Issue 256 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Stop this war


Tariq Ali spoke to Sam Ashman about why a war against Afganistan could destabilise the whole region
This is a region ripe for unrest
This is a region ripe for unrest

Why is Pakistan at the centre of the crisis?
The reason is firstly because Pakistan borders Afghanistan and secondly because in the past it has armed, funded and sustained the Taliban. It put them in power in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, in the only victory ever won by the Pakistani army in its entire history.

The Taliban regime was created by Pakistan with the full support, knowledge, complicity and understanding of the US. Now, having created this regime, the Pakistani state is being asked to unravel it.

Pakistan has been a US ally for a long time. The war against the USSR in Afghanistan could not have been fought without the help of Pakistan. Pakistan was used as a conduit to fight that war, and now the Pakistani state is being asked to fight a new war against its own creation. That is why Pakistan is necessary for the US at the moment.

Many are predicting that Pakistan's support for a US bombing campaign against Afghanistan will produce a civil war. Could you explain why?
This is because the Taliban regime in Afghanistan has many supporters inside Pakistan, including inside the Pakistani army.

They also have armed groups inside different parts of Pakistan with their own training camps. Already some of these groups have been creating mayhem in Pakistani cities, blowing up members of rival organisations, attacking buses, attacking mosques inhabited by people who don't support them. It's a very dangerous situation.

But I don't think the majority of the people of Pakistan support fundamentalism. They never have. In all the general elections that have been held in Pakistan, the fundamentalists have always got a minuscule vote--much less than religious zealots get in Israel, for instance. Fundamentalism in Pakistan has always been state sponsored. Without the patronage of the Pakistani army and state machine, the fundamentalists could not have got a foothold in Pakistani society. That is now the problem which confronts the Pakistani state. Having created and sustained this monster, can they decapitate it?

Fundamentalism is so concentrated in the state because, when fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, the only way they could mobilise for that war was by raising the banner of jihad, or holy war. Carter's National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, actually went to the Afghan border and, wearing a turban, shouted, 'Allah is on your side.' And to this day Brzezinski defends that. He says, 'What is more important in the world view of history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire? A few stirred up Muslims or the end of the Cold War?' The answer to that has been given in New York and the Pentagon. And that is what we have to keep returning to. That is how the US decided it was going to fight Communism. All the religious extremist groups that have grown since the 1980s have been backed by the US using Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as conduits. Saudi Arabia, presented in the press as a 'moderate' state which is backing 'us', is the head of the octopus. This is a totally religious state. The Taliban in Afghanistan modelled themselves on Saudi Arabia. All those thought to be the hijackers have Saudi names. Saudi society is spawning this, and you have to ask why. But that is the question the US does not want to ask. The US totally backs the Saudi government because of Saudi oil. The US feels the Saudi monarchy, with its totally backward structures, keeps the oil supplies going.

Now the Pakistani state is not going to find it easy to turn against the fundamentalists it has created. General Musharraf was thinking of moving against the fundamentalists soon after he came to power, before the current crisis. But he could not make any moves because he knew it would split the army.

Now we have a totally new situation. If the US insists on using Pakistan as a supply base in any war against Afghanistan, and US and western soldiers are stationed in Pakistan, then I think lots and lots of people who have no time for fundamentalism will find that debasing. They will not accept it. It could trigger off a very dangerous civil war type situation. The army would split. The Islamists don't have a majority inside the army. So it would be a very painful and bitter civil war if it erupted, that would hurl Pakistani soldier against Pakistani soldier. The bulk of the population would stand back and watch in horror. They would not want to be involved in it.

The ISI--that's the Pakistani military intelligence which was used by the CIA to funnel funds to the Taliban--is part and parcel of the army. It is modelled on the CIA and the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA). In the late 1980s it acquired enormous power in Pakistan as an institution within an institution, but the army and Musharraf have them under control now.

The danger comes from the rank and file soldiers and the young officers who are sympathetic to the Taliban. If they see their army chiefs backing a foreign power that is waging war against the Taliban, then it will create mayhem. Pakistan's North West Frontier province is just over the border from Afghanistan, and is an area where lots of Afghan refugees settled after fleeing the war.

Traditionally, the North West Frontier province was a very secular region of Pakistan. It is only in the last ten to 15 years that Taliban-style fundamentalists, educated in religious schools all over these regions, have taken control of parts of the territory and imposed their law. Today in areas of the North West Frontier province you have a Taliban-style regime. But the bulk of the population of Pakistan lives in the Punjab, which has very different traditions. It's really the most difficult crisis the regime has faced since 1971, and how they handle it remains to be seen. This is where the west should think very carefully before putting into practice the cowboy theories being rehearsed in Washington and London. It is worth remembering that this is an army which has nuclear weapons. Just think about it!

If the west puts pressure on Pakistan to cave in and totally do its bidding, which it has done in the past but in different circumstances, if it insists on doing that now then I think it could tear apart the Pakistani state. And the whole region could be thrown into turmoil. That's the scale of things. Of course, no one knows exactly what is going to happen because this is early days, but we must watch the situation.

Afghanistan was clearly a buffer state against Russia. Now the Cold War is over, is the region of strategic importance to the west?
I don't think it is. What we are witnessing are the leftovers of Cold War politics that were played out in the 1970s and 1980s, and the region has very little strategic significance at all.

The US oil company Unocal is running a pipeline through the region from Azerbaijan to bases elsewhere, but this could be changed. This is one reason why this US government and previous ones have been soft on the Taliban--because a big US oil giant is involved with them. But now they are paying a price for their involvement. None of this would have happened if there had been a coalition government in Afghanistan. But the Pakistani authorities refused to tolerate a coalition government and backed the Taliban instead.

Afghanistan's main foreign exchange earner is heroin. The Taliban are centrally involved in this. Big trucks loaded with heroin go from Kabul to Karachi, which is Pakistan's largest city and port, and from there it goes elsewhere. This has been going on since the days of General Zia ul Haq, the military dictator who ran Pakistan in the 1970s and 1980s. They used heroin quite shamelessly to fund various operations, saying the Koran does not forbid heroin. It is just a way of life, of surviving, for many people, just like the Colombian peasants who grow the coca plant and supply cocaine in order to earn a living. They say we live in a market economy and the market needs it so we supply it. What can the neoliberals reply to that?

The US could have stopped this drugs trade at an early stage if they wanted to, but to them the Cold War was more important. Instead the CIA used proceeds from heroin to pay off various groups in Pakistan, at the same time as the US Drug Enforcement Agency was trying to get the same people. So the CIA and the DIA were at each other's throats throughout the 1980s, until the DIA just finally gave up, saying, 'What can we do?'

General Musharaf
General Musharaf

What impact will the crisis have on Kashmir?
The problem in Kashmir has been twofold. Firstly there is the Indian army occupation of that province, and the way the Indian army has been carrying out the most brutal atrocities against local people. Then, to make things worse, armed fundamentalists, infiltrated by the ISI and many of them supporters of Bin Laden, have been capturing bits of Kashmir and terrorising the local population, forcing women to wear the veil--which they have never done before--and imposing an Islamist-type regime. In the midst of all this Kashmir suffers.

The effect of the current crisis, in my opinion, will be that the fundamentalists will probably be driven out now, because they have other wars to fight and India will just establish an iron grip on Kashmir. So it is not a good situation for the Kashmiri people--not that they have had a good situation for the last ten years. The casualties in Kashmir are much higher at the present time than in Palestine, for instance. But no one cares.

The Indian government, a Hindu fundamentalist government, will also see this as an opportunity to further humiliate minority religions in India--Islam and Christianity. And lots of people in India will be very worried if foreign troops land on south Asian soil. People will think that if they can do it in Pakistan they can do it here as well. Once a precedent has been established, that the US and its allies constitute a global security state and can go wherever they want, then what price national sovereignty?

What should the left say and do?
The left has to oppose war as a means of solving disputes. The left has to say that this is a political crisis that is rooted in many ways in the Middle East.

Unless there is a resolution of the Palestine conflict, and an end to the sanctions and the continued bombing against Iraq, you can kill 100 Bin Ladens, but the conditions which create and breed terrorism will continue to exist. That is what we have got to say. It's not popular, but we have to stress that if you want to solve the question, give the Palestinians a proper state, not a shrivelled little Bantustan, tell the Israelis to move their settlements out, stop the ten-year bombing campaign against Iraq, and stop these double standards which mean we punish the crimes of our enemies and reward the crimes of our friends. Otherwise the conflict and the killing will go on.

The left has to campaign against this war, and against the horrendous media campaign which is being waged to whip up a national frenzy. We saw it during the days of the Gulf War and the Balkan War--the media is using exactly the same methods at the present time, and we must oppose them.

The Stone Woman, the third novel of Tariq Ali's 'Islam Quintet' is published by Verso in paperback this month.

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