I just watched the classic 1966 film, "Khartoum", starring Charlton Heston as British freelance General Charles "Chinese" Gordon (and no less than Laurence Olivier as his nemesis, the Mahdi). The movie is a semi-historical epic on the sack of Khartoum in 1895, Gordon's martyrdom, and the difficulties of maintaining a far-flung, overstretched empire in that period. It's got me thinking...
How Afghanistan Can Win
I'm getting a little tired of our military geniuses telling us how we can win in Afghanistan. That kind of myopia is probably the only real similarity between the Afghan conflict and our war in Vietnam.
We can't win in Afghanistan, though we can hope to avoid getting massacred there, like the British in the 1850's, or being chased out at gunpoint, like the Soviets in 1990 (it was their Vietnam, and it was bad enough to help put the kibosh on the Soviet state).
There is really no way that the Taliban can be defeated militarily, and the sooner we realize that, the better. We can "clear and hold" more ground than we have, if we put in more troops, but the more we put in, the less likely we are to get the outcome we want. There isn't going to be a triumphant march through a flower-strewn Kabul bearing Osama Bin Laden's charred corpse, much as it might thrill us.
First of all, he's long gone from Afghanistan, and there's no reason to think he'll come back. That would appear to be Pakistan's problem now (another day's discourse). Second, while we have the best forces in the world, the Afghans are easily good enough to fight us indefinitely, if they choose to. And they will do so, if it becomes a matter of us trying to impose rule on them. Just like when the Soviets tried it.
Third, the Taliban are not the central locus of international terrorism, though they seem to be learning the modern insurgency game very well, the longer we hang around. They committed a major error when they allowed Al Qaeda to operate out of their Afghanistan--their traditional hospitality, gone wrong--and I'm quite sure they know it; it caused them to lose the 90% or so of the country they had painstakingly gained control of. They're not even nationalists, really; they are traditional tribal people with pan-Islamic dreams (like the Mahdi).
We should look at them the way Lincoln looked at the slavers in the South, prior to the secessionist wave leading to the Civil War. We should help the Karzai regime (or its successor) contain them, prevent their expansion, and they will eventually die out as the anachronism they are. Let them come back, and give them a good chunk of the country--one far from Pakistani mischief-makers, away from the strategic Kandahar-Kabul highway--and put a fence around it. Nothing comes in or goes out (especially the poppies!), unless it's people leaving their antique thraldom. Inside the Taliban Autonomous Zone, though, they can teach what they want, imprison their daughters (for their own good, of course), chop off hands, whatever.
It's the only way to get peace, and that's what the Afghans want. Otherwise, this thing could drag on for decades (more). After the election gets settled, Holbrooke needs to sit down with Karzai, tell him the limits of American involvement (hint: by 2012, we've got to be below the 47,000 or so Americans we had there when Obama's administration started; this will line up very well with what Karzai wants, too), and figure out how we can make this thing work for the Afghan people.
It's Practically a Slander
The current Newsweek* has on its back page the rhetorical question,"Did Britain Wreck the World?" I call it rhetorical, though they do answer it: "By Jove, it certainly seems that way." That's sarcasm, mockery, but they go on to blame--with a seemingly straight face--the British Empire for "most of today's festering conflicts". They give seven cases: Sri Lanka, India/Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan, Israel/Palestine, Somalia, and Nigeria. In some, those bloody Brits split up countries and caused their problems, in others they combined different ethnic groups and made them.
Look, I'm no apologist for the English (really, I'm not), but this is ridiculous. First, their meddling didn't seem to doom the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand so badly--or, if those are too distant, then look at Singapore, Malaysia, or Ireland--all countries where things were certainly mucked up by the Brits in the 20th century (like all the cases they cited), but they've been able to recover. Actually, India's done pretty well for itself since independence, considering. And I think Egypt was a British colony, too--a lot more of the time than Iraq, Sudan, or Somalia--not that it's perfect or anything. And I'm certain that there were some problems between the Jews and their Middle Eastern neighbors when the residents of Great Britain were still painting themselves blue and worshipping trees: ever hear of David and Goliath?
The Last Empire
Thus was entitled a great set of essays by Gore Vidal, postulating a thesis of American imperialism. Now, I'm a huge fan of Mr. Veedal (as Lily Tomlin used to say it, back in the day, on Laugh In!), but I think he's got this one wrong. With all respect to him, we don't have a clue how to run an empire, never did--not nearly as well as even the British!
When you look at it, the Last Empire is actually probably about the same as the First Empire: It's China. OK, maybe today's empire is a bit more extensive, with a different capital city. I think it's pretty clear when you look at Xinjiang, Tibet, or suzerains like Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan (they wish), maybe even North Korea. It's not that hard to co-exist with the Emperor if you're not a subject: kowtow, and provide tribute. There is the thorny question of assimilation, though: what was it the Borg said (besides "resistance is futile", which certainly also applies)?
As for the US, we're too far away to be considered a part of their domain (not so with Russian Siberia, though, which could become a real problem if the current phase of Beijing engineers gives way to a more warlike imperial court). We have served to replenish the imperial treasury, so we can go on our merry way--globalization was a tactic, they played it very well, but they're really much more concerned with keeping the peace at home. No?
*They don't deserve a link for this one; besides, if they're going to be so lazy as to put out an issue dated "August 24 & 31"...