Book Review: Afghanistan Through Tariq Ali’s Eyes

Tariq Ali (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)

TARIQ ALI CAN always be expected to inspire you with new information even about much talked about events. In that sense, he is often a reporter’s reporter who carries in his head rich anecdotes and side stories, not to talk of his penchant for digging out details of ambitious decisions that made history. He lives up to that image of a master chronicler in his latest book too, dissecting the history and the current plight of Afghanistan, which had fallen to the Taliban even before the withdrawal of the US-led NATO forces—which had invaded the country in 2001 in what came to be known as a ‘forever war’.

In The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan: A Chronicle Foretold, Ali, an author of more than two dozen books on world history and politics, covers all the wars fought in and over Afghanistan, from the three wars of the British empire in the 19th century; the Red Army’s war from 1979 to 1989; and then the 2001 invasion by the US and allied troops, which was lapped up as a ‘good war’ back then. Ali explains the main theme of this book, “It was obvious at the time that the entry of Soviet troops (in 1979) would bring a horrific counterreaction and wreck the region for decades. The United States, taking over the historic role of Britain, had already begun arming the religious opposition, using the Pakistani army as a conduit. What followed is the subject matter of this book.” Ali’s stunning knowledge of the region, especially Pakistan, its army and its intelligence wings—proof of which are his earlier books on them—makes the reading tremendously gripping. His insights on what went on within the American and British administrations are equally riveting.

Ali puts together select and standalone essays and articles written over the decades to analyse a range of historical events that have dominated news headlines over the past 40 years, starting from the Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan. The author compares the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 15th, 2021, to two events: Saigon in April 1975 and 19th-century Sudan when the Mahdi’s forces stormed Khartoum, in what is often described as a major setback for the British empire. Then he talks about the humiliating crumbling of the 3,00,000-strong American-trained Afghan army, “In some respects, the closest analogy is not Saigon” but Sudan. He hastens to state, “Yet while the Sudanese insurgents killed an entire garrison, Kabul changed hands with little bloodshed.”

In an opinion piece included in the book and titled “The Arrival of the Taliban,” he delves into where the dreaded outfit came from and how they missed an opportunity to earn lasting support among the people. “The Taliban were orphans of the war against the Russian infidel. Trained and dispatched across the border by the ISI, they were to be hurdled into battle against Muslims they were told were not true Muslims,” he starts off. We also see some of Ali’s early prophecies come true. Sample this opinion piece from 2001 titled “Into Pakistan’s Maelstrom”: “Saudiologists have long recognised that Crown Prince Abdullah is close to the Wahhabi clerics. But he will still face a bitterly angry population—as will Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. The prospect of eruptions in these two countries is growing and the consequences of the Anglo-American war in Afghanistan are likely to be incendiary.” Mubarak fell 10 years later, and Afghanistan has descended into further chaos with the exit of the Anglo-American troops 20 years later. Saudi Arabia somehow still managed to stay afloat.

In an article, written in 2002, Ali says that he has never believed in the myth of Afghan invincibility. “True, they defeated the British twice during the nineteenth century, but helicopters, bomber jets and cruise missiles had not been invented. The Soviet army was defeated because of the massive military and economic aid provided by the United States and the direct military intervention of Pakistan’s ISI. The notion that the Taliban could resist the (American) assault was laughable.” In a way he is right about the myth of terming Afghanistan the “graveyard of empires,” including that of the US this year. Americans, like the Soviets and the British forces, may have lost, but then who has won the war? The people of Afghanistan? It cannot be.

The essay “Terror Trail” narrates the life and death of Daniel Pearl, the South Asia Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal in Pakistan in 2002, bringing into focus the stories of the hunter and the hunted with clarity and perspective.

There are more of his prophecies that came true, especially written at a time when the American presence in Afghanistan was considered the most fruitful military move meant to turn the country eventually into a state with order and blessed with good governance. Ali writes, “The argument that more NATO troops are the solution is unsustainable. All evidence suggests that the brutality of the occupying forces has been one of the main sources of recruits for the Taliban. American air power, lovingly referred to as ‘Big Daddy’ by frightened US soldiers on unwelcome terrain, is far from paternal when it comes to targeting Pashtun villages.” He also writes about the rampant killings, and rapes of women by the occupying forces. That was the time the Americans were considered the best thing to have happened to Afghanistan.

The book also uncovers the roles of key characters in the region and beyond, including American presidents, Osama bin Laden, US military figures, Pakistan’s army and prime ministers and Afghanistan’s new feudal rulers. Plots and counterplots keep the narrative racing.

Ali’s literary flourish is there for all to see in the essay titled “The Abbottabad Incident”, referring to the Navy SEALs capturing and killing Laden in 2011, an attack that also had deep political motives. Ali writes: “Surely, even a person regarded as a heartless, cold-blooded, dehumanized Wahhabi Muslim deserves a trial.” He brings up how a trial was given to even Nazi generals and leaders, some of the worst criminals in modern history. His argument is tempting. Finally, he invokes Homer and writes about Achilles killing Hector in revenge for the slaying of Patroclus. “Achilles relents (to Hector’s father’s plea to return his son’s body) but has the body washed and cleaned before he returns it to the father. Western civilization has not yet reached that time,” avers Ali.

The author says that the disastrous American occupation failed to achieve even less than what the Russians achieved in the 1980s. According to him, “The fact is that after twenty years, the US has failed to build anything that might redeem its mission. The brilliantly lit Green Zone was always surrounded by a darkness that the Zoners could not fathom. In one of the poorest countries in the world, billions were spent annually on air-conditioning the barracks … while food and clothing were regularly flown in from bases in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.” The 78-year-old public intellectual also dwells on the rampant corruption of leaders such as Hamid Karzai, his family and others. Ali, in fact, had warned early on that Karzai would, in all probability, even try to promote Pashtun nationalism to weaken Islamabad. It is another thing that not all such attempts succeed.

In a brilliant and incisive essay in this collection, titled “Twenty Years After 9/11,” Ali says that the key players in Afghanistan now are going to be China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan. He also argues that the West owes Afghan refugees a favour. “At the very least, refuge is what the West owes them: a minor reparation for an unnecessary war.”

Ali, who had opposed the Soviet invasion and had time and again warned against the American sequel, has his ear to the ground as regards the Af-Pak region and NATO policies. His sharp and piercing writings spread across 40 years are a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the causes and consequences of the decades-long turmoil in Afghanistan.

First published in Open

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