Rudyard Kipling, the British poet laureate of Western imperialism, wrote in his great poem “White Man’s Burden” that the job of ruling foreign peoples – whom he characteristically referred to as childish, slothful heathens – was often one that was both costly and thankless. Blood, treasure and the best of entire generations, said Kipling, would be lost in often fruitless attempts to bring light to darkness in areas that plainly did not want it.
Written at the height of the British Empire, Kipling’s ode to colonialism was actually meant to commemorate U.S. entry into the imperialist club in 1899, when America seized the Philippines from Spain as a result of the Spanish American War – the one-sided contest between Washington and Madrid that served notice that the U.S. was a global power to be reckoned with. In the final stanza, which is worth repeating here, Kipling intimates that in taking the Philippines, America was now a country that had reached full manhood:
Take up the White Man’s burden, Have done with childish days–
The lightly proferred laurel, The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood, through all the thankless years
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom, The judgment of your peers!
A little over a century later, the U.S. is about to wrap up another imperial adventure that Kipling and his ilk would have looked fondly upon – the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. While no one in America would have suspected that the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan would become America’s longest war, Kipling would have merely smiled and nodded knowingly.
That’s because Kipling knew better than anyone else the difficulty in attempting to subdue what were called in his day the ‘wily Pathans’ of Afghanistan. Britain, for instance, had by Kipling’s time invaded Afghanistan twice – once in 1839 and again in 1878. In the first war, which lasted four years, the adventure ended ignominiously with little being accomplished, when an entire British army was slaughtered by Afghan fighters as it retreated out of the country. The Brits, as it turns out, had foolishly attempted to meddle in Afghanistan’s internal politics by propping up an unpopular ruler.
In the second, more successful campaign, the British had become a bit wiser. This time, they not only had powerful artillery and repeating weapons on their side, but also much more limited aims. Instead of occupying the country and imposing its will, as in the first campaign, Britain decided that it only wanted to ensure Afghanistan remained free of Russian domination. The result, after three years, was a victory of sorts – Afghanistan became a protectorate of the British; it lost control of its foreign affairs but was otherwise free to rule itself.
While it is not likely an American army will be slaughtered to a man as we continue to draw down our presence in Afghanistan in the coming years, it looks increasingly that our mission to pacify this Central Asian country has been far from successful. If one recalls the original reason we invaded that far-off, benighted country, it was to capture the architect of the 9/11 attacks – Osama bin Laden – and destroy his organization, al-Qaida. Destroying the Taliban, Afghanistan’s then rulers, was tangential – it had provided a base of operations and some degree of protection to bin Laden, but were not responsible for the 2001 terror attacks against New York and Washington.
The initial campaign was a remarkable display of military superiority. Within days, U.S. armed forces had crushed the Taliban and had al-Qaida and bin Laden on the run. Opportunistic Afghans, seeing what was happening and not wanting to be on the wrong side, aligned with the U.S. and its allies – further depriving al-Qaida and the Taliban of crucial support. Within a few months, all that was left was mop-up operations and the final capture of America’s public enemy number one.
Unfortunately for us, a quick ending was not to be. Bin Laden, cornered in the Tora Bora Mountains located along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, escaped U.S. efforts to capture him. Fleeing across the border, bin Laden would remain in hiding in Pakistan for the next 10 years as U.S. and allied intelligence agencies scoured the Earth for him. Meanwhile, with bin Laden gone and al-Qaida dispersed and otherwise neutralized, the U.S. and its allies faced only a light insurgency in Afghanistan that was being carried out by Taliban remnants.
With the outcome in Afghanistan seemingly already ordained, the administration of George W. Bush turned to the next target on its list – Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Slowly but inexorably, resources and attention were directed away from Afghanistan and directed toward the Middle East, where U.S. forces stood poised to invade and occupy yet another Muslim country. Hardly anyone noticed that as ‘shock and awe’ were raining down on Baghdad, the Taliban began fighting back in earnest, and, in the U.S. military’s own words, by 2008 a “resilient insurgency” had developed inside the country.
As the security situation inside Afghanistan worsened, so, too, did nearly everything else. Washington’s man in Kabul – Hamid Karzai – proved corrupt and incompetent. No sooner did he gain the Afghan presidency through our machinations and support than he began inserting friends, family and associated cronies into positions of power across the country. In the volatile, majority Pashtun south – the heart of the anti-U.S., Taliban insurgency – a brother of Karzai was installed who, it was later revealed, was deeply entwined in the country’s illegal drug trade while also being on the payroll of the CIA.
The U.S., it turns out, had not brought democracy but merely another form of warlord gangsterism that had long plagued the country. Karzai, it turns out, had turned into a Ngo Dinh Diem – a local ally upon whom the U.S. was totally dependent but who was nonetheless so corrupt and hated that his leadership – if it could be called that – undermined the very country he and the U.S. were trying to build and defend. Proof that Afghan democracy was little more than fraud and propaganda was made clear during the country’s 2009 presidential election when, despite widely-documented instances of ballot stuffing and voter intimidation, Karzai won a second term as president.
Since then, even less has been accomplished. The drug trade has flourished, enriching warlords and Taliban alike while corrupting every facet of Afghan society. The U.S., knowing its allies are dependent upon drug money, looks the other way and as such has become an accessory to the trade in heroin that flows out of Afghanistan in an unstoppable flood. The Taliban, meanwhile, seems to be able to assassinate, bomb and otherwise attack at will – even in closely-guarded areas – even as most U.S. assessments paint a dire picture of the state of Afghan security forces. Responsibility to combat the insurgency may have been officially turned over to the Afghans, but honest assessments reveal that Afghan troops and police have no realistic hope of beating the Taliban any time soon, if ever. At best, it seems, we can only hope for a long, grueling war of attrition that the government in Kabul loses slowly.
So what has the U.S. achieved in Afghanistan? It neutralized al-Qaida as an organization, but it lives on as an ideology in groups spread out across the Islamic world that claim association with the organization or direct descent from it. It failed to kill or capture bin Laden – who was later killed in Pakistan – meaning that over ten years of occupation and war were mostly for naught. Afghan democracy is a cruel sham, and its economy is a drug economy mostly run by mobsters and warlords. Only U.S. force, diminishing as it is, is all that stands in the way between a total collapse of the Karzai regime and an overt return to Taliban rule.
All this, it should be said, at the cost of nearly $700 billion – or roughly $10.45 million an hour – that we have spent on Afghanistan since 2001. Then there are the 2,309 American service members killed and the thousands more who have been wounded, not to mention the immense cost that Afghan civilians have paid for the privilege of hosting America’s longest war. Given the hideous failure that is our war in Afghanistan, what America could have gotten instead for all the time and trouble spent nation building in Central Asia is enraging.
The U.S., for instance, could have piled up all the money it has spent to date on Afghanistan and burned it for all the good we have done there. That the money could have been used to invest in renewable energy, build homes, pay teachers, or provide health care here at home is a depressing reminder of just what we’ve lost in fighting this fruitless, pointless war. We have stolen money from future Americans and pissed it away on a useless enterprise that has wrought only death and chaos in its wake.
America needs to understand this great folly for what it is – a tremendous, tragic mistake. Like in Vietnam, we have done nothing but provide our enemies the opportunity to weaken us all while diverting desperately needed resources away from programs at home. Bin Laden may be dead, but in pursuing this mistake for as long as we’ve had, who is to say if, in the end, he is the one who is not, in fact, victorious? Every bullet or bomb expended in Afghanistan, after all, represents resources literally taken out of the mouths of U.S. children – who are among the poorest and hungriest in the developed world.
Every day this stupid war goes on and U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan this uncomfortable possibility – that bin Laden has actually won – comes ever closer to being true. End the war in Afghanistan. Bring all the troops home. Now.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.