This Saturday thousands will march against the war in Afghanistan. This week we’re posting extracts from The Case for Withdrawal published by Verso. This is the first of five extracts by author Tariq Ali.

Rarely has there been such an enthusiastic display of international unity as that which greeted the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Support for the war was universal in the chanceries of the West, even before its aims and parameters had been declared. NATO governments rushed to assert themselves “all for one.” Blair jetted round the world, proselytizing the “doctrine of the international community” and the opportunities for peace-keeping and nation-building in the Hindu Kush. Putin welcomed the extension of American bases along Russia’s southern borders. Every mainstream Western party endorsed the war; every media network‚Äîwith BBC World and CNN in the lead‚Äîbecame its megaphone. For the German Greens, as for Laura Bush and Cherie Blair, it was a war for the liberation of the women of Afghanistan.[1] For the White House, a fight for civilization. For Iran, the impending defeat of the Wahhabi enemy.

Three years later, as the chaos in Iraq deepened, Afghanistan became the “good war” by comparison. It had been legitimized by the United Nations‚Äî even if the resolution was not passed until after the bombs had finished falling‚Äîand backed by NATO. If tactical differences had sharpened over Iraq, they could be resolved in Afghanistan. First Zapatero, then Prodi, then Rudd, compensated for pulling troops out of Iraq by dispatching them to Kabul.[2] France and Germany could extol their peace-keeping or civilizing roles there. As suicide bombings increased in Baghdad, Afghanistan was now‚Äîfor American Democrats keen to prove their “security” credentials‚Äî the “real front” of the war on terror, supported by every US presidential candidate in the run-up to the 2008 elections, with Senator Obama pressuring the White House to violate Pakistani sovereignty whenever necessary. With varying degrees of firmness, the occupation of Afghanistan was also supported by China, Iran, and Russia; though in the case of the latter, there was always a strong element of schadenfreude. Soviet veterans of the Afghan War were amazed to see their mistakes now being repeated by the United States, in a war even more inhumane than its predecessor.

Meanwhile, the number of Afghan civilians killed has exceeded many tens of times over the 2,746 who died in Manhattan. Unemployment is around 60 percent, and maternal, infant, and child mortality levels are now among the highest in the world. Opium harvests have soared, and the “Neo-Taliban” is growing stronger year by year. By common consent, Hamid Karzai’s government does not even control its own capital, let alone provide an example of “good governance.” Reconstruction funds vanish into cronies’ pockets or go to pay short-contract Western consultants. Police are predators rather than protectors. The social crisis is deepening. Increasingly, Western commentators have evoked the spectre of failure‚Äî usually in order to spur encore un eff ort. A Guardian leader summarizes: “Defeat looks possible, with all the terrible consequences that will bring.”[3]

Two principal arguments, often overlapping, are put forward as to “what went wrong” in Afghanistan. For liberal imperialists, the answer can be summarized in two words: “not enough.” The invasion organized by Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld was done on the cheap. The “light footprint” demanded by the Pentagon meant that there were too few troops on the ground in 2001-2002. Financial commitment to “state-building” was insufficient. Though it may now be too late, the answer is to pour in more troops, more money‚Äî“multiple billions” over “multiple years,” according to the US Ambassador in Kabul.[4] The second answer‚Äîadvanced by Karzai and the White House, but propagated by the Western media generally‚Äîcan be summed up in one word: Pakistan. Neither of these arguments holds water.


[1] In fact, the only period in Afghan history where women were granted equal rights and educated was from 1979 to 1989, the decade it was ruled by the PDPA, backed by Soviet troops. Repressive in many ways, on the health and education fronts real progress was achieved, as in Iraq under Saddam. Hence the nostalgia for the past amongst poorer sections of society in both countries.

[2] Visiting Madrid after Zapatero’s election triumph of March 2008, I was informed by a senior government official that they had considered a total withdrawal from Afghanistan a few months before the polls but had been outmaneuvered by the US promising Spain that the head of its military would be proposed for commander of the NATO forces, and a withdrawal from Kabul would disrupt this possibility. Spain drew back, only to discover it had been tricked.

[3] “Failing State,” Guardian, February 1, 2008; see also “The Good War, Still to Be Won,” August 20, 2007; “Gates, Truth and Afghanistan,” New York Times, February 12, 2008; “Must they be wars without end?” Economist, December 13, 2007; International Crisis Group, “Combating Afghanistan’s Insurgency,” November 2, 2006.

[4] “CIA Review Highlights Afghan Leader’s Woes,’’ New York Times, November 5, 2006.

Excerpts from The Case for Withdrawal, ed. Nick Turse (Verso 2010). Tomorrow’s excerpt will be Tariq Ali: Mirage of the Good War – Political Failures.

Afghanistan: Time to Go | Protest 20 November

STW flyer Stop the War Coalition, CND and the British Muslim Initiative have called a demonstration against the increasingly bloody, expensive and failing war in Afghanistan.

More information…