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Flailing Empire: Afghanistan and the Great American Unraveling

It's not really much of a mystery what happens to overextended imperial powers that find themselves fighting "little" wars they can’t win as their treasuries head south.

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Obama’s remarks have no wings these days because they are ever more divorced from reality.  Perhaps because this president in fawning mode is such an uncomfortable sight, and because Americans generally feel so ill-at-ease about their relationship to our wars, however, such remarks are neither attacked nor defended, discussed nor debated, but as if by some unspoken agreement simply ignored. 

Here, in any case, is what they aren’t: effective rallying cries for a nation in need of unity.  Here’s what they may be: strange, defensive artifacts of an imperial power in visible decline, part of what might be imagined as the Great American Unraveling.  But hold that thought a moment.  After all, the topic of the president’s remarks  wasAfghanistan.

The Unreal War

If Obama framed his Afghan remarks in a rhetoric of militarized super-national surrealism, then what he had to say about the future of the war itself was deceptive in the extreme -- not lies perhaps, but full falsehoods half told.  Consider just the two most important of them: that his “surge” consisted only of 33,000 American troops and that “by next summer,” Americans are going to be so on the road to leaving Afghanistan that it isn’t funny.

Unfortunately, it just ain’t so.  First of all, the real Obama surge was minimally almost 55,000 and possibly 66,000 troops, depending on how you count them.  When he came into office in January 2009, there were about 32,000 American troops in Afghanistan.  Another  11,000 had been designated to go in the last days of the Bush administration, but only departed in the first Obama months.  In March 2009, the president announced his own “ new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan” and dispatched 21,700 more troops.  Then, in December 2009 in a televised speech to the nation from West Point, he  announced that another 30,000 would be going.  (With “support troops,” it turned out to be 33,000.)

In other words, in September 2012, 14 months from now, only about half the actual troop surge of the Obama years will have been withdrawn.  In addition, though seldom discussed, the Obama “surge” was  hardly restricted to troops.  There was a much ballyhooed “ civilian surge” of State Department and aid types that more than tripled the “civilian” effort in Afghanistan.  Their drawdown was recently  addressed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but only in the vaguest of terms.

Then there was a major surge of  CIA personnel (along with U.S. special operations forces), and there’s  no indication whatsoever that anyone in Washington intends reductions there, or in the  drone surge that went with it.  As a troop drawdown begins, CIA agents, those  special ops forces, and the  drones are clearly slated to remain at or beyond a surge peak.

Finally, there was a surge in  private contractors -- hired foreign guns and hired Afghans -- tens of thousands of them.  It goes unmentioned, as does the  surge in base building, which has  yet to end, and the surge in massive  citadel-style embassy building in the region, which is assumedly ongoing.

All of this makes mincemeat of the idea that we are in the process of ending the Afghan war. I know the president said, “Our mission will change from combat to support.  By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.”  And that was a foggy enough formulation that you might be forgiven for imagining more or less everything will be over “by 2014” -- which, by the way, means not January 1st, but December 31st of that year.

 
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