Tariq Ali says in an interview with Der Standard: To continue its war in Afghanistan, the US accepts the risk of destabilizing Pakistan. But only a regional diplomatic approach can help.
STANDARD: How would you evaluate the danger often invoked today that Pakistan is collapsing and its nuclear weapons may fall into the hands of extremists?
Tariq Ali: Much of that is alarmist rumor, with which Washington wants to put pressure on the Pakistani army. The nuclear weapons are well guarded by the army. There is no danger that extremists could seize them. It would be only dangerous if there were a split in the Pakistani army — which won’t happen if the US doesn’t further escalate the war in Pakistan.
What we are seeing is that the war in Afghanistan is going terribly awry and that the US believes that the solution for it is in Pakistan — but the solution lies in Afghanistan itself, for which the NATO must find an exit strategy. It’s dangerous to expand the war on Pakistan.
STANDARD: For the US government, are the Taliban and Al Qaeda still more or less the same? What do you think?
Ali: That’s crazy — completely wrong. Al Qaeda today is a tiny group. The Neo-Taliban in contrast embody the resistance against the occupation of Afghanistan, increasingly representing the Pashtun tribes as the Pashtun resistance. The intelligence advisers of US President Barack Obama know that, too. Yet, for public consumption, they lump them all together. Besides, they have been negotiating with the Taliban for a year, but the Taliban don’t want to be part of an Afghan government as long as Afghanistan is occupied.
STANDARD: In Pakistan, the government first hands over the Swat Valley to the Taliban, and then it wages an aggressive military offensive against them. What’s behind it?
Ali: In the military there are many who are opposed to killing their own people. Many soldiers refuse to fight or to complete a second tour. The top military brass know that, and so do various Pakistani Taliban factions. One of them, that of Baitullah Massoud, is very close to the military. How could we otherwise explain the fact that he visits Islamabad, attends festivities, acts as a politician — and nobody does anything against him? The military faces a political problem: they know that the US and its allies will not stay forever, and they know that they will then have to clear up the mess. So why should they completely alienate the people they need when the time comes?
On the other hand, the military must show the US that they are doing something — and they also get money for it, of course. So, they kill people and destroy villages — they have already created half a million refugees — and then they send the bill to the Central Command in Florida.
STANDARD: In essence, Obama is taking Bush’s “War on Terror” further, even though it’s no longer called that.
Ali: As far as AfPak — Afghanistan and Pakistan — is concerned, Obama is worse, because he is escalating the war. Nobody in Washington can tell me what its purpose, the real war aim, is. What do they want? They want to withdraw from Afghanistan — only not immediately. But the longer they stay, the worse it gets. I have told Obama advisers: To continue the occupation of a country of 24 million people, you are ready to destabilize a country of 180 million. We will pay dearly for that. You need an exit strategy. Only the regional powers can help stabilize the region, you should involve them.
STANDARD: You have mentioned the secret talks with the Taliban, that is Pashtun tribal representatives — that is reminiscent of how the US bought off the former insurgent Sunni tribes in Iraq. It helped for a while – but it has brought new problems.
Ali: The big difference is that in Iraq they have used one group to fight against another. But in Afghanistan there is only one group fighting against the US. And this group represents increasing portions of the population. What we need in Afghanistan is a coalition government, in which all sectors of society are represented and which is guaranteed by Pakistan, Russia, and Iran and, in the best case, India and China as well. That just might work.
Tariq Ali, editor of New Left Review, is the author, most recently, of The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power. The original interview “‘Niemand in Washington kann das Kriegsziel nennen'” was published by Der Standard on 11 May 2009. Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi (@yoshiefuruhashi | yoshie.furuhashi [at] gmail.com).