Q.: How would you characterize the current conflict? Is it a “clash of civilizations”, a “New Holy War”, a national liberation struggle, a conflict between the Arab oil elite and the dollar elite, or none of the above?
Tariq Ali: None of the above. It is a crude war of revenge. A powerful animal temporarily blinded, by a bee sting, lashes out in a crazy way. This is exactly what is happening. The United States and Blair, their military confederate in Britain, had no clear idea of what they were doing. They assumed that the Taliban would crumble within a week or two. They were wrong. They hoped that Pakistan, which had created the Taliban, might be able to split them, but instead the Taliban split the Pakistan Army. Two Generals had to be sacked by Gen. Musharraf. The former King of Afghanistan continues to cool his heels in Rome. The Northern Alliance can’t take Kabul without US ground troops. If these are sent there will be losses. Ultimately of course the West could capture the cities, cut the Taliban supply lines and seal them off from Pakistan. Difficult, but not impossible. However it can’t be done without troops. Perhaps the US could throw German, Italian and British soldiers on the ground while they continue to fight from the air. Then the Europeans could take the casualties. Whatever happens the end-result will be more chaos, not less. More terrorism, not less. Meanwhile the United States continues to B52 the poorest country in the world. There are already heavy civilian casualties.
Q.: What would you say is at stake in this war? What is the center of the dispute: access to gas and water in the Middle East, establishment of hegemony in the Islamic world, assuring a permanent U.S. presence in the region, or none of the above?
Tariq Ali: I really don’t believe that this war was begun for economic gain. We, on the left, are always quick to look for the economic reasons and usually we’re right, but not this time. I think the war was basically a response to domestic pressure after the events of September 11. There were choices to be made. The US could have decided to treat this for what it was: a criminal act and not an act of war. They chose war. Obviously they will use it to strengthen and assert US global hegemony on all three fronts: political, military and economic, but first they have to get out of the situation they’re in.
Q.: How would you explain the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism, or what other authors have called “political Islam”?
Tariq Ali: The seeds of Islamism were sown by the United States during the Cold War. From the 50s to the 90s of the last century they supported the bulwark of religion against the Communist enemy. When the Cold War ended the groups they had supported began to get restless. They’re funding and, in some cases, arms supplies had been cut off. Then came the Gulf War or the Second Oil War as I call it. Most of the Islamists chose this moment to break definitively with the West and garbed themselves in nationalist clothes. All over the world there is a big vacuum. In the Arab world this vacuum is the loss of both radical nationalism and communism. The Islamists consciously chose to fill the vacuum. In Algeria, Egypt and Pakistan, a number of important ex-Maoist leaders converted to Islam. From Mao to Allah was not as big a jump as you might think! The people denied secular openings began to respond. The West doesn’t like to think about this seriously, but Osama has become a cult figure and not just in the Muslim world. When people feel disempowered, bitter, and angry and when traditional politicians are interchangeable in the sense that they are all in the service of market fundamentalism, then a sensational deed like September 11 has a very big impact.
Q.: How would you assess the risk that the current conflict could destabilize Pakistan? Could this situation lead to a greater presence of radical Islam in that country’s secret service and military forces?
Tariq Ali: Yes. In Pakistan the religious fundamentalism was state-sponsored. It started in a big way during the years of the Zia dictatorship (1977-89). Its aim was to marginalize secular politics and destroy all radical alternatives. But this also made the fundamentalists very unpopular. In three general elections that followed the death of Zia, the religious parties got under 4 percent of the vote….less than they get in Israel. Rejected by the people they decided to infiltrate the state apparatus. Their exact strength is unquantifiable at the moment, but they have cells in the Army and at every level. They are clever. They will not strike till they are sure of victory. The events in Afghanistan are playing into their hands.
Q.: What consequences do you predict of the current conflict? What scenarios do you see for the future?
Tariq Ali: As I said above, the West could take Afghanistan and hand it over to people they favor. I don’t believe in the ‘invincibility’ of Afghanistan. The main reason the Russians were defeated was because the religious groups, not to mention Osama and his gang, were backed to the hilt by the United States. Pakistan was the proxy they used to ensure the defeat of Moscow. Without US weaponry, money, food, bribes the Russians could have held on. So if Pakistan is persuaded to cut off the Taliban they could be isolated and defeated militarily. But what then? Since the West organized the defeat of all secular forces in the country, there is very little left in the way of a democratic base of any sort. So there will be continuos trouble. Who will police the new state? Pakistan? Iran? India? Russia? All of them? Or a semi-permanent NATO-protectorate with Turkish troops? To pose these questions is to show that the US is really in a no-win situation. And the cassus belli of this war, Osama Bin Laden? Where is he? Will he be found? If not what will they do? I think the war is reaching a critical point. The snow will start falling on the Pamir mountains very soon, making ground war virtually impossible. Then what? Tactical nuclear weapons? The US population and Blair might support their use, but I think it would split the EU and enrage the rest of the world. Meanwhile we observe and analyze. CP
Tariq Ali, a frequent CounterPunch contributor, is the author of The Stone Woman.