The powers that be have finally admitted – with great reluctance, of course – that our expedition in Afghanistan is not having the expected (or at least advertised) result, and that we must – must! We have no choice! -- remain there as an occupying force for the foreseeable future, i.e. forever, for all intents and purposes. No Cold War, this – which, despite all the bluster and threats, at least had some symmetry... some balance. Yes, it was one political/social/economic system versus another, but it was also one empire versus another, with many of the same strategies and tactics used on both sides. The result was a sort of mutual understanding; each side was the image of the other, in a dark mirror.
The Cold War was not unlike a chess game – and even though the Russians are far better chess players than we are, they were the ones who retired from the field, not from lack of resources or sheer fatigue, but because they eventually tired of their own propaganda and illusions. Their empire got old, the hard-liners died off, and the temptations of the world economic community were too great to resist. So that empire faded in a remarkably peaceful way; no one surrendered, they just underwent a major shift in priorities – a sea change, if you will, from collectivist dogmatism to relative pragmatism. (And there are worse things than having leaders who are pragmatists rather than theorists.) And it's not that there were, and are, no regrets – there's plenty of Stalinist nostalgia floating around Russia these days, at the same time that the Romanovs have been granted icon status by the revitalized Orthodox church. (We have our own Cold War nostalgia, which is alive and well. Any number of government and military types long for the conflict they grew up with, with its clear demarcations, as opposed to the tangled mess we now face in the Middle East. This is one reason why they mistakenly fight the War on Islam as if it were conventional warfare.) The real story of Russia in the 20th Century may not be how the Soviet Union came to be – that's a fairly clear picture. The real story is how it managed to evolve, or devolve, with a minimum of violence and strife, without a civil war, without starvation and mass displacement of people... in short, a model for how an empire can come to an end in a reasonable way, which is a much rarer phenomenon than how empires are established and grow.
Afghanistan, however, is another matter, as the Russians found out first and as we are now finding out. The “graveyard of empires” certainly contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union (with no little help from us, and now we find that our friends then are our enemies now), and the question is how much it has contributed, is contributing, and will contribute to our own demise – as an empire at least, if not as a nation.
That's all on the conventional wisdom/historical model side. But there is another level of analysis at work, and it has been from the outset... and I've discussed it many times. In short, the War on Islam (my term, but I believe it to be more accurate than the alternatives) replaced the Cold War just in the nick of time to keep the military-industrial complex from suffering any economic hardship, and just in time for an oppressive domestic policy that had been in the works for decades to become firmly established and justified – for the rule of war is that no matter how physically removed the battles are from home and hearth, the citizenry must, sooner or later, pay the price. Security is touted as the main justification for “why we fight”, but when security necessitates an ever-increasing loss of freedom, one wonders whether that wasn't the idea all along. Diminished freedom seems to be the cost of “security”, and yet we aren't even all that secure, so it winds up being a net loss for the citizenry (and a huge gain for those in power).
Another facet of all of this is the adoption of perpetual war as an economic, political, and diplomatic reality – and the more politicians (including the president) claim that this is not the case, the more clearly it seems to be the case. And this is another reason why the War on Islam, AKA the “War on Terror”, is so ideal – because we are dealing with an amorphous enemy that doesn't play by the “rules”... there are no “exit criteria”, i.e. there is no way of knowing if we've ever “won”... and we are continuously sowing dragon's teeth, i.e. all of our efforts to weaken the opposition – however defined – only result in more opposition. We have an endless parade of monsters and bogeymen to deal with – first the Taliban, then Al-Qaeda, and now ISIS, along with countless lesser organizations, bands, brigades, insurgents, factions, rebels, counter-rebels, counter-counter-rebels, and splinter groups, not to mention actual countries like Syria and Iran. Pair that with our on-again, off-again “allies” in the Middle East and Europe, and it starts to look more and more like our fight – that we are the ones riding out on a white charger while everyone else stays warm and cozy at home, with attitudes ranging from skepticism to outright mockery and derision. “Oh yeah, there goes Uncle Sam again, blowing titanic amounts of blood and treasure in order to, somehow, save the Middle East from itself.”
Afghanistan in particular is frustrating simply because the “radicals” seem to be the only ones who give a damn – who care how things turn out. The populace in general is hunkered down, desperate, and helpless, and either unwilling or unable to aid in the effort. Perfectly good armies seem to evaporate the minute we set foot on their soil, to be replaced by hordes of wild-eyed fanatics; it happened in Iraq, it happened in Libya, and it will, eventually, happen in Syria. Like it or not, for all of the strife that characterizes that part of the world, the one thing that will make them all unite in common cause is our presence – for us to invade and occupy. Then suddenly Job One is to get rid of us... or, failing that, to make our lives as invaders and occupiers thoroughly miserable. And from the humanitarian point of view, how does the civilian death toll compare, pre-U.S. invasion with post-U.S. invasion? I daresay it's much worse after we get involved; again, this is demonstrably the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, and seems to be the case in Libya as well. Even the lowest form of colonialist ambition – take the oil and run – turns out to be a fallacy; we can turn oil exporters into oil importers in the twinkling of an eye. So where is the profit? Where is the benefit? Cui bono? Clearly, it's in the interests of the military-industrial complex to keep up this dreary routine for as long as possible, and on the domestic side, as I said, it's in the interests of power-hungry politicians to promote totalitarianism in the interests of “national security”. “Department of Homeland Security” -- “Transportation Security Agency” -- “National Security Agency” -- anyone see a trend here?
So back to the issue at hand. Headline: “Afghan exit strategy fades” (as if there ever was one). Sub-headline: “Terrorists' resilience could keep thousands of soldiers in country for decades, commanders say.” The first questions that should be asked, but never are, are as follows: Where did these “terrorists” come from? And what makes them so “resilient”? (And really, folks, where do they get all of that weaponry, much of it made here, or in Russia, or even in Israel?) And what makes us think that we can ever defeat them, even given “decades”? And – the most radical idea of all – why not just leave? Are they really going to follow us back to the homeland and create all sorts of death and destruction? Well, they already are, to some extent. But what if that's because we persist in occupying their country, or their part of the world? What if Ron Paul was right when he said that “they're over here because we're over there”? (That remark, made during a presidential debate, nearly caused Rudy Giuliani to have a fatal stroke, if you'll recall.)
Of course, this is all represented as a “shift in mindset” on the part of the military, and especially on the part of Obama, who really, truly wanted us to get out of that godforsaken place – honest, he really did. Right. My theory is that he has standing orders: Whatever you do, and whatever you say, we are not getting out of Afghanistan, not now, not ever. (Again, who benefits?) The only thing that has changed is not some “mindset” or “outlook” but their willingness to publicly admit that the situation is hopeless – a variety of hopelessness that, mysteriously, requires us to stick around rather than getting the hell out.
But! But! – you might say – hasn't the military been planning, for years now, to leave Afghanistan once they could say “mission accomplished”? Well, no. They've been making that claim for years, sure... but anyone could see that the day when we could say “mission accomplished” would never come – not only because of the reality of the situation, but by design. For example, one of the countless bogus criteria presented is “building an effective Afghan army and police force”. Um... has it ever had these? I seriously doubt it. National character comes into play here. Afghanistan is simply not one of those places that is cut out to have an effective army and police force. It is ideally suited to having warring tribes, which it has had down through recorded history – and if we pulled out it would go back to ancient ways, and probably be too caught up in feuds and vendettas to cause any damage outside its (artificial, by the way) borders. Hence, another foolproof “criterion” which is not a criterion at all. But why quibble? Why not spend “billions of dollars a year” and have “thousands of advisers on the ground” (the diplomatic term for combat troops)?
The best quote from the article is as follows: “'What we've learned is that you can't really leave', said a senior Pentagon official...” How true! But how did they “learn” that? Who told them?
Well, it's sort of like what happens when your team is knocked out of Super Bowl contention – you can finally sit back, relax, not worry, and enjoy the show rather than engage in endless nail-biting. All the American public has to do now is accept that we'll be in a state of war forever... or at least until the Republic collapses from its follies. Perhaps we will get a break, and the end won't really be the end, as exemplified by the Soviet Union. There might be a light at the end of the tunnel – but as long as the people who are now in charge remain in charge, that light will not come any closer.
One final quote, again from a Pentagon official: “This is not a region you want to abandon.” That's funny, I sure do – and I'll bet a lot of other Americans do as well. But who listens to us?