Comparing the brain sizes of migratory birds and U.S. presidents may not help explain this one. Birds have been avoiding Afghanistan for some years now. Afghans with higher educations have been leaving for decades. War profiteers, and occupation profiteers, and "reconstruction" profiteers seem to know their way out. But imperial rulers, whether British or Soviet or U.S., seem utterly incapable of withdrawing other people's kids from Afghan wars until no other option remains.
Speaking with Afghans via Skype over the weekend, I heard their top concern as avoiding a "strategic partnership agreement" that includes permanent U.S. military bases. This concern seems not to diminish in the slightest if the bases are called "enduring" or "stable" or anything other than permanent that means permanent. The top concern of the Pentagon, and of the President who works for it, and of the Congress that does what the President tells it, is clearly the exact opposite: establishing permanent bases. Americans fantasizing that President Obama has said everyone will be gone in 2014 need to go back and read the transcripts of his speeches.
The desire of the majority of U.S. citizens, on the other hand, seems to be to end the "war." If the occupation could last forever, but involve less financial cost and less cost in U.S. lives, even if Afghans continued to die and hostility continued to build, I'm not sure my country wouldn't favor that. We're against particular wars when the patriotic pomp wears off, but are we against the ever-growing and ever-weakening empire of bases we fund without comment smack in the middle of a manufactured spending "crisis"?
I've long been a huge fan of Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States," but only recently did I read Chris Harman's "A People's History of the World." Harman starts with what we can discern of prehistory before describing the first civilizations. Long before he gets to what we call the year zero, and then building ever more through the end of the book, a pattern emerges not entirely unlike that in Paul Kennedy's "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers." As civilizations in various ages, on every continent, develop, they often grow top-heavy. They stop investing in what made them grow. They stop caring for their infrastructure and for the mass of their people. They start dumping more and more of their resources into an extremely wealthy minority and into wars. This is not some sort of natural cycle. Some cultures do it right away, some not for millennia. Some start to do it and pull back. Some slide slowly into it. But eventually, if you wait long enough, everybody seems to get there. Whether increased awareness of this pattern can help prevent it remains to be seen.
Empires' path to the graveyard may be examined particularly well in the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan. Edward Girardet has been reporting from Afghanistan since 1979, and has just published an account of that entire period, called "Killing the Cranes: A Reporter's Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan." I highly recommend it. Girardet's focus is on Afghanistan, a nation whose fate was dramatically worsened by the Soviet invasion, again dramatically worsened by the Soviet withdrawal and what followed, and yet again devastated by the U.S. occupation. Afghanistan just cannot seem to catch a break. But the flip side of this story is the damage that the USSR and US have done to themselves in the process.
Girardet's story of national tragedy begins pre-Soviet invasion, with Kabul an international city, its people fashionably dressed in western clothes, rock music blaring out of cafes. One could have imagined the 1980s as a time of tourism rather than what it was, a time of genocide. The Soviets deliberately made conditions unlivable in Afghanistan, so that its fourteen to fifteen million people would leave, die, or obey. Sayed Abdullah, the Khalqi commander of Kabul's Pul-e-Charki prison, announced in a party speech: "A million Afghans are all that should remain alive -- a million communists. That's all we need." Girardet witnessed and reported on the exodus to Pakistan, the accompanying atrocities, and the growth of Afghans' armed resistance. On April 20, 1979, the communists executed over 1,000 men and boys at Kerala. Girardet's narrative constantly jumps back and forth in time (for example, to point out that many members of the Afghan government both in the 1980s and now were/are well known supporters of the resistance), but he fails to mention or suggest any comparison between Kerala and the Dasht-i-Leili massacre of 2001.
Back in 1979, "Western interest in media reports from Afghanistan reemerged during the Soviet-Afghan war," Girardet writes, "only when the United States seriously upped the ante by supporting the mujahedeen in what became known as Operation Cyclone. Well over three billion U.S. dollars (some put the figure as high as eighteen billion) of military aid was supplied, including the Stinger anti-aircraft missile. Highly favorable coverage of how successful the United States was in helping the mujahedeen was orchestrated by Washington. In one case, the CIA invited the publishers of Newsweek and Time for lunch. The next week embarrassingly similar stories lauding the U.S. role appeared in the two magazines."
Girardet describes his encounters and conversations with numerous key figures. In one incident he is nearly lynched by a crowd in Pakistan that has mistaken him for Salman Rushdie. In another tense scene, he and Osama bin Laden are arguing with each other, standing at some distance in the mountains, as groups of supporters gather behind each of them. But before bin Laden and other Arabs arrive on the scene, two leaders loom largest in Girardet's account: Ahmad Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Girardet describes them: