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Afghanistan: American’s hubris and folly

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Google the phrase “graveyard of empire” and the first few pages of references that return also contain the word Afghanistan. It has been used so much it’s on its way to becoming a cliché. But, as with many clichés, it is used frequently because it contains a large measure of truth.

Nearly every poll taken on the subject over the past few weeks has shown a growing dissatisfaction among the American public for this drawn out, expensive, hard to qualify war. More than 60 percent of respondents in one recent poll want the U.S. to simply pull out of Afghanistan. And today, CNN reported that the military is reviewing the mission in Afghanistan, and may come back as soon as next week with a recommendation for a major change in policy there. The suggestion that the joint chiefs may recommend a pullout was the undercurrent of the report.

It’s high time. Review the reason we went into Afghanistan to begin with: the capture or death of Osama bin Laden was the mission statement put forth by the Bush administration a long, long decade ago. Now that mission has been accomplished, and a dispassionate review of any reasons we may have to remain as uncomfortable occupiers of that nation would show we no longer have any reason to be there.

While the “nation builders” out there say that if we stay, we can democratize Afghanistan, to believe that flies in the face of 50,000 years of history. Afghanistan is made up of a combination of tribal clans and religious sects that has never been easily corralled into what Westerners would consider to be a nation. It has been, throughout its history, a land conquered by the major conquerors in history, including Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great; a series of monarchies with a long history of rebellious disruption; an uneasy regional congregation with little leadership at all; and a fractious, short-lived piece of the British empire. And one that Britain was more than happy to release to its own fate, according to most histories. As a nation, its boundaries are entirely arbitrary, established by past conquerors including the infamous “Durand line” that demarks the Afghanistan-Pakistan border — a border that is largely a joke within the region and one ruled by powerful tribes that have no more allegiance to Kabul than does a resident of Oxbow.

To think that we can use troops, or anything else, to bring Western democracy to a wild, disparate and disjointed land is as poorly considered as any past efforts to control Afghanistan. Great Britain left the nation to its own devices nearly a hundred years ago; the great, unified U.S.S.R. spent billions of wasted ruble and 14,000 Russian lives in a decade of bitter and frustrating occupation in the 1980s. It may be that the only reason the U.S and its allies have not lost as many soldiers as the Russians did is that no one is arming the Taliban as aggressively as the U.S. armed the mujahideen during the Russian occupation.

At the end of its decade, the Russians pulled out without having any appreciable impact on the chaotic rule of Afghanistan that existed when they rolled into the country, and within a couple years, the Russian-backed regime was overthrown by the Taliban. Here’s a prediction: when the NATO forces pull out of Afghanistan, the exact same thing is going to happen once again.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time, then the U.S. policy toward Afghanistan is totally nuts.

We have accomplished an important mission: bin Laden is dead and his organization is in chaos. Absent another credible goal, we should get out. NATO will gladly endorse this, with defense ministers and heads of state across Europe breathing private sighs of relief.

It’s time the U.S. starts to realize that we are but one culture of many; our form of government is really quite the minority across the world and it is (as we constantly show ourselves) not easy to maintain and it is harder still to start. We should recognize that other people may not even want constitutional democracy, and we should likewise recognize that many cultures are not adequately trained or educated to maintain one.

Afghanistan is the graveyard of empire chiefly because those who have tried to conquer it have failed to understand the ancient culture that exists there. We are no different in that regard. To think that we are is a unique American combination of hubris and folly.

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