Tariq Ali’s book, The Forty Years War, is an event, within the larger event of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. No one, Left or Right, has followed the misadventure of US policy there with such dogged attention and keen insight. Nor, within the UK itself, of much higher visibility. From the pages of the Guardian to the London Review of Books and even in public dialogue with a key British foreign advisor (under Labour), his views have been discussed and debated, we can imagine, at the highest levels. Recent turns of the wheel (or screw) have vindicated him a thousand times over.
Tariq Ali, a Marxist theorist and historian of note, lecturer across continents, an editor of New Left Review, longtime contributor to CounterPunch and so on, happens also to be very much a participant in the regional events around the Indian subcontinent and nearby Afghanistan. He is Pakistani by origin—or rather in the part of India that would become Pakistan—as everyone knows. Far away from his homeland more than a half-century, apart from visits, he commands intimate knowledge of the people of the region, the contradictions, hopes and despair marking the post-colonial era. All this is part of him.
Here is a source, if by no means the only source, of his unique insights. There is no “Afghanistan Question” without a “Pakistani Question.” The flow back and forth across the borders artificially created by the colonial powers has not ceased, but rather accelerated with the internal strife, the blundering Russian effort to perpetuate a buffer state against Western instrusions, and the following catastrophe of US invasion and occupation.
Ali explains and explores briefly the deep reality of geography and demography. Afghanistan is one of the poorest regions of the world, under any or all ideological or military or any other leadership. The names of the rulers do not alter the multiplicity of different populations divided by tradition more than ideology, nor do the claims made for “change” or “modernization” create more water or arable land. Poppies thrive, now 90% of the world’s source for heroin, because alternatives do not allow survivable conditions.
Thus follows the geopolitical nightmare of US efforts, a redux of the British imperial project in the same valleys, updated by vast military technology and the capacity to create an almost American Suburban lifestyle that British soldiers would have envied (perhaps only the invaders’ access to the local sex traffic has remained largely the same). As the text reveals, beyond the boundaries of the invaders’ temporary holdings an artificial civil society can be created (we can be sure yesteryear’s British Afghanistanis read English novels and played cricket), the rest of society is lagely untouched except by devastating attacks on all sides, endless poverty and misery.
But Ali’s focus for much of this precise and careful book is the nature of the Western and if especially American, also British illusion. As he says, China, Russia and and most of Kabul expressed a collective relief by the overthrow of the Taliban whose origins could be readily traced to US assistance. The “Wahhabite Emirate” was driven out, but now what? The heart of the problem, of course, had already been obscured by US (and Britiish) response to the 9/11 Bombings. To trace the origins to Saudi citizens would be intolerable.
Somehow, an invasion of something in the region seemed the righteous and masculine thing to do for leading Americans who were looking to consolidate post-Cold War global hegemony everywhere, but especially the Middle East. The confidence of the Bush presidency was supreme. But as Ali says, “the problem was not lack of funds but the Western state-building project itself, by its nature an exogenous process” that “bore no relation to the realities on the ground.” (p.106).
Warring factions, shifting alliances, the incomptence and corruption of the Karzai regime installed by the US, all this and more was kept from reporters or, we may guess, most did not want to know. The billions of dollars of aid never reached ordinary Afghanis, quite the reverse: the rich became richer while the poor suffered more and more deprivations. The NGOs, swarming but taking their orders from afar, living within heaquarters and constructed neighborhoods with no relation to the rest of the country, soon had to hire mercernaries to protect then when they ventured outward.
The cries of “Victory” could be heard far away, as press releases and statements to Congress, but back in Afghanistan itself, only by those on the take. The Taliban grew its fresh supply of fighters from a population desperately alienated and eager for revenge.
It is a gloomy note, if not a large portion of the book, to learn once more that Obama the peace candidate (of sorts), who could have ended the Afghanistan farce as soon as he gained the presidency, was not the peace president by a long run. Afghanistan was only one continuing spectacular blunder for the first no-white chief executive in the Oval Office and Colin Powell had already marked the path of empire-defense. The Obama administration’s choreographed execution of Osama Bin Laden and the mysterious burial of him at sea, the misuse of presidential authority to ramp up war in the district, this time in Libya, the discounting of any contrary intelligence—all this can only bring dismay to those who hoped for better from Democrats. Viewed differently, perhaps Obama’s own failures, plus Trump’s eagerness to get out of Afghanistan, made the final moves inevitable.
It is a less gloomy note, really a sidebar comment by Tariq Ali, to be reminded that the biggest antiwar demonstrations in history, within the millions in Europe and the UK alone, emerged as the US prepared to pounce upon a hapless Iraq. This peace movement was not successful but it was not in vain. We can, we must, mobilize again and again.