Tariq Ali will deliver a talk, “Obama’s War,” at the School of Visual Arts on Monday, April 19, as part of the London Review of Books’ 30th anniversary celebration. Ali’s Night of the Golden Butterfly, the final novel in his critically acclaimed Islam Quintet, comes out this month from Verso.
Rail: What do you make of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recent observation that an “amazing” number of innocent Afghan civilians have been killed by U.S. forces? That fact is not surprising—but shouldn’t such high-level acknowledgment of it provoke real opposition to the war?
Tariq Ali: It should but it won’t because North American and European citizens (the latter in large majorities) who oppose the war feel disempowered. In the U.S., of course, Obama promised to escalate the war, an election pledge he has carried out with a vengeance and unless directly affected—as in the days of the draft—liberal Americans don’t care that much if foreigners are being killed. McChrystal’s remarks were designed largely for consumption in Afghanistan: he was simultaneously appealing to Afghans and warning the killer squads to go easy.
Rail: Do you think that Obama’s personal popularity is the main reason why there’s no visible antiwar movement?
Ali: Partially. He speaks of the war in terms of good and evil and gets the benefit of the doubt since his supporters are sure he’s good and even his opponents think the Afghan resistance is evil. As I mentioned above the main reason for the lack of an effective antiwar movement is that most Americans barely realize they’re at war since they don’t have to fight. The use of mercenaries represents a big shift compared to the U.S. wars of the last century.
Rail: Why do you believe that Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan? Are there important material interests there or is it merely a matter of politics and American “credibility"?
Ali: I think he believes in it, just like he said when he was running for the Senate that he would support Bush if he decided to bomb Iran. The fact that Obama is undoubtedly intelligent doesn’t automatically make him an enlightened liberal as we have seen domestically and abroad.
Rail: In the past you have cast Hamid Karzai as nothing but a U.S. puppet. What do you think is going on with him now?
Ali: He still is a puppet in the sense that if NATO withdrew he would have to accompany them. Obviously even puppets get angry when they are badly treated. Peter Galbraith’s and Holbrooke’s crude attempts to dump Karzai backfired. In the old days in South Vietnam recalcitrant puppet leaders were bumped off by the CIA. The problem now is that the U.S. has nobody to replace Karzai. He’s their most credible puppet and he has now become enormously rich thanks to his brother’s trading ‘skills’ (heroin and gun running are lucrative) which enables him to buy some local support. The fact that the U.S. tried to remove him and failed has improved his standing a tiny bit but all this attention has also gone to his head and when puppets begin to fantasize that they’re not what they are that things sometimes get out of control. McChrystal and Eikenberry are only too aware of this and for that reason have been trying to smooth ruffled feathers.
Rail: What is the relationship between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistan Taliban?
Ali: The Afghan Taliban consists now of several factions. The Mullah Omar faction has recently denounced the Pakistan Taliban for targeting the Pakistani security forces rather than NATO. As for the rest it is difficult to know. Some of the factions have been in contact with the U.S. for some years engaged in informal negotiations but no agreement has been reached. So when Karzai, too, speaks of bringing in the Taliban into the government one shouldn’t be too surprised. Washington would also like the ‘good’ Taliban to do the same. Attempts to divide the insurgents never stop but until now have had only limited success.
Rail: To what extent are India and Pakistan fighting a proxy war, or at least jockeying and struggling against each other, in Afghanistan?
Ali: Until recently the Indians backed Karzai and they have a strong diplomatic and extra-diplomatic presence in southern Afghanistan. They see it as payback time for Pakistan which sent in jihadis to Kashmir in the 90’s. So the interests of the two South Asian states are at loggerheads. India will do what it can to stop Pakistan re-asserting its influence after the NATO withdrawal. But talk of a proxy war is exaggerated. There is a U.S./NATO occupation of the country backed by both Pakistan and India.
Rail: In the United States we hear very little about the Russian occupation or about the history of Afghan communism. Tell us a bit about the Saur revolution of the late 1970s. Does it have a potentially positive legacy in Afghanistan today?
Ali: The Soviet occupation was a disaster on virtually every level and created the basis for what has followed: a country that has been wrecked by wars and occupations from 1979 to this day, i.e. longer than the First and Second World Wars, longer than the U.S. wars in Korea and Vietnam.
All this might not have happened had the Russians not sent in the Army in December 1979. I said so at the time. The mode of occupation was very different. The Russians were backing a government that was attempting to create a health service, free education for all (including women) and combatting obscurantism. It did so in a crude way and Wild West style shoot-outs between rival Communist factions in which President Taraki was killed did not create too positive an image. The U.S. occupation is neo-liberal in style. The rich get richer and the slums outside Kabul grow larger.