We Americans have spent almost two and a half centuries charting our own course and creating our own identity. We take pride in a unique system of governance, a dynamic economic engine, and our ability and success to serve as melting pot for the world. Many of us also revel in the fact that we are not Europe.
The apple, of course, did not fall as far from the tree as we would have liked. We share many of our worst traits with the Europeans (despite their protestations to the contrary).
How we relate to the rest of the world is a singular reflection on the whole of European history and European attitudes on “they” that live outside of Europe. At the dawn of the age of discovery, when European nation-states first took to the seas in earnest, they spent centuries traversing the globe and “discovering” new places. That those places had people living at them did not matter much to the Europeans, they would “save the savages” and establish “European-style” government and society. Peter Beagle, writing almost 40 years ago, described the period succinctly; “Thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses”.
After WWI, the victorious western allies went to great lengths to punish Germany and her allies. The punitive actions taken at the Versailles conference served as the foundation for WWII. The parallel actions taken by the west were, perhaps, just as dangerous to the future; Western generals and political leaders took out the maps and began redrawing the world. Spheres of influence were created, new nations were carved out of the dust, and pro-western puppets were installed. The origins of the Gulf War begin not with Saddam Hussein, but rather with the creation, out of the desert sand and for the purposes of oil security, the nation of Kuwait.
All of this, of course, brings us to today. Afghanistan has been a challenge to the European sensibility for well more than a century. The British tried to control it as a colony, the Americans tried to influence it as a Cold War puppet, and the Soviets tried to install and support a pseudo-communist government there as a bulwark between their southern border and the oil-rich and politically contested Middle East. The problem that all have run into, and that most have forgotten, is that much of Afghanistan does not want to be a nation-state in the Western sense of the phrase.
We cling to the notion of “U.S.-style democracy”, despite the fact that the U.S. is the only place where the form exists. In fact, I would argue that democracy only works where it is paid for, and the price for democracy is, ultimately, the blood of those who live within it. All the successful democracies that I know of, were born out of strife or rebellion fought by the citizens of the home country; it is not something that can be fought by proxy. And so it goes with Afghanistan.
The history of Western intervention there is typical of most of our attempts at “foreign policy”. We don’t really understand what is needed, and what our limitations are; we just know what is “right”. Like a man running out of a bright room into a knife fight in a dark alley, we are blinded by what our eyes are accustomed to. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, we attempted to assist the insurgents fighting the Soviets. Our CIA built solid relationships with members of the mountain tribes that inhabit the region to the south and east of the nation. Known as the Mujaheddin, these freedom fighters proved to be a tough and resourceful group in fights against the invaders. When faced with the extreme tactical problems presented by Soviet aircraft (in particular the deadly “Hind” transport/gunship), the CIA supplied our friends with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.
The most successful of these groups of freedom fighters were led by foreign-borne fighters, mostly rich idealists, from Muslim nations such as Saudi Arabia. They were loosely organized into a larger operational group called “the base”.
“The base”, in Arabic, is Al Qaeda.
At this moment, the best and brightest of our nation are fighting in Afghanistan against people who have lived there all there lives. We support a government that exists predominately on paper and is, at best, corrupt. Its leader, Karzai, was a Shell Oil executive when he was tapped by the Bush Administration as the leader of Afghanistan and is largely distrusted by the populace. Most of the country has no desire for any kind of government, and no tolerance for foreigners. The mountainous areas that proved so difficult to the Soviets are just as inhospitable to our folks; it is not about right and wrong, or communism and capitalism for these people. They just don’t care about our problems. Most people in the region live in the same valleys all there lives, raising sheep (or opium) and minding their own business.
Which brings us, finally, to the problem; what should our goal be in that “country”, and can we achieve it? Folks, this is not about the toughness or tactical ability of our troops. Just as in Iraq, our military has daily won tactical engagement after tactical engagement, victory after victory. But there is no endgame. The military needs to know how the game is won, and then they need the support to win it. Thus far in his administration, President Obama has yet to correct President Bush’s mistake and formulate an achievable result that stands for final victory. As a result, the military has no real idea what it needs to accomplish that goal.
We are on that bloodiest of treadmills; one that we have seen before. Vietnam lasted ten years, cost 58,000 lives lost (an innumerable lives damaged and disrupted), and carried an economic cost that helped to push the nation into the downturn at the close of the seventies and early eighties. We need to figure out how to get off and make real progress.
We need to do this soon…as I right this post, someone is losing their child in the mountains of a country that doesn’t really exist, for a cause that isn’t well-defined. The troops have their honor, they have our love and support, and they daily have their victory…
The rational middle would like to show them the respect they have earned by establishing, once and for all, the goals they must achieve that they may come home to their families.
We look forward to your commentary….