This article first appeared in Alternet.
America now has more military personnel in Afghanistan than the Red Army had at the peak of the Soviet invasion and occupation of that country. According to a Congressional Research Service report, as of March of this year, the U.S. had 52,000 uniformed personnel and another 68,000 contractors in Afghanistan — a number that has likely grown given the blank check President Obama has written for what’s now being called “Obama’s War.”
That makes 120,000 American military personnel fighting in Afghanistan, a figure higher than the Soviet peak troop figure of 115,000 during their catastrophic 9-year war. Just this week, General McChrystal, whom Obama appointed to command American forces in Afghanistan, is talking of sending tens of thousands more American troops. At the height of the Soviet occupation,Western intelligence experts estimated that the Soviets had 115,000 troops in Afghanistan — but like America, the more troops and the longer the Soviets stayed, the more doomed their military mission became.
We’re also heading into the same casualty trap as the Soviets did. This summer has been the deadliest in the eight-year war for American troops. While the number of uniformed Americans killed in combat in Afghanistan may seem comparatively low — just over 800, most of those since 2007 — the Soviets also suffered relatively light casualties. Between December 1979 and February 1989, just 13,000 Soviets were killed in Afghanistan, a seemingly paltry figure when you compare it to the 20 million Soviets killed in World War Two, and the millions upon millions who died in the Civil War and Stalin’s Terror. Unlike America, Russians have a reputation for tolerating appalling casualty figures — and yet the war in Afghanistan destroyed the Soviet Empire. Which only proves that crude number comparisons explain nothing at all in warfare today, particularly when that war is an occupation of an alien environment like Afghanistan.
Why hasn’t anyone pointed out that America’s troop commitment now exceeds the Red Army’s? For some inexplicable reason the corporate media has decided to shuffle the figures and exclude the US military contractors from the total figure of US military personnel. It makes no logical sense — we still count the Hessians among the British forces in the War of Independence. It’s as if the only thing left that Americans are capable of is accounting fraud — the only talent we perfected over the past decade was how to move all the bad numbers off the official books, as if it’s become an instinctive reflex.
But just as those accounting tricks didn’t change all those banks’ and funds’ insolvency, so the American media’s troop-counting tricks, in which contractors are “off books,” can’t make the disaster in Afghanistan disappear. We’re already more deeply invested in our Afghanistan war than the Russians were, and as we head into our ninth year — the magic number for when the Soviets pulled out and their empire collapsed — President Obama is dragging the country deeper into that disaster. (Moreover, if you add in all the NATO personnel — useless as they are as a “fighting” force — the number of Western troops already far exceeds the number deployed in the Soviet Union’s “unwinnable” war.)
Kiwi coalition grunts hamming it up next to old abandoned Soviet tank
The Afghanistan War has somehow escaped most of America’s attention. People just assumed that since Obama is a decent guy with a sharper mind than Bush’s, he must know what he’s doing in Afghanistan, and his intentions can’t be bad — so why bother paying attention, when we have all these other problems here at home? Besides, war isn’t a fun topic anymore. Thanks to Bush and Cheney, any talk of war is a total bummer, whether you’re from the right or the left. And Americans don’t like bummers — instead, America is always “moving on” from its bummers. Nothing bums Americans out more than losing wars, which helps explain why Afghanistan is the most we’ve-moved-on subject of our time. The problem is that you can’t move on from something while it’s still a problem — but try telling that to a nation of delusionals.
Remember how long after Vietnam it took for for Americans to “move on” and get their war appetite back on? It took a decade before we could talk about ‘Nam again, and that probably would have gone on longer if it wasn’t for the kick-ass performance by Robert Duvall as Col Kilgore stirring a new generation’s blood lust. (For a taste of just how cinematic this budding tragedy could be, click here to check out these amazing photos.) We suffered then from “Vietnam Syndrome,” which was a strange way of assigning a mental illness to a totally rational aversion to invading far-away countries. This time it’s going to be even worse, though: given our 0-2 war record this decade, and the shameful way that America’s pseudo-imperialists snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq and Afghanistan, like a nation of Bill Buckners, it’s no wonder no one here wants to talk about Afghanistan.
Since we’ve already long ago “moved on” from Afghanistan, it means that our agony of defeat there will be far more painful than anything we’ve experienced before. The most frustrating thing is how obvious this catastrophe is: Obama is leading America into a predictable sequel of superpower-loses-in-hellish-Third-World-quagmire: he’s doubling down troops in a war fewer people understand, a war that’s growing increasingly unpopular as the casualty count accelerates; investing more into a corrupt regime which just stole elections in a way that would make the hardliners in neighboring Iran blush; suicide bombers are being directed by the Afghan Defense Ministry to blow up American journalists, leading to a dusty version of the ol’ “who’s in charge here?” “I thought you were”; and now, the American right wing — the only thing that approximates a real opposition this country — is having a collective Walter Cronkite moment, with George Will of all people leading the call for the West to pull its forces out now in order to limit the defeat’s damage. George fucking Will as the conscience of our nation?! This must be what Marx meant by tragedy turning to farce.
And through it all, the Russians must be enjoying America’s decline more than anyone, after all the gloating we did over their downfall: in our two nations’ ongoing Tom & Jerry Show, America’s looming defeat is shaping up to be Russia’s revenge on America’s revenge for what Russia did to America in Vietnam.
Which reminds me of an interview a couple of years ago I did with a former top Soviet advisor to the puppet Afghan government’s General Staff, Pyotr Goncharov. I was still in Moscow then, and I was working on a story to counter the then-popular neocon meme that Iraq wasn’t really the disastrous war that its critics said it was because after all, “only” 4,000 Americans died there. A lot of Russian nationalists still argue that they could have won the war in Afghanistan and that it wasn’t going so badly, given the low body count–and yet the empire collapsed there. I was curious why even a police state like the Soviet Union collapsed, and what lesson America could learn from that.
And this is where it got strange, because the first thing Goncharov said to me when I met him was, “I just want to say to you that what the Americans are doing in Afghanistan is perfect. You’re doing everything right that we did wrong over there. You’re not making any of our mistakes, and with my experience there, I can only commend you.” Goncharov told me he was the top Soviet advisor to the Afghan regime’s joint chiefs of staff from 1986-9, the year of the pullout, and today he is a leading military analyst on Afghanistan issues for state RIA-Novosti. He wasn’t interested in my line of questioning about why low body counts are so devastating to superpowers — instead, all he wanted to talk about was what a great man John McCain is. “Everything he proposes for the war in Afghanistan is exactly right. He really knows what he’s talking about,” Goncharov said. Then his otherwise cheerful face took on a confused almost dour expression: “But I have to ask: is it really possible that Americans will elect Barack Obama? Because this would be a disaster for the world. If Obama is president and he withdraws from Afghanistan, the whole world will pay, much worse than we all paid after the Soviet pullout. It can’t really be possible that Obama will win, could it? I can’t believe America would do that.”
Now we know how it really turned out: Barack Obama won the presidency, but in terms of dealing with Bush’s war legacy it may as well have been McCain. Because Obama’s Afghanistan War policy is indistinguishable from McCain’s, which is why McCain has nothing but good things to say about Obama’s conduct of the war. I always wondered after that interview with Goncharov what his reasoning was for supporting another Republican president, given the disaster America suffered under Bush: did he want America to get sucked into Afghanistan and collapse like his country did, out of vengeful spite? Or was Goncharov being sincere, as I think he was? My guess is that Goncharov really wanted McCain and genuinely liked him, because McCain was someone a military man like Goncharov could understand. And anyway, as intelligent and refined as Goncharov was, he proved what Obama is proving today: we never learn from our mistakes, as much as we pretend we do.
Call it “Afghanistan Syndrome”: Twenty years ago, Afghanistan was Russia’s “Vietnam”; today, Afghanistan is becoming America’s “Afghanistan.” Obama is walking into this disaster like one of the doomed victims from the Scream series: everyone, including the protagonists, knows that it’s going to be a disaster, everyone’s seen the script so many times they can recite it from heart. And yet Obama’s leading the nation into the trap all over again. And Obama can’t even be compared to LBJ, who at least managed to give millions of Americans Medicare. What will Obama’s legacy be? The PPIP program? Protecting AIG’s bonuses?
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