As Santayana observed, those who forget history are doomed to relive it. However overused, his maxim is as true today as when he made it.
On 15 February, 1989, the 40th Soviet Army pulled out of Afghanistan, marking the end of Moscow’s bloody and disastrous occupation. Its able commander, Gen. Boris Gromov, was the last Soviet solider to leave Afghanistan, leading his men over a bridge spanning the Amu Darya River (Oxus, in Greek) — which Alexander the Great had crossed on his ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan (327—325 BC).
In a decade of savage fighting, the Red Army and its Afghan Communist allies killed at least 1.5 million Afghans and drove 2.5 million into exile in Pakistan and Iran.
The new Soviet chairman, Mikhail Gorbachev, determined the Afghan war, that was begun by his dimwitted predecessor, Leonid Brezhnev, and a cabal of party and KGB hardliners, could not be won.
Fortunately for the world, Gorbachev, proved a leader of profound humanity, decency, and intellect. Gorbachev courageously accepted defeat and brought his soldiers home. Soon after, the Soviet Union, a bankrupt empire held together by fear and repression, began to crumble. To his eternal credit, Gorbachev refused to employ force to hold the Soviet Empire together.
Many Russians detest Gorbachev to this day, blaming him for the end of the Soviet Union. But using the Red Army to crush rebellion in the Baltic republics and East Germany could easily have ignited World War III. The world owes Gorbachev an enormous debt for averting this horror. He put humanism ahead of nationalism and imperialism.
The new president of the bankrupt American imperium should heed Gorbachev’s wisdom. Barack Obama’s inauguration offered a perfect opportunity to pause the US-led Afghan War, and open talks with Afghan groups resisting foreign occupation (both the Soviets and US branded them "terrorists"). Instead, Obama vowed to intensify the eight-year war which has so far cost the US $ 62 billion.
President Obama declared he will send 17,000 more US troops to Afghanistan on top of the 6,000 troops dispatched by George Bush. Another 13,000 will follow in the spring, raising the total US garrison to at least 66,000. These reinforcements are supposed to come from US occupation forces in Iraq.
But Pentagon hardliners and their Republican allies are trying to delay or thwart the troop drawdown from Iraq. Equally, I suspect that Iraq is in a temporary lull. Pulling out US forces may prove far harder than Obama expects.
Afghanistan is no longer George Bush’s War. It’s now President Obama’s War. Obama just defined his goals in Afghanistan as: "preventing it from being used as a launching pad for attacks on North America" and "defeating al-Qaida." He also allowed that some sort of negotiations to split Taliban might be attempted.
Both stated goals are patently false. 9/11 was organized in Germany and Spain, allegedly by Saudis and Pakistanis. Attacks on New York, Washington, London, Madrid and Mumbai were plotted in apartments and houses, not the mountains of Afghanistan. Most of the so-called "terrorist training camps in Afghanistan in 2001" were actually camps run by Pakistan intelligence where mujahidin were being prepared to fight in Indian-held Kashmir.
Al-Qaida never had more than 300 men and is today reduced to a handful of fugitives hiding in Pakistan’s tribal territories and Baluchistan. The movement’s primary function, as my new book explains, was as a guest house and data base for foreign mujahidin fighting the Soviets and Afghan Communists. It was not and is not a "worldwide terrorist organization." Catching al-Qaida’s survivors requires police work, not thousands of heavy troops.
By expanding the Afghan war, Obama fuels the growing threat of a major explosion in Pakistan. Today, US warplanes and CIA killer drones operate from three secret Pakistani air bases with covert Pakistani government cooperation. Washington has rented 120,000 Pakistani troops for $100 million monthly (plus equally large, secret CIA payments to senior Pakistani government officials and officers) to support the US occupation of Afghanistan.
In an unprecedented act, Pakistan’s government is being paid by Washington to attack its own people, and to allow US forces to do the same. Watching Pakistan’s new government dance to Washington’s tune is an embarrassing spectacle for friends of Pakistan, and a subject of sneering contempt for its foes.
Pakistan is bankrupt. The previous US-backed Musharraf regime made off with whatever money there was. Yet at some point, Pakistan’s rent-an-army of modern-day sepoys may rebel and turn against the government that orders it to kill fellow Muslims while letting India expand its influence in Afghanistan and crush independence-fighters in Kashmir.
Meanwhile, high expectations held by many Americans for Obama are fading. To the anguish of America’s antiwar movement, his administration seems set on continuing many of the illegal, repressive policies of the disgraced Bush White House that it had vowed to end: torture, kidnapping, wiretapping, assassinations, Constitutional infringements, denial of due process.
What happened to the Obama who was supposed to bring change? Leftover hardliners from the Bush days appear to be driving Obama’s foreign policy in Afghanistan. The mighty Israel lobby retains its hammer-lock on US Mideast policy. During the Gaza bombings by Israel, Obama ducked out of sight and remained mute.
The Pentagon warns that a defeat of NATO in Afghanistan will destroy the alliance — the foundation of US hegemony over Europe. After Iraq, another defeat cannot be tolerated.
Soviet veterans of Afghanistan warn the US and its allies face defeat there. The Obama White House cannot even articulate a coherent political strategy for Afghanistan. Its latest big idea is to kick out the hapless Hamid Karzai and install a new "asset," one of the CIA-groomed "good" Afghans who the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, colorfully brands "dog-washers."
Washington hopes US troop reinforcements will finally bludgeon the Afghan national resistance into accepting American domination. Then the long-planned pipeline from the Caspian Basin across Afghanistan to Pakistan can finally be built.
Talk about fiddling while Rome burns. It turns out the real national security threat to America was not Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar, but the unsupervised, crooked financiers and reckless gamblers on Wall Street who wrecked America’s economy and endangered global financial stability.
They were not in Afghanistan, but downtown New York City.
Eric Margolis [send him mail], contributing foreign editor for Sun National Media Canada. He is the author of War at the Top of the World and the new book, American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World. See his website.