Tariq Ali’s new account of Afghanistan’s recent history demonstrates unequivocally that the anti-war movement was correct, finds Terina Hine

Tariq Ali, The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan: A Chronicle Foretold (Verso 2021), 272pp.

Tariq Ali’s latest book, The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan, is subtitled A Chronicle Foretold, and that is exactly what it is. Informative and at times amusing, the book charts the tragic history of Western intervention in the beleaguered country through a collection of Tariq’s writings drawn from 1983 to the present day. Article by article, the book provides a critical analysis of events and an uncannily accurate prediction of the outcome.

At first it may seem strange to produce a book of old essays and comment pieces to mark the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, but Tariq’s judgement and opinions were remarkably prescient, so the book reads more like a history, with all the benefits of hindsight, than a contemporary account. Beginning with a brief outline of the British imperial role in nineteenth-century Afghanistan, and the imposition of the Durand Line, Tariq goes on to explore the disasters of the Soviet and American invasions and occupations. The preface, written on the day Kabul fell to the Taliban, brings this history bang up to date.

Tariq Ali, writer, film-maker, and a leading figure of the international left, was one of the founding members of the Stop the War Coalition. He was propelled into the frontline of political activism during the Vietnam war and has never departed. His writing is witty, insightful, and full of detail. He has an ability to join up the dots, which is sadly lacking amongst many commentators. The inclusion of details garnered through personal contacts and decades of political activism adds layers of colour; the result is a book replete with encounters and anecdotes, evocative descriptions, and a brutal honesty about the corrupting power of war.

One of the stand-out features is Tariq’s extensive knowledge of the wider region. Although the focus is on Afghanistan, the author’s comprehensive understanding of Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran, and of course Pakistan, enables the reader to see how intricately entwined the region is; how contaminants in one country so easily infect another.

Regional context

The close relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan is a thread that runs throughout the book. We learn that links with the Taliban go far beyond the ‘bad-lands’ of the border region, and that the corrupting and destabilising impact of the American war cuts deep into the political heart of Pakistan. Tariq concludes that, by 2008, Pakistan was so intimately involved with America’s war, it was no longer a sovereign nation but ‘a country whose fate is no longer in its own hands’ (p.152).

Some of the details and names of various agents, lieutenants, and henchmen may be unfamiliar to those of us less well-versed in recent Pakistani history, but the picture that is painted is one of an out of control, mafia-like state. Talk of violent political murders, the flogging of women, and grizzly videos only add to the image of Al Capone-style gangsters given a free reign by the US to ensure ongoing support for the occupation.

Tariq’s disgust at the endemic corruption of his homeland does not mask his love for the country, and his descriptions are often beautifully crafted. In chapter four, it is a delight to be able to join him on a trip back in time to Lahore, the city of his birth: ‘This city, dry, warm and abundant, where I spent the first twenty years of my life and which I still love, is always changing, usually for the worse.’ He goes on to describe in lyrical detail the old Mall he once knew, where coffee houses were frequented by those ‘cursing the dictator of the day or discussing the merits of blank verse as they dipped their samosas in a mint-chilli compote and sipped tea’ (p.34).

Given the subject matter there is a surprising level of humour in Tariq’s writing, and he rarely holds back his acerbic wit. See especially the exchange of letters between Tariq and Mike O’Brien MP, UK government trade minister (2003-4), recorded in chapter eight. Amusingly polite, their publication is clearly a well justified ‘I-told-you-so’ moment. Tariq points out the Afghanistan occupation ‘will end badly’, that ‘nothing but civil war is waiting in the wings’, and how women’s liberation ‘has come to naught’. While O’Brien replies: ‘So scathing, so cynical, so wrong’ (p.58).

Imperialist hubris

Any pretence that the establishment did not know the demons they were unleashing in their ‘war on terror’ is put to bed by this book. That the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan failed to act as a warning, simply reveals the callousness of the endeavour, the self-defeating nature of US foreign policy, and the hubris of the elites. Chapter three provides a transcript of a 1998 interview by President Carter’s national security advisor, who said, when asked if he regretted America’s arming of Islamic fundamentalists and possibly future terrorists: “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet Empire? A few crazed Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?” (p.25). Just over a year later, he may have proffered a different reply.

The Forty-year War provides evidence of the devastating destruction brought by the US, UK and NATO in their war of revenge. The ignorance displayed by the occupiers is almost beyond belief. The invaders, unable to distinguish friend from foe right to the end, admitted mistakes only to repeat them, caused the revival of a global Jihadi movement, and well and truly failed to bring freedom to the people of Afghanistan. The wars of freedom and democracy have, as Tariq says, a ‘grim and bloody balance sheet’ (p.206).

In 2003 Tariq warned, ‘Sooner or later you’ll have to pull out the Marines. Then what?’ (p.62). In the summer of 2020, he predicted that the collapse of the US occupation ‘might reach Saigon proportions’ (p.157). Foretold indeed. As for Afghanistan’s future, he predicts: ‘Beijing will replace Washington as the capital of importance for Afghanistan’ (p.208). In the meantime it appears that Beijing has replaced Kabul as the object of American ire.

If you know nothing about Afghanistan’s tragic history, this book will provide considerable insight; if you know a lot, it will provide a level of depth and detail, enriched by personal recollections few can rival.

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