Graveyard of Empires

“All along the north and northwest frontiers of India lie the Himalayas, the greatest disturbance of the earth’s surface that the convulsions of chaotic periods have produced.” That’s how Winston Churchill began his still highly readable 1897 book The Story of the Malakand Field Force.

Young Winston wrote from the British cavalry barracks in Bangalore where he was stationed as part of his deployment to the part of the world the Brits more than once tried to subdue. It worked, as Churchill’s book makes clear, about as well for them as it has for us.

 New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has now limped home from his first surprise trip to Afghanistan reduced to admitting the obvious – “it’s complicated.” Hagel, a decorated Vietnam vet and, I suspect like many from his generation who served and fought he is a reluctant warrior. Hagel was dissed by the increasingly detestable Hamid Karzai who actually said during the secretary’s visit that Taliban acts of violence in Afghanistan proved a level of collusion with the United States. Karzai then cancelled a joint press conference with Hagel just to make his contempt for the fighting and dying done by American’s perfectly clear.

It should tell us something that Hagel – and all high level visiting Americans – need to make “surprise” visits to Afghanistan since the security situation is so tenuous. It’s clear some the attacks during the Hagel visit were meant to send a message. Is anyone listening?

Former New York Times columnist and Council on Foreign Relations chairman Leslie Gelb says, in a piece titled “To Hell With Karzai,” that it’s time for the Obama Administration “to stop letting these Karzai guys play us for suckers and speed up our exit, and stop wasting American lives and dollars.”

We’re finding – and, of course, this was completely predictable – that getting into Afghanistan was a whole lot easier than getting out. Like Vietnam and Iraq before, we have met the limits of our ability to project force to change politics and history on the ground, this time in the shadow of the Himalayas.

It was a fool’s errand to try in the first place, but makes even less sense to prolong the effort. We will eventually leave Afghanistan and the departure will signal a return of the tribal wars and turmoil that have been a fixture of the place for hundreds of years. It’s difficult, almost impossible, for a superpower to admits its limits, to admit that we cannot always be the positive, democratic role model we so desperately believe to be our destiny, but doing so – admitting the limits of western power in an ancient tribal culture – is the beginning of realism and maybe, just maybe, the beginning of a better approach.

“Except at times of sowing and of harvest, a continual state of feud and strife prevails throughout the land,” Churchill wrote of Afghanistan (and Pakistan) more than 115 years ago. “The people of some valley fight with those of the next. To the quarrels of communities are added the combats of individuals. Khan assails khan, each supported by his retainers. Every tribesman has a blood feud with his neighbor. Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger.”

And we are the strangers. As of this morning 2,050 Americans have died and more than 18,000 have been wounded in this place where strife prevailed before we arrived and will prevail after we are gone.

 

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