The US adventure in the Graveyard of Empires swirls the bowl. I speak, of course, of Afghanistan, that storied imperial graveyard about which - not that many years ago - US military experts were crowing, "Well, yeah, but this is the 21st century, and WE are the US MILITARY." The insinuation, of course, was that, comparatively speaking, the Soviets, and the Brits of the 19th century, and Alexander the Great's Macedonians, were all pussies.
What's happened to the US in Afghanistan has nothing to do with the dedication, courage, and hardiness of US Marines and soldiers (even if those US troops who copy SS banners and name an outpost "Aryan" need to get their heads screwed on straight). Many have paid the ultimate price; others will be paying out a severe price for the rest of their lives. The nation owes them all it can afford, to help them heal and move ahead.
But now the US military is straining at the bit to escape before more of its people are sucked into becoming candidates for what John Kerry famously called the last soldier to die in a lost war. As Douglas Wissing quoted from US Marines in Afghanistan:
"On an operational level, the soldiers are saying, ‘I'm going to go over there and try to not get my legs blown off. My nation will shut this bullshit down,'" a Marine officer in southern Afghanistan told me last year. It wasn't just that his soldiers had lost confidence in their Afghan partners, they had long since lost faith in counterinsurgency's focus on hearts-and-minds development work.
"Marines say, ‘fuck this,'" the officer remarked. "The juice ain't worth the squeeze."
From all appearances, the US is hustling to the off-ramps, disguising its exit as handing over to Afghan forces the chief responsibilities for dealing with the Taliban, who - along with various and sundry warlords and local militia - are poised to reassert their control once the US is gone. Afghanistan is poised for horrific civil war over the next few years. Rival "Taliban" factions stand armed and ready. Rival warlords have turfs to carve out. Minority ethnic groups (Tajiks, Hazaras) want to assert themselves against the Pashtun majority. As James Traub so cogently observed, the Afghan people deserved far better in the wake of the Americans.
What we're likely to see in the months ahead are more incidents (reported or not) of US troops abusing corpses and lighting up civilians purely out of feelings of "fuck this" - especially as more of them are picked off by IEDs and snipers, or shot down by Afghan soldiers turning on them (as happened yesterday inside the Interior Ministry building in Kabul). I feel for the families of the Americans who've lost their lives in such fashion - but I feel just as badly for the thousands of Afghans who've lost their lives at US hands. And, it seems to me, no fair-minded person can blame Afghans for wanting to take revenge. Afghan children, forced into refugee camps, are freezing to death in the Afghan winter's bitter cold. And, as Glenn Greenwald notes via several reports, the Afghans who are turning against US soldiers have reasons galore to exact revenge - and not just for desecrating the Quran:
Protesters in Kabul interviewed on the road and in front of Parliament said that this was not the first time that Americans had violated Afghan cultural and religious traditions and that an apology was not enough.
“This is not just about dishonoring the Koran, it is about disrespecting our dead and killing our children,” said Maruf Hotak, 60, a man who joined the crowd on the outskirts of Kabul, referring to an episode in Helmand Province when American Marines urinated on the dead bodies of men they described as insurgents and to a recent erroneous airstrike on civilians in Kapisa Province that killed eight young Afghans.
“They always admit their mistakes,” he said. “They burn our Koran and then they apologize. You can’t just disrespect our holy book and kill our innocent children and make a small apology.”. . .
The U.S. has violently occupied their country for more than a decade. It has, as Gen. Stanley McChrystal himself explained, killed what he called an “amazing number” of innocent Afghans in checkpoint shootings. It has repeatedly — as in, over and over — killed young Afghan children in air strikes. It continues to imprison their citizens for years at Bagram and other American bases without charges of any kind and with credible reports of torture and other serious abuses. Soldiers deliberately shot Afghan civilians for fun and urinated on their corpses and displayed them as trophies.
As the US effort is wound down, you can expect a plethora of encomiums from Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Panetta and their minions about all that the US has done for Afghanistan and its people (and, of course, the Fox News "experts" will be meanwhile pouring on the vitriol about how Obama, having "lost" Iraq, has now lost Afghanistan). Be prepared.
And then, be thankful that some perhaps wiser heads are nudging the US to come to terms with a belatedly discovered reality: the US is not a hyper-power. Indeed, it never was a hyper-power.
And, just maybe, the US - and the world - might be better off in a world in which it is no longer to be regarded as "the indispensable nation."