The poet laureate of British imperialism might write the same stanzas today about its successor, the American Empire, which, having reached its high water mark in the bleak mountains of Afghanistan, is set to begin receding.
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta just announced that all US combat troops would withdraw from Afghanistan by mid-2013. Of the 90,000 US Afghan garrison, 22,000 will depart this fall. Some sort of training mission will remain.
The Obama administration, facing a tough election this year, has taken the fiscally, militarily and politically correct decision to end the no-win, $1 trillion Afghan war begun by George W. Bush.
Withdrawal dates for roughly 40,000 NATO troops is uncertain, though France just announced an accelerated pullout. The fate of an estimated 80,000 US-paid mercenaries in Afghanistan is also uncertain.
The US will continue strikes by drones, warplanes, and attacks by special forces from a small number of fortress bases. Pakistan will be cajoled or bribed by Washington to keep its forces active against Pashtun tribal fighters. Washington and London will keep issuing cheery claims about the success of the Afghan War.
But the hard truth cannot be avoided. All the concentrated military-technological might of the United States and its allies has been defeated by fierce Pashtun tribesmen whose primary weapons are courage, patience and legendary determination to drive out foreign invaders.
Afghanistan has once more earned the title, “Graveyard of Empires.”
The United States had hoped to pound or bribe the Pashtun fighters that comprise Taliban and its allies into submission, or split them by selective peace talks.
Such tactics, backed by massive air power and ethnic cleansing of some three million Sunnis, worked for a time in Iraq.
They have failed in Afghanistan. Every sort of modern weapon save nuclear devices was used against the Afghan resistance: carpet bombing, laser-guided bombs, fuel-air explosives, cluster munitions dispending blizzards of steel shards, mines, helicopter gunships, tanks and giant armored trucks, swarms of drones, satellites, aircraft that disable roadside bombs. Deadly AC-130 gunships bristling with guns and 20mm cannon. Death squads attacking at night to kill Taliban sympathizers. Heavy artillery and rocket batteries.
Tethered blimps laden with censors that looked like the gigantic killer robots from H.G. Well’s “War of the Worlds.” In fact, the Afghan War has been a one-sided conflict between a backwards people living in the 12th century and the high-tech military might of 21st century America.
Soon after 9/11, I wrote in a US newspaper article that US intervention in Afghanistan would be a disaster for all concerned. I’d joined Pashtun mujahidin, first against the Soviets, then Taliban battling the Afghan Communists. These Pashtun mountain warriors were the bravest men I had seen while covering 14 wars.
All the western propaganda about “terrorism” and abused women in hijabs could not fully conceal that Afghanistan was a neo-colonial war being waged for strategic geography, minerals, pipeline routes.
The last fig leaf fell when then CIA Chief Panetta admitted there were no more than 25-50 al-Qaida members in Afghanistan. That and the assassination of Osama bin Laden left Washington no more excuse for occupying Afghanistan. A majority of Americans turned against the endless Afghan war. Even the US-installed Hamid Karzai stated that NATO’s only achievement had been killing large numbers of Afghan civilians.
Even if US combat troops leave next year, as in Iraq, the US will still exercise influence through drones, air strikes, commando raids and a vast fortified embassy (“Crusader Castles” bin Laden called them) with its own little mercenary army.
Still, quitting the Afghan fiasco will boost Obama’s electoral chances. Hopefully, it will also lessen or end America’s semi-occupation of Pakistan, which has been
forced to support a war against its natural ally, Taliban.
As a result, nuclear-armed Pakistan has become dangerously destabilized and a hotbed of anti-western hatred. Ending the Afghan War is urgent before Pakistan blows up and draws India into the maelstrom. This should be America’s primary strategic interest.