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The Best Thing the US Can Do for Afghanistan Is Stay Out of It

Tariq Ali

Despite four decades of imperial interventions, the United States was defeated in Afghanistan. Tariq Ali explains the long history of meddling in Afghanistan — and why the US's defeat will set back the broader project of American military supremacy.

Tariq Ali speaks at the 2014 Support for Gaza Demonstration. (David Hardman / Flickr)

Interview by
Daniel Denvir

Tariq Ali is a member of the editorial committee of New Left Review. He has written more than two dozen books on world history and politics, the most recent of which are The Clash of Fundamentalisms, The Obama Syndrome, and The Extreme Centre. He discussed his forthcoming book The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan: A Chronicle Foretold (Verso, November) with Daniel Denvir for The Dig, a podcast from Jacobin. You can listen to the episode here; the transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 


DD

You open your book: “The fall of Kabul to the Taliban on the 15th of August, 2021 is a major political and ideological defeat for the American empire.” US empire’s most committed fans seem to agree with you on that point, but they think that that’s a bad thing. What about the American defeat in Afghanistan is most harmful to American power?

TA

It’s the fact that the United States, together with its NATO allies, occupied a relatively small country in Asia, stayed there for twenty years, and ultimately were forced to leave after a six- or seven-day offensive by the Taliban, who rode back a twenty-year occupation within the space of days.

That, for the US allies, is a defeat, and understandably so, because they achieved nothing. They had no real aims in Afghanistan. Joe Biden and others say that. Their only aim was that it was a war of revenge to punish the country that had given refuge to al-Qaeda and the terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11. 

That was done very quickly. They occupied the country, and the Taliban didn’t put up a resistance. They just went back to their villages. And by that time bin Laden wasn’t there anyway. He left for Pakistan, and they got him, executed him without a trial, and then boasted about it. 

Most people who are not political at all will say, “Well, we’ve done what we said we would do. Why aren’t we getting out?” And that’s the main question: Why did they take so long to get out? They could have left in 2010. They had this liberationist rhetoric that was used for public opinion, especially in Europe, which was totally on their side in this war. They said, “We’re going to liberate women. We’re going to sort things out.”

That was never the real aim. It’s now been admitted by US generals and politicians that the aim was punishment. As part of the punishment, rapping Afghanistan on the knuckles would allow the United States to move on and fulfill their mission in the Middle East. But they botched this one — and in a world where the United States is the dominant, if not the only, power. 

For them to be defeated by these guys is a huge defeat — not a military defeat but an ideological, political defeat. And the next time they go in for long occupations, from the Right and the Left and the center of US politics, there will be some opposition. Do you know what you’re doing, are we going to go in for another long haul and then suffer at the end, etc. 

The critics of Biden are saying that there was no other option. How long did people want the United States to stay there? Another ten years? Twenty years? Forever? Some of the people criticizing Biden for leaving Afghanistan have their own terrible records on Afghanistan. The United States didn’t physically stop any other ally from staying on; they just couldn’t handle it, because they could never handle anything without the United States. 

About ten or twelve years ago, I was in Denmark lecturing on Afghanistan, and on the panel with me was a government minister. She kept on this fake liberationist talk. I said, “Look, you’ve already been there for many years. Nothing has changed in the condition of women. And it’s not going to change with this type of occupation because your principal allies are no different from the Taliban when it comes to the issue of gender. So nothing is going to change.”

She said, “No, we will stay there as long as we have to, to liberate women.” So I just asked her, “Are you going to stay there? Even after the United States leaves?” She said, “Pardon me?” I said, “The United States will leave sooner or later. And then you people can nurse your wounded rhetoric at home.” She said no. 

“Well, without the United States,” I said, “you’re completely tied to the US motives.” This is what hurts the Germans, the Brits, and others: that they couldn’t do anything without the United States. But it was a US initiative, after all. They had to get out, which Trump had more or less agreed on and Biden then pushed through. There was no other alternative. 

It’s being said that we were in favor of transitional government. The US puppet president went home. He eloped with two Jeep-loads of dollars. How many billions were in there? We don’t know. He hopped on a helicopter, which took him to a neighboring country, from where he got a flight and got into the Arab Gulf states. 

This shows the complete failure of the United States to establish any kind of alternative. Otherwise you can’t explain your president running off with money when he’s meant to be part of a transitional government, or your puppet army, consisting of three hundred thousand paid soldiers, just collapsing, with not a single city where they fought back. This point of view, this type of war, and this type of occupation has proved to be a complete failure. That is what is upsetting to US empire.

DD

It wasn’t just the Europeans who were scandalized by the withdrawal and Taliban victory, but the entire national security state establishment in the United States and so much of the media. But the real scandal is that the US and NATO didn’t get what Richard Nixon had sought after the US withdrawal from Vietnam — a so-called decent interval between US withdrawal and the fall of Kabul. I’m sure some people do sincerely believe that they care about the fate of Afghans, but they care more about the state of American and European prestige and honor.

TA

If you look at the media, including the liberal media in the United States, the music they’re playing is the same. This is a disaster for us because we’ve shown to be weak, and they can’t come up with alternatives. One semi-journalist in Britain, writing in the New Statesman, said, “We could have maintained a small garrison there forever.” A small garrison forever, with Pakistan opposed to it, with China opposed to it. How are you going to do that? 

In terms of sympathy for the Afghans, they do not ask the real questions. How come we occupied for so long and achieved nothing, and how come we couldn’t build any real support in that country that would fight for us or with us? And the method they use — infesting Kabul and other cities with NGLs and pouring money to probably some well-deserving people — that doesn’t solve anything. It’s an Oxfam view of politics. Go in, give a few people something to eat in starving African villages. We can all feel good again. 

And that was basically what they did. No one can feel good. The appalling thing is this: after every big war the United States has fought, they have grudgingly allowed lots of refugees and accepted their responsibility, but after the Afghan war, they’ve suddenly gotten very strict. There were large numbers of Koreans coming in after the Korean War and large numbers of the Vietnamese after the Vietnam War. But now they’re not going to allow too many. And the Europeans are even tougher on this question of refugees. So they have no interest, apart from a handful of well-meaning do-gooders, in the future of Afghanistan, the fate of the Afghan people, or anything like that. And it’s foolish to pretend that they do.

DD

It seems to be a major and revealing change in the politics of liberal empire that providing those sorts of goods and services to the world order no longer seems necessary or politically possible in the United States. 

TA

It’s going to become even more difficult as time goes by and the economic situation in the United States doesn’t get better, despite the break with neoliberalism and the Biden stimulus. Let’s see if it gets through the House and Senate. 

With the United States incapable of offering its own people at home what they need — pretty basic needs in health and education, particularly — there will be more and more anger when they go and spend trillions. These so-called wars against terror have created more terrorism globally, and in the six wars they’ve fought, none of them has proved to be successful. And they’ve spent trillions of dollars that they could have spent on building good infrastructure in the United States, making sure its people were looked after. 

The comparison with China is very striking. The Chinese have built new cities. They’ve got astonishing infrastructure. The government is safe. The Chinese government is not unpopular with its people, even though it’s not democratic. American politicians have completely failed to grasp this. Now they’re beginning to think about it. 

The Afghan debacle plays into all of that. The only success in Afghanistan, if we want to talk in those terms, has been that Afghanistan’s exports to the rest of the world have shot up from about 24 percent of the world market to 90 percent of the world market. That is poppy heroin and opium. Instead of stopping this trade, United States and its NATO allies basically encouraged it. 

A lot of money exchanged hands; everyone, apart from the really poor people, benefited from this. Rich farmers benefited; corrupt businessmen and military officers from other countries benefited. God knows how much money was exchanged between the people at the top brass of the armies that were there. 

And the second big shift that occurred is the huge influx of sex workers to service the needs of the guys who had been sent and stationed in Afghanistan. To this day, we can’t get statistics on the number of brothels in Afghanistan, how many women were taken in, or what their ethnicities were, but privately, Afghans talk about this with great bitterness.

DD

To what extent is political and social life in Afghanistan ethnically organized, with loyalties divided between the Pashtun plurality and the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara minorities? And to what degree are other forces at work?

TA

Since the formation of Afghanistan in the eighteenth century as a federation of tribes, the structure was seen as largely tribal rather than ethnic. Ethnicity as such was more or less banned. It’s still not registered in the census. Whenever they take a census of the country, it’s always of Afghan citizens. They don’t say Pashtun or Tajik or Hazara or Sunni or Shia; that is never done, and for good reason. They want to create a state with its own sovereignty despite its tribal structures. 

The tribes, the largest of them in particular, made final decisions on who the rulers should be. All the imperial states, from the three British interventions in the nineteenth century onwards, have played on this tribal structure: how to break up the tribes, how to back one tribe against the other. And they did this with the twenty-year occupation by the United States, using the Northern Alliance against the predominantly Pashtun Taliban. It hasn’t worked, and it’s not worked in the past.

In my book, I give some quotations to show how they refer to the Afghans. “Savages,” a senior British civil servant writes to his superior. “The tribesmen of Afghanistan are noble savages, perhaps, but savages.” This is the logic for genocide. This is what they said in the United States. This is what they said in Australia. This is what they said in parts of Africa: we are fighting savages. 

In the case of Afghanistan, it couldn’t be more false. While literacy was low, the oral traditions, the artistic traditions, and the poetry produced by the Afghans was on a much, much higher level than in parts of Europe, to be perfectly frank. 

This characterization sets the Afghans: “This is who they are.” And this carries on until now. “These are people who don’t understand democracy.” They do and they don’t. But what they don’t like is when so-called democratic powers come and occupy them and commit atrocities nonstop. The British who went to occupy them failed; the Russians made a huge mistake and went in to try and save a government that couldn’t be saved. They probably did the most useful things while they were there, in terms of educating women and building schools and universities and hospitals, and a lot of Afghans benefited from that.

DD

Afghanistan fought three wars with the British Empire. The first war was 1839 to 1842. And that was an Afghan victory. You write that it “ended with the annihilation of the British army, and was also undoubtedly one of the inspirations for the great uprising of 1857 that almost toppled the British in India.”

The second war, from 1878 to 1880, was won by the British. And it was followed by the imposition of “the Durand line as a 1600-mile frontier between British India and Afghanistan, dividing the Pashtun tribes in order to weaken Afghanistan.”

This is a really pivotal moment. What were the British seeking to accomplish with these first two wars in Afghanistan? And what was their motive in imposing the Durand line?

TA

The British sought to bring Afghanistan under control, because they feared the expansionism of the Russian Empire. They felt that as the Russians were advancing, they could capture Afghanistan. The first two wars were inter-imperialist rivalry, and the British wanted to make sure that Afghanistan was under their control. 

After the defeat they suffered in the first war, they gave up ideas of a permanent occupation, but they still had to make sure they could push something through. They went in with a larger armed force. It wasn’t easy, even the second time, but they defeated the Afghans and divided the country so that the Pashtun cities that had been partially under British Indian occupation were now cemented and officialized.

You couldn’t go back and undo it; it was a hundred-year deal. In the 1990s, its time was up, but no one dared raise it. It was a lease for a hundred years, not unlike the Hong Kong lease. That was the aim. 

And the third war, a quick one, was basically to topple the most radical leaders Afghanistan has had: King Amanullah and his feminist wife, Queen Soraya. To get rid of her, the British, against tribal conservatism, got pictures of Queen Soraya — fake pictures, doctored pictures in tiny bikinis, saying, “Look, this is how your queen goes when she travels abroad.”

Soraya was a hard-line feminist. It was on her insistence that the king and courtiers agreed to have a clause in the Afghan constitution giving women the right to vote. Had that constitution gone through, women would have had the right to vote in Afghanistan before they did in the United States, Britain, and most of Europe. That’s one of the ironies of history. 

The British came and removed King Amanullah because he was friendly with Vladimir Lenin and with Kemal Ataturk in Turkey. He said, “These are modernist leaders. We must learn from Bolshevik Russia and modern Turkey to rebuild our country.” That was something that the British couldn’t accept. So they came and toppled him, very much like the United States later toppled the more progressive regime in Afghanistan, which was not as enlightened as the king’s.

Those were the first three wars. One thing that’s worth noting is that when big empires want to punish a people, it’s not just that they kill lots of them. That’s normal for these empires. But the British general ordered the destruction of a beautiful medieval bazaar in Kabul, just to punish them.

Compare this punishment to the punishment the British inflicted on the Chinese during the Opium Wars, the destruction of the Summer Palace — an incredibly beautiful eighteenth-century palace built by the Qing dynasty and its emperors. All the descriptions of it are amazing. It took some four thousand soldiers and God knows how many weeks to make sure it was destroyed completely. British and French soldiers carried that out. The French commander wrote a proud letter to Victor Hugo, saying, “Look what we’ve done,” and got a very nasty response back saying, “You are the barbarians.” 

You see what the United States did when they took Iran in 2003: opening the doors of the museum, chucking the stuff out, throwing out valuable papers going back centuries. Tablets from the early period of Mesopotamian history were finally found in the United States, going through auction houses. Some court in the United States mercifully said, “These are too valuable. These have to be returned to Iraq.” So they were returned a few weeks ago. 

Trying to crush the culture of a country is very specific to Western imperialism because it clashes with their own rhetoric of savagery.

DD

The British intervention was truly nefarious, but you also write, “The senior Bolshevik Raskolnikov remarked that Amanullah had introduced bourgeois reforms without a bourgeoisie, whose cost had fallen on peasants, whom he had failed to win over with an agrarian reform, allowing Britain to exploit social and tribal divisions in the country.” Do you agree with Raskolnikov’s assessment?

TA

I think it’s a bit simplistic. He had just taken power. He wasn’t, and he never pretended to be, a socialist. He was a bourgeois reformer without a bourgeoisie, but then Afghanistan has never had a bourgeoisie, full stop. The closest it got to a real bourgeoisie was a tiny one in the 1960s and 1970s. Then the United States came with their twenty-year occupation and created an artificial bourgeoisie, building big buildings and selling them off — a tiny bourgeoisie, which I don’t think is going to last too long. 

But there is, of course, an element of truth in Raskolnikov’s assessment — that it was largely a country of tribal peasants. Amanullah, he’s suggesting, was a bit far-fetched. I don’t agree with that because the plans of Amanullah and the people around him were to modernize as much as they could. They saw the Turkish model, which was not so dissimilar to their own, and said, “If Turkey can do it, we can do it.”

DD

In 1973, Prince Daoud staged a palace coup that overthrew his uncle, King Zahir Shah, and proclaimed a republic with support from one of Afghanistan’s two main communist factions, a grouping called Parcham, which means “flag.” But by 1977, Parcham had reunited with the other main communist faction, Khalq, which means “people,” to create the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, or PDPA, in opposition to the Daoud regime. 

Daoud responded by implementing a brutal crackdown with help from the Shah of Iran. How did Daoud’s alliance with Parcham come about in the first place? Why did he and the communists ultimately come into such violent conflict? 

TA

Daoud regarded Pakistan as his main enemy because he felt that clinging on to Pashtun lands was a breach of the agreement the Afghans, under pressure, had been forced to sign with the British. So Afghan nationalism — which certainly used to exist, and still does — was extremely hostile to Pakistan during the Daoud period. 

Secondly, Daoud refused to ally himself with either the United States or the Soviet Union. He maintained semi-neutrality. The pressure on him not to break the alliance with the Left came from the Iranians under the Shah of Iran, but behind the Iranians were the CIA; they were nervous. They didn’t want another country to go down. They were fighting wars in Southeast Asia, Vietnam, Cambodia. The dominoes theory, a beloved theory of American ideologues, says that if X folds, Y will fall; if Y falls, Z will fall; and if Z falls, we might lose the whole alphabet. For them, Afghanistan was an important buffer state. And they thought that Daoud was being too risky. 

What pressures the shah used we can only guess — probably oil and trade. What other pressures could he use? He couldn’t have invaded Afghanistan. And so Daoud fell under his discipline. Daoud also knew that it was the Americans behind the shah. So he broke with them. 

The PDPA and some of its central leaders said that they were convinced that they were going to be wiped out, locked up, and killed. They decided to use their strength in the military and air force to unleash a coup. And there were some demonstrations in Kabul supporting them, but very few in the countryside, or even in some of the other cities. Basically, they were tiny groups who had united to form a single party. Given that they had won and defeated Daoud, it went to their heads. They said, “We’ve made a revolution.”

When news came to him in Moscow that there was a rebellion in Mongolia and there might be a revolution, Lenin’s response was, “I think it’s a bit difficult to expect herdsmen to make a socialist revolution.” Had the PDPA had any serious ideas, they would have gone from building alliances to pushing through reforms and saying that they had the constitution Amanullah left behind, which the imperialists wouldn’t let him implement. They could have said, “We’re going to implement that. We’re going to have elections for a constituent assembly, which will determine the future.”

They could have involved other groups and other tribes, but they didn’t. Their model was a one-party socialist state like Eastern Europe. To be fair to the Russians, they did try and tell them not to go for it. They said, “This is a foolish idea.”

DD

The Saur Revolution was not a Soviet-backed coup, as it was often thought of in the West. But it also didn’t have much of a popular base. And the Khalq leader, Hafizullah Amin, who in 1979 would become prime minister, had this remarkable quote: “Prior to our revolution, the working class everywhere wanted to follow the footprints of the great October Revolution. However, after the great Saur Revolution, the toilers should know that there does exist a shortcut which can transfer the power from the feudal class to the working class. And our revolution proved it.”

How did this profound misunderstanding of the Saur Revolution and the PDPA shape what the PDPA regime was like in power? 

TA

I think they knew that this was all fake. When the Soviet leaders told them to stop the killings they started, they sent this reply to the Soviet communist party saying, “Stalin did it, and it was proved successful. So why shouldn’t we?” They were implying that the Soviet leaders were themselves revisionists for having ditched that group. 

The Russians got more and more angry. And then the faction fight took place, which was a bloodbath. They killed Nur Muhammad Taraki, the Parcham leader, in a grisly scene. They came for him and he knew what it was. He took off his watch and said, “Could you make sure my son gets this?” And they gave it to him. Then they strangled him to death, rolled him up in a carpet, and the carpet was taken out to the presidential palace and he was buried. That’s how they dealt with this faction fight. 

Then Hafizullah Amin seized power as the sole leader. There is a twisted logic to it — that if you are not prepared to share power with people not in your party, why should you share power with another faction in your party? It’s a sort of ingrained, politically genetic monolithism.

They used to publish photographs of all the class enemies they had killed, who were mainly slightly well-off peasants or people who didn’t agree with them in the cities. They said, “90 percent of the people are with us. 10 percent are against us. So we have to just wipe out those 10 percent.” That was the official reason they gave to a country where they’d seized, promising democracy.

Daoud was a dictator and an authoritarian. And they ended up killing more people than Daoud could ever even conceive of. It was a whole tradition in politics at that time. People within Afghanistan would say, “It’s our bad luck that we’ve got Hafizullah Amin, who belongs to the Pol Pot faction of global politics.”

DD

The Saur Revolution took place on April 28, 1978, and it was not very long after December 1979 that the Soviet army crossed the Oxus River into Afghanistan. That invasion was a total disaster. You write, “The entry of Soviet troops into Afghanistan transformed an unpleasant civil war funded by Washington into a jihad, enabling the Mujahideen, holy warriors, to appear as the only defenders of Afghan sovereignty against the foreign army of occupation.” 

But you also write that the Soviet Politburo was entirely opposed to intervening in Afghanistan, almost until the very last moment. Why had they been opposed? And what happened at the last minute to change their minds?

TA

We still don’t have the answer. Someone does, but the military archives, despite all the changes, are very heavily guarded. What I’m told is this: that when Hafizullah Amin killed the president of the country, a fellow communist, and seized power within the PDPA to become the supreme ruler of Afghanistan, there were people in Moscow who said, “This is intolerable. This is going to lead to one disaster after the other. We have to go in and get rid of Amin, and restore some sanity on the Afghan left.”

This was their thinking, as I was told by many people in Moscow, but Yuri Andropov, a major figure in the party and head of intelligence, who had been the Soviet ambassador when Soviet troops entered Hungary in 1956, said no. He had never forgotten Hungary. And he said, “We should stop this business of intervening. We must not intervene in Afghanistan.”

He won around Brezhnev and the whole Politburo, and it’s reported that there was an interval when the intelligence services brought in some papers. What they were, what was written on them, we can only guess, but after that, the Politburo changed its line 100 percent, and said they had to go in. 

Now, my own speculation has been that the papers contained information suggesting or asserting that Hafizullah Amin was a CIA agent, and that Afghanistan was going to become an American satellite state. Given the situation in Pakistan, that would be a blow because of its shared borders with the Soviet Union, and they couldn’t allow this to happen. I think that’s what it was. I can’t think of any other thing that would make them change their minds so quickly.

DD

This by no means excuses the horrors of the Soviet invasion, but you write that the Soviet union was not pleased at all with Daoud’s 1973 coup against King Zahir Shah — and they were also not pleased with the 1978 communist military coup. However bad a decision this was to invade, it was not, as some in the anti-Soviet camp might frame it, a case of the Soviet Union propping up a client state that it had intentionally set up.

TA

It wasn’t that. The Soviet position on Afghanistan from the time of Lenin onwards was that Afghanistan should be left alone. It was a sovereign state. That policy was followed, right until this particular day in December 1979. 

It’s sad that this happened, because Soviet relations with Afghanistan had been good from 1917 onwards. They didn’t intervene much. And they told Afghan communists, who were a tiny minority, “There’s nothing much you can do. Just help the best people who are there.” They needed allies more than ideologues. 

This wasn’t Soviet imperialism. This wasn’t the Soviets searching for a warm-water port in Baluchistan. It was a mistake, and they paid the price for it. They lost a lot of people.

DD

It’s remarkable how much the delusions of these Cold War politics, which seem so have taken place so long ago, still shape the world today, and how unconcerned those involved in making those Cold War politics seemed at the time about the world that they were making and that we still have to live in.

TA

This is why this defeat, let’s hope, will force some people to think. The Pentagon was divided when Barack Obama came to office. You remember Obama’s rhetoric: there are two wars. Iraq was the bad war because he didn’t vote for it. Afghanistan is a good war that we have to win. 

There was a public debate between two generals: McChrystal, who was in Afghanistan, and another Pentagon general in DC. They argued publicly over whether more troops should be sent or not. The general in Afghanistan said, “No, we don’t need more troops. That is not the problem.” And he was ignored. 

Obama sent in thirty thousand more troops to show that he was a tough imperial president, whereas he could have pulled them out. He was popular during his first term, very popular, and he could have said, “We’ve made a big mistake and we’re pulling it out.” No doubt he would have been attacked, but Biden, who is a weaker figure in many ways, intellectually and as a politician, finally had to do what Obama could have done.

DD

What motivated the US intervention, and what was the relationship between the US intervention and the Soviet invasion? President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, gave an interview in 1998 where he said that Carter secretly started providing aid to Afghan rebels in 1979, before the Soviets invaded. What’s more, he says that both he and the president knew that this would “induce a Soviet military intervention.” Did the Soviet intervention precipitate the American intervention, or the other way around — or neither?

TA

The Russians were not at all surprised that the Americans were backing the religious groups. They’d done that all over the Middle East since the first outbreaks of Arab nationalism. The groups the United States supported in Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Middle East were all religious groups of one sort or another. So that wouldn’t have surprised the Russians. It was trouble within their own ranks that angered them. 

They said, “We can’t be attached to this sort of thing any longer,” I’m convinced. Later on, I spoke to lots of senior Soviet people in Tashkent and Moscow, and they more or less confirmed it. They said, “It was a mistake we made, and this is the reason we made the mistake.” And they also said to me, “Once you go in, it’s not so easy to come out.” 

I said, “Actually, it is easy, but you didn’t; you stayed there ten years. Whereas once you’d got rid of Hafizullah Amin, you should have said, mission accomplished, and we’re going out. We wanted to get rid of this slightly crazed politician. And then we would have seen how things developed. Possibly the regime would have been toppled sooner or later because it was unpopular, but you needn’t have gotten involved in it.”

And many of them have agreed with that assessment. But I think there’s no doubt that the Americans were trying to provoke a conflict. And of course they were triumphant when the Russians marched in, because the religious groups could be forced to unite against the foreign atheist enemy, and wage a jihad to drive them out. 

The Americans were pretty confident that they would win that war. And unfortunately, they did, with drastic results. A week after the Soviet troops went in, I wrote an editorial called “Soviet Troops out of Afghanistan,” pointing out why it was a mistake. It was a mistake on many, many levels. It completely ignored any independence the PDPA might have had. Even though Hafizullah Amin was a rogue and a scoundrel, it wasn’t the Russians’ business to sort that out. But most importantly, I said, the religious groups have been looking for something to unite them, and this intervention will unite them. Thirdly, it will be a cold war, and it’ll end badly. And in subsequent speeches and articles, I wrote, This is going to create a mess in this region for decades.

DD

Who were the Mujahideen trained by the US and Pakistan? And how were they recruited, trained, and deployed? Osama bin Laden is one famous alumnus.

TA

They were members of religious outfits in the Arab world and in Pakistan. The Pakistani military intelligence, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was given the task of forming disparate groups of volunteers into an army that could take on the Russians. Pakistan played a key role in that, under a military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, who had killed the country’s elected prime minister but was tolerated by the United States because they preferred having a military dictator in power, especially when they were waging such an important war. 

So the Pakistan army was centrally involved, including in the first round, arming the existing forces. They were local Afghan tribes, more religious-minded or sections of these tribes. They were volunteers dispatched by the Muslim Brotherhood, and even more radical Muslims on their fringes in Egypt. And there were Saudis. The Saudis are normally very reluctant to allow their own people to actually do anything, but the jihad needed a Saudi prince. 

So requests were sent via Washington, that they were desperate for a Saudi prince to lead the jihad, and the Saudi princes are happiest when they’re ensconced in brothels or gambling dens all over Europe, and, more recently, killing their opponents and chopping up their bodies. They saw this attempt to have a Saudi prince leading it as a total diversion, but then they said, “We have a friend of ours who we’ve grown up with. His name is Osama bin Laden. And he agrees with the need to kick out the Soviets.” 

So Osama was sent, and then he was trained by the United States and Pakistan. Al-Qaeda was formed. His second-in-command as well, al-Zawahiri, came from Egypt and was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both were intelligent guys. It’s no good pretending that they were stupid, dumb, or savages. They weren’t. Bin Laden became more and more critical of his own friends in Saudi Arabia. He said, “Our people are suffering.” He sold the jihad as the beginning of an attempt to create a new caliphate, to rescue the people from their tyrannical rulers, by which he meant the Saudi royal family as well. 

Al-Zawahiri had left the brotherhood and set up a new group, and his group had participated in carrying out that dramatic event where the Egyptian president Sadat was inspecting a military parade and suddenly a whole group of soldiers marched past him, turned their rifles on him, and shot him dead. They were all used by the United States to wage the jihad in Afghanistan and organize the Afghans. 

DD

You write, “Washington’s role in the Afghan war has never been a secret, but few citizens in the West were aware that the United States utilized the intelligence services of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan to create, train, finance, and arm an international network of Islamist militants to fight the Russians in Afghanistan.” And you write that Iran and even China and Israel were involved. 

What important facets are missing from the more narrow, popular understanding of anti-communist intervention in Afghanistan?

TA

Most people to this day don’t understand that this had little to do with Afghanistan itself, but it was a huge attempt, and a successful one, to defeat the Soviet Union, and to inflict a crushing defeat so they had to leave, to take over the country, and to increase Soviet military spending. I think it doubled during the period of their ten-year occupation of Afghanistan, which wrecked their economy.

The Chinese were following this path closely. They made no secret that they would defeat the Russians here, and their little lapdogs like General Zia in Pakistan shouted, “And once we’ve defeated them, we’re going to liberate Muslim Central Asia.” That’s the language they were speaking. It wasn’t that well thought out, but what they wanted was very clear: they wanted Tajikistan, they wanted Kyrgyzstan, they wanted Tashkent, all these Central Asian republics. 

And so they built a grand anti-Soviet alliance. Khomeini, of course, had always said that while the United States is the big Satan, the Soviet Union is the little Satan. He joined with the big Satan to try and defeat the little Satan, and his country suffered as a result. It was a very foolish, opportunist move. 

The Chinese, at that time, regarded the Soviet Union as an appalling power that had betrayed them in their time of need. So they informally supplied some Uyghurs from Xinjiang to go and fight in Afghanistan. And the Pakistanis were centrally involved. 

All these groups that were trained and fought in Afghanistan after the war was over, even before the Taliban had taken power, had gone back to their own countries and were being treated like total dirt. That’s one reason why they became ultrahostile to the United States — because the United States had no need for them and discarded them.

And so the next phase of activity was the following. They said, “We won the war, not the Americans. We’ve defeated one empire. We can defeat another one, and at least damage it.” That was the way they thought. And the Pakistani military leaders began to think like that as well. “We took Afghanistan; let’s punish India on Kashmir.” And they infiltrated lots of jihadis into Kashmir, with disastrous results for the poor Kashmiri people. So it went to their heads, as we say, and they never gave up. 

Then 9/11 happened, which was not a huge surprise. It shouldn’t have been a huge surprise to the intelligence agencies in the United States, because they had already caught a guy some years before. He was caught trying to plant some bombs in the basement of the building. 

He escaped, believe it or not, and they finally recaptured him in Pakistan after 9/11. But before 9/11, as they were taking him in a helicopter from the New York airport to Langley, Virginia, he pointed at the Twin Towers and said, “That is what I was trying to blow up.” So here you have a prisoner, a self-confessed jihadi, who’s telling you openly, “This is what our target was.” Surely something should have been done. Why was this a target? You knew that was the target. What was it you didn’t know?

DD

You wrote in 1983, “In Pakistan, the main impacts of these events has been to strengthen the military regime of Zia-ul-Haq and to aid those who are arguing for the army to have a semipermanent, Turkish-style presence in the political life of the country.”

What role did the United States play in bringing Zia to power? And how did Zia, with US support amid the Mujahideen war in Afghanistan, lay the groundwork for making Pakistan’s army into the permanent government that it remains today?

TA

Pakistan was created in 1947. It was the Muslim state carved out of predominantly Hindu India. It broke up in 1972 because East Pakistan, predominantly Muslim, didn’t want to stay with the West. What was West Pakistan going to do? 

The United States had encouraged the first military coup in Pakistan in 1958. That coup led to the breakup of Pakistan. Then they encouraged another military coup, which didn’t last too long. Then they brought Zia into power. Zia was trained in US training facilities. And they brought them in and kept them on a leash until it was time to unleash them. 

The elected prime minister had won an election, which they said was rigged. Now any observer in the country, including his enemies, would have said, “Perhaps there was some rigging, but it was very stupid of them to rig it when he was already popular and could have won it without any rigging.” 

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto then said, “Let’s have new elections. If you think I rig them, let the army supervise them. Let’s have new elections to prevent these new elections altogether.” The military seized power in April 1977. And then for the next two years, they had Bhutto on trial. Many countries pleaded for his life to be spared except one: the United States.

Had they not wanted Bhutto to be hanged on fake charges, they could have stopped. They didn’t. They said, time to get rid of him. And there’s a famous scene described by someone who was present: that Bhutto had got Libyan money to build a nuclear bomb, largely as a response against India. It was foolish, but that was what it was meant to be. Now Kissinger put pressure on him not to do that, and Bhutto refused, saying, “Why won’t you stop the Indians?”

Kissinger then lost it, and with other people present, Pakistanis present, said, “Unless you desist on the nuclear question, we’ll make a terrible example out of you.” And when Bhutto was being hanged, people did say, “This is the American punishment for building the nuclear bomb.” It had nothing to do with Afghanistan or anything like that, but then they let Zia build the bomb. They let the Israelis build the bomb. The needs of the empire are always variable, since their allies change with such frequency. 

Now there’s a tiny footnote here, which is as follows. I had been commissioned by the BBC to write a three-part series on Bhutto and the coup d’état that toppled him. I wrote the series. It was approved. Leading actors from the subcontinent were being cast when suddenly the head of drama at the BBC said to me that the director general of the BBC, our editor in chief, had asked to see the scripts. 

I said, “Not good news.” He said, “I agree, but let’s see what happened.” What happened was that I got a phone call some weeks later from Mark Tully, who was the BBC’s iconic correspondent in India. He spoke a bit of Hindi, this, that, and he said, “Let’s meet up for a drink. Don’t ask me why.” So it’s important. The BBC’s head of drama said, “You’ve got to go and talk to him.” I said, “Okay.” So I went.

I said, “Hi, Mark, how goes it?” Pleasantries were exchanged. I said, “Let’s not waste each other’s time. Why do you want the meeting?” He said, “Okay, let me be open.” The director general, generally regarded as a very decent guy, but under heavy pressure, said, “What if I were to ask you to remove the last scenes from the play?” I said, “These are scenes saying that the United States authorized the coup and refused to save Bhutto’s life.” 

He said, “Just leave the Americans out of it. It’s a very strong play, even without that.” I said, “What?” He said, “Okay, Tariq, let me be blunt. If you agree to take these last passages out, the plays will be done and performed, even though General Zia is an ally because of Afghanistan. You can still do them. But if you leave the American connection . . .” I said, “Why should I take it out when we all know it?” He said, “I was in Pakistan when Bhutto was being hanged. I didn’t find any evidence.” I said, “Did you look for it? Did you look for any evidence? The evidence is there.” 

He said, “Look, it was my duty to ask you this question. I warned them what your reply would be.” In fact, my reply was very rude. I told them to go and take a running jump; I wasn’t going to accept. And so they never put it on. This is how deep the influence of the foreign office in British intelligence was. They didn’t want Zia damaged and picked on for this particular thing. 

The connections between the United States and the Pakistanis were incredibly close during that entire period. Money poured into that country; weapons poured into that country, weapons sold to other groups who were in need of weaponry. I was in Pakistan at the time, in Rawalpindi, the military capital where the army headquarters are. And in the middle of the night, we heard a huge explosion. 

I said, “Oh my God, don’t tell me the war’s arrived in Rawalpindi.” No, it wasn’t that. It was a large warehouse consisting of the latest American weaponry. The US Defense Department had sent auditors to go and check out how many weapons there were, and what had happened to them. And they blew them up. The Pakistani military blew up the warehouse and said it was done by terrorists, so no checkups could be done.

There was a lot of collaboration on many, many levels. Pakistan had become, as they used to boast, a frontline state in the war against communism and Russia. From then, something interesting took place. A lot of Afghan refugees’ kids were being schooled and trained in religious schools in the Pashtun belt of Pakistan. And these kids were made ready, once they graduated from these bizarre schools, to go and fight. 

The word Taliban means “student.” Talib means a student, a scholar, and taliban scholars’ organization. The one thing they weren’t was scholars; they were very young people trained as an army.

DD

How did the intervention in Afghanistan end up strengthening Islamist reactionaries within Pakistan? Was that accidental blowback from the war in Afghanistan, or was it intentional? What various purposes for Zia did backing jihadi serve?

TA

It was a mixture of both. It was partially blowback, and it was partially military intelligence deciding that these groups could be used as an extra force when they needed to go and do something that they couldn’t do in uniform. These people got support from the ISI.

In most of the elections that have taken place in Pakistan, the religious parties have not won too many votes. They are very much an outside force beyond the traditional boundaries of Pakistani politics. The government was doing this. The United States knew this very well. These groups then started creating mayhem in Pakistan itself, carrying out terrorist attacks, blowing up buildings, killing enemies.

Has it become too large to be dealt with by the military? I think Pakistan’s army was waiting for the Afghan situation to be solved one way or the other before they made any more decisions on what to do with their own Jihadi groups. Some, of course, wanted to push back into Afghanistan because they were of Pashtun origin, but others did not.

They had to withdraw the jihadis from Kashmir, but after a huge mess had been created, which only helped the Indian government. It enabled them to go in and torture and kill ordinary people who had no connection with terrorism of any sort. And it’s now created a situation where the bulk of Kashmiris just want to be free.

DD

After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 came the fall of the communist government in 1992. Pakistan, the United States, and Saudi Arabia, you write, wanted to impose a government led by Mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, but that did not go over well with the rest of the Mujahideen. And so civil war broke out, pitting all of these various factions of the Mujahideen against each other, with each of the various factions having various foreign backers, including the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, France, and Russia. 

How did the Mujahideen victory over the PDPA government spiral into civil war so quickly?

TA

The Russians left behind a weakened PDPA government, which lasted a few years. And the Americans had thought it would be toppled very quickly, but it wasn’t being toppled. The PDPA was trying to enter into negotiations and build alliances with others, like General Dostum on the borders of Tajikistan, like many, many others. 

Then the United States got worried that they might succeed. Key meetings took place between the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, to try and topple the remnants of the PDPA government. And they did that by uniting all these groups to drive them out. These groups did drive them out, but they immediately began a power struggle themselves. 

Much of Kabul was destroyed — not by the Russians, but by different factions of the anti-Russian alliance, which they created and which couldn’t agree on an outcome. At this point, Pakistan, which had already been training the Taliban with the green light of the United States, sent in the Taliban and no doubt sent in a lot of Pakistani soldiers and young officers, and toppled the government in Kabul. And the Taliban came to power. 

DD

How did the Taliban relate to this longer tradition of Pashtun nationalism and its opposition to the partition of the Pashtun people by the Durand line? Relatedly, to what extent were the Taliban’s politics an extension of Pashtun tribal traditions, and to what degree were they more the product of foreign, religious, and ideological imports? 

TA

The Taliban were embarrassed by the fact that they’d been created by Pakistan in the first instance. And obviously the first generation was not too keen to raise the question of the border or of links with other tribes in Pakistan, but slowly that began to change because they were very dependent on the Pashtun populations in Pakistan, but they didn’t get much support from the Pakistani Pashtuns. 

The Haqqani network built up links with some of the Pashtuns, but by and large, it was the Pakistani Army and Pakistani military intelligence that gave them support. And there were always some tensions, because they were also nationalistic, but this nationalism initially came out on a very religious way, by attacking the Shia, the Hazaras who were Shia, and Harat, a very old city, one spot of the Persian empire and where the Iranian government’s voices are very dominant. They started fighting them to establish their own hegemony. 

The civil war had been going on — not on the same level as before, but the violence never stopped, and then came the US occupation. So if you say, “What was the ideology of the Taliban?” I would say that, principally speaking, it was about Wahhabi ideology or semi-Wahhabi ideology linked very much to the Saudis and some of the religious groups in Pakistan, like the Jamaat e Islami. 

But the hardcore religious fundamentalism, which was not that common in Afghanistan prior to all this, came largely from Saudi Arabia and Saudi money. The Saudis funded the regime a great deal, and Pakistan did too.

DD

How did 9/11 lead to the overthrow of the Taliban government? It was by no means inevitable that a small group perpetrating a terrorist attack would lead to the government of a nation-state being overthrown. What happened in late 2001, and might something else have happened?

TA

You have to take two factors into account. One is the ideologues of the United States: its foreign policy elite, its military intelligence were posed a question after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of that particular type of cold war. And the question was basically this: How are we going to exercise US hegemony on a globe where capitalism is now everywhere? Russia is capitalist. China has embraced capitalism. How are we going to defend our interests? In the past, we could use the communist bogey everywhere — Latin America, Asia, Africa — to crush people. Now what are we going to do? 

This was a continuing debate. They felt they had to find an excuse and a new way of reordering the world, which they did with the first Gulf War in the Middle East against Saddam Hussein in the early ’90s, as the Soviet Union was losing all power whatsoever. And they got away with that, but they weren’t happy. They felt it was an unfinished business. 

There was enormous pressure from the Israelis to crush Iraq and all the sovereign states in the Middle East, of which Egypt had been bought by the United States with subsidies and a nonstop flow of funds. That left Iraq, Iran, and Syria, and they made a plan to dry these states up, to make them irrelevant, but they were waiting for an excuse to do it. And the excuse came with 9/11. 

A lot of these groups that had participated in the so-called jihad against the Soviet Union were friendly with the Afghan equivalents, and many had been allowed to stay there, including Osama bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, and al-Qaeda — others too. But this was the principal group.

They started taunting the United States. There was an attack on a US ship in Yemeni waters, the USS Cole. There was the US embassy in Nairobi that was hit by people claiming to be al-Qaeda, who were clearly al-Qaeda units. It was part of their plan to get their revenge on the United States. So they wanted to hit the United States. It’s what the late Chalmers Johnson said: blowback. He wrote a whole book published a year before 9/11 saying, “We are going to be hit on our territory because of what we’ve done in their territory, sooner or later. Have no doubt about it. We are going to be targeted and hit.”

That was the 9/11 planning. But the group that carried it out obviously did it without giving all the details to bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. They knew what they had to do. And they did it. Bin Laden claimed it. He said, “This is an al-Qaeda triumph.” And there are pictures of them celebrating. 

So the United States asked the Taliban to hand over bin Laden, and the Taliban government said, “We’re ready to hand them over, but do you have any proof at all? Please just give us some proof.” They wanted some proof to show their own people. They hadn’t betrayed a guest — the idea of never betraying your guests or handing them to their enemies goes quite deep in Afghan culture and history. 

The United States said, “Screw you, just hand him over.” So they said, “Well, if you ask like that, we can’t.” There was a big discussion whether to go for Iraq first or Afghanistan, and finally Bush decided to go for Afghanistan. And he was backed up on that. But there were quite a few people who wanted to go for Iraq, which had nil connection with al-Qaeda, literally no connection whatsoever. In fact, al-Qaeda hated Saddam Hussein because he was the secular leader, and Bashar al-Assad in Syria they hated because he was a secular leader too. 

The United States then told Pakistan that they were coming in. The Pakistani Army was given a couple of weeks to withdraw its men and personnel. And the Pakistanis said to the Taliban leadership, “Whatever you do, do not fight back. If you fight, they will wipe you out. Just retire. Let them take the country and remain calm. Sooner or later, they will realize it’s not an easy country to take over and run like the Russians did.”

The Pakistanis were quite cynical, but that’s the advice they gave. And that advice was accepted. Of course, lots of the Taliban leaders and supporters initially fled to Pakistan, and then slowly started going back to stop the resistance.

DD

You wrote at the time, “The Northern Alliance is a confederation of monsters.” Who were the Northern Alliance, and what was so monstrous about them? One thing that comes to mind is the late 2001 massacre committed by General Abdul Rashid Dostum of thousands of Taliban prisoners, a massacre that the United States actively worked to cover up for years.

TA

Dostum was a specialist in this. He really was a brute. He’s still alive. He’s now resting in some Turkish hospital. But Dostum was like that: the only way to destroy an enemy was to kill them. And he did that. 

These were the people the United States chose as their allies, as well as encouraging and finally winning over some of the Shia to fight with the Iranians that supported the war. So they built this alliance to run the country with a few technocrats and crooks based in Kabul. 

The key to the American presence for twenty years was the Northern Alliance. People in Kabul and some other cities were just involved in making money. In an official US report, a generalist is quoted as saying that what they set up in Kabul after the occupation was a kleptocracy; all these people were interested in was making money. And he’s absolutely accurate. This was said in 2015, or even before that, but everyone knew that. 

Then, slowly, the Taliban began to emerge again, defending ordinary people against American or NATO soldiers, helping them when whole families were wiped out by drone attacks. They played it low-key, but it was very effective. At the same time, they were preparing their guerrilla armies in different parts of the country to set up and organize. 

Sometimes people ask, “Why the Taliban?” The answer is because no one else fought against this occupation. Had there been, in the Kurdish areas, women organizing themselves to fight against the occupation in the cities, who knows how the story would have unraveled? But they didn’t. The PDPA supported the war. They backed the United States. The Afghan liberals, small in number though they were, supported the war. So why be surprised if you allow the Taliban to totally dominate the resistance? There were tiny groups who didn’t support the occupation, but by and large, it was the Taliban who kept persisting.

DD

To what extent was the Taliban, with all its ethnic, religious, political particularities and its track record of hard-line reaction and brutality, able to take on the role of a national liberation movement?

TA

In this instance, liberation is a difficult word to use, but there are elements of it. If you look at how they operated, it’s classic guerrilla warfare, which you read about in Mao Zedong, Che Guevara, General Giap in Vietnam. They used very similar tactics against different imperial powers. On that level, they learned a lot of things from what had happened before. 

Secondly, they had some support from retired Pakistani officers who trained them up further, who were not uneducated people. They created this image for themselves: an army freeing Afghanistan from foreign occupation, from the grip of an imperialist power. For ten years, they were talking to the United States behind the scenes, saying, “We’re prepared to do a deal, provided you get out.” 

The United States would agree, then change their minds, then agree, then change their minds. Then they tried to divide the Taliban. And for a while, United States papers were carrying reports of the good Taliban and the bad Taliban. It didn’t work. There were factions into the Taliban, but all of them wanted the United States out of the country. So by default, the Taliban turned out to be the national movement, which turfed out the United States and NATO from their country. And for this they’ll be remembered. 

Some of my friends, who are very anti-Taliban, have said that on a smaller level, on the level of a village, the Taliban have relations with people who don’t agree with them. They talk; they meet on a friendly basis, on a tribal basis. And he gave me a recent example. He said: Two of my sisters-in-law were working for the BBC in Kabul. And we were very nervous. The whole family was nervous. And the father was very close friends with the Taliban leader in the region, because the family had not supported the West or the Americans. 

So he met up with him and said, “I’m a bit worried about my daughters.” And the guy said, “Give me their names. Where are they working?” He rang up the Taliban commander in Kabul and said, “These are good people. Don’t touch them.” And this happened in many, many different localities. So the notion that the Taliban were completely cut off from people they didn’t agree with, or the people who didn’t agree with them, is nonsense. 

DD

You write: “With varying degrees of firmness, the occupation of Afghanistan was also supported by China, Iran and Russia, though in the latter case, there was always a strong element of schadenfreude.” You wrote this two decades ago; it’s a reflection of quite a different world order than the current one. What about the world order has changed since? And what role did the war in Afghanistan, and the “war on terror” more broadly, play in driving those changes? 

TA

A lot has changed. The principal reason is not the war in Afghanistan, which the Russians watched with some pleasure. There are very interesting stories since Russia was privatized. Lots of the helicopter pilots who had fought in Afghanistan set up their own company and offered their services to the United States. One of their helicopters was shot down with the pilot, and he was terrified. The Taliban had chopped down the helicopter. This was about ten or fifteen years ago. 

The former Soviet officer demanded to know who had captured him. And they gave him the name of a Taliban commander. And he said, “I know this guy.” So he rang him up on his mobile phone and spoke. The Taliban guy said, “Hey, is this your helicopter? We’ve caught a Russian.” He said, “Yeah.” “You shouldn’t do that. But since it’s a Russian and we prefer you to these Americans, you can go back.” They sent him back immediately. 

With the United States bogged down in Afghanistan, unable to get its way in South America, trying hard to drop a regime, succeeding, failing, succeeding, training, these countries, Russia in particular, decided that if the United States could exercise its hegemony, they would too. Vladimir Putin took the Crimea back. He felt that handing Crimea over to the Ukraine was a huge mistake that Boris Yeltsin had made. He wanted the Ukraine back as well, but that didn’t succeed.

The reason for this was that the United States wanted to surround Russia with NATO bases. The Russians even asked at some stage, “Why can’t we join NATO? Why can’t we join the EU? We are now a European power.” But the request was treated as a joke. So they tried all that, and when they failed, the Russians said, “Okay, if you’re playing it that way, so can we.” They took the Crimea; they intervened in Syria. That is what soured relations: the Russians were no longer prepared to do the United States’ bidding in world politics, which Mikhail Gorbachev and to an even larger extent Yeltsin had gone along with. 

The Chinese situation is a bit similar. Deng Xiaoping more or less caved into the United States because of two things: the huge success of the Chinese economy, the fact that China more or less became the new industrial workshop of the world, coupled with the fact that a new Chinese nationalism was developing, both out of pride and also because of what they’d suffered.

Many Chinese leaders said, “We will never allow any Western power to trample on China as they did before.” They also realized that US hegemony meant that they themselves might be put under threat. Their simultaneous growth as a state and as a power meant that the situation in Asia was now very different. China was the preeminent power, and the United States couldn’t do anything about it. 

Interestingly enough, the first thing they knew Taliban government did was fly out to delegations, to meet with the Chinese, give lots of assurances, ask for aid and help, as that was the country that would play a major part in the re-formation of these entities.

DD

Nurturing Islamist extremism within Pakistan for various purposes at home and abroad has, of course, only grown more volatile and lethal. And that growth in Islamist militancy in turn has been the pretext for deepening US military intervention with the drone war, the direct spillover of the Afghan war into Pashtun regions, which becomes a public scandal in Pakistan and a great recruitment tool for militant Islamists. 

You write, “The capitulation of liberal secular parties to Washington left the field wide open to armed groups of religious fundamentalists who began to challenge the state’s monopoly of legitimate violence, presenting themselves as defenders of both Islam and the victimized Pashtuns in Pakistan.”

What conditions has this brutal and contradictory combination of the US drone war and Islamist violence created for Pakistanis, and how have the contradictions of Pakistan facilitating both US intervention and Islamist militants opposed to that intervention played out in Pakistani society and politics? 

TA

The military is a key player in Pakistani politics. Now nothing can be done without the approval of the army. No major decision on domestic or foreign policies can be taken by any elected government. That’s very straightforward, and it’s not even a secret. Everyone knows. 

Politicians have to clear many of the things they want to do with general headquarters in Rawalpindi. And they have to get permission from the army. Now that is a big structural shift. And that I can’t see changing, short of a revolution, which is very unlikely. 

Secondly, side by side with it is the growth of jihadi groups who number hundreds of thousands — electorally, they are not a major force, but in terms of their size to carry out attacks to disrupt and destabilize, they are quite strong.

DD

It’s not a lot in terms of electoral power, but that is a lot in terms of armed, militant cadre.

TA

It means that they can threaten political parties, threaten government ministers, and say Islam is in danger, and these politicians are incapable of defending it. 

The situation in Pakistan is very unstable, but here’s another contradiction for you. One of the most interesting and exciting political movements that has emerged in Pakistan in recent years is the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement. They are largely young people, Pashtuns who refuse to allow themselves to be labeled as Islamic fundamentalists, who have said they will never carry arms. 

They are going back to an older tradition of nonviolence in the Pashtun region during the British occupation of the subcontinent. And they say, “We will just demonstrate against any attacks being made on the Pashtuns, but we will act politically as a political movement.” They have won two or three members of Parliament. That’s how deep their popularity is. And they’ve been harassed by the government; it’s shocking the way they’ve been created by military intelligence. 

When I speak in public, either in Pakistan or elsewhere, I just say to the army: What the hell are you up to? Why are you doing this? Can’t you see that these are some of the finest people our country has produced for a long, long time? They are saying they will not take up arms. They’re saying they will defend minorities. They’re incredibly decent as a political organization. Why do you want to destroy it? 

One doesn’t get any replies. They don’t reply. It’s crazy. But that was the first sign for me that indicated that movements like this can develop in other parts of the country and become difficult to crush completely. They can arrest their leaders, they can torture them, they can kill them. They’ve done some of that with the PTM (Pashtun Tahafuz Movement), but they can’t get away with it nonstop, because when these movements reach a certain point, they begin to affect people inside the army too. 

And that stage is nowhere near that point, but in the Pakhtunkhwa, the province on the frontier with Afghanistan, the PTM is certainly the case. They, by the way, are very determined opponents of jihadi terrorism and the Taliban. They have not been tempted into becoming pro-Western so far. So it’s a very interesting development. 

DD

Pakistani president Imran Khan came to power thanks in some part to his opposition to the drone war. But he also came to power with ties to the various military forces that had facilitated both the drone war and Islamist reaction within the country. What have we seen from this cricket star and supposed defender of Pakistani sovereignty?

TA

Nothing much. He pledged to build a new Pakistan. There’s nothing new about what’s going on. He sometimes says things which annoy the United States. After they suffered this huge blow in Kabul, Imran was interviewed on national television and asked what he thought. He said: “What do I think? The Americans made a bloody mess. And now they’re paying the price.”

This caused concern in the US embassy in Pakistan, because Pakistani political leaders aren’t meant to say things like that. The Pakistani military delegation was in Washington at the same time, led by the general who heads the ISI. He just said to journalists, “What this prime minister says means nothing. We are the people who matter. And that’s why we’re here to talk to the Pentagon.”

DD

They are the people who matter, whether it’s Khan who’s in charge, or the People’s Party or the Muslim League.

What’s next for Afghanistan, and what domestic and global factors will shape whatever it is that happens next? Things seem very bleak in economic terms. The Taliban seems fairly unreconstructed. And the United States can’t be expected to contribute much more than drone strikes. 

TA

It’s an awful situation. First, after occupying a country for twenty years, you then impose sanctions on it. Sanctions, as it’s well known now, never affect the leaders of countries. They affect ordinary people. So had that been even a tiny bit of intelligence in the leaderships of the West and the Pentagon and NATO, they would have said that the sanctions would only be applied to individuals, not to the people. (Not that I’m a supporter of sanctions.) They should have offered massive aid and been seen giving this aid in terms of food supplies. Most of their own food used to be flown out of the Gulf States when they were there. So they never did anything to make Afghanistan self-dependent.

The big question is this: Will there be a new civil war? A lot has changed. The Iranians are very friendly with the Chinese, and they have also been talking to Afghanistan for ten years; relations are good. I’m told that the Iranians have suggested to the Afghans to have a form of parliament and elected assembly, to permit elections, and to follow the model of Iran. There are problems with the Iranian model, as you can imagine, but it’s infinitely superior to what exists in Afghanistan today. Were the Iranian advice to be accepted, that would show some sign of good sense on the part of the Taliban. 

Secondly, China would be very reluctant to see a new civil war. In order to stop it, is it going to go and shore up this country, build an infrastructure, involve it in its Belt and Road Initiative, or not? There are indications that they might do that, but we’ll have to see. And third, of course, is the Pakistanis. What are they going to do? Are they going to side with China and try to restore this region to some semblance of normality? I think they are. I think Pakistan’s armed forces see the victory in Kabul as their victory as well. And without them, they say, it couldn’t have happened. They’re feeling very strong at the present time. 

Collectively, China, Pakistan, and Iran could help restore Afghanistan; let’s hope they do so. The French and some other NATO idiots in Europe are saying, “We are going to start a new war to liberate Afghanistan.” The son of Ahmad Shah Masood, who fought in the Panjshir Valley, happily playing tennis in Northwest London, was suddenly lifted and sent back into Afghanistan. And he didn’t stay more than a week. He soon came back realizing what the situation was. 

If the West stays out of it, that would be the best thing to happen. It really would. And the people will have to do what they wish to do once they’ve recovered. Very few people in the West understand that this has been a forty-year war — forty years of continuous war for a small country. Just imagine the trauma suffered by young children, run by women by old men, by everyone, by the entire citizenry of that country. They want some food, obviously, but they don’t want any more war. I don’t think there’s going to be too much encouragement from other powers and the locality to wage another war.