Author, Historian Tariq Ali Discusses Obama's War

Tariq Ali
Tariq Ali
Almost as if posing the question directly to the members of the audience, historian and author Tariq Ali began his lecture on the Iraq War by asking: “So how many more troops to send?” After a moment of silence, his quick answer was a firm and resounding “none.” He remembered how, during the Vietnam War, famed General William Westmoreland once mistakenly stated that “all we need is more troops and we’re going to win the war.” And in many ways, the Vietnam and Iraq Wars have run parallel: because while the United States’ sheer military power certainly cannot be matched, “no one can win.”

The reason why the US got embroiled in the Middle East, Ali explained, was because of 9/11. Al Qaeda was supposedly based in Afghanistan and the Bush administration wanted to try someone for the attacks. (“I don’t care, dead or alive – either way,” Bush once remarked about bin Laden’s capture.) “But people whose heads you want would leave quickly,” Ali said, and the people responsible “were no longer there when we got to Afghanistan.” That original “war of revenge” still remains nine years later, albeit in different form.

“We’ve been told that it’s a sign of weakness for (President Barack) Obama to pull out of the war,” Ali said, but he added that continuing military occupation in the Middle East would actually be the worse option. Earlier this year, Obama officially moved the troops out of Iraqi cities, which is perhaps a step in the right direction but does not solve most problems; the troops are now merely dislocated to large military bases on the fringes of major urban areas.

“The plan is not to withdraw,” Ali stated emphatically. Additionally, the presence of American soldiers has dramatically changed the fabric of several Middle Eastern countries. Ali mentioned that in Afghanistan, people are fleeing the countryside because of the bombings and setting up homes in slums on the outskirts of Kabul; these impoverished shelters have no access to electricity or running water.

However, the plights of the native Pakistani, Afghani, and Iraqi people are basically ignored by major Western news outlets. For example, on June 20, 2009, an Iranian woman named Neda Agha-Soltan was fatally shot at the protests for the 2009 Iranian elections; her death caused global outrage. And while her story was unquestionably tragic, that very same day 60 people – most of them Pakistani women and children – were killed by U.S. forces in an air strike, and the event went virtually unreported. Ali explained that this may be symptomatic of another problem – the extensive Islamophobia that pervades American culture and, in particular, the media.

“One million people have died in Iraq, and two and a half million people are now refugees,” Ali said, “but we talk easily about genocide.” He looked around the audience. “Because you don’t get drafted, you don’t have to think about it, and so it’s all okay,” he said, acknowledging the unsettling mode of thought that just because the United States is the oppressive force, the country’s actions are somehow not really genocide. “But unless we act, this will carry on. And ultimately, it will affect you,” he said.

“What needs to be done is an exit strategy,” Ali explained. The United States should involve regional powers not to intervene militarily, but to ensure stability in these Middle Eastern countries so that NATO can pull out. “If 30,000 more soldiers are sent into Afghanistan, the situation will get much, much worse,” he said. “When you send in troops, you need to ask the question: how many people do you want to kill?” He remarked somberly: “It will end badly, and it will end badly for everyone.”
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