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What is the way out?

Now, what is the way out? The only way out is the way the Russians took and the British before them. And by the way, the British were driven out of Afghanistan in the nineteenth century. They fought two wars, and they were driven out; they were defeated at a time when weapons were very straightforward and simple. Of course, the British had the Maxim gun, or something closely resembling it, which later became the Maxim gun. They had quite advanced technology for the time. But they were defeated essentially, you know, by tribal guerrillas who had nothing but very old-fashioned rifles which often took just one gunshot, and they fired it normally for killing animals. And the British, realizing they had lost, left the country. And they claimed they left it alone. But they never did because they were then occupying and ruling over India. It was British India at the time. And when, for the first time, you had in Afghanistan an attempt by native Afghans to create a popular democratic constitution in 1918, 1919—inspired partially by the Kemalists in Turkey, and partially by the Bolsheviks—the new king, Amanullah, said, “We will have a democratic constitution and permit elections,” and his wife Soraya, said, “And we will give women the right to vote.” This was in the Afghan draft constitution. In other words, if that had gone through, women in Afghanistan would have had the right to vote before they did in the United States and Britain and most parts of the West. But this plan was defeated by a British plot which conspired with very deeply conservative and reactionary tribes and toppled this regime and put a semi-puppet regime in its place which was always unstable.

So it’s all been tried before. The Russians likewise invaded Afghanistan in 1979 after two unanimous politburo decisions not to do it. Zbigniew Brzezinski boasts that they drew them into a bear trap. Was false information put on the desk of the politburo saying that Hafizullah Amin, the president of Afghanistan, was a CIA agent? Probably. In any case, they changed their minds; they went in and were stuck in an unwinnable bloody war for ten years, until finally, Gorbachev came and decided, “We have to withdraw unilaterally,” and General Boris Gromov crossed the River Oxus, the Amu Darya, marched out. Quite a courageous thing to do given the enormous casualities they had had. Now, the big difference between then and now—but this shouldn’t really give too much hope to those in favor of an indefinite war—is that the Afghan mujahideen, the jihadis, Osama bin Laden, groups from Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia fighting the Jihad, funded by Pakistani military intelligence, were backed by the entire West, including the Israelis for the first time. There were Mossad people giving very concrete advice inside Pakistan to the jihadis fighting the Russians. And so there was no shortage of weapons, munitions, propaganda, money. All the jihadi groups were built up at the time by the Pakistani intelligence to defeat the Russians.

One thing I will say about the Russians, opposed though I was to that invasion and occupation, simply for the reason that I said, “If this happens the Americans will come in and it will become a Cold War battlefield and the whole area will be a mess for thirty years.” And it is more than that now. Afghanistan has now been at war, bloody, brutal war since 1979, longer than the Vietnam War, longer than the First World War, longer than the Second World War, and imagine what that does to the people… But I was saying that, opposed though I was, the Russians at least did one thing. They did build an education infrastructure, they did build hospitals, and for the time they were there, they did attempt—and succeeded—to educate Afghan women, lots of people were trained as technicians, lots of people were taught sciences, lots of people were given free room, board and lodging, and education at higher institutions in Moscow. That they did.

Their successors in the invasion occupation business, the U.S. and NATO, have not done that. They claim they have but the statistics are a joke. And any serious person who goes to Afghanistan reports back on how much of a joke it is: statistics are cooked, statistics are manufactured, handed to them, and they believe them. But of course the real intelligence forces in that country know that this is far removed from the truth.

So, this is a war which is unwinnable, this is a war which is going to end, no one can win it. Neither the United States nor the insurgents. The insurgents do not have the power to inflict a Vietnamese-style defeat, and that defeat too which the Vietnamese inflicted in 1975—you know, we tend to sort of exaggerate the indigenous impact; it was very strong, but we mustn’t forget the Vietnamese armies had state-of-the-art weaponry from the Soviet Union and from the early days from China. So they were incredibly well armed to take on the United States; even though their causalities were huge, they inflicted very heavy damage. And the second help the Vietnamese had, which is hardly a secret, is from the huge anti-war movement that erupted in the United States because you had a conscript army and every single family was affected by that war. These two factors are missing in the case of Afghanistan. So there’s not going to be any quick victory for the insurgents. But they now have the support of large swathes of the population who were indifferent to them, because of their experience of the regime they had imposed on Afghanistan, and are now not so indifferent. And what has made them supportive of the insurgents and [enabled] large numbers of kids joining the insurgency is how the NATO armies have operated. Look, it’s not just the killings, it’s not just the massacre of innocents, which happens regularly; it is the whole tone and tenor of this occupation. That the way Western soldiers, Western journalists, Western administrators, Western NGOs live is in such sharp contrast with the ordinary people of the country, that it excites anger and makes people feel this is not the way we are ever going to get anything.

The argument being used today by Obama and his British camp followers is: “We can create a stable Afghan army. Look: we have an Afghan army of 100,000 people.” Hang on a minute. You may have that on paper. How do you know how many of these 100,000 soldiers are on your side, how do you know that all the people you’re training to be policemen are on your side? We know what the insurgency has instructed people to do. It’s not a secret. They’ve said in the villages and in the towns, “If the Americans offer you military training, if they say, ‘We’ll teach you how to use weapons,’ join it; we need people in there.” Classic resistance tactics, utilized in virtually every resistance struggle over the last century. The Vietnamese did it, by the way. Lots of the opponents were asked to join the South Vietnamese army. Which is why sections of them collapsed in ’74,’75. And the Afghans are doing it because it’s an obvious thing to do, and in this case even more so—no one is backing you, no one is training you, a tiny chunk of your forces are getting irregular, informal help from the Pakistanis. But by and large you’re dependent on the weapons you capture and the training you get. And we’ve had episodes lately of supposedly loyal Afghan policeman turning and killing British officers. We’ve had a famous case of an Afghan agent working for the Intelligence agencies for United States who went into a very heavily guarded secure facility and shot people dead. And that is not surprising given the anger that exists at the moment.

So what to do? What then is to be done? Out. Got to get out of Afghanistan and got to get out quick. And not get out by saying we’re leaving the towns and we’re going to build four huge military bases in Afghanistan, because it’s not going to work. I think it might work in Iraq for a while as long as the Iranians let it work. It’s not going to work in Afghanistan, because when the United States first announced they were going to build bases in Afghanistan for perpetuity, there were public street demonstrations in every big city: south, west, east, north. All the cities came out. No one wants that—not even those allied. Whether Karzai wants that is an open question. If he wants to stay in Afghanistan, he won’t accept that; if he wants to leave with the NATO troops, he will.

Now the big question is, what should be the mode of withdrawal? Sometimes, people say, “But if we go, won’t there be a bigger mess?” Well, probably there will for a short time. But then I think a withdrawal is something which has to be organized, after serious discussions—and serious discussions with the local neighboring countries. There is no way the Pakistani regime, whichever regime you have, can be excluded from being part of the process, because apart from anything else, millions of Pashtuns live on the Pakistani side of the border. It always used to be a notion of a nominal border which was never seriously policed until this recent occupation and during the Soviet occupation. Prior to that anyone could cross it, any Pashtun could cross the border. No one ever asked him or her or any kid for their passports. The same tribes live on each side. So obviously there are links.

And that is the other factor, which has to be taken into account—that this spillage from the Afghan war is now totally destabilizing Pakistan. The notion that Pakistan is a country which, simply because it has an elected government, is calm and peaceful—that’s not true. It does what the West asks it to do. But that’s a very different business from actually knowing how to run the country. Pakistan has its own Karzai-style figure, Asif Zardari, who’s a thief, a crook, possibly a murderer, some people say he is a murderer, and who will be swept away soon by the democratic process if it is permitted, because all he’s done since he’s come to power is that he and his cronies have been making money. And if these are the allies which the U.S. backs in these countries regardless of how they’re in power, it doesn’t help them in any way.

But the Pakistani military obviously is a key player, and has to be part of the process of withdrawal, as have the Iranians, as have the Russians, the Chinese. These are the four critical players. The Chinese because they have investments there and their money is needed to rebuild the country; the Pakistanis, Iranians, and the Russians because they need to tell their supporters in this country, “We need a national coalition government in Afghanistan for ten years, we’ll disarm you, no violence will be tolerated, we’re going to rebuild the country.” That is the only way forward. I know it seems utopian at the moment. But the other way is to send more and more troops which will lead to more and more Afghan deaths, more and more U.S. deaths, more and more NATO deaths. I mean, the Germans have now sent in more troops than most European countries, have started participating in clashes. One of the first clashes they had was they shot dead their own allies in the Afghan army, which created havoc in that country. And just so that we know, the last opinion poll in Germany showed more than 80 percent of the German population opposed increasing German troops in Afghanistan. In Britain, the figures are lower. I’m talking to you at a time of a general election campaign which is taking place here, which you could be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t taking place, because there's no big enthusiasm for it, unlike the last campaign in the United States. But 77 percent of the British population is in favor of withdrawing the troops and has declared its opposition to the war. Opposition not reflected by any of the three major political parties contesting this election. In Spain, in Italy, in France, it’s exactly the same. In Holland, a government has collapsed because the Labor Party there, to its credit, said they were not prepared to vote for continuing the Dutch presence in Afghanistan. And if the Dutch begin to do it—and some of you may know, they are probably the country, apart from Britain, which does whatever the U.S. wants—then you’re in trouble.

So the European population is unhappy with this. They won’t act, they won’t move, because they think they feel disempowered, they think it isn’t going to help. But a way out is absolutely necessary. And one of the ways to do it is, as I’ve suggested—because if the U.S. decides to stay on, and indefinitely kill and be killed—it’s not going to help anyone, and if this war spreads into Pakistan in a big way and succeeds in splitting the Pakistani military which has so far managed to preserve its command structure, it could be [catastrophic]. So although it’s the continuity with previous policies and the escalation of the war in that region, one can’t say that this is a surprise, because Obama promised that he was going to do it in the election campaign. But some of us said then it was a crazy thing to pledge and an even crazier thing to carry out. So in brief, the U.S. has to concentrate now not on surges, not on wishful thinking, but on beginning the process to pull itself out from Afghanistan. And when it does, all the Europeans, highly relieved, will follow suit.


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Tariq Ali is an author and filmmaker. He has written more than two dozen books on world history and politics, and seven novels—most recently Night of the Golden Butterfly. He is an editor of New Left Review and lives in London.

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