The Decline and Fall of the Roman" Whoops!" American Empire
What Really Matters in the U.S. of A.
They weren't kidding when they called Afghanistan the "graveyard of empires." Indeed, that cemetery has just taken another imperial body. And it wasn't pretty, was it? Not that anyone should be surprised. Even after 20 years of preparation, a burial never is.
In fact, the shock and awe(fulness) in Kabul and Washington over these last weeks shouldn't have been surprising, given our history. After all, we were the ones who prepared the ground and dug the grave for the previous interment in that very cemetery.
That, of course, took place between 1979 and 1989 when Washington had no hesitation about using the most extreme Islamists arming, funding, training, and advising them to ensure that one more imperial carcass, that of the Soviet Union, would be buried there. When, on February 15, 1989, the Red Army finally left Afghanistan, crossing the Friendship Bridge into Uzbekistan, Soviet commander General Boris Gromov, the last man out, said, "That's it. Not one Soviet soldier or officer is behind my back." It was his way of saying so long, farewell, good riddance to the endless war that the leader of the Soviet Union had by then taken to calling "the bleeding wound." Yet, in its own strange fashion, that "graveyard" would come home with them. After all, they returned to a bankrupt land, sucked dry by that failed war against those American- and Saudi-backed Islamist extremists.
Two years later, the Soviet Union would implode, leaving just one truly great power on Planet Earth along with, of course, those very extremists Washington had built into a USSR-destroying force. Only a decade later, in response to an "air force" manned by 19 mostly Saudi hijackers dispatched by Osama bin Laden, a rich Saudi prince who had been part of our anti-Soviet effort in Afghanistan, the world's "sole superpower" would head directly for that graveyard (as bin Laden desired).
Despite the American experience in Vietnam during the previous century the Afghan effort of the 1980s was meant to give the USSR its own "Vietnam" key Bush administration officials were so sure of themselves that, as the New York Times recently reported, they wouldn't even consider letting the leaders of the Taliban negotiate a surrender once our invasion began. On September 11, 2001, in the ruins of the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had already given an aide these instructions, referring not just to Bin Laden but Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein: "Go massive. Sweep it up, all up. Things related and not." Now, he insisted, "The United States is not inclined to negotiate surrenders." (Of course, had you read war reporter Anand Gopal's 2014 book, No Good Men Among the Living, you would have long known just how fruitlessly Taliban leaders tried to surrender to a power intent on war and nothing but war.)
Allow a surrender and have everything grind to a disappointing halt? Not a chance, not when the Afghan War was the beginning of what was to be an American triumph of global proportions. After all, the future invasion of Iraq and the domination of the oil-rich Greater Middle East by the one and only power on the planet were already on the agenda. How could the leaders of such a confident land with a military funded at levels the next most powerful countries combined couldn't match have imagined its own 2021 version of surrender?
And yet, once again, 20 years later, Afghanistan has quite visibly and horrifyingly become a graveyard of empire (as well, of course, as a graveyard for Afghans). Perhaps it's only fitting that the secretary of defense who refused the surrender of the enemy in 2001 was recently buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full honors. In fact, the present secretary of defense and the head of the joint chiefs of staff both reportedly "knelt before Mr. Rumsfeld's widow, Joyce, who was in a wheelchair, and presented her with the flag from her husband's coffin."
Meanwhile, Joe Biden was the third president since George W. Bush and crew launched this country's forever wars to find himself floundering haplessly in that same graveyard of empires. If the Soviet example didn't come to mind, it should have as Democrats and Republicans, President Biden and former President Trump flailed at each other over their supposedly deep feelings for the poor Afghans being left behind, while this country withdrew its troops from Kabul airport in a land where "rest in peace" has long had no meaning.
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Here's the thing, though: don't assume that Afghanistan is the only imperial graveyard around or that the U.S. can simply withdraw, however ineptly, chaotically, and bloodily, leaving that country to history and the Taliban. Put another way, even though events in Kabul and its surroundings took over the mainstream news recently, the Soviet example should remind us that, when it comes to empires, imperial graveyards are hardly restricted to Afghanistan.
In fact, it might be worth taking a step back to look at the big picture. For decades, the U.S. has been involved in a global project that's come to be called "nation building," even if, from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to Afghanistan and Iraq, it often seemed an endless exercise in nation (un)building. An imperial power of the first order, the United States long ago largely rejected the idea of straightforward colonies. In the years of the Cold War and then of the war on terror, its leaders were instead remarkably focused on setting up an unparalleled empire of military bases and garrisons on a global scale. This and the wars that went with it have been the unsettling American imperial project since World War II.
And that unsettling should be taken quite literally. Even before recent events in Afghanistan, Brown University's invaluable Costs of War Project estimated that this country's conflicts of the last two decades across the Greater Middle East and Africa had displaced at least 38 million people, which should be considered nation (un)building of the first order.
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