In Kabul this week, there were scenes of chaos and tragedy, as ordinary Afghans attempted to flee the country and the dire prospect of Taliban rule.
In the House of Commons yesterday, meanwhile, there were scenes of chaos and farce, as MPs returned from their summer recess to debate the government’s response to the rapidly unfolding events in Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson floundered and bumbled as he faced an onslaught of attacks from all sides. The most vicious and wounding criticisms, however, came not from the opposition benches, but from behind the Tory leader.
Conservative MPs piled in to lambast Johnson and his cabinet for their failure to react with sufficient urgency and decisiveness as Taliban insurgents swept across the country and into Kabul.
Above all, the feeling amongst Tory backbenchers was one of dismay and betrayal. Brexit-loving MPs had been promised a ‘Global Britain’; a triumphant return of British imperialism to the world stage, complete with increased military spending and international leadership on the key issues of the day.
Instead, the Taliban takeover and Western withdrawal from Afghanistan have stripped Emperor Johnson of his new clothes, revealing the nakedness of British imperialism for all to see.
This truth pains the Tories most of all. The Conservative Party – particularly its hard-Brexit, petit-bourgeois, nationalist wing – lives in the past; in a deluded Rule Britannia fantasy, fuelled by jingoism and flag-waving. But suddenly the cold reality of post-Brexit Britain’s importance and stature has hit, causing alarm and panic amongst Tory MPs.
Yesterday’s stream of sharp rebukes in Parliament was a collective grievance by the Tories towards the death of their nostalgic dreams and imperial ambitions.
One after another, Conservative MPs lined up to criticise their leader: ridiculing Johnson’s suggestion that Britain had “succeeded” in its “core mission” in Afghanistan; and demanding an explanation for how the UK – and its key ally, the world’s pre-eminent war machine, US imperialism – had been so badly humiliated by a ragtag gang of insurgents.
Philip Hammond, a former defence secretary, foreign secretary, and chancellor, asserted that there had been a “catastrophic failure of western policy”. Ex-minister Iain Duncan Smith (IDS), meanwhile, stated that the “parallels with the Americans’ departure from Saigon were shocking but also very true”.
Former Tory leader Michael Howard added that the NATO withdrawal “fatally undermines the credibility of any assurance of support – past, present or future – that we in the West offer to those who need it”, saying any future promises “will be in debased coinage”.
And Owen Paterson, the former Northern Ireland secretary, summarised the mood amongst anguished Conservatives, calling events in Afghanistan the “UK’s biggest humiliation since Suez”.
Others called into question the so-called ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US, with ex-army officer IDS amongst those doubting both President Biden’s judgement, and the Prime Minister’s blind faith in Washington’s ‘intelligence’ and decisions.
Similarly, former prime minister Theresa May launched a scathing attack against her successor, rhetorically asking: “Did we just think we had to follow the United States, and on a wing and a prayer it would be alright on the night?”
The ex-Tory leader went on to suggest that Johnson should have attempted to form a NATO alliance to stay in Afghanistan without the US – a strategy that was also supported by other Conservative MPs, such as Tobias Ellwood.
“What we require is the backbone, the courage, the leadership to step forward,” Ellwood, another former soldier, stated. “Yet when our moment comes such as this we are found wanting.”
Cutting to the heart of the matter, May asked: “Where is Global Britain on the streets of Kabul?”
These telling remarks reveal the reality about the UK’s position in the world. The truth is that Tony Blair followed George Bush into Afghanistan like a loyal poodle; and now, Britain and its other NATO allies are forced to accept the fait accompli of withdrawal presented by Washington.
Far from gaining independence and ‘sovereignty’, Brexit – and the long-term decline of British capitalism that Brexit itself is a reflection of – has left the UK even more reliant and subservient when it comes to US imperialism and the ‘special relationship’.
This was starkly demonstrated by a recent admission from Tory defence secretary Ben Wallace, who revealed that the UK government had attempted to rally NATO allies to stay in Afghanistan in the wake of America’s retreat.
But this plan disintegrated even faster than Ghani’s corrupt puppet government in Kabul, with British officials quickly acknowledging that any ‘stabilisation’ effort would be impossible without US military infrastructure and support.
This is the bitter truth that the Tories are finding so hard to swallow.
Figures such as May can bang the drum all they like, demanding ‘leadership’ and ‘responsibility’ from Johnson and his ministers. But this will do nothing to alter the fact that Britain is now a minnow in regards to world relations; a veritable pygmy on the international stage.
The writing has been on the wall for some time, however. In recent months, for example, the Prime Minister has faced down similar attacks from Tory backbenchers over the question of cuts to foreign aid.
As with the UK’s abandonment of Afghanistan, these cuts to the overseas aid budget – from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5% – have provoked anger amongst ‘sensible’ Conservatives, and the rest of the liberal wing of the establishment, who consider this move to be a damaging blow to the UK’s ‘credibility’ and ‘soft power’ abroad.
The split inside the Tory Party over such questions is not about aims, but methods. One side prefers the carrot of aid and ‘soft power’; the other prefers the stick of military spending and ‘hard power’.
Both wings, however, are ultimately out to defend the interests of UK imperialism and British capitalism. And both are finding that the UK’s weight on both fronts has been severely diminished over the decades, leaving British imperialism impotent and unable to ‘rise to the challenge’ at times of crisis, such as these.
Theresa May and co. wail about Britain’s ‘dereliction of duty’ in Afghanistan. But whether it is in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, or anywhere else, these establishment figures are not motivated by ‘moral’ or ‘humanitarian’ concerns, but only by the interests of British imperialism.
The Tories wring their hands about the threat posed by the Taliban to women and children. They cry crocodile tears about the dangers to democracy in Afghanistan, and the prospect of repression by the new fundamentalist leaders against their opponents.
But all of this is pure hypocrisy, coming as it does from this criminal Tory government
This is a government that has itself helped to hurl conditions for women backwards during the pandemic; that has ramped up repression against protestors, including those gathered peacefully to demonstrate against the murder of a woman by a policeman; and which has refused to provide adequate funding for children’s education, or free school meals for those in need.
And whilst criticising one repressive, destabilising, Islamic government in the region, the Tories happily support and arm another – that is, the brutal, warmongering Saudi regime.
Saudi Arabia has some of the most unequal and oppressive laws in the world when it comes to women and LGBT people. The country’s leaders, in alliance with its Wahhabi clerics, are responsible for breeding and exporting jihadi fundamentalism across the world. And Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, has for years been waging a barbaric and deadly war in Yemen – all with the help of UK (and US) arms sales and military assistance.
Under pressure, the Tory government has announced that it will admit 20,000 Afghan refugees, prioritising women, children, and religious minorities. But this is nothing more than a cynical, tokenistic gesture.
For starters, it is a drop in the ocean compared to the numbers who are seeking to escape from Taliban rule. This arbitrary figure is approximately the same as the (already miniscule) number that the UK has resettled from Syria – a country around half the size of Afghanistan. And this 20,000 is actually to be spread over five years, with only 5,000 to be accepted by the end of 2021.
Furthermore, what kind of reception can these refugees expect upon arrival in the UK? From most ordinary people, there will likely be compassion and sympathy. From the Tories and their reactionary press, however, there will be nothing but xenophobia and repression.
This is the government responsible for the ‘hostile environment’; for the Windrush scandal and racist deportations; and for consistently whipping up a hysteria over the migrant crisis, in order to distract from their own disastrous record.
In short: we can have no trust in the Tories when it comes to helping women, children, and the oppressed – in Afghanistan or anywhere else. The only people that the Afghan masses can rely on are themselves, and their class brothers and sisters internationally.
Unfortunately, however, when it comes to international solidarity with the people of Afghanistan, the Labour leaders have once again been found wanting.
In Parliament yesterday, Keir Starmer accused his opposite number of “complacency and poor judgement” in regards to the UK government’s response to the situation in Afghanistan.
Starmer then went on to criticise the Home Office’s refugee resettlement scheme for not going far enough, as well as attacking foreign secretary Dominic Raab for going on holiday “while our mission in Afghanistan was disintegrating”.
But, as per usual, there was nothing of any substance from the Labour leader, who could instead only offer empty platitudes, with calls for the government to ‘step up’ and ‘show leadership’.
The reason is clear: on all the major points, ‘Sir’ Keir Starmer agrees wholeheartedly with the Tories. If anything, Starmer and the Labour right wing are more hawkish, interventionist, and deluded on the question of Afghanistan than the Prime Minister.
Like Boris Johnson, Starmer has consistently turned to jingoism and ‘patriotism’ – wrapping himself in the Union Jack, and falling over himself to demonstrate to the ruling class his abiding support ‘For Queen and Country’.
And as was seen during the most recent Israeli aggression in Gaza, when it comes to international issues, Starmer and the right wing will always take the side of the oppressors over the oppressed.
In recent weeks, meanwhile, the Labour leader has urged party members to “embrace Blair’s legacy” – which includes, of course, the disastrous imperialist adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This stance was recently reiterated by Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, who stubbornly asserted on last night’s BBC Question Time that the New Labour government was “absolutely right” to join the American intervention 20 years ago, following 9/11.
Workers and youth must reject this craven support for British imperialism from the Labour leaders, and demand a socialist programme based on internationalism and class solidarity. This should include:
- Hands off – No more imperialist adventures and interventions!
- End all arms sales – No support for rotten regimes across the world!
- Open our borders – Refugees welcome! Make the bosses pay!
Above all, solidarity must start at home. That means organising and mobilising to overthrow our own imperialist government, which – along with US imperialism – is the biggest terrorist of them all.
There can be no genuine sympathy or support for the downtrodden masses in Afghanistan from a Tory government that attacks workers, the youth, and the vulnerable in Britain.
By contrast, we can see how, when the Home Office attempted to deport migrants in Glasgow recently, the local working-class community rallied to prevent this racist raid. This is what class solidarity looks like.
Foreign policy is always and everywhere an extension of home policy. How a country behaves towards the rest of the world is determined by the class interests that it defends and represents within its own borders.
It is the capitalist class that are responsible for all the exploitation, oppression, and barbarism across the planet. Capitalism, in the words of Lenin, is horror without end.
The greatest service we can offer to the people of Afghanistan, therefore, is to join the fight for socialism – in Britain, and internationally.