I couldn't help but wonder what was going through the minds of Russia's leaders as they recently agreed to allow American troops and weapons to fly over their territory on their way to our war in Afghanistan. Thousand of flights a year to facilitate the American escalation are apparently envisioned under the new agreement because, as Mikhail Margelov, foreign affairs committee chairman of the Russian upper house of Parliament, told the New York Times, "Afghanistan is one of the areas where we must cooperate."
The American press has noted that with its eighth anniversary coming up this war has not only long since passed the duration of our involvement in the Second World War but may soon become our longest running war - depending on how you date the beginning of America's participation in the Vietnam War. But in Russia I suspect they'll pay more heed to another benchmark of futility - the date on which our war in Afghanistan matches theirs in duration, or, more properly put, the date on which it matches the length of the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan, which began in late 1979 and ended in early 1989.
Many have called that war the Soviet Union's Vietnam. A couple of years after the last troops came home there wasn't even a Soviet Union any more. Some say that Afghanistan is the reason there wasn't. Of this we can't be certain, but what we do know is that the Soviet war effort did not turn out too well.
To be sure, the US seems unlikely to follow the USSR into oblivion over the next few years, regardless of how badly our Afghanistan War may go. But as the date on which we match the Soviets approaches, we might hope that it could at least sober our decision-makers up - and maybe wise them up a bit as well. Arrogance of power or ignorance of history - it's hard to say which is more significant in Washington these days.
Consider the amendment that Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) offered to the recent supplemental budget appropriating funding for America's two wars. It was the most modest of measures, asking only that the Administration "submit to Congress a report outlining the United States exit strategy for United States military forces in Afghanistan." As McGovern argued during debate, "This should not be controversial." But demand anything of the White House and the antiwar President who supposedly lives there? The effrontery! The Administration and the House leadership were having none of it and rounded up every vote they could against an amendment that would have required little more of them than that within six months time they concoct an excuse for continuing this war.
The good news for the Administration was that it prevailed handily, by a 278-138 margin. The bad news was that they lost the House Democrats by 131-114. In other words, the White House now retains carte blanche regarding the Afghanistan War at the sufferance of the Republican Party. Now, the Republicans are generally a pretty dependable pro-war party and all, yet there are signs that they may not prove reliable allies indefinitely.
Take the opinions recently penned by Gene Healy of the Cato Institute for the generally right wing Examiner newspapers: "The new bipartisan conventional wisdom is that in order to fight al-Qaida, we'll have to keep fighting bloody counterinsurgencies in "failed states." Why anyone believes that is a mystery. ... Afghanistan wasn't a "dumb war" at the outset; unlike Iraq, it was a necessary war. But staying looks less and less wise every day." The Administration might do well to take note and maybe start paying a bit more heed to the people who got them where they are.
Meanwhile, it may well be true that Russia's decision to become enablers for US plans to get heavier into Afghanistan are motivated by appreciation of the fact that "the United States and NATO forces in Afghanistan are effectively defending Russia's southern flank," as Margelov is reported to believe. But you've got to figure that there'll be a few vodka toasts in Moscow when the day comes that we've been there even longer than they were. I know that when I read the July 4 headline that said, "Russia Opens Route for U.S. to Fly Arms to Afghanistan," I couldn't help but think - Those Russians, they sure have a sense of humor.