While the leadership of America is mud-wrestling with itself in the election "silly season," the nation is watching the wheels come off its military occupation of Afghanistan. It feels like that special effects TV ad for a new SUV in which, as the SUV speeds forward, thousands of its parts magically come flinging loose until we see nothing but the truck chassis speeding ahead.
In Afghanistan, we're down to that truck chassis. And its wheels are now coming loose. Once again, US leaders have reached a crisis endpoint in yet another counter-insurgency commitment. Once again our leaders insist on "victory" when that kind of end is impossible.
The story began just over a century ago. Smart, moderate historians like Andrew Bacevich (Washington Rules and The Short American Century: A Postmortem); Chalmers Johnson (The Blowback Trilogy and Dismantling The Empire: America's Last Best Hope) and others have made the imperial master narrative clear. In a nutshell, the expansionist militarist energy that began with the Spanish American War -- the so-called American Century -- is over. Or at least we're climbing down the mountain we ascended so gloriously during the last century. The empire that was launched with great bully, outward-rushing enthusiasm by Teddy Roosevelt and others is now circling its wagons.
In 1899, Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem "The White Man's Burden." At the time, we were "liberating" the Philippines from the Spanish and becoming embroiled in a nasty counter-insurgency war with Philippine nationalists in which water boarding was regularly employed against uncooperative Filipinos. Here's Kipling:
Take up the White Man's burden -
Send forth the best ye breed -
Go send your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild -
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
His theme was the passing of the baton of empire and imperialism from Britain to the United States. America was high on Manifest Destiny and bursting at the seams to bring light to the benighted peoples of the world and to remake the world in its own exceptional image.
Being on the downside of empire is less invigorating. As economic realities become squeezed, it becomes harder and harder to sustain the notion that we're covering the world with our beneficence. Instead, what we're doing is covering our ass trying to hold on to what we got.
Former colonial hearts of darkness like China, India and Brazil are evolving into burgeoning capitalist giants who insist on being seen as peers or competitors and no longer as backward subjects ("half devil and half child") for manipulation and exploitation. Latin America is feeling pride and independence vis-a-vis the US. Places like Iran with a history of US bullying become thorns in our side. While places like Israel that are dependent on US imperial might become frightening problems.
As we watch the wheels come off our mission in Afghanistan, it's clear forward motion there is gravely impaired; so the mission shifts to figuring out how to retrieve that wheel-less truck chassis and the far-flung parts without recognizing the obvious.
This leaves us with a classic imperial question: Exactly how does a great empire remove an occupying army without seeming to be in retreat? An American legislator from the Vietnam era whose name I can't recall answered that question with what is still the best pragmatic answer: "Ships and planes." Bite the bullet and just do it.
The list of complaints about the US occupation in Afghanistan is long: Despite demands they be stopped, there's the persistent drone and Special Operations night raids. There's the video of laughing soldiers pissing on Afghan corpses. There's those clueless Americans blithely burning Korans in a base dump. There's the happy-go-lucky sniper unit that photographed themselves with a Nazi SS flag. And let's not forget the killing of 26 Pakistani border guards.
The administration of Our Man in Kabul, Hamid Karzai, is hopelessly corrupt and caught between being a US puppet dependent on US support and efforts to survive as a centralized leader in a traditionally fragmented Islamic society that disdains the US occupation. Playing to anti-American sentiment, he's now asking us to leave.
And now there's a major, front-burner disaster to deal with. A 38-year-old father of two on his fourth combat tour got drunk and decided he had to single-handedly massacre 16 Afghan civilians for no apparent reason. John Henry Browne, the shooter's lawyer, is now telling the public his client joined the service in the days following 9/11, is a "decorated" soldier and was wounded twice during his Iraq tours.
The military is keeping the man's name secret. He was quickly flown to Kuwait. When Kuwait raised an alarm, he was immediately flown to the United States, likely Leavenworth. The secrecy and rapid movement is, of course, about assuring the military absolute control of the man's story. It's also to trump any Afghan sovereignty demand that the soldier be tried in Afghanistan for killing Afghans. Since the killings weren't mission-related at all, the Afghan government has a good argument for trying the man in an Afghan court.
I won't speculate on the personal motives of the man I'm going to call Sergeant X. But that won't stop the use of his story as a metaphor. The fact is, symbolically, one could not have scripted a more compelling narrative to emphasize the problems surrounding our occupation of Afghanistan.