Afghan lessons

Dave Kellaway reviews the latest work by Tariq Ali and asks if his analysis on Afghanistan was correct.


The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan: A Chronicle Foretold by Tariq Ali (Verso Books)

In his introduction Tariq states how he has been writing on Afghanistan and the region for a long time.  Never one for false modesty, he adds: “It’s sad that it took history forty years to confirm my theses.” On this conflict his assertion is undoubtedly correct. He has been right against the apologists of the Soviet, US or British occupiers and the social democratic defenders of humanitarian intervention. 

I remember at international meetings of a revolutionary Marxist current like the Fourth International (Mandel) after 1979 he led the successful opposition to the originally ambiguous position taken on the Soviet occupation. It took a little time for this current – like some others on the left – to call clearly for Soviet troops to leave. There was a misunderstanding of the nature of the Soviet Union that put too much emphasis on an objectively superior ‘workers’ state that would be more progressive than a backward tribal one. The first chapter and the final appendix give some good background to this debate. 

Given the US/UK withdrawal this August it is a timely contribution to our understanding of a crucial process in world politics.

Apart from the preface and the final chapter written in September 2021 this book is a collection of articles, some quite short, that the author has written during the 40 year period. The advantage of this is that it unequivocally backs up the correctness of his general approach. Contemporary quotes and references to journalists or politicians pontificating on the war further expose how far they were wrong and the writer, supported by the radical left publications generally, was right.

At the same time colonel hindsight cannot make the author appear cleverer than he is. So for example one less important prediction he makes about US stooge, president Karzai, not lasting too long does not turn out to be correct. The efficiency of his all-American team of bodyguards might have helped in that feat of political survival. 

The reader can dip in or out and even skim through certain sections without losing any real narrative thread. On the other hand it does have the disadvantage of a fair amount of repetition, even to the extent of whole chunks of the same text. It is not clear also why there was such a big gap in articles between 2014 and 2021. It is a pity the author could not have re-written or re-edited all his writing into a new more coherent book.

From the beginning Tariq’s basic predictions and analyses have been proved correct:

  • the Soviet union would not win.
  • the US imperialists would fail to win a war that would drag on and on.
  • the Taliban might not be able to militarily defeat the US but would prevent the political victory of its occupation.
  • the wholesale corruption of the stooge regime and indiscriminate bombing/drone strikes would generate mass support for the Taliban outside of the Kabul ‘green zone’.
  • the war in Afghanistan was utterly tied up with Pakistan and its impact would destabilise that country too.
  • the conflict would be a license to print money for the arms makers, military militia contractors and the opium producers/traders.
  • non-government organisations would benefit from millions in aid money for thousands of it staff (often non Afghan) to provide some window dressing for the so-called humanitarian occupation.
  • there would be a political impact internationally but particularly in those countries aiding the occupation like Britain or Italy.
  • it would critically divide left of centre parties or government led by them between those who opposed the war and the humanitarian interventionists, contributing to the end of Blair and the rise of Corbyn and to the fall of the second Prodi government in Italy.
  • the ongoing refugee crisis would impact on neighbouring Iran and Pakistan but also politically destabilise western countries polarising opinion to the racist hard right.

The articles are grouped into 4 sections to give it some coherence and order:

1979 to 2000 – Soviet occupation, rise of Taliban supported by Pakistan and the US and the arrival of Taliban to  power

2001 to 2008 – Operation enduring disaster as the US invades to remove the Taliban and it becomes bogged down

2008 to 2011 – AF/Pak burns and the rise of the neo Taliban, impact on Pakistan and the execution of Osama Bin Laden

2012 to 2021 – Impending defeat

Since Tariq Ali grew up in Pakistan and keeps in good contact the book is very much an analysis of the occupation and war from across the Pakistani border. We get a blow by blow account of how the Pakistani secret services and army – who do not always sing from the same hymn sheet – were intimately connected with the Taliban from the start. The final sweep of the Taliban to power would have been impossible without that support. All this is mediated by the extensive corruption among the Pakistani elite. There is an illuminating conversation Tariq recounts he had in 2006 on a plane from Lahore with an intelligence officer whom he had known in an earlier life:

Do you know where he (Osama Bin Laden) is?

He burst out laughing.

I don’t, and even if I did, do you think I’d tell you (…)

Nothing in our wonderful country (Pakistan) is ever a secret. Someone must know.

Three people know. Possibly four. You can guess who they are.

I could

And Washington?

They don’t want him alive

And your boys can’t kill him?

Listen friend why should we kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Bin Laden was living quite close to a Pakistani military academy for six years. The ‘goose’ meant Pakistan got billions of US dollars for its collaboration/non collaboration with the US. It was only four years after this conversation that he was given up and taken out for Obama and Hilary to see live on TV. As Tariq eloquently points out, at least in the past violent leaders and war criminals were given some sort of legal trial such as Nuremburg for the Nazis. As he drily comments Western civilisation seems to have declined even since the Trojan wars when Achilles has Hector’s body cleaned before giving it back to his father. The US buried Osama in secret at sea.

The book is particularly scathing about the contradictions of those Labour leaders in Britain or Obama supporters in the US who defended the idea of humanitarian intervention. Such people would always take up the severe oppression of women under Taliban rule and extol the ‘democratic’ elections held by the Karzai stooge regime in Kabul. 

As Tariq points out in the exchange of letters with Mike O’Brien, the Labour frontbencher at the time, published in Chapter 8, page 57, the limited new freedoms for women did not go much beyond the green zone. Since large swathes of the country were under Taliban control or corrupt local leaders, the elections were not really democratic. Elsewhere he cites a woman activist who says that after the US leave they would have only one enemy to contend with.

Although 2021 was a defeat for US imperialism its army was not militarily defeated. As Tariq says the only way it could have achieved complete military victory and a total long term occupation would have been at the cost of mass bombing leaving more than a million dead. That would have been politically unacceptable at home or in the region.

However this was not 1975 Saigon. It was not a progressive victory of liberation forces with a social programme. He references the nineteenth century fall of Sudan. I think he is right about this. It is possible to have a defeat for imperialism without a progressive breakthrough. The US has suffered a setback in plans to strengthen military and political reach in the east and ultimately against China.

One of Tariq Ali’s great strengths is his ability to write clearly and colourfully for a mass audience. He is not long-winded or over-academic. All these articles are accessible for people who do not have much knowledge of the region or the issues. It would be very useful for younger activists who were not alive when many of these events were taking place.

Some people on the left might not agree with all of Tariq’s analysis of the Syrian uprising or even the Libyan events which saw the end of the Gaddafi regime, but on Afghanistan and Pakistan he is very surefooted and merits our attention.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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