My ambivalence on Afghanistan has not diminished. On an almost-daily basis I feel self-contradictory and utterly torn.
I never wanted to send troops to Afghanistan. A timeworn memory in this house is me, stomping around the house shaking my fist, ranting about it. It wasn’t at all helpful to the dialogue, but then-President Bush wasn’t really listening to me either, nor did he really much care to listen.
In fact, not too many people really did. New York, Washington DC and Philadelphia had just been attacked by wild-eyed zealots, and that turned a whole lot of otherwise rational people into wild-eyed zealots, too.
The very idea that anyone could assault us in home territory was beyond the pale to nearly everyone, including me, though I stopped short of the idea of throwing our kids into yet another war in another country in that region, particularly when one of mine was serving in the Army.
But a President is supposed to lead, and make reasoned decisions, not throw a handful of troops into a country where no world power has succeeded before; in fact, a country which had, with our assistance, out-sieged the Soviets.
I can remember shouting at the television about how utterly stupid and arrogant it was to think we had some magic formula to march into Afghanistan and declare “victory”, and how my stomach still knots at the ensuing insanity that became our invasion to Iraq. And now, as Iraq winds down and leaves behind a country ravaged and unstable, it will still be Afghanistan that holds us all hostage.
I understand the President’s argument and effort there. I understand that this ‘war’ is really not traditional at all. I understand that the region is so utterly unstable that allowing Afghanistan to collapse on itself is an ugly and inhuman idea. But if it happens, it will be because we built the Frankenstein monster in the first place. If nothing else, our 20th century habit of believing the enemy of our enemy was our friend has been exposed as the lie it is.
Someone pointed me to Charlie Wilson’s War the other day. My response was that it was Charlie Wilson’s war that gave birth to the Taliban we know as an enemy today. It was Charlie Wilson’s War that justified building up and training young men to fight the Soviets without any thought or regard to what they might do with their anger and their arms when the Soviets were no more, and American dollars stopped flowing in.
And then it became Bush’s war, but Bush abandoned it like an ADHD teenager with a new video game for Iraq. Barely gave Afghanistan the time of day, much less a strategy, a timeline, and some funding.
And now it’s Obama’s war, mostly because someone’s got to inherit it and Obama said he would step it up over there. No, he said we’d win, whatever winning is. It was the one plank of his campaign I most disagreed with, this idea of “winning” in Afghanistan. There is no winning to be had in Afghanistan. Before we were there, and after we leave, it will still be Afghanistan.
And yet, there is a reality over there in Afghanistan, too. There are power plays and too-accessible nuclear weapons in Pakistan, Iran stirs the pot by proxy, and China shares a border and an interest in the mineral wealth in Afghanistan. The region is so destabilized, so utterly upside-down, that a rapid withdrawal will leave a vacuum for someone else to fill.
It will still be Afghanistan, with its poverty and its raw, magnificent, landscapes where names are etched on centuries-old art and carpets hang in the bazaars, woven with images of a uniquely Afghan past, present and future. It will still be Afghanistan, and maybe this is what I should come to understand: If no nation has conquered it, including us, perhaps we should simply allow Afghanistan to be…Afghanistan.
Today’s defense appropriation debate was painful to listen to on a number of levels. Painful, because war is hell even when the cause feels pure, but in this case, it just feels fruitless, old, and timeworn. We turn on each other and shake our fists at the military-industrial complex and call for our troops to come home…wait. Come home to what?
Come home, brave soldiers, head back to your families, but there will be no job for you, no place in line for the brave young men and women who just risked it all over there to come back here. There will be no industry to replace the machine that ground and ground and turned the weapons and airplanes and tanks and armor off the manufacturing line onto tools on the ground.
I never forget that the circle was drawn in 2002, when George W. Bush chose to fire up the war machine and keep the fires stoked for the next 8 years. Now one dwindles and one rages. When the rage dies down, what will the cost have been?
The Afghans will line up their US baubles next to the Soviet collectibles at the bazaar. They will sell a soldier’s boots from one war, and a cheap metal star from the cap of one who fought in the other. They will bargain with each other for the best price on these small things, building an economy out of the shards of an invasion.
It will still be Afghanistan, just as it has been each and every time a nation has invaded it. And we will still be the United States, but with a fading stain of war on our heads. Ambivalence transitions to resolve. It’s time to come home.
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