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The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan – A Chronicle Foretold
by Tariq Ali
THE return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, amid a chaotic US military evacuation, constitutes the greatest humiliation imperialism has suffered in the 21st century.
One need be no friend of the social agenda of the Taliban — and few are — to recognise the enormity of its achievement and the reverse for the Nato powers, headed by the US.
Even in the bloody debacle of Iraq, the aggressors in the 2003 war have been able to organise something like a fighting retreat and retain the capacity for direct interference.
In Afghanistan, the war begun in 2001 has ended in categorical defeat.
The US and British politicians who hubristically started the occupation of the country and maintained it over 20 debilitating and disastrous years cannot now complain that “nobody warned us.”
They were so warned, from the first days of the Stop the War Coalition in this country. The founders of the movement, including both the author of the book under review and the present reviewer, said loud and clear that the course embarked on in the wake of September 11 by Washington and London would lead to no happy ending.
This book spells out chapter and verse, bringing together the erudite and committed writings of the anti-imperialist campaigner and author Tariq Ali on Afghanistan published at every stage of the calamity.
Compare his judgement on events with those promulgated in the chancelleries of the imperial occupiers — of The Guardian newspaper for example — and it is clear who assessed events the better.
This collection is indispensable for forming an understanding of what has happened and why.
Informed both by a deep understanding of the politics of Afghanistan and its entwined neighbour Pakistan and of the general principles of national liberation, Ali consistently called it right. This from 2007: “The Taliban is growing and creating new alliances not because its sectarian religious practices have become popular but because it is the only available umbrella for national liberation. As the British and Russians discovered to their cost in the preceding two centuries, Afghans never liked being occupied.”
In 2008 he pointed out that the consequences of the US-Nato occupation “creates a thirst for dignity that can only be assuaged by genuine independence.” How much blood might have been spared and treasure saved for better purposes had these simple truths been heeded much earlier. As long ago as 2010 Ali was warning that “the collapse might reach Saigon proportions.” So it proved.
Taken together — and there is inevitably an element of repetition in a volume aggregating separate articles as this does — the book allows one to follow step by dismal step the unravelling of the latest attempt to impose foreign-directed governance on Afghanistan. It shines a particular light on the contradictory, not to say duplicitous, role of Pakistan throughout.
Its leaders and above all its generals both assisted the US operation and simultaneously sheltered and supported the Taliban, a strategic balancing act maintained for a generation.
Present Pakistani premier Imran Khan was one of those who rejoiced in the Taliban victory this summer. Ali’s deep knowledge of Pakistani politics and society is invaluable here.
There is one issue addressed which Morning Star readers might find controversial. As the title of the book indicates, Ali’s sweep encompasses more than just the 20-year Nato war, and goes back to the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, which began in December 1979. The first piece in this collection, dated January 1980, is headed Soviet Troops out of Afghanistan!
In it, Ali warns that the Red Army was propping up a regime which had forfeited its initial public support through factionalism and unreralistic policies. “Genuine revolutions can only succeed with mass support. Any attempt to substitute Russian soldiers for the people of Afghanistan can end only in disaster. Either the Russians will have to withdraw in any event and accept a government of a different complexion, or they will get bogged down in a long war,” he wrote. As it turned out, over the next decade the Soviets got both.
The Communist Party in this country took the same view as Ali, albeit for rather more legalistic reasons, but many in the party, including the reviewer, and some on the left outside it did not.
Our view was not informed by any particular knowledge of Afghan affairs, but by the supervening requirement, as it seemed to us, to support the Soviet government as a principle of international class struggle, the more so when it was under attack by the imperialists.
We were also concerned to support a regime in Kabul that seemed to have progressive achievements, although we understood little about it. I was, I recall, working in the Star’s newsroom as part of a skeleton Sunday shift in April 1978 when news came through of the revolution which brought the People’s Democratic Party to power in Afghanistan.
The paper’s then-foreign editor, Sam Russell, having consulted with the CPGB’s international savant Jack Woddis, declared confidently that this event could not be considered a socialist revolution “because there is no Communist Party in Afghanistan.”
A couple of hours later, time clearly spent by Woddis immersed in his archives, the line changed — Russell announced that investigation had established that there were in fact two communist organisations in Kabul, so the revolution could be correspondingly upgraded.
Alas, the two communist factions spent much of the next few years at each other’s throats, mediating their differences through persecution, exile and murder.
The regime’s second leader, Hafizullah Amin, who had had the first bumped off, may in fact have actually been some sort of CIA asset. He in turn was killed by the Soviets on their arrival.
The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) regime did have many progressive achievements in terms of social modernisation, as Ali acknowledges. There was no talk from the imperialists, who hypocritically funded and armed the fundamentalist mujahidin fighting the regime, of protecting the rights of Afghan women then.
However, the PDPA’s lack of political judgement in tackling a conservative rural society, the intrigues of its enemies and its reliance on foreign military support sealed its fate, even if it lasted rather longer on its own two feet, after Soviet withdrawal, than the debased Ghani regime managed after the US bailed on him.
Looking back, I do not regret supporting the Soviet endeavour in Afghanistan, for the same reasons that I had at the time. However, on the substance of the matter — the wisdom of the intervention and its baleful consequences for both Afghanistan and the USSR itself — it should be acknowledged that, here too, Tariq Ali was right and has been vindicated.
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