This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
"The Bleeding Wound"
Afghanistan and the Implosion of America
By Tom Engelhardt
As I approach 75, I'm having a commonplace experience for my age. I live with a brain that's beginning to dump previously secure memories -- names, the contents of books I read long ago (or all too recently), events, whatever. If you're of a certain age yourself, you know the story.
Recently, however, I realized that this experience of loss, like so much else in our world, is more complex than I imagined. What I mean is that such loss also involves gain. It's turned my mind to, and made me something of an instant expert on, one aspect of twenty-first-century America: the memory hole that's swallowed up parts of our all-too-recent history. In fact, I've been wondering whether aging imperial powers, like old men and women, have a tendency to discard what once had been oh-so-familiar. There's a difference, though, when it comes to the elites of the aging empire I live in at least. They don't just dump things relatively randomly as I seem to be doing. Instead, they conveniently obliterate all memory of their country's -- that is, their own -- follies and misdeeds.
Let me give you an example. But you need to bear with me here because I'm about to jump into the disordered mind of a man who, though two years younger than me, has what might be called -- given present-day controversies -- a borderline personality. I'm thinking of President Donald Trump, or rather of a particular moment in his chaotic recent mental life. As the New Year dawned, he chaired what now passes for a "cabinet meeting." That mainly means an event in which those present grovel before, fawn over, and outrageously praise him in front of the cameras. Otherwise, Trump, a man who doesn't seem to know the meaning of advice or of a meeting, held a 95-minute presidential ramble through the brambles in front of a Game of Thrones-style "[Iran] Sanctions Are Coming" poster of... well, him. The media typically ate it up, even while critiquing the president's understanding of that HBO TV series. And so it goes in the Washington of 2019.
Excuse me if I seem to be wandering off subject (another attribute of the aging mind), but I'm about to plunge into history and our president is neither a historian, nor particularly coherent. Read any transcript of his and not only does he flip from subject to subject, sentence by sentence, but even -- no small trick -- within sentences. In other words, he presents a translation problem. Fortunately, he's surrounded by a bevy of translators (still called "reporters" or "pundits") and, unlike the translators in the president's meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, we have their notes.
So here, as a start, is a much-quoted passage of his on this country's never-ending Afghan War from that cabinet meeting, which reporters and pundits jumped on with alacrity and criticized him roundly for:
"We're going to do something that's right. We are talking to the Taliban. We're talking to a lot of different people. But here's the thing -- because mentioned India: India is there. Russia is there. Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan. Russia. So you take a look at other countries. Pakistan is there; they should be fighting. But Russia should be fighting.
"The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there. The problem is it was a tough fight. And literally, they went bankrupt. They went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union. You know, a lot [of] these places you're reading about now are no longer a part of Russia because of Afghanistan."
As I said, Donald Trump is no historian. So it's true that the Red Army didn't move into Afghanistan in 1979 thanks to a terrorist presence in Russia. And yes, every stray pen or talking head in Washington seemed to skewer the president for his ignorance of that reality, including the Atlantic's eminent neocon pundit David Frum who basically claimed that the president was simply pushing the latest dish of pasta Putinesca our way. ("It's amazing enough that any U.S. president would retrospectively endorse the Soviet invasion. What's even more amazing is that he would do so using the very same falsehoods originally invoked by the Soviets themselves: 'terrorists' and 'bandit elements.' It has been an important ideological project of the Putin regime to rehabilitate and justify the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan...")
While critics like Frum did begrudgingly admit that the Soviet fiasco in Afghanistan might have had just a teensy-weensy something or other to do with the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, less than two years after the Red Army limped home, the president, they insisted, basically got that wrong, too. The Soviet Union bankrupted by Afghanistan? Not in your dreams, buddy, or as the Washington Post's Aaron Blake wrote in a piece headlined "Trump's Bizarre History Lesson on the Soviet Union, Russia, and Afghanistan":
"The overlap between the fall of the Soviet Union and its foray into Afghanistan is obvious. The USSR invaded in 1979 and left a decade later, in 1989. The superpower dissolved shortly thereafter in 1991. But correlation is not causation... It was perhaps among the many reasons the USSR collapsed. But it was not the reason."
And then, of course, came the next presidential tweet, and everyone -- except me -- moved on with alacrity. I was left alone, still dredging through my memories of that ancient conflict, which, these days, no one but the president would even think of bringing up in the context of the ongoing U.S. war in Afghanistan. And yet here's the curious thing when it comes to an aging empire that prefers not to remember the history of its folly: Donald Trump was right that Russia's Afghan misadventure is a remarkably logical place to start when considering the present American debacle in that same country.
Two Empires Trapped in Afghanistan
Let me mention one thing no one's likely to emphasize these days when it comes to the Russian decision to enter that Afghan quagmire in 1979. At the highest levels of the Carter and then the Reagan administrations, top American officials were working assiduously to embroil the Soviets in Afghanistan and would then invest staggering sums in a CIA campaign to fund Islamic extremist guerrillas to keep them there. Not that anyone in Washington is likely to play this up in 2019, but the U.S. began aiding those Mujahidin guerrillas not after the Red Army moved in to support a pro-Soviet regime in Kabul, but six months before.
Here's how President Carter's national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, would describe the situation almost two decades later: