British Pakistani writer Mohammad Hanif once stated that “[Tariq] Ali has had an uncanny record of foreseeing the way things are going.”
Indeed, Ali’s latest book, “The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan: A Chronicle Foretold” makes it evident that Hanif’s assessment was not an over-statement, and that the subtitle of the volume is more than justified.
The book is a collection of essays written over four decades by one of Britain’s most influential intellectuals. Ali incorporates a preface that brings his critical analysis of the Afghanistan wars up to the present day. The narration of historical events is punctuated by the recollection of personal experiences that enrich Ali’s book. One of those experiences involves the French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, who berated the author in 2001 for his opposition to the bombing and occupation of Afghanistan.
In “The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan,” Pakistan features almost as often as its western neighbor. This does not come as a surprise if we consider how closely tied the fates of these two countries has come to be in recent decades. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) played an instrumental role in bringing the Taliban to power in 1996 and, five years later, in coordinating their withdrawal from Afghanistan. Moreover, the emergence of the Tehrik-e-Taliban in 2007, commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban, “is a product of the recent Afghan wars.”
Ali’s writing sometimes has a literary flavor, reminding us that he is not only a prolific author of non-fiction but also of several novels, most prominent among them is the historical series known as the “Islam Quintet.” In his description of the role of Pakistani madrassahs (Islamic schools) in radicalizing Afghan refugees, the author writes that “the dragon seeds sown in 2,500 madrassahs produced a crop of 225,000 fanatics ready to kill and die for their faith.”
On some occasions, though, this metaphorical language leads to the absence of much-needed nuance. In this vein, we read the hyperbolic statement that after the occupation of Afghanistan by the US, NGOs “descended on the country like locusts.”
In one of the most relevant chapters of the book, the reader will find a written exchange dated October 2003 between Tariq Ali and Mike O’Brien, who at the time was a British Foreign Office Minister dealing with the Middle East. The correspondence is cordial despite the gulf of conflicting opinions between the two men. However, the conversation would most likely have been less friendly if Ali had known that he was being spied on by the MI5 – the British military intelligence agency – due to his leading role in the campaign against the invasion of Iraq.
In a reply to Ali’s criticism of British foreign policy, O’Brien begins one of his messages by stating upfront: “Dear Tariq, so scathing, so cynical, so wrong.” Granted, there is indeed a fair dose of cynicism in Ali’s writing. We should not forget, however, that his is the suspicion of someone who has seen many of his inconvenient predictions come true and despite this – or perhaps because of this – has not received the attention he deserved.
The examples are manifold. One month after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, Ali rightly envisaged that Moscow’s intervention would end up empowering radical groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as encouraging further intervention by the US-led capitalist bloc in the region. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Ali assessed that capturing Bin Laden would be no easy task, and added that were this to be achieved, “other individuals will decide to mimic the events of September 11 in different ways.”
In 2003, the author put it bluntly: “Sooner or later you’ll have to pull out the Marines. Then what?”
One of the most pertinent issues raised by Ali in the several pieces he published during the US occupation of Afghanistan was the uncertainty surrounding the eventual withdrawal of foreign troops from the country. In 2003, the author put it bluntly: “Sooner or later you’ll have to pull out the Marines. Then what?”
This question was very present in the minds of the Afghan population. Statements from Haji Mahboob Khan – a Senator from Garmser (Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan), in a July 2008 interview with The Economist’s Afghanistan correspondent Tom Coghlan, were illustrative in this regard. The Afghan Senator, although fully convinced that the Taliban did not care about the country’s citizens, said: “I advise my people to do deals with the Taliban because who guarantees that the foreigners will stay?” His doubts turned out to have solid foundations.
Ali’s reflections provide a necessary counterbalance to the arguments of some of the most influential writers on Afghanistan. For instance, although he shows appreciation for the work of Ahmed Rashid, the best-selling author of “Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia” (2000), Ali is very critical towards some of Rashid’s judgements.
In Afghanistan, “the problem was not lack of funds but the Western state-building project itself, by its nature an exogenous process.”
Whereas Rashid laments “the West’s failure to follow through on nation building” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ali refutes him and argues that in Afghanistan, “the problem was not lack of funds but the Western state-building project itself, by its nature an exogenous process.”
The main weakness of “The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan” is the repetition of several arguments and factual content in the collection of essays, described by the author himself as “a rapid-response book” to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The haste with which the book was assembled is particularly apparent in different texts with repetitive information covering the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
This notwithstanding, Tariq Ali’s latest book is a key contribution to make sense of the decades-long events that culminated in the chaotic scenes at Kabul’s airport in August 2021. Concerning the near future, Ali believes “Beijing will replace Washington as the capital of importance for Afghanistan.” Considering the author’s impressive foresight, this is a prediction we should definitely keep in mind when trying to understand the new reality of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
- Book Release Date: Nov 23, 2021
 Mohammed Hanif, “Tales from the Thinktank,” The Guardian, November 10, 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/oct/11/tariq-ali.
 Tareq Ali, “The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan: A Chronicle Foretold” (London and New York: Verso, 2021), p. 151.
 Ibid., p. 37.
 Ibid., p. 99
 Rob Evans, “Tariq Ali Spied on by at Least 14 Undercover Officers, Inquiry Hears,” The Guardian, November 10, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/nov/11/tariq-ali-spied-on-14-undercover-officers-spy-cops-inquiry-hears.
 Ali, “The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan: A Chronicle Foretold”, p. 58.
 Ibid., p. 47.
 Ibid., p. 62.
 Tom Coghlan, “The Taliban in Helmand: An Oral History,” in Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field, edited by Antonio Giustozzi (London: Hurst and Co., 2009), p. 149.
 Ahmed Rashid, “Descent Into Chaos: How the War against Islamic Extremism Is Being Lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia” (London: Allen Lane, 2008), p. 402.
Ali, “The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan: A Chronicle Foretold”, p. 90.
 Ibid., p. 243.
 Ibid., p. 208.