Newsletter #4: The Long, Disastrous History of US Intervention in Afghanistan, with Tariq Ali

By Ben Feldman

“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?” former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski asked rhetorically in a 1998 interview. He was justifying the United States’ partnership with religious reactionaries, which helped lead the Soviets to overextend themselves financially and militarily, and hastened the collapse of America’s rival hegemon. Absent from Brzezinski’s musing was any mention of the Afghan people themselves. Whether in 1979, 1998, 2001, or 2021, Afghans are ignored by US-policymakers and media, trudged out only when their suffering can be used as a cudgel against those who oppose war and occupation.

In a collection of essays written over four decades, The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan: A Chronicle Foretold (Verso, November), Tariq Ali reconstructs the history of American intervention in  Afghanistan. Beginning with the Soviet invasion in 1979, the United States — with the help of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan — mobilized an international network of anti-Soviet Islamic fighters. In doing so, the U.S. and its Middle Eastern allies helped create a generation of militants whose “deracinated fanaticism” helped them to emerge from the second Afghan Civil War (1992-1996) as the dominant power in the country.

The Taliban’s rise was the unintended consequence of America’s Cold War foreign policy: decades of funding, training, and propping up right-wing forces throughout the world. Five years after the Taliban captured Kabul, they were swept out of power by the United States and its allies. What began as a war of revenge, a punishment for having harbored Osama Bin Laden — lasted twenty years, ending with the collapse of the Afghan National Security Forces and the Taliban’s retaking of Kabul on August 15, 2021. In the interim, a quarter of a million people lost their lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and some nine million Pakistanis and Afghans have been displaced by the War on Terror.

Ali’s essays illustrate how the Afghan people have borne the costs of imperialistic hubris, Cold War rivalry, and America’s post-9/11 need for vengeance. Throughout, the reader is reminded of a basic point that eludes so many journalists and politicians: the crises facing Afghanistan today are the product of decades of policies which prioritized the political needs of U.S. elites over the safety, security, and independence of the Afghan people.

Listen to The Dig’s interview with Tariq Ali here.

Further Reading

The end of America’s longest war occasioned numerous reflections, including recent pieces by Tariq Ali in New Left Review and The Nation. Challenging the post-hoc defense of the invasion of Afghanistan as a war to liberate women, Anand Gopal writes about the experiences of Afghan women living outside of Kabul. In a conversation hosted by Jewish Currents,Marya Hannun and Mejgan Massoumi also center the experiences of Afghans, and in Jacobin,historian Alfred W. McCoy takes on the “hubris of American empire.”

From The Dig’s archives, check out Dan’s conversation with Adam Johnson and Eric Levitz on the media’s bloodthirsty offensive against the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. For more on the War on Terror, listen to our interview with military historian Andrew Bacevich and the recent-three part interview with Spencer Ackerman here, here, and here.