With the customary tone of cynical flippancy that is characteristic of the journal, the correspondent of The Economist of 23 June stated that what he really could not forgive was that General McChrystal prefers Bud to Bordeaux. But the lover of fine French wine was obliged to add that, serious as this lapse of taste might be, it was hardly a sufficient reason for sacking a serving US general. The real reason for the general’s dismissal was of a far more serious nature and had to do with the relations between the ruling class and the state.

The bourgeoisie likes to feel that it is in control of its own state. But there is always a tendency of the state, which in the last analysis is bodies of armed men, to rise above society and assert its independence – even of the ruling class itself. We see this tendency in the earliest times, as the phenomenon of praetorianism in the Roman Empire clearly shows.

In his celebrated work The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels describes the state as “a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it […].”

In times of extreme class struggle, when no class is able to win a decisive victory, the state, in the form of the army, tends to assert itself more and more. The normal channels of class rule are insufficient to contain the forces that have been unleashed and other methods of rule become necessary. Bonapartism is rule by the sword. However, the ruling class does not resort to such measures lightly. It prefers the normal method of parliamentary democracy because it is more economical.

There are a thousand and one ways of ensuring that the working class, when it has won the vote, will never actually gain control of society and the state. This involves a certain amount of expenditure on direct and indirect corruption, and the perfection of an elaborate mechanism of lobbying, marketing, public relations and the mass media for the purpose of deceiving the electorate into believing that they actually have some say on the destinies of the nation. But all the time the reins of control remain firmly in the hands of a minority. In the USA the President is formally elected by the people. But in reality, it is impossible to be elected President unless one is a billionaire, or at least has access to enormous sums of money that comes from billionaires.

The overheads of formal bourgeois democracy are a costly nuisance from the standpoint of the ruling class, but the system has been perfected for generations in countries like the USA, and from the standpoint of the ruling class, it works tolerably well. And the costs and inconvenience of the alternative are far higher. Therefore, under normal circumstances, the ruling class does not like generals who display excessive independence and a tendency to pursue their own agenda, irrespective of the wishes of their political bosses. The latter have been carefully selected to represent the interests of the banks and big monopolies.

The bourgeoisie asserts its control

The recent incident recalls the conflict between General Douglas MacArthur and President Truman during the Korean War. MacArthur showed clear Bonapartist tendencies and was relieved of his command. McChrystal showed complete contempt for the political Establishment. Among other gems, he described the national security adviser of the world’s greatest superpower as a “clown”, its vice-president as “a nobody” and its President “uncomfortable and intimidated” in the presence of the top military.

By his words and actions, McChrystal showed ingratitude as well as disrespect. Obama had already sacked one general David McKiernan, the commander left over from the Bush era. Under pressure from the Pentagon, he appointed General McChrystal, who he scarcely knew, to take control of the war in Afghanistan. In the autumn of last year, Obama backed General McChrystal’s counter-insurgency plan and gave him most of the extra troops he asked for.

This was despite the fact that the general had already committed gross insubordination by ridiculing the views of the vice-president Joe Biden, who opposed his strategy. If Mr Obama had left the general in his job he would have humiliated the vice-president and made himself look weak at a moment when he was trying to appear strong. Having spent months carefully cultivating the image of a President standing up to BP, he could not allow the impression to be created that he could not control his own generals.

General David Petraeus has now replaced McChrystal. He is a more reliable servant of the Establishment, a man who might have entered politics, a respectable character, not a maverick like McChrystal, a man with a big ego, a loud mouth and not much in the way of intellect. In reality, McChrystal got off lightly. According to the Uniform Code of Military Justice an officer who uses contemptuous words towards the president or vice-president can be punished by a court-martial. But even when asserting his authority over the military, the occupant of the White House must be careful not to tread too hard on the toes of the Pentagon.

From Bush to Obama

The profound crisis of capitalism meant that the ruling class was obliged to ditch the Republican George Bush and replace him with the Democrat Barack Obama. They merely shifted from the right foot to the left foot. The masses were persuaded that the Obama administration represented “change”, and there is in US society a deep-seated desire for change. Naturally, the change was mainly of a cosmetic character: a change of style, rather than substance.

Obama represents the same class interests as Bush: the interests of US imperialism, the banks and big monopolies. But he does so with a smile rather than a scowl, preferring diplomacy (which is cheap) rather then brute force (which is expensive). And he can, at least for a time, convince public opinion at home and abroad, that he really means it.

The invasion of Iraq, from the standpoint of US imperialism, was a costly mistake, an adventure. Belatedly, Obama attempted to re-orient US military policy away from Iraq and towards the war in Afghanistan. In reality, whoever was in the White House would have had to withdraw from Iraq. The fact is that America has lost the war and must find an excuse to cut its losses. These are considerable. Apart from the thousands killed and maimed, the occupation of Iraq is costing the US Treasury around two billion dollars a week. Even the richest power on earth could not stand such a colossal haemorrhage of blood and gold for long.

But the war in Afghanistan is also going badly. In November, under pressure from McChrystal, Obama committed 30,000 more US soldiers to the campaign. Since then nothing has gone right. McChrystal’s idea was for a “surge”, like that in Iraq, which was supposed to seize the initiative from the Taliban and create the scope for Afghanistan’s government, backed by its army and police, to take control. That has not happened.

Petraeus, the new man in charge, was the star American general in Iraq. He is also the man who wrote the manual on COIN[counterinsurgency strategy], which McChrystal was trying to implement in Afghanistan. But he will have a hard job. The idea that the Americans can create a sufficiently strong Afghan state, army and police to be able to withdraw has barely succeeded in Iraq, and cannot succeed at all in Afghanistan, where the country is riven by deep divisions on linguistic, tribal, clan and religious lines, and the state is in the hands of corrupt gangsters around the Karzai clan.

McChrystal tried out the new strategy in Marja in Helmand. This was supposed to show how COIN would win over the people and get rid of the Taliban. But McChrystal himself has called Marja a “bleeding ulcer”. This was therefore the worst possible moment for a split between generals and politicians. Sacking the general just at the beginning of the fighting season would obviously disrupt the entire counter-insurgency campaign, which was already going badly.

America is losing the war

Obama has described the fighting in Afghanistan as “a war of necessity”. But America’s campaign in Afghanistan is now poised on the brink of failure. In June Afghanistan surpassed Vietnam as the longest campaign in America’s history. More than 1,000 US troops have been killed and almost 6,000 injured. Yet the results are very poor. The Taliban continues their operations relentlessly, harassing Coalition forces with guerrilla tactics, assassinating tribal leaders who collaborate with them and wreaking havoc with roadside bombs.

Obama wishes to get out of Afghanistan and let indigenous forces fight in the American interest, either for their own reasons, or because they are paid. But in order for this to happen, there would have to be an Afghan army and state strong enough to stand up to the Taliban. The Americans are trying to draw regional forces into local coalitions. In theory, this will compel the Taliban to negotiate in order to avoid being marginalized. But the recent murder of Coalition soldiers by a “renegade” Afghan recruit shows that the establishment of a strong Afghan military force is as far away as ever.

Before achieving the desired result (negotiation), Washington intends to go onto the offensive, in a “surge” like the one they launched in Iraq. This is easier said than done. The operation in Helmand province has been far slower than anticipated. Already the decisive offensive in Kandahar has been postponed. This operation may well determine the course of the war. Part of the plan was to remove Karzai’s corrupt half-brother from Kandahar. But he is still firmly in charge there. The reason why McChrystal decided to postpone the Kandahar offensive until the autumn was that he saw that local people were not ready to back it.

A survey in 120 districts with high levels of insurgency revealed that among a third of Afghans there is little support for Karzai. The big majority hates the foreign occupiers and wants to get them out of their country. Over a third of their inhabitants backed the insurgents. And with every Afghan civilian killed by US drones, the hatred will grow more intense.

The Taliban will be encouraged by seeing such divisions in the enemy camp. They will conclude that America has no stomach for the fight. On June 24, The Economist carried an interesting headline: Barack Obama has sacked his commander in Afghanistan. But the real worry is that the war is being lost. This puts the gist of the matter very nicely. The article continued: “But presidential decisiveness cannot conceal a deeper truth. America and its allies are losing in Afghanistan.”

Who is responsible?

US imperialism was responsible for al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The United States, along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, organized and sustained the so-called mujahedeen, fighters in order to bog the Soviets down in a debilitating guerrilla war. As long as they were killing Russians, these reactionary bandits were portrayed in the West as “courageous freedom fighters”. To their shame, some left wing groups, like the British SWP echoed this nonsense and supported the counterrevolutionary forces.

At that stage the United States was prepared to accept that the Islamic fanatics it had organized against the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul would govern Afghanistan. They were unconcerned about the activities of men like Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi multi-millionaire with close links to the CIA. But when the Soviet army was left Afghanistan in 1989, the situation changed. Like Frankenstein, Washington had created a monster it could not control.

There were many factions, divided on ethnic and religious lines, but all of them reactionary. The allies of Washington in Pakistan wanted to take control of Afghanistan. Through the ISI (Military Intelligence) Pakistan backed the faction called the Taliban, and helped it to seize power in 1996. The Taliban were linked to a group of international jihadists called al-Qaeda, who were responsible for attacks on US facilities abroad. Suddenly, the attitude of the USA changed. The “courageous freedom fighters” suddenly became “terrorists”.

The turning point came on September 11, 2001, when al-Qaeda launched attacks on the United States mainland. The response of the Bush administration was to invade Iraq – which at that time had no connection whatever with al-Qaeda and played no role in the attack on the World Trade Centre. In addition, the United States commenced operations in Afghanistan shortly after September 11.

To do this, the United States reached a deal with organizations such as the Northern Alliance, which had been ousted from power by the Taliban, as well as Shiite groups in the west that were close to Iran and India. These groups supported the United States either out of hatred of the Taliban or for money from Washington. This tactic had the advantage of permitting Washington to launch an offensive without risking the lives of American soldiers on the ground.

The contribution of the United States to the offensive was mainly to drop bombs from a great height using US B-52s against Taliban forces. This intensive bombing forced the Taliban to retreat from the cities and disperse into the rural areas. The Taliban, however, were not defeated, for the simple reason that they did not fight. Instead, they preserved their forces and regrouped in the Pashtoon lands, both in Afghanistan and over the border in Pakistan, where they received shelter and aid from their friends in the ISI.

Up to this point, the USA did not commit large numbers of American troops on the ground. It let others do its fighting for it. But now all that has changed. In 2009, Obama decided that Afghanistan, and not Iraq, should be the focus of US military operations. His intention was to create the conditions for negotiating with the Taliban, and begin withdrawal by 2011. To do this, as we have seen, Obama first increased the strength of US forces, with the aim of inflicting a defeat on the Taliban and forcing them to accept a political settlement that would eventually allow a US withdrawal.

What now?

There has been a lot of talk recently about alleged vast mineral wealth in Afghanistan. It is quite possible that this is part of a propaganda campaign to keep western governments from withdrawing their forces. But even if this were to be true (which is not clear), mining this supposed wealth in the middle of a war is completely out of the question. We are therefore back to the starting point: how to end the conflict?

A military victory is out of the question. The United States is now overstretched in the region. The greatest military power in the world lacks a strategic reserve of ground forces. Worse still, from the standpoint of Washington, in the last analysis Afghanistan is not strategically essential to the USA, which is why it has not historically used its own forces there but always fought with other people’s blood.

That is why the Americans would like to build up the Afghan army and state in order to take over the war, while “winning the hearts and minds” of the Afghan population, isolating the Taliban. This would deny al-Qaeda its base in Afghanistan. But since al-Qaeda has shifted its base of operations to Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and other countries denying it bases in Afghanistan does not solve the problem.

It is a well-known a principle of warfare never to commit all of your reserves to one battle. There should always be a reserve for unexpected eventualities. But the United States has broken this golden rule. The onerous commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan have left the United States vulnerable elsewhere in the world. The enemies of America will hardly be so considerate as to wait until the United States is finished with one war before starting another. Already the terrorists have established bases in the wild tribal areas of northern Pakistan, and in remote and unstable areas of Yemen and Somalia.

This situation cannot be allowed to continue, but Obama faces a dilemma. On the one hand, it is necessary to withdraw as early as possible, but on the other hand, an early withdrawal undermines both coalition building and negotiations. If the Americans are going to withdraw, there is no incentive for the Taliban to negotiate anything. Nor is there any incentive for America’s coalition allies to stay if the Americans are leaving.

There is a large and growing question mark over the willingness of public opinion in Europe and America to continue fighting. As the war drags on the movement will grow to bring the troops home. Already a section of the political Establishment in the USA is getting tired of the war. Recently legislators in Congress moved to cut almost $4 billion in aid to Afghanistan after a newspaper exposure of corruption in the country.

The truth is that years of occupation have solved nothing. The Taliban have almost limitless reserves of manpower and money (through the lucrative drug trade). They have safe havens in Pakistan and the support of an important section of the Pakistan army and state. Under these circumstances, to imagine that a change of generals will make a real difference to the course of the war is unreal. In the end, just like the British a hundred years earlier, US imperialism will have to reach an accommodation with the enemy. In Afghanistan bribery can work wonders where naked force has proved impotent.

A defeat in Afghanistan would be a disaster. It would mark a humiliation for the West, and for NATO. Even the most limited aim of the war – to deny al-Qaeda a safe base for its operations, will fail. It is said that Hamid Karzai is opening channels directly to the Taliban. The Afghan President has not denied this. In fact, he has admitted it. This is hardly surprising. He wants to save his neck.

On the other hand, the Pakistanis, angry at what they see as increased Indian interference in Afghanistan, are increasing their presence. A vacuum has been created, and someone must fill it. A Western withdrawal would plunge Afghanistan into a new civil war, even bloodier than those of the past. This would invite intervention of neighbouring states: Iran, Pakistan, India and even Russia. It would exacerbate the instability throughout Central Asia, and increase the risk of war between India and Pakistan.

As always the real victims will be the Afghan people, threatened with a descent into barbarism. The Afghans hate the foreign invader but that does not mean they support the Taliban. Many Afghans would like to be rid of the Taliban, but they do not see any alternative. Under these circumstances, the work of the small forces of Marxism in Afghanistan is extremely difficult. They must fight against imperialism and foreign occupation, but without making any concessions to the forces of obscurantist reaction.

Afghanistan has become associated in the minds of people in Europe and the USA with backwardness, savagery and religious fanaticism. But historically, it was the centre of a great Central Asian culture. More recently it had a Communist tradition that still lives, though severely repressed. Many Afghans must look back at the time when the “Communists” were in power as a golden age.

Ultimately, as has always been the case, the fate of Afghanistan will be settled elsewhere. Afghanistan is part of Central Asia. It borders on China and Iran. It is also the gateway to that immense Subcontinent that stretches from the Himalayas and vast plains of the Punjab in the North to the Indian Ocean in the South. The revolutionary movements that are being prepared in neighbouring countries will have a profound effect in Afghanistan. Above all, a revolution in Iran would transform the whole situation. This is the hope for Afghanistan and the whole of Asia.