The ‘War on Terror’ was closed by the collapse of the Nato occupation in Afghanistan. But this is no time for complacency. Lindsey German surveys the new frontiers of imperialism and threats of war.
The ‘war on terror’, launched 20 years ago this month by George Bush, has come full circle. The defeat of the pro-US government in Afghanistan and the rapid takeover of Kabul put the Taliban back in control of the country. Two decades of US war and occupation, which scored early wins in overthrowing the then Taliban government, have failed in every sense. The country remained one of the poorest in the world, with few rights for most of its citizens, including women, and many of them dependent on the opium crop for their livelihoods.
At the same time, the aim of making the world safer from terrorism also failed. Terrorism has grown rapidly since 9/11, not least in occupied Iraq and Afghanistan where Islamic State has taken root. While the war’s supporters boast that no attacks on the west have originated in Afghanistan, they ignore that many subsequent attacks have cited western bombing and occupation as one of their motives.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan is a major defeat for US imperialism. It has forced the world’s major power to admit that it cannot win militarily, that it has not won the hearts and minds of many Afghans, and that its strategy of regime change under the guise of humanitarian intervention has failed. US President Joe Biden admitted as much in his speech following the withdrawal when he said: “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan – it’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”
“We should not assume that those promoting the war on terror will either admit their mistakes or pack up and go home.”
This is a humiliating blow for the US, and for arch supporter Tony Blair who was instrumental in promoting the idea of humanitarian intervention, following his Chicago speech during the Kosovo war in 1999.
However, we should not assume that those promoting the war on terror will either admit their mistakes or pack up and go home. The interests of western imperialism dictate that other means of waging war and other sources of great instability will continue.
There is firstly the question of the Middle East. The war on terror has destabilised the whole region. Iraq and Syria remain war-torn, Libya is in permanent war, the war in Yemen – which has high levels of British involvement – is one of the great humanitarian disasters of our time. The Palestine question becomes more acute, both because of the increasingly aggressive settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and the very high levels of unified fightback shown by the Palestinians against them.
Conflicts between states in the region have been played out in various countries, with Saudi Arabia and Israel on the one side confronting Iran in particular on the other. This was particularly clear over Syria where the war also brought in Russian imperialism on the side of Assad, and where a range of state actors including Turkey and Saudi Arabia were also involved in intervention. Western sanctions and attacks on the Iran nuclear deal are preparatory to greater conflict.
“The withdrawal from Afghanistan also opens up a new period of conflict in the Pacific. The Aukus deal signed recently by the US, UK and Australia is an escalation, tying Australia to US defence policy for a generation.”
Most obviously, however, the withdrawal from Afghanistan also opens up a new period of conflict in the Pacific. The Aukus deal signed recently by the US, UK and Australia is an escalation, tying Australia to US defence policy for a generation through a deal to develop nuclear powered submarines. Despite the announcement not mentioning China, it is clearly
designed to further raise the stakes in naval conflict in the South China Sea and wider Pacific. This emphasises the continuity between Trump and Biden over foreign policy evident already over Afghanistan. Biden is continuing Trump’s aggressive military race and sanctions and is cementing alliances, from India to Japan against China.
While it would be wrong to assume this means imminent war with China, or indeed even proxy wars in the region, we can assume that these moves, and the growing economic crisis we are seeing as the major economies try to recover from the worst of Covid19, lay the ground for the possibility of future wars. This is at the very least a new Cold War, with all the consequences for escalation, increasing arms spending and military manoeuvres, and possibilities of deadly accidents that entails.
Arguments about liberal and humanitarian intervention will resurface in these situations. They already are over China, citing its brutal treatment of the Uighurs and more generally lack of freedoms and human rights. It is important for those of us campaigning against these wars to stress that opposition to war does not mean support for any particular regime or politics. Our argument should be that these denials of rights are not a justification for war, and that every example of intervention on such grounds has done nothing to improve overall levels of rights and safety.
“The importance of British socialists opposing our own and allied imperialisms is crucial. It is an abdication by the left to downplay their role in relation to other imperialist or major powers. Our main enemy is at home and we have to oppose that enemy.”
There is an argument that both China and Russia are imperialist powers, albeit taking often different forms from US or British imperialism, and it is one that I agree with, although I recognise that many on the left do not. However, that does not mean that we regard the threat of war as an issue between major powers in which socialists have no interest in intervening.
The importance of British socialists opposing our own and allied imperialisms is crucial. It is an abdication by the left to downplay their role in relation to other imperialist or major powers. Our main enemy is at home and we have to oppose that enemy. The anti-war movement and opposition to the war on terror remains as important as ever. In Britain particularly we face a government which is prioritising military spending over health and education, has staged a provocation against China with the maiden voyage of the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, and which has signed up to Aukus in an attempt to project a ‘global Britain’ which harks back to the days of empire.
The anti-war movement has a major role to play in holding our government to account. We have been vindicated by the outcome of the war on terror but that can be no ground for satisfaction given the misery it has wrought on so many lives. We should demand that Afghan refugees are allowed into Britain and other NATO countries. Britain is a rich country and refugees should be allowed in without condition, and without being victims of the hostile environment that the Tories are enforcing. We should also insist that reparations are provided to help rebuild Afghanistan and to ensure that it does not remain one of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in the world.
Our main role however has to be to try to prevent future wars. We are organising against Aukus internationally and against the militarism and threats of war here. British imperialism and British capitalism may be in decline, but that can be a very dangerous time for us and we need to organise.
Lindsey German is Convenor of Stop the War Coalition.