Tariq Ali’s The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan: A Chronicle Foretold is available from Verso Books.
“All we had to do was shoot down their helicopters!”
“You need to start with the roads, then start running the schools and factories, restock the sheep herds, give them jobs…”
“I’m trying… I’m fighting for every dollar… I got a Democratic Congress in lockstep behind a Republican president.”
“Well, that’s not good enough…because I’m going to hand you a classified NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] that’s going to tell you that the crazies have started rolling into Kandahar like it’s a fucking bathtub drain.”
This brief, thirty-second conversation between Congressman Charlie Wilson and CIA case officer Gust Avrakotos in the 2007 film Charlie Wilson’s War, set during the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, aptly sums up forty years of failed American foreign policy in the country. Even worse, within the harsh logic of the Cold War, the audience is only offered two options: reckless short-termism or neocolonial occupation. Avrakotos’s description of the crazies (the Taliban) capturing Kandahar is a concise example of “blowback”—a term coined by the CIA to describe the unintended consequences of short-sighted policies pursued by the agency. Indeed, all of America’s interventions in Afghanistan have been plagued by blowback: the circular dynamic of action provoking unintended consequences, and unintended consequences provoking further action.
American intervention in the country has been governed by the narrow logic of the Cold War and the War on Terror. Because of this paradigm, interventions can be sorted into a binary: in the case of U.S. support for the mujahideen, short-sighted and non-committal, or, during the 2001-2021 war, an example of drawn-out attrition. In tandem, the latter rolled out extractivist neoliberal economic policies cloaked in socially liberal rhetoric concerned with “rights” and “liberation.” Both the realist doctrine of supporting all effective anti-communist forces and the neoconservative framework—long-term democratic nation-building to counter global communism and Islamism—have been a disaster for Afghanistan. CIA funding in the 1980s and military intervention in the 2000s provided a foundation for Taliban victories in both 1996 and 2021 by creating conditions of endemic corruption, underdevelopment of infrastructure, and resentment against colonial occupation.
The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan: A Chronicle Foretold (2021, Verso) is a collection of essays by Tariq Ali, written over four decades. The collection sets out to chart both the Soviet and American debacles in Afghanistan and provide a renewed focus on the recent history of the nation as a counter to the short-termism of the news cycle. Ali is a writer, filmmaker, political activist, and journalist, editor at New Left Review and frequent contributor to The London Review of Books. He is the author of numerous titles, including Kashmir: the Case for Freedom (2011), The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (2008), and Conversations with Edward Said (2005).
Ali grew up in the Pakistani city of Lahore, which was initially part of Punjabi British India. After protesting against the military dictatorship in Pakistan, he left for the University of Oxford, where he was elected president of the Oxford Union and hosted Malcolm X in 1964. He came to public prominence as part of the younger generation involved in the British New Left during the late 1960s. The New Left had grown out of the ferment of two generations of academics and students, a group of mostly communist historians born before World War II, including Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Stuart Hall, and Raymond Williams, as well as a collection of “Trotskyist” activists and writers born later, including Perry Anderson, Benedict Anderson, and Juliet Mitchell.
While other Oxford-educated Trotskyists, such as Christopher Hitchens, came to support Western intervention in the Middle East and Central Asia, Ali has consistently opposed it. Protean Magazine spoke to Ali about his new book, the history of Afghanistan, and American withdrawal.
Ali opens the book with an appeal to historical origins and geographic determination: “Afghanistan emerged in the middle of the 18th century as a tribal confederacy with a strong king at its head. Coveted by the Russian tsar and British viceroy alike, its impassable fastnesses enabled it to avoid occupation by either colonial power.”
Asked about the effect of numerous 19th-century interventions in Afghanistan—including the Great Game of diplomacy and espionage between Russia and Britain in Central Asia and the succession of Anglo-Afghan Wars throughout the period—Ali points to the Durand Line as the defining outcome of imperial competition: “The Durand Line was designed to make sure that Afghanistan could not be used to attack the British colonial empire in India.” It was “designed to last for a hundred years,” he says, “but the Pakistani government which succeeded the British, after 1947, has refused to discuss the issue. For a long time, the Durand Line created a lot of bitterness between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is because it divided the Pashtun tribes. I fear that the status of the Durand is now not open for discussion—Pakistan isn’t going to give half of the Pashtun people over to Afghanistan.”
However, Ali rejects comparison between the Durand Line and Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, a document that divided much of the Arab world into arbitrary colonial mandates that lacked internal linguistic, ethnic, political, or religious coherence. This has led many in foreign policy circles to point to arbitrary borders as the cause of conflict in the Islamic world. Instead, Ali argues that Afghanistan’s mountainous topography has led to prolonged resistance and attritional wars: “The last two interventions in Afghanistan, the Soviet intervention, which lasted ten years, and the American intervention (backed by NATO) which lasted 20 years, were not caused by the fact that Afghanistan is an artificial state.”
Instead, Ali says, “Afghanistan is an interesting state because it has never been occupied permanently, or even for short periods, by imperial powers. No one has lasted it out in Afghanistan. And that’s because of the geography of the country and the history of its people. It is not a state that you can easily take over if the people are opposed to you…The Russians found this out!”
Pressed on the 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, Ali answered that he was against the war, despite his support for left-wing liberation movements across the world. However, he points out, “the Soviets, purely in terms of social infrastructure, did more than either the British or the Americans… It was the Soviet state that built up a lot of the infrastructure in urban areas. It wasn’t private companies, making money out of war disasters. Nor was it private individuals—as it was under the Americans.”
Ali also points out that, while historical comparisons between the American withdrawal from Saigon in 1975 and Kabul in 2021 are useful, one should also note the differences between the American and Soviet withdrawals from Afghanistan: “When the Russians decided to withdraw—they did so in a very efficient way. In 1989, they said ‘We are leaving,’ and, led by General Boris Gromov, marched all their troops across the Hairatan Bridge over the Amu Darya River. This was a very symbolic way to say we came for a limited period and now we’re leaving.”
The U.S.S.R. was still acting as an imperial aggressor. Consequently, the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, especially its secularization efforts, alienated the population. The U.S. occupation would also manage to lose all popular support. The attempted impositions of both the secularism of the U.S.S.R. and the neoliberalism of the U.S. would help confer the status of “national liberators” on deeply reactionary movements and individuals. From Abdullah Azzam and the Mujahideen to Mohammed Omar, Abdul Ghani Baradar, and the Taliban—those who offered an alternative to widespread corruption and foreign occupation found success. “The question is this: what was the alternative for those who wanted the United States to leave?’ There are no other resistance groups, or movements, either liberal or on the left—there is only the Taliban,” argues Ali.
Ali puts this popular support for the Taliban down to the underdevelopment of Afghanistan during the American occupation: “The Afghan clients of the NGOs did pretty well and institutions set up by the Americans to run the country for 20 years did reasonably well. But the overwhelming majority of the Afghan population did not benefit.” Ali asserts that, “This says something about capital and empire. The latest version of imperialism, which the United States and its allies defend, does very little for the poor, little for the lower middle class, not much more for the middle class. However, it is loved by the rich. Reports, in the press, are saying the Intercontinental Hotel in Afghanistan is virtually empty because all the Afghan rich who stayed there have fled to the United States!”
However, Ali is skeptical that the Taliban will reverse the neoliberal policies of the U.S. and the fallen Afghanistan National Government: “The Taliban’s socioeconomic policies are not that different from the neoliberal policies pursued by the Gulf States, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. Consequently, you will see a class polarization taking place. You will see some objection to that polarization within the Taliban ranks itself. The poor are one obvious source of change.” As wealth and income gaps increase in Afghanistan and the population has the chance to become self-governing, Ali suggests that the potential for progressive change will increase: “[Poverty and Taliban rule] will begin to create new forces in Afghanistan—at best they will be social-democratic forces, it won’t be anything to the left of that. It will take time because the 20-year occupation has been a disaster.”
Ali is clear that these progressive changes will have to develop organically within the Afghan population and must not be imposed from above—he cites the Kurdish Rojava and the YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) in northeastern Syria as exemplary organic progressive forces to be emulated. In contrast to organic self-organization among women, ethnic minorities (like the Uzbeks and Turkmen) and religious minorities (such as the Hazara), we can see renewed calls for top-down Western intervention in the liberal press; in some cases, those calls have been shrouded in feminist rhetoric.
Ali points out that the liberal imperialist tradition, which has been used to justify and complement America’s economically laissez-faire policies in the country, has a long history in both the U.S. and U.K.: “The Fabian Society, George Bernard Shaw, the Webbs and then the Labour government of 1945… this tradition of liberal imperialism goes a very long way back. Sometimes liberal imperialists disagree as they did during the Boer War, or Vietnam after it became obvious that the U.S. couldn’t win. Liberal imperialism is not always monolithic—but it has been in Afghanistan.” Finally, Ali notes the geostrategic importance of Afghanistan to the slowly developing cold war between the U.S. and China: “I think the Afghans will be brought into the Chinese economic and structural network of the Belt and Road Initiative.” Indeed, Afghanistan borders China, and its long panhandle, the Wakhan corridor, is within striking distance of Xinjiang—home of the Uyghur people.
Close diplomatic ties between China and the Taliban will, according to Ali, prompt America to relent on its current sanctions regime and move towards recognition of the new regime: “The United States, who are fully aware of this China-Afghan dynamic, have suddenly, having first imposed sanctions, opened talks with the Taliban. Because of China, the United States doesn’t want to break off relations completely. They don’t want to give Afghanistan away to China—they’ll do deals. I’m sure, sooner or later, Taliban leaders will visit the White House and be photographed.”♦
Samuel McIlhagga is a freelance journalist, book reviewer, and writer based in the U.K.