Graveyard of Empires
Recently by Eric Margolis: Democracy or More Dictatorship forEgypt?
Far-called our navies melt away – On dune and headland sinks the fire – Lo, all our pomp of yesterday Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
~ Rudyard Kipling 1897 "Recessional"
The poet laureate of imperialism might write the same stanzas today about the successor of the British Empire, the American imperium, which, having reached its high water mark in the bleak mountains of Afghanistan, appears set to begin receding.
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta just announced that all US combat troops would withdraw from Afghanistan by mid-2013. Of the 90,000 US Afghan garrison, 22,000 will depart this fall. Some sort of US training mission will remain.
Afghanistan has once more earned its well-deserved title, "Graveyard of Empires."
Retreating from combat is one of the two most dangerous military operations (the other is river crossing or amphibious landing under fire). Hopefully, the US can disengage from Afghanistan with the same skill and dexterity it did from Iraq. A long-overdue peace deal with Taliban would pave the way for an American withdrawal.
The Obama administration, facing a tough election this year, has taken the fiscally, militarily and politically correct decision to end the no-win Afghan war begun by George W. Bush that has cost over $700 billion to date.
Withdrawal dates for roughly 40,000 NATO troops is uncertain, though France just announced an accelerated pullout. The fate of an estimated 80,000 US-paid mercenaries in Afghanistan is also uncertain.
The US will continue strikes by drones, warplanes, and attacks by special forces from a small number of fortress bases. Pakistan will be cajoled or bribed by Washington to keep its forces active against Pashtun tribal fighters. Washington and London will keep issuing cheery claims about the success of the Afghan War.
But the hard truth cannot be avoided. All the concentrated military-technological might of the United States and its allies has been defeated by fierce Pashtun tribesmen whose primary weapons are courage, patience and legendary determination to drive out foreign invaders.
The United States had hoped to pound or bribe the Pashtun fighters that comprise Taliban and its allies, the Haqqani Group and Gulbadin Hekmatyar's Hisbi Islami, into submission, or split them by selective peace talks.
Such tactics, backed by massive air power and ethnic cleansing of some three million Sunnis, worked for a time in Iraq.
They have failed in Afghanistan. Every sort of modern weapon save nuclear devices was used against the Afghan resistance: carpet bombing, laser-guided bombs, fuel-air explosives, cluster munitions dispending blizzards of steel shards, mines, helicopter gunships, tanks and giant armored trucks, swarms of drones, satellites, aircraft that disable roadside bombs. Deadly AC-130 gunships bristling with guns and 20mm cannon. Death squads attacking at night to kill Taliban sympathizers. Heavy artillery and rocket batteries.
Tethered blimps laden with sensors that looked like the gigantic killer robots from H.G. Well's "War of the Worlds." In fact, the Afghan War has been a one-sided conflict between a backwards people living in the 12th century and the high-tech military might of 21st century America.
Soon after 9/11, I wrote in a US newspaper article that US intervention in Afghanistan would be a disaster for all concerned. I'd been with Pashtun mujahidin, fighting first against the Soviets, then with Taliban battling the Afghan Communists. These Pashtun mountain warriors were the bravest men I had seen in covering 14 wars. They enjoyed war, even reveled in it. There was no way western forces were going to defeat them.
All the western claims about fighting "terrorism" or abused women in hijabs could not fully conceal that Afghanistan was also a war being waged for strategic geography, minerals, pipeline routes, and the desire to bar China from the region.
The last fig leaf fell when then CIA Chief Panetta admitted there were no more than 25-50 al-Qaida members in Afghanistan. That and the assassination of Osama bin Laden left Washington no more excuse for occupying Afghanistan. A majority of Americans turned against the endless Afghan war. Even the US-installed Hamid Karzai stated that NATO's only achievement had been killing large numbers of Afghan civilians.
Even if US combat troops leave next year, as in Iraq, the US will still exercise influence through drones, air strikes, commando raids and a vast fortified embassy ("Crusader Castles" bin Laden called them) with its own little mercenary army.
Still, quitting the Afghan fiasco should boost Obama's electoral chances, though Republicans will cry "sell-out" and "betrayal."
Hopefully, an end to the Afghan conflict will also lessen or end America's military and political semi-occupation of Pakistan, which Washington strong-armed in 2001 into supporting a war against its own creation, Taliban.
As a result, nuclear-armed Pakistan has become dangerously destabilized and a hotbed of anti-western hatred. Ending the Afghan War is urgent before Pakistan blows up and draws India into the maelstrom.
This should be America's primary strategic interest.
Eric Margolis [send him mail] 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.