When I dropped my daughter off at pre-school on Monday morning, I made a point of asking the teacher about eye safety issues regarding the looming solar eclipse. We’re not even going to bother with it, she said. There’s too many kids to keep track of, they’re not old enough to be trusted on something like this, and we weren’t going to go out and get a bunch of stuff we’d only use once. The eclipse is happening at naptime, she said, so we’re just going to skip it.
Fan-dab-tastic, I said, one less thing to worry about … and then I turned on the television, and there was the president of the United States staring belligerently into the sky, straight at the sun with no protective glasses or anything while his aides shrieked helplessly at him to stop. The next morning, the far-right proto-fascist host of my local sports radio show proudly boasted that he, too, looked straight into the sun without protective eyewear because, like his president, he was not afraid of anything.
These are the kind of people who are making decisions on the ongoing and expanding war in Afghanistan. Mr. Trump wants about 4,000 more troops deployed for a mission he refuses to define and which has no goal or end-point established. Truthout reporter Mike Ludwig has broken down the numbers after 16 years of war, and it does for all the world appear that a lot of decisions have been made by people who have stared into the naked sun for far too long.
There were times during the 2016 presidential campaign when I had to physically restrain myself from biting my television until it died. More often than not, these moments came when Trump was on some stump bloviating about his standard nonsense. Every so often, however, he’d say something I agreed with — I have a busted watch in a drawer here that’s right twice a day, but you take it where you can find it — and his position on Afghanistan was usually the least wrong thing he’d say on any given day.
Take his tweet from January of 2013: “Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.” Same old ham-fisted Donald, writing like someone who couldn’t find Afghanistan on a map, but like my busted watch, he was right twice during that campaign, and his people believed him most sincerely when he spoke of ending the war (he also got the Trans-Pacific Partnership right, thank goodness for small favors … though he’s now going back on that as well).
Flash forward to a few hours after he stared into the sun, and another campaign promise went sailing out the window. Trump did his level best to spin it, never deviating for a second from his prepared teleprompter remarks, but it still landed like a wet slap in the faces of those who love him best.
So, yeah, here we go again. The news media will go on about how this is the longest war in US history while simultaneously missing the point and telling only half the story. The United States became directly involved with Afghanistan some 38 years ago, on July 3, 1979. On that day, at the behest of National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter signed the first directive in an operation meant to destabilize the Soviet-controlled government of Afghanistan. The idea was not to topple that government, but to goad the Soviets into an invasion to protect that government. Brzezinski believed, correctly, that such an occurrence would give the USSR “its Vietnam War.”
Brzezinski boasted of this years later, in a 1998 interview given to Le Nouvel Observateur:
Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn’t believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don’t regret anything today?
Brzezinski: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.
Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic [integrisme], having given arms and advice to future terrorists?
Brzezinski: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?
Again, this was 1998, our age of innocence. The Soviets invaded in December of 1979, and over the next 10 years the Reagan administration armed and supported the Mujahadeen “freedom fighters” who later became the Taliban and al-Qaeda. One of the recipients of our largesse in Afghanistan during this time was a wealthy Saudi Arabian ex-pat named Osama bin Laden.
The Soviets finally retreated in 1989 and crawled home to die. With our geopolitical goals met, the US also withdrew, and Afghanistan collapsed into a blistering civil war, fought with discarded US and Soviet weaponry, that lasted until a Taliban victory in 1996. The country emerged from that chaos having learned a neat trick: Thanks to the United States, the veterans of these long wars now know how to bring a superpower to its knees. All it takes is time, and patience, and the weapons their enemy left on the battlefield. Not long ago, the US started bombing its own ordnance in Iraq. That’s been happening in Afghanistan for decades.
The aftermath is the Twin Towers and plastic sheeting and duct tape and watch what you say and torture and mass surveillance thanks to the NSA and the USA PATRIOT Act and all the stinking rest of it. The decisions made regarding Afghanistan, going back 38 years to the Carter administration, have been almost too catastrophic to quantify. We have done incomprehensible damage to ourselves. We have turned Afghanistan and Iraq into unimaginably expensive killing floors over a combined total of 65 years, yet somehow 4,000 more troops sent on yet another ill-defined mission will see the job done, whatever the job is.
There is an awful, eerie whispering between the lines of the Afghanistan war dispatches from 16 years ago. “Many western nations believe that the Northern Alliance cannot provide a stable government for Afghanistan because its leaders are from a minority ethnic group, the Tajiks,” the BBC reported in 2001. “The attempt to forge a power sharing deal by the United Nations continues, seemingly oblivious to the reality on the ground.”
Oblivious? Hardly. There are mineral rights to be hoarded, natural gas to be plumbed, pipelines to be built. And of course, there is war, the most profitable enterprise of all. The trillions we have wasted on this futile, blood-soaked exercise did not simply disappear. A few people you’ll never meet got paid, and will get paid again tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.
Not everyone spends their time staring into the sun. Some are too busy counting their cash.