The Empire v. The Graveyard

Whistling Past the Afghan Graveyard, Where Empires Go To Die

It is now a commonplace -- as a lead article in the New York Times's Week in Review pointed out recently -- that Afghanistan is "the graveyard of empires." Given Barack Obama's call
for a greater focus on the Afghan War ("we took our eye off the ball
when we invaded Iraq..."), and given indications that a "surge" of U.S.
troops is about to get underway there, Afghanistan's dangers have been
much in the news lately. Some of the writing on this subject, including
recent essays by Juan Cole at, Robert Dreyfuss at the Nation, and John Robertson at the War in Context
website, has been incisive on just how the new administration's policy
initiatives might transform Afghanistan and the increasingly unhinged
Pakistani tribal borderlands into "Obama's War."

In other words, "the graveyard" has been getting its due. Far less
attention has been paid to the "empire" part of the equation. And
there's a good reason for that -- at least in Washington. Despite escalating worries
about the deteriorating situation, no one in our nation's capital is
ready to believe that Afghanistan could actually be the "graveyard" for
the American role as the dominant hegemon on this planet.

In truth, to give "empire" its due you would have to start with a
reassessment of how the Cold War ended. In 1989, which now seems
centuries ago, the Berlin Wall came down; in 1991, to the amazement of
the U.S. intelligence community, influential pundits,
inside-the-Beltway think-tankers, and Washington's politicians, the
Soviet Union, that "evil empire," that colossus of repression, that
mortal enemy through nearly half a century of threatened nuclear
MADness -- as in "mutually assured destruction" -- simply evaporated,
almost without violence. (Soviet troops, camped out in the relatively
cushy outposts of Eastern Europe, especially the former East Germany,
were in no more hurry to come home to the economic misery of a
collapsed empire than U.S. troops stationed in Okinawa, Japan, are likely to be in the future.)

In Washington where, in 1991, everything was visibly still standing, a
stunned silence and a certain unwillingness to believe that the enemy
of almost half a century was no more would quickly be overtaken by a
sense of triumphalism. A multigenerational struggle had ended with only
one of its super-participants still on its feet.

The conclusion seemed too obvious to belabor. Right before our eyes,
the USSR had miraculously disappeared into the dustbin of history with
only a desperate, impoverished Russia, shorn of its "near abroad," to
replace it; ergo, we were the victors; we were, as everyone began to
say with relish, the planet's "sole superpower." Huzzah!

Masters of the Universe

The Greeks, of course, had a word for it: "hubris." The ancient Greek
playwrights would have assumed that we were in for a fall from the
heights. But that thought crossed few minds in Washington (or on Wall
Street) in those years.

Instead, our political and financial movers and shakers began to act as
if the planet were truly ours (and other powers, including the
Europeans and the Japanese, sometimes seemed to agree). To suggest at
the time, as the odd scholar of imperial decline did, that there might
have been no winners and two losers
in the Cold War, that the weaker superpower had simply left the scene
first, while the stronger, less hollowed out superpower was inching its
way toward the same exit, was to speak to the deaf.

In the 1990s, "globalization" -- the worldwide spread of the Golden
Arches, the Swoosh, and Mickey Mouse -- was on all lips in Washington,
while the men who ran Wall Street were regularly referred to, and came
to refer to themselves, as "masters of the universe."

The phrase was originally used by Tom Wolfe. It was the brand name of the superhero action figures his protagonist's daughter plays with in his 1987 novel Bonfire of the Vanities.
("On Wall Street he and a few others -- how many? three hundred, four
hundred, five hundred? had become precisely that... Masters of the
Universe...") As a result, the label initially had something of Wolfe's
cheekiness about it. In the post-Cold War world, however, it soon
enough became purely self-congratulatory.

In those years, when the economies of other countries suddenly
cratered, Washington sent in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to
"discipline" them. That was the actual term of tradecraft. To the
immense pain of whole societies, the IMF regularly used local or
regional disaster to pry open countries to the deregulatory wonders of
"the Washington consensus." (Just imagine how Americans would react if,
today, the IMF arrived at our battered doors with a similar menu of

Now, as the planet totters financially, while from Germany to Russia
and China, world leaders blame the Bush administration's deregulatory
blindness and Wall Street's derivative shenanigans for the financial
hollowing out of the global economy, it's far more apparent that those
titans of finance were actually masters of a flim-flam universe.
Retrospectively, it's clearer that, in those post-Cold War years, Wall
Street was already heading for the exits, that it was less a planetary
economic tiger than a monstrously lucrative paper tiger. Someday, it
might be a commonplace to say the same of Washington.

Almost twenty years later, in fact, it may finally be growing more
acceptable to suggest that certain comparisons between the two Cold War
superpowers were apt. As David Leonhardt of the New York Timespointed out recently:

"Richard Freeman, a Harvard economist, argues that the
U.S. bubble economy had something in common with the old Soviet
economy. The Soviet Union's growth was artificially raised by huge
industrial output that ended up having little use. America's was
artificially raised by mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt
obligations and even the occasional Ponzi scheme."

Today, when it comes to Wall Street, you can feel the anger rising
on Main Street as Americans grasp that those supposed masters of the
universe actually hollowed out their world and brought immense
suffering down on them. They understand what those former masters of
financial firms, who handed out $18.4 billion in bonuses to their employees at the end of 2008, clearly don't. John Thain, former CEO of Merrill Lynch, for instance, still continues to defend his purchase of a $35,000 antique commode
for his office, as well as the $4 billion in bonuses he dealt out to
the mini-masters under him in a quarter in which his group racked up more than $15 billion in losses, in a year in which his firm's losses reached $27 billion.

At least now, however, no one -- except perhaps Thain himself -- would
mistake the Thains for masters rather than charlatans, or the U.S. for
a financial superpower riding high rather than a hollowed out economic
powerhouse laid low.

As it happens, however, there was another set of all-American "masters
of the universe," even if never given that label. I'm speaking of the
top officials of our national security state, the key players in
foreign and military policy. They, too, came to believe that the planet
was their oyster. They came to believe as well that, uniquely in the
history of empires, global domination might be theirs. They began to
dream that they might oversee a new Rome or imperial Great Britain, but
of a kind never before encountered, and that the competitive Great Game
played by previous rivalrous Great Powers had been reduced to

For them, the very idea that the U.S. might be the other loser in the
Cold War was beyond the pale. And that was hardly surprising. Ahead of
them, after all, they thought they saw clear sailing, not graveyards.
Hence, Afghanistan.

Twice in the Same Graveyard

It's here, of course, that things get eerie. I mean, not just a
graveyard, but the same two superpowers and the very same graveyard. In
November 2001, knowing intimately what had happened to the USSR in
Afghanistan, the Bush administration invaded anyway -- and with a clear
intent to build bases, occupy the country, and install a government of
its choice.

When it comes to the neocon architects of global Bushism, hubris remains a weak word. Breathless
at the thought of the supposed power of the U.S. military to crush
anything in its path, they were blind to other power realities and to
history. They equated power with the power to destroy.

Believing that the military force at their bidding was nothing short of
invincible, and that whatever had happened to the Soviets couldn't
possibly happen to them, they launched their invasion. They came, they
saw, they conquered, they celebrated, they settled in, and then they
invaded again -- this time in Iraq. A trillion dollars in wasted taxpayer funds later, we look a lot more like the Russians.

What made this whole process so remarkable was that there was no other
superpower to ambush them in Afghanistan, as the U.S. had once done to
the Soviet Union. George W. Bush's crew, it turned out, didn't need
another superpower, not when they were perfectly capable of driving
themselves off that Afghan cliff and into the graveyard below with no
more help than Osama bin Laden could muster.

They promoted a convenient all-purpose fantasy explanation for their
global actions, but also gave in to it, and it has yet to be dispelled,
even now that the American economy has gone over its own cliff. Under
the rubric of the Global War on Terror, they insisted that the greatest
danger to the planet's "sole superpower" came from a ragtag group of
fanatics backed by the relatively modest moneys a rich Saudi could get
his hands on. Indeed, while the Bush administration paid no attention
whatsoever, bin Laden had launched a devastating and televisually spectacular
set of assaults on major American landmarks of power -- financial,
military, and (except for the crash of Flight 93 in a field in
Pennsylvania) political. Keep in mind, however, that those attacks had
been launched as much from Hamburg and Florida as from the Afghan

Given the history of the graveyard, Americans should probably have
locked their plane doors, put in some reasonable protections
domestically, and taken their time going after bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was
certainly capable of doing real harm every couple of years, but their
strength remained minimal, their "caliphate" a joke, and Afghanistan --
for anyone but Afghans -- truly represented the backlands of the
planet. Even now, we could undoubtedly go home and, disastrous as the
situation there (and in Pakistan) has become under our ministrations,
do less harm than we're going to do with our prospective surges in the
years to come.

The irony is that, had they not been so blinded by triumphalism,
Bush's people really wouldn't have needed to know much to avoid
catastrophe. This wasn't atomic science or brain surgery. They needn't
have been experts on Central Asia, or mastered Pashto or Dari, or
recalled the history of the anti-Soviet War that had ended barely a
decade earlier, or even read the prophetic November 2001 essay in Foreign Affairs
magazine, "Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires," by former CIA station
chief in Pakistan Michael Bearden, which concluded: "The United States
must proceed with caution -- or end up on the ash heap of Afghan

They could simply have visited a local Barnes & Noble, grabbed a
paperback copy of George MacDonald Fraser's rollicking novel Flashman, and followed his blackguard of an anti-hero
through England's disastrous Afghan War of 1839-1842 from which only
one Englishman returned alive. In addition to a night's reading
pleasure, that would have provided any neocon national security manager
with all he needed to know when it came to getting in and out of
Afghanistan fast.

Or subsequently, they could have spent a little time with the Russian
ambassador to Kabul, a KGB veteran of the Soviet Union's Afghan
catastrophe. He complained to John Burns of the New York Times
last year that neither Americans nor NATO representatives were willing
to listen to him, even though the U.S. had repeated "all of our
mistakes," which he carefully enumerated. "Now," he added, "they're
making mistakes of their own, ones for which we do not own the

True, the Obama crew at the White House, the National Security Council,
the State Department, the Pentagon, and in the U.S. military, even
holdovers like Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Centcom Commander
David Petraeus, are not the ones who got us into this. Yes, they are
more realistic about the world. Yes, they believe -- and say so -- that
we're, at best, in a stalemate in Afghanistan and Pakistan, that it's
going to be truly tough sledding, that it probably will take years and
years, and that the end result won't be victory. Yes, they want some
"new thinking," some actual negotiations with factions of the Taliban,
some kind of a grand regional bargain, and above all, they want to
"lower expectations."

As Gates summed things up in congressional testimony recently:

"This is going to be a long slog, and frankly, my view
is that we need to be very careful about the nature of the goals we set
for ourselves in Afghanistan... If we set ourselves the objective of
creating some sort of central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose,
because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience and money."

Okay, in Norse mythology, Valhalla may be the great hall for dead
warriors and the Secretary of Defense may have meant an "Asian Eden,"
but cut him a little slack: at least he acknowledged that there were
financial limits to the American role in the world. That's a new note
in official Washington, where global military and diplomatic policy
have, until now, existed in splendid isolation from the economic
meltdown sweeping the country and the planet.

Similarly, official Washington is increasingly willing to talk about a
"multi-polar world," rather than the unipolar fantasy planet on which
the first-term Bush presidency dwelled. Its denizens are even ready to
imagine a relatively distant moment when the U.S. will have "reduced
dominance," as Global Trends 2025, a futuristic report
produced for the new President by the National Intelligence Council,
put it. Or as Thomas Fingar, the U.S. intelligence community's "top
analyst," suggested of the same moment:

"[T]he U.S. will remain the preeminent power, but that
American dominance will be much diminished over this period of time...
[T]he overwhelming dominance that the United States has enjoyed in the
international system in military, political, economic, and arguably,
cultural arenas is eroding and will erode at an accelerating pace with
the partial exception of military."

Still, it's a long way from fretting about finances, while calling for more dollars
for the Pentagon, to imagining that we already might be something less
than the dominant hegemon on this planet, or that the urge to tame the
backlands of Afghanistan, half a world from home, makes no sense at
all. Not for us, not for the Afghans, not for anybody (except maybe

For all their differences with Bush's first-term neocons, here's what
the Obama team still has in common with them -- and it's no small
thing: they still think the U.S. won the Cold War. They still haven't
accepted that they can't, even if in a subtler fashion than the
Busheviks, control how this world spins; they still can't imagine that
the United States of America, as an imperial power, could possibly be
heading for the exits.

Whistling Past the Graveyard

Back in 1979, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, plotting to draw the Soviets into a quagmire in Afghanistan, wrote President Jimmy Carter: "We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War."

In fact, the CIA-backed anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan
that lasted through the 1980s would give the Soviets far worse. After
all, while the Vietnam War was a defeat for the U.S., it was by no
means a bankrupting one.

In 1986, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev vividly described the Afghan
War as a "bleeding wound." Three years later, by which time it had long
been obvious that transfusions were hopeless, the Soviets withdrew. It
turned out, however, that the bleeding still
couldn't be staunched, and so the Soviet Union, with its sclerotic
economy collapsing and "people power" rising on its peripheries, went
down the tubes.

Hand it to the Bush administration, in the last seven-plus years the
U.S. has essentially inflicted a version of the Soviets' "Afghanistan"
on itself. Now the Obama team is attempting to remedy this disaster,
but what new thinking there is remains, as far as we can tell, essentially tactical.
Whether the new team's plans are more or less "successful" in
Afghanistan and on the Pakistani border may, in the end, prove somewhat
beside the point. The term Pyrrhic victory, meaning a triumph more costly than a loss, was made for just such moments.

After all, more than a trillion dollars later, with essentially nothing to show except an unbroken record of destruction, corruption,
and an inability to build anything of value, the U.S. is only slowly
drawing down its 140,000-plus troops in Iraq to a "mere" 40,000 or so,
while surging yet more troops into Afghanistan to fight a
counterinsurgency war, possibly for years to come. At the same time,
the U.S. continues to expand its armed forces and to garrison the globe,
even as it attempts to bail out an economy and banking system evidently
at the edge of collapse. This is a sure-fire formula for further
disaster -- unless the new administration took the unlikely decision to
downsize the U.S. global mission in a major way.

Right now, Washington is whistling past the graveyard. In Afghanistan
and Pakistan the question is no longer whether the U.S. is in command,
but whether it can get out in time. If not, when the moment for a
bailout comes, don't expect the other pressed powers of the planet to
do for Washington what it has been willing to do for the John Thains of
our world. The Europeans are already itching to get out of town. The Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, the Indians... who exactly will ride to our rescue?

Perhaps it would be more prudent to stop hanging out in graveyards.
They are, after all, meant for burials, not resurrections.

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