Turkish ambitions to play a pivotal role. And the Taliban are ready to welcome cooperation with their ‘Turkish brothers’. A Taliban spokesperson has claimed that they ‘need Turkey’s friendship, support and cooperation the most’, and that they want to ‘cooperate with Turkey in the areas of health, education, economy, construction and energy, as well as the processing of underground resources.’ (The main preoccupation of Turkey’s mainstream opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) during all this appears to be calling for the exclusion of Afghan refugees, and winning popular support for doing so.)
Events in Afghanistan have only increased worries about what will happen as the US reduces its presence in both Iraq and Syria; especially as the region does not appear to be a major priority for a US administration that is focussed on competition with China. As we have seen, despite all the problems the Americans have brought, an ill-conceived withdrawal can make the situation even worse.
The US-led invasion of Iraq has produced a corrupt unstable state where both Iranian-linked (and officially recognised) Popular Mobilisation Units and the Turkish military vie for greater influence and power, and ISIS groups exploit the cracks between different security forces. Mass anti-government protests in Bagdad in 2019 were supressed with live bullets and did not manage to coalesce into a coordinated opposition force. Tensions between the federal government in Bagdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Hewlêr (Erbil) reached a peak after the Kurdistan Region’s referendum for full independence in 2017, and debilitating disagreements between Bagdad and Hewlêr continue over the ‘Disputed Territories’ and over the division of tax and oil revenues.
In 2008, the US agreed a planned withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq, but with the emergence of ISIS they were brought back. There are still some 2,500 US troops remaining in the country. These are largely focussed on training and assisting Iraqi forces, including Kurdish peshmerga, and although it has been agreed that any remaining US combat troops will be gone by the end of the year, those involved in these supporting roles will remain.
There is no love lost between the US and the pro-Iranian factions. Militias have attacked US facilities in Iraq, and the US assassination of Qassim Soleimani, who coordinated Iran’s extraterritorial activity, took the antagonism to a new level. But when it comes to a NATO ally, Turkey, the Americans remain uncritically supportive of aggressive Turkish military expansion in the mountains of north Iraq, where the PKK have their bases.
Another destabilising US legacy is last October’s Sinjar Agreement, which they have promoted with the support of the United Nations and the enthusiastic backing of Turkey. This allows for the Yazidi area of Șengal, or Sinjar, to be jointly run by Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government, which is dominated by the Turkey-friendly Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). These were the governments that abandoned the Yazidis to ISIS genocide in 2014. Yazidi survivors, who were rescued by the PKK and the Kurdish YPG/YPJ from Rojava, were helped by their rescuers to create their own autonomous self-government and self-defence forces – but the Sinjar Agreement gives them no say in their future and instead demands the dismantling of what they have built up.
Turkey has attempted to impose its will on the region with air attacks. On Monday, while the world’s eyes were on Afghanistan, a Turkish air strike targeted a delegation from the Democratic Autonomous Council of Sinjar who were driving to meet representatives of the Iraqi government, killing two and wounding three more. One of those killed was Seîd Hesen, a leading representative of the Yazidi people who had played an important role in building both the self defence forces and the democratic self-organisation, and in making links between different ethnic communities.
The next day, Turkey bombarded a hospital, killing four health workers and four members of the self defence force who were there to guard it against ISIS attacks. There were many casualties because people who rushed to rescue the wounded after the first strike were targeted by three further attacks. The hospital had been created and run by the local self-administration and, in the five years since its foundation, had treated thousands of people, both civilians and self-defence fighters.
The Autonomous Council has called for an international investigation into the attacks and a clear stance against Turkish war crimes. They also call for support for the Yazidis’ right to govern and defend themselves and for condemnation of the Sinjar Agreement. Neither Iraq nor the KDP have done anything to protect the Yazidis from such attacks. Iraqi air space is still effectively controlled by the US.
The Iranian-backed militias were able to gain a foothold in Iraq due to the US intervention, but minority groups now fear that, in the current circumstances, any further US withdrawal will allow more space for these militias to increase their dominance. And, while their disastrous record of fuelling further conflict should generally make the US army a far from welcome guest, as Al-Monitor observes, ‘The presence of some 900 US troops in Syria depends on the US troop presence in northern Iraq.’
North and East Syria is a rare example of a place where US intervention was welcomed and where it has generally been to the benefit of progressive forces, who would otherwise have been wiped out; although, as noted, the alliance has been strictly tactical, with the US ready to see thousands of Syrian Defence Force (SDF) fighters die to save the world from ISIS, but not prepared to give them official recognition or support their demands for a role in their own future. The ultimate aim must still be the departure of all foreign forces, but until there is a political agreement on Syria’s future, American troops prevent Turkey from continuing the invasion that followed Donald Trump’s sudden troop withdrawal in 2019.
Even so, they haven’t prevented Turkey from carrying out consistent attacks on North and East Syria; and Russia, which is supposed to guarantee the ceasefire, doesn’t intervene. Russia has its own deals with Turkey, and they are content to see the Autonomous Administration put under pressure. This week, at least fifty shells hit the town of Zirgan and its surroundings, killing a woman and a child and injuring around fifteen others. Bombardments continued on villages in the Northern Aleppo countryside (where many of the refugees from Afrin are living), in the northern countryside of Manbij, and around Tel Tamer; and a drone attack on the communication centre of Tel Tamer Military Council killed four members of the SDF.
It was also revealed that Turkey’s restriction of the water flowing in the Euphrates has contributed to a drop in North and East Syria’s wheat production of over two thirds.
Despite the rhetorical of the War on Terror, and its use to justify two decades of war, Turkey has been able to maintain its cosy relationship with ISIS without rousing their NATO allies. The treatment of ISIS members by Turkey’s courts is just another example of this. Fehim Taştekin comments in Al-Monitor; ‘That IS militants could easily find safe harbor in Turkey is not a secret, but the fact that suspects supposed to stand trial for grave crimes such as abduction, enslavement and maltreatment could walk free under judicial control is not merely a legal scandal but a sign that the suspects are shown leniency and favor.’
Yet again, we see how international action is driven by political and economic self-interest. Even the War on Terror is used selectively. To the people in charge, the real threat is not clashing ‘civilisations’ but those who promote a fairer system that would undermine their legitimacy and power. This is the world created by imperialism, and if we want to change it, we first have to understand what is happening.