Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires

Commonweal – A review of religion, politics and culture: The War We Can’t Win – Afghanistan & the Limits of American Power
-Andrew J. Bacevich

What is it about Afghanistan, possessing next to nothing that the United States requires, that justifies such lavish attention? In Washington, this question goes not only unanswered but unasked. Among Democrats and Republicans alike, with few exceptions, Afghanistan’s importance is simply assumed—much the way fifty years ago otherwise intelligent people simply assumed that the United States had a vital interest in ensuring the survival of South Vietnam. As then, so today, the assumption does not stand up to even casual scrutiny.”

“Fixing Afghanistan is not only unnecessary, it’s also likely to prove impossible. Not for nothing has the place acquired the nickname Graveyard of Empires. Of course, Americans, insistent that the dominion over which they preside does not meet the definition of empire, evince little interest in how Brits, Russians, or other foreigners have fared in attempting to impose their will on the Afghans. As General David McKiernan, until just recently the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, put it, “There’s always an inclination to relate what we’re doing with previous nations,” adding, “I think that’s a very unhealthy comparison.” McKiernan was expressing a view common among the ranks of the political and military elite: We’re Americans. We’re different. Therefore, the experience of others does not apply.”

I think this is definitely right on key… there’s this sense, even with Obama’s supposed new direction in the war… with a priority placed on protecting civilian lives as much as having a “civilian” strategy to accompany the military one, that in essence we’re doing something completely different from what the Brits and Soviets did. I think this is a false notion, one that perhaps emanates from the very type of empire we have – one whose center of power is isolated by two vast oceans from its satellites and bases overseas. We can theorize and hypothesize as much as we want in Washington… but our actions and behavior in Afghanistan are seen not only by regional actors, in addition to the Afghan people themselves, as the same sort of thing the Brits and Soviets attempted and failed to to.

“no road to peace in Jerusalem discovered in downtown Baghdad—to describe Iraq as a success, and as a model for application elsewhere, is nothing short of obscene. The great unacknowledged lesson of Iraq is the one that the writer Norman Mailer identified decades ago: “Fighting a war to fix something works about as good as going to a whorehouse to get rid of a clap.

“For those who, despite all this, still hanker to have a go at nation building, why start with Afghanistan? Why not first fix, say, Mexico? In terms of its importance to the United States, our southern neighbor—a major supplier of oil and drugs among other commodities deemed vital to the American way of life—outranks Afghanistan by several orders of magnitude.”

This is probably true given that gang violence in Mexico has spread all the way up into Canada. An equal, if not more pressing concern to national security….

“If one believes that moral considerations rather than self-interest should inform foreign policy, Mexico still qualifies for priority attention. Consider the theft of California. Or consider more recently how the American appetite for illicit drugs and our liberal gun laws have corroded Mexican institutions and produced an epidemic of violence afflicting ordinary Mexicans. We owe these people, big-time.”

“In the immediate wake of 9/11, all the talk—much of it emanating from neoconservative quarters—was about achieving a “decisive victory” over terror. The reality is that we can’t eliminate every last armed militant harboring a grudge against the West. Nor do we need to. As long as we maintain adequate defenses, Al Qaeda operatives, hunkered down in their caves, pose no more than a modest threat. As for the Taliban, unless they manage to establish enclaves in places like New Jersey or Miami, the danger they pose to the United States falls several notches below the threat posed by Cuba, which is no threat at all.”

“In short, time is on our side, not on the side of those who proclaim their intention of turning back the clock to the fifteenth century. The ethos of consumption and individual autonomy, privileging the here and now over the eternal, will conquer the Muslim world as surely as it is conquering East Asia and as surely as it has already conquered what was once known as Christendom. It’s the wreckage left in the wake of that conquest that demands our attention. If the United States today has a saving mission, it is to save itself. Speaking in the midst of another unnecessary war back in 1967, Martin Luther King got it exactly right: “Come home, America.” The prophet of that era urged his countrymen to take on “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.”

I don’t think we can exactly just up and leave, as that would almost certainly continue the cyclical nature of what happened after we bailed on Afghanistan after the Soviets left, but we can dramatically scale down or commitment and rhetoric for that matter. It’s difficult because while the author here notes that we seem to have no trouble with Pakistan as far as providing a home for the Taliban/Qeada… this overlooks two critical things. The first of which is that Pakistan has a somewhat effective and functioning central government, and an Army that wields most of the power, and is fully capable of doing whatever it likes. Afghanistan has none of these things – no fighting force, no functioning central government etc. Leaving Afghanistan would arguably enable it to return to the state it was in prior to the invasion in 2001, regardless of whether or not the Taliban were able to reclaim power – a highly unlikely scenario… but nonetheless, our credibility would suffer just as much if we left. As much as I want to say, ‘lets just partition it – half to Pakistan and half to Iran’, or give the war to someone else like Iran… we have a commitment there which began with the invasion in 2001, a commitment to the people of Afghanistan, which we must see through. We don’t have to get everything perfect, but merely ensuring that the Afghan people have the ability to make their own future will be enough in ensuring the creation of a stable state, an internal security apparatus, and ensuring that we complete the ‘mission’ of denying the country safe haven for the Taliban/Qaeda. It’ll take some real ingenuity to shift the focus of our intervention there from mostly a military one to one that is focused on giving people tools to govern themselves.


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