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The New Great Game in Afghanistan and Pakistan

The Pakistani establishment's engagement and covert alliance with the jihadis and imperialist intervention led by the United States guided by the so-called "war on terror" have resulted in the present quagmire in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. An anti-imperialist response that does not reduce itself to mere anti-Americanism, as articulated by Islamist forces, is necessary to halt the rapid unravelling of the crisis engulfing these two countries.


The New Great Game in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

the corporate media giants that shape American public opinion. Since the middle of 2007, the war in Afghanistan has been thrust back into the spotlight, and while it is true that the insurgency in the eastern part of that country has intensified during this period, the media has

The Pakistani establishment’s engagement and covert alliance with the jihadis and imperialist intervention led by the United States guided by the so-called “war on terror” have resulted in the present quagmire in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. An anti-imperialist response that does not reduce itself to mere anti-Americanism, as articulated by Islamist forces, is necessary to halt the rapid unravelling of the crisis engulfing these two countries.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar ( is affiliated with the People’s Rights Movement in Pakistan and is also with the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

ith the end of the Bush presidency, many people, both within and outside the United States (US), are expecting some semblance of change in Washington’s posture towards the rest of the world, especially in the wake of the victory of the “candidate of change” in the American presidential election.

Jerry Harris has pointed out that the “unilateralist” tendencies of the neoconservatives are likely to be challenged by both “realists” – who share a longing for US hegemony with the unilateralists but take greater care to take other western powers along – and “globalists” – who broadly represent the interests of multinational capital and advocate relative peace. But Harris nevertheless asserts that “America’s self-conception as a country uniquely chosen by history, culture and God to lead the world is deeply rooted in the US ruling class, particularly within the military/industrial complex” (Harris 2008). In other words, it is to be expected that self-righteous imperial pretensions continue to dictate American foreign policy into the foreseeable future.

While the overwhelming focus of the Bush administration remained Iraq, public opinion in the US has recently been reawakened to the quite banal fact that the neocon war machine was first mobilised to attack, invade and occupy Afghanistan.1 More generally, the war in Iraq has been subject to much more public dissent than the war in Afghanistan, at least until quite recently. The reasons are obvious: American troop deployments there outstrip those in Afghanistan, the official explanation for the invasion of Iraq has been completely exposed as a set of serialised lies, and the post-Saddam haven of democracy that was supposed to follow soon after the “official cessation of hostilities” was never established.

The gradual shift in focus away from Iraq appears to have been well scripted by suddenly rediscovered the original front of the “war on terror” after almost five years of virtual silence.2

Having said this there is no conspiracy behind the re-emergence of Afghanistan on the public radar screen. If, on the one hand, it reflects an attempt to divert attention from the unfolding disaster that is Iraq, it also represents a consensus between the Democrats and Republicans that the American engagement in Afghanistan is likely to continue indefinitely while the sectarianisation of Iraq is expected to be complete within a much more finite time frame. The mainstream media has now regularly started to report in terms that make it apparent that doing away with the Taliban will be at least a “20-year project” (Lamb and Walters 2006).

The more immediate cause of Washington’s shift towards Afghanistan is the bad blood between its client governments in Pakistan and Afghanistan. While the posture of the American-backed Karzai regime towards Pakistan has been slightly less confrontational since the demise of the Pervez Musharraf presidency, the recrimination between Afghanistan and Pakistan has been simmering for some time and is u nlikely to let up.

Kabul has been insisting that the notorious Pakistani intelligence agencies – and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in particular – have not in fact been prosecuting the “war on terror” in the nebulous Pak-Afghan border region as much as they have been organising resistance to it in the shape of a resurgent Taliban. Until quite recently the George W Bush administration had turned a blind eye to these accusations, not necessarily because they were without basis, but because political expediency demanded it.

More specifically, Washington was the major supporter of the Pakistani military junta fronted by Pervez Musharraf that took over in a coup in October 1999. The

january 3, 2009


Bush administration repeatedly reposed faith in its cherished ally to capture Al Qaida frontmen. It is important to distinguish between Al Qaida and the Taliban here, at least in terms of how the protagonists of the “war on terror” have viewed them. Al Qaida operatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan are foreigners who are said to have links with other “terrorist” networks around the Muslim world. The Taliban on the other hand refers to that home-grown political movement based primarily in the contiguous Pakhtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There are innumerable ambiguities in the way Washington, Kabul and Islamabad have used these terms, but there is nevertheless some insight to be garnered by adhering to the basic binary. In short, the Bush administration gave Pakistani generals a clean slate to pursue their perceived strategic policy agenda (read: rehabilitate the Taliban) so long as a prominent Al Qaida operative or two was apprehended every once so often. Meanwhile within Afghanistan the Karzai regime co-opted previously hostile Taliban elements in order to prop up its brittle Kabulbased authority.

In other words Washington’s Afghan policy has been just as diabolical as its Iraq policy inasmuch as its narrow interests (and its playing to the gallery back home) have set the region up for an indefinite period of conflict. To reiterate: the A mericans’ obsession with Al Qaida (a shadowy force that serves the purpose of instilling fear into American citizens)3 has on the one hand meant a tolerance for ex-Taliban elements within Afghanistan who are willing to tow Kabul’s line, and on the other allowed the Pakistani intelligence to reinvigorate the Taliban in its s o-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).4

Strategic Depth

Pakistan’s security establishment has long been obsessed with asserting its hegemony over Afghanistan. In the first instance this was a response to a militant secular Pakhtun nationalist movement that was the dominant political force in what b ecame the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan in 1947. Islamabad has always suspected Pakhtun-dominated

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Afghanistan of exploiting Pakhtun nationalist sentiment as a means of destabilising Pakistan (Khan 2005).

Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan have also been a function of its India-centric foreign policy. Pakistani generals have been worried that the country could be boxed in if Afghans and Indians collaborate against it and have accordingly attempted to secure strategic depth vis-a-vis India by simulating a Pakistan-Afghanistan border much further west than the internationally accepted one. In part the policy of strategic depth has been successful because of the fact that FATA and contiguous territory on the Afghan side of the border are virtually unknown to the rest of the world, a reality almost unchanged from the colonial period.

In any case, it is crucial to bear in mind that Islamabad’s cultivation of “holy warriors” or what have now become known the world over as “jihadis” preceded the start of the Afghan War in 1978. Naturally, the policy was given a major boost when Washington became directly involved and provided direct support to the mujahideen, or as Ronald Reagan preferred to call them, “the moral equivalents of our f ounding fathers”.5

After the Geneva Accords of 1988, Washington jumped ship, but was clearly aware that Islamabad’s holy war assembly line remained intact. It is now a badly kept secret that in the civil war-like situation that prevailed in Afghanistan through the early 1990s, Washington, at the very least, turned a blind eye to Islamabad’s cultivation of what became the Taliban. When the latter managed to establish effective control over the majority of Afghanistan’s territory in 1996, the Clinton administration even hosted representatives of the new rulers of the country (Rashid 2000).

Only when the White House public relations officials found it increasingly difficult to explain the tilt towards the Taliban did relations start to sour. Eventually Washington started to claim that the Taliban movement was colluding with the almost mythical Osama bin Laden and the first air assaults against Afghanistan’s new rulers were launched by Clinton in 1998. Yet throughout this period, and even until after the September 11 attacks, Pakistan openly supported the Taliban regime, r emaining one of two governments in the world (along with Saudi Arabia) to maintain diplomatic relations with it.

It was therefore nothing less than a heist that soon afterwards the media started depicting Pervez Musharraf and the rest of Pakistan’s generals as being at the front line of the “war on terror” and celebrated their liberal credentials (following the invasion of Afghanistan, a lead story by Newsweek depicted Musharraf as a whiskydrinking, poodle-rearing man committed to good American-style family values). In fact, Pakistani generals have for the most part always been very secular in their p ersonal and political orientation, but this has never precluded their very c ynical use of Islam to serve their perceived strategic interests (Akhtar, Amirali and Ali Raza 2006).

Throughout the past seven years, despite all rhetoric to the contrary, the policy of strategic depth has been alive and well. Already Pakistani generals were privately infuriated by the fact that they were forced to pull back from their policy of supporting militancy in Indian-held Kashmir, and clearly Washington did not want to antagonise further what has been arguably its most dependable client (and army) in the Third World since the end of the second world war.

Burgeoning Contradiction

Nevertheless, the cat is now officially out of the bag. The attempt to stage-manage an Al Qaida/Taliban dichotomy has failed miserably. With the weak Afghan government needing support and a clear desire to play to the gallery one last time, the Bush administration confronted Pakistan with evidence of its intelligence agencies’ collusion with the insurgents in the Pak-Afghan border regions. That it had this evidence all along was a point conveniently ignored by the corporate media.

Officials within the US government have since continued to assert that the ISI is out of control, even though in private Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) spymasters express admiration for the web of intrigues that the ISI has proven capable of weaving (Mazzetti 2008). For its part, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government is virtually powerless to stop the military and its intelligence agencies in large part


because of the continuing patronage of Pakistani forces by the P entagon. While the PPP and other mainstream parties can be indicted for refusing to take on the military establishment head-on, the longstanding alliance of Pakistan’s military with imperialism is the single most important reason for the subsidiary role of the country’s politicians.

So, if on the one hand, Washington has been compelled to make public the fact that its most trusted ally of the past seven years has actually been teaming up with the very terrorists that it has vowed to exterminate, on the other it remains unwilling to undo its alliance with the twotiming ISI. American military men in particular remain enamoured of their Pakistani counterparts while it can be surmised more generally that the US r emains true to its long-term policy of p atronising unaccountable authoritarians in the third world rather than allowing representative regimes to take root.

Again it is important to recognise the gross misrepresentations in the corporate media’s projection of recent events in P akistan lest one actually starts to believe that Washington has been supportive of the fledgling democratic process in Pakistan. In fact, in spite of the predictable banter about supporting the new government, the Bush administration continued to back an isolated Pervez Musharraf until it was simply no longer possible to do so. Washington still remains stoutly opposed to the restoration of the country’s sacked chief justice (largely because he championed the case of Pakistan’s equivalent of Guantanamo “missing persons”), and has launched air strikes within Pakistani t erritory so as to make a mockery of the new government’s attempts to assert the country’s sovereignty.

Meanwhile it is no secret that Washington’s main man in Pakistan is the army chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani. Touted as the consummate professional and a great friend of the US, Kiyani enjoys regular c ontact with American counterparts and is said to enjoy the complete trust of the suits that matter in Washington. Perhaps it should not be a surprise to discover that Kiyani’s posting prior to his b ecoming army chief was as director g eneral of the ISI.

It is quite likely that high profile Al Qaida operatives will continue to be apprehended by the Pakistani military at opportune moments in the future. Meanwhile Pakistani military casualties can also be expected to be significant, thus permitting Pakistani generals to make convincing claims of just how much of a stake they have in fighting “terror”. The furore over the ISI’s support of militancy will die down as the media returns to familiar themes. But the burgeoning contradiction caused by imperialist war will not go away, cynical generals in Washington and Rawalpindi alike will be content to pursue their narrow strategic objectives regardless of the ramifications.

Anti-Imperialist Resistance?

Progressive forces outside the Muslim world have been at the forefront of antiwar protests through the Bush years. These protests have focused on demanding a withdrawal of western troops from Iraq and Afghanistan (alongside the sustained campaigns for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine), whilst also d efending Muslim populations against a growing tide of Islamophobia. The r ecklessness of rhetoric spewed out by the Bush and Blair regimes have even compelled secular progressive to actively d efend “Islam” from demonisation.6

The anti-war movement in the UK has seen the cobbling together of alliances between explicitly Muslim social and political organisations and left wing parties (Phillips 2008). There is some history behind such alliances but there has been a noticeable deepening in the relationship between otherwise quite distinct ideological groupings.7 Indeed, in the UK for example, smaller left-of-centre electoral parties such as “Respect” have actively targeted Muslim majority constituencies and managed to attain more successes than has traditionally been the case.8

There is of course no monopoly over the mantle of anti-imperialist resistance and the fact that explicitly “Islamic” social and political organisations in the non-Muslim world could be seen as allies by progressive forces is simply a reflection of the nature of alignments, historical and current, within such contexts. However, in many parts of the Muslim world – and for

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    the present purposes in Afghanistan and Pakistan – “Islamic” forces represent very different political aspirations, and it is essential to refute any tendency to eulogise them as “anti-imperialist” unless it is very clear that they are deserving of such labels.

    For the most part insurgency in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan and other parts of the Muslim world has been spearheaded by forces that describe themselves as “Islamist” whether overtly or otherwise. With American unilateralists intent on imposing themselves through coercive force on the rest of the world, and particularly Muslim societies, progressive forces do not necessarily have the luxury of choosing who resists, and there is credence to the claim that whoever is part of the resistance is deserving of support.

    To be fair, most discerning progressives make distinctions between, say, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the considerably more parochial factions coalescing around S istani and Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq. There has been an emphasis on supporting secular political groupings including trade unionists in the oil industry.9 But nevertheless there is a danger that the “defence of Islam” strategy in Europe and North America will spill over into a similar posture vis-a-vis Islamists at the front line of the “war on terror”. I will not consider the merits and demerits of this point of view in the case of Iraq, Palestine or elsewhere in the Arab world; my focus is Afghanistan and P akistan, contexts about which a lot less is known in the western world.10

    ‘Anti-Imperialist’ Islamists?

    At a general level, scholars with a deep interest and knowledge of the political economy of Islamism have clearly cautioned against uncritically accepting the “antiimperialist” claims of Islamists in the current conjuncture (Amin 2007; Haliday 2006). In many cases it is more accurate to think of insurgencies led by Islamists on the Afghan front of the “war on terror” as being informed by a parochial anti-Americanism rather than an expansive anti-imperialism. And the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan is actually quite fluid; the American engagement smacks of colonialism, with coercion employed against those warlords and ex-Taliban elements not willing to fall in line while

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    those who have been willing to accept the new dispensation are happily accommodated, regardless of their ideological commitments (Rashid 2008: 88-110).

    As I have already pointed out, Pakistan’s military establishment continues to patronise Islamists within Afghanistan, which suggests that at least a section of the insurgency is not necessarily committed to defending the Afghan people from the empire and is instead better thought of as a proxy for Pakistani interests in post-Taliban Afghanistan. While other insurgent elements may be considerably more autonomous, the fact remains that there is a need to problematise the “resistance”. This does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that the insurgents do not enjoy some legitimacy whereas the occupying force has none, but only that the former should not necessarily be considered an unambiguously pro-people force.

    Within Pakistan there are similar legitimacy questions surrounding Islamists. While many jihadi groups may have become autonomous of the military establishment, this does not mean that they enjoy the support of ordinary working people or that they offer a meaningful alternative to the violence of the empire. In fact the socalled Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is known to be unbelievably brutal in its methods, and its targets are just as often ordinary working people who do not sport beards or wear the burqa as low-level Pakistani state functionaries.11

    It is crucial that progressives do not take for granted the binary that has been created by the corporate media whereby the Pakistani and American militaries are opposed to the Taliban. In fact Pakistanis are increasingly clear that these forces constitute a troika that is committed to permanent conflict and nothing else, in which working people are expendable pawns on the battlefield. With American troops in Afghanistan for the long haul and the Pakistani military unwilling to change its deadly policy of patronising jihad, violence could become commonplace and Pakistani society could unravel at the seams. Already Afghan society has been ravaged by more than three decades of imperialist war and intrigue, and Pakistani society, regardless of how resistant it may be to the violent trends being thrust upon it, is unlikely to survive the strain of imperialist war indefinitely.

    Full Spectrum Dominance

    As I pointed out at the outset, the end of the Bush presidency does not spell relief for Afghanistan and the wider region. A fter eight years of rule by the neocons, such little space exists for dissent within the intellectual and political mainstream in the US that the premise of the “war on terror” remains largely unquestioned. The now prevalent discourse which posits the need to withdraw from Iraq and refocus on Afghanistan only reinforces the basic notion that the “war on terror” is being waged to make America more secure. In many countries in western Europe (after the debacle with “New Labour” – even England has learned) it is no longer possible to make this argument, the general public long having recognised that the “war on terror” has little to do with the s ecurity of Europe’s citizens and much more to do with deep-seated corporate and military interests.

    Beyond the obvious involvement of the oil/gas and munitions industries in the “war on terror”, it is often forgotten that the political economy of jihad in west and central Asia is in fact a complex amalgam of spymasters’ strategic wrangling and a massive underground drugs and weapons market. An exact understanding of how the smuggling of heroin and arms has evolved since the late 1980s is now almost impossible given the spiralling conflict within the region (Ahmad and Barnett 1988). Yet, at least on the heroin front, there is widespread acknowledgement that after the relative success of the Taliban regime in arresting poppy production, the trend has once again been reversed in the aftermath of the American invasion (Mansfield and Pain 2007). Meanwhile it is common knowledge that the entire r egion remains a massive clearing house for weapons of all kinds.

    Indeed, the proliferation of this underground economy explains the ability of the insurgency to not only survive but to prosper in spite of its geographic constraints.12 Pakistani intelligence agencies, jihadis and Afghan warlords alike have clearly developed such deep interests in the smuggling of arms and drugs that it is facile to


    think that peace can be established so long as this underground economy remains intact. As thoughtful observers have pointed out, the war-ravaged Afghan economy forces many ordinary Afghans to continue relying on opium production to subsist (Mansfield and Pain 2007).

    In any case, there is more at stake here than just Islamabad’s and Washington’s strategic interests or the future of “Islamist” militancy. What is clear is that the primarily military engagements of both the Americans and the Pakistanis ensure that the vicious drugs and guns cycle remains intact. Given the history of the region, it cannot be argued that either of the two major protagonists of the so-called “war on terror” do not understand the ramifications of their strategies. While the Pakistani military and its intelligence arms’ strategic interests remain the major determinant of Islamabad’s policy, Washington is motivated by a host of objectives.

    It is not outside the realm of possibility that the US unilateralists seek to annex Pakistan. There has long been talk in think tank circles about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear installations and with the principle of pre-emptive war now well established, increasing unrest in P akistan could be just the justification that Washington needs to intervene (Ali 2008). What is beyond speculation is the real reason for a long-term American presence in Afghanistan and the wider region. The coveted oil and gas reserves of central Asia – or what is known as the Caspian r egion – remain fair game even close to two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union. It should not be forgotten that immediately after the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan, UNOCAL had signed a preliminary agreement with it to build pipelines to extract oil and gas from c entral Asia through Afghanistan down to warm waters. The plans to establish control over the Caspian resources remain i ntact today (Foster 2008).

    But the US is not alone in wanting the Caspian resources, believed by many to be the largest untapped oil and gas r eserves in the world. China has invested heavily in the Gwadar port on the southern tip of Balochistan province in Pakistan and there is speculation that it has been playing an active role in supporting some militant groups in both Balochistan and in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border r egion. Russia is naturally keen to retain control over not only the oil and gas of the region but also its traditional hegemony over the central Asian states. Iran too is a definite player in this new “great game”.

    Compared to the original “great game” in the 19th century when Britain and Russia vied for hegemony over the central and west Asia, the stakes in the current conjuncture are much higher. Perhaps most importantly the jihadi phenomenon is qualitatively new with the power to incite violence within Muslim populations in the region and outside it, the consequences of which are almost impossible to predict.

    Whatever the circumstances, the imperial juggernaut will not cease. As the global economic system put in place after the 1973 oil shocks further unravels, the only response that Washington knows is to exercise its military muscle to stave off impending crisis for that much longer. Meanwhile, as long as the Pakistani establishment continues to patronise jihad, it will be the “Islamists” – autonomous operators or otherwise – who will be associated most obviously with an anti-American politics. Whether or not a genuine anti-imperialist politics can emerge to spearhead a challenge to Washington’s and Islamabad’s intrigues will determine the fate of both Afghanistan and Pakistan.


    1 The mainstream media has reported that the neocons planned to attack Afghanistan long before the 11 September attacks. See for example http:// _asia/ 1550366.stm

    2 In 2008 violence in Afghanistan has taken some 3,800 lives including some 200 foreign troops in the first eight months alone. Violence overall in eastern Afghanistan has been up by up to 30% and to 50% in some areas, compared with 2007. See “Overview of Pakistan-Afghanistan Relations”, Centre for Strategic and Security Studies, 12 September 2008, Islamabad.

    3 Aijaz Ahmad (2008) writes: “What now gets called Al-Qaeda is at best a loose network of affinity groups with very weak mutual linkages, even though the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have certainly contributed to a great expansion of such groups as well as to the numbers of freelance, self-styled martyrs”.

    4 Mainstream accounts of the “war on terror” obviously offer a different explanation for the debacle in Afghanistan. Most notably Ahmed Rashid a rgues that the war in Afghanistan could be thought of as a “just” war to defeat “terrorism” and that the real reason for the failures of the past seven years is that Washington diverted all its r esources to fighting the war in Iraq. See Rashid (2008).

    5 For a good summary of the wider context of the Afghan jihad, see Ahmad and Barnett (1988).

    6 The polemic came to a head in Bush’s use of the term “Islamo-fascism”. See

    7 So, for example, while the JUH in India has maintained an anti-imperialist posture since the colonial period, it has not always shared a common cause with the left.

    8 This is not to suggest that respect’s politics has i nstrumentalised Islam per se, but only to point out that it has made a very deliberate effort to a rticulate class concerns in a culturally specific language that piques Muslim sensibilities, particularly by invoking the suffering of Muslim societies around the world due to the “war on terror”.

    9 See for example 10 I deliberately exclude Indian progressives here because of the experience that India has had with “Islamists” since at least the beginning of militancy in Kashmir in 1988. For the most part, Indians are aware of the strategic games waged by the ISI and their own intelligence agencies in which the former has consistently patronised “jihadis”, as detailed earlier. I therefore think that Indian anti-imperialists, while completely committed to the anti-war movement, remain clear about the credentials of “jihadis” as anti-imperialists. 11 The burqa is the full-body veil. As far as attacking state functionaries, the TTP tends to target police and paramilitary men whereas it is suspiciously disinclined to attack military troops. 12 By this I mean that the insurgents have no access to water bodies, and the air is secured by the Americans. However, overground smuggling has been impossible to stop, in large part because of the American and Pakistani militaries’ dubious strategic engagements.


    Ahmad, Aijaz (2008): “Islam, Islamisms and the West”, Socialist Register. Ahmad, Eqbal and Richard J Barnett (1988): “Bloody Games”, New Yorker, 11 April.

    Akhtar, Aijaz Sajjad, A Amirali and M Ali Raza (2006): “Reading between the Lines: The Mullah-Military Alliance in Pakistan”, Contemporary South Asia, 15, 4.

    Ali, Tariq (2008): “Casualties of Another War”, The Guardian, 23 September. Amin, Samir (2007): “Political Islam in the Service of Imperialism”, Monthly Review, December. Foster, John Bellamy (2008): “Peak Oil and Energy Imperialism”, Monthly Review, July-August. Haliday, Fred (2006): “The Left and the Jihad”, Open-Democracy, September. Harris, John (2008): “US Imperialism after Iraq”, Race & Class, 50, 1, pp 37-58. Khan, A (2005): Politics of Identity: Ethnic Nationalism and the State in Pakistan (London: Sage). Lamb, C and P Walters (2006): “Afghan Endgame ‘20 Years Away’”, The Australian, 20 March.

    Mansfield, D and A Pain (2007): “Evidence from the Field: Understanding Changing Levels of Opium Poppy Cultivation in Afghanistan”, Briefing Paper Series (Kabul, Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit), November.

    Mazzetti, Mark (2008): “When Spies Don’t Play Well With Their Allies”, New York Times, 20 July. Rashid, Ahmad (2000): Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia (London: I B Tauris).

    – (2008): Descent into Chaos (New York: Viking). Phillips, R (2008): “Standing Together: The Muslim

    Association of Britain and the Anti-war Movement”, Race & Class, 50, 2, pp 101-13.


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