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 fourth of five extracts by author Tariq Ali.

Older Models

The current occupation of Afghanistan naturally recalls colonial operations in the region, not just to Afghans but to some Western myth-makers‚Äîusually British, but with a few Subcontinental mimics‚Äîwho try to draw lessons from the older model; the implication being that the British were “good imperialists” who have a great deal to teach the brutish, impatient Americans. Th e British administrators were, for the most part, racist to the core, and their self-proclaimed “competence” involved the efficient imposition of social apartheid in every colony they controlled. They could be equally brutal in Africa, the Middle East, and India. Though a promise of civilizational uplift was required as ideological justification, then as now, the facts of the colonial legacy speak for themselves. In 1947, the year the British left India, the overwhelming majority of midnight’s children were illiterate, and 85 percent of the economy was rural.[21]

Not bad intentions or botched initiatives, but the imperial presence itself was the problem. Kipling is much quoted today by editorialists urging a bigger Western “footprint” in Afghanistan, but even he was fully aware of the hatred felt by the Pashtuns for the British, and wrote as much in one of his last dispatches from Peshawar in April 1885 to the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore:

Pathans, Afridis, Logas, Kohistanis, Turcomans and a hundred other varieties of the turbulent Afghan race, are gathered in the vast human menagerie between the Edwardes Gate and the Ghor Khutri. As an Englishman passes,they will turn to scowl on him, and in many cases to spit fluently on the ground aft er he has passed. One burly, big-paunched ruffi an, with shaven head and a neck creased and dimpled with rolls of fat, is specially zealous in this religious rite—contenting himself with no perfunctory performance, but with a whole-souled expectoration, that must be as refreshing to his comrades as it is disgusting to the European.

One reason among many for the Pashtuns’ historic resentment was the torching of the famous bazaar in Kabul, a triumph of Mughal architecture. Ali Mardan Khan, a renowned governor, architect and engineer, had built the chahr-chatta (four-sided) roofed and arcaded central market in the seventeenth century on the model of those in old Euro-Arabian Muslim cities‚ÄîCairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Palermo or C√≥rdoba. It was regarded as unique in the region; nothing on the same scale was built in Lahore or Delhi. Th e bazaar was deliberately destroyed in 1842 by General Pollock’s “Army of Retribution,” remembered as amongst the worst killers, looters and marauders ever to arrive in Afghanistan, a contest in which competition remains strong. Defeated in a number of cities and forced to evacuate Kabul, the British punished its citizens by removing the market from the map. What will remain of Kabul when the current occupiers finally withdraw has yet to be seen, but its spreading mass of deeply impoverished squatter settlements suggest that it is set to be one of the major new capitals of the “planet of slums.”[22]

The Western occupation of Afghanistan is now confronted with five seemingly intractable, interrelated problems. Th e systemic failures of its nation-building strategy, the corruption of its local agents, the growing alienation of large sectors of the population and the strengthening of armed resistance are all compounded by the distortions wrought by the opium heroin industry on the country’s economy. According to UN estimates, narcotics account for 53 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, and the poppy fields continue to spread. Some 90 percent of the world opium supply emanates from Afghanistan. Since 2003 the NATO mission has made no serious attempt to bring about a reduction in this lucrative trade. Karzai’s own supporters would rapidly desert if their activities in this sphere were disrupted, and the amount of state help needed over many years to boost agriculture and cottage industries and reduce dependence on poppy farming would require an entirely different set of priorities. Only a surreal utopian could expect NATO countries, busy privatizing and deregulating their own economies, to embark upon full-scale national development projects abroad.


[21] “Per capita income was about one-twentieth of the level then attained in developed countries… Illiteracy was a high 84 per cent and the majority (60 per cent) of children in the six to eleven age-group did not attend school; mass communicable diseases (malaria, smallpox and cholera) were widespread and, in the absence of a good public health service and sanitation, mortality rates (27 per 1,000) were very high.” Dharma Kumar and Meghnad Desai, eds, Cambridge Economic History of India, vol. II: c.1757-c.1970, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, 23.

[22] Mike Davis, “Planet of Slums,” NLR 26, March-April 2004, 13.

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

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…