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The High Price of Patriotism

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It's over for the U.S. in Afghanistan, but that doesn't mean the death and destruction are about to stop. Quagmires don't just go away. However, the signs are everywhere that the American course in that nation is doomed, that those directing this forlorn attempt at occupation of a country that has never tolerated occupation know there is no positive end in sight, and that the locals from President Hamid Karzai to the competing warlords and the Taliban are cutting their own deals on the assumption that our wishes no longer matter.

Predictably, the U.S. media dismissed Karzai's denunciation on Monday of the role of American mercenaries in the wanton destruction of his society. "Karzai rails against America in a diatribe," was the way a New York Times headline summarized his press conference, suggesting that his complaints were nothing more than the temper tantrum of an ungrateful child.

But Karzai is right. American mercenaries are spreading mayhem across Afghanistan thanks to enormous U.S. spending on the contractors that he has ordered out of the country. "The money starts in the name of the private security companies in the hallways of the U.S. government," Karzai stated in a clear description of the modern working of our military-industrial complex, adding: "The profits are made and arranged there ... then they send the money to kill people here. ... When this money comes to Afghanistan, it causes insecurity in Afghan homes and causes the killing of Afghan children and causes explosions and terrorism in Afghanistan."

Our military investments recruit rather than combat terrorists, but that is not a bad outcome if the goal is greater instability as an excuse to keep defense spending absurdly high despite the end of the Cold War two decades ago. Isn't that what it's all about? Our military budget, bigger than that of the rest of the world combined and higher in real dollars that at any time since World War II, is nothing more than a profit and jobs center for the defense industry, which has its tentacles in every congressional district. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were never about combating terrorism, which is a supranational phenomena anchored in neither country.

Fighting terrorists who are armed with box cutters does not require sophisticated weaponry, including an enormously costly drone force, but instead effective international police work dependent on sleuths who have mastered local customs and languages. But there's not much money to be made off that sort of gumshoe detective work, and that's why we have two hot wars going even though the al-Qaida enemy has left the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Karzai's equally forceful defense at that press conference of his right to take money from Iran was another grievous blow to the American fantasy of using him to remake Afghanistan over in our image. "They do give us bags of money -- yes, yes, it is done," Karzai admitted, adding the obvious: "We are grateful to the Iranians for this. Patriotism has a price."

Patriotism is always in the eye of the beholder, so why is Karzai's patriotism tawdrier than that of the executives of Lockheed and Boeing who still build planes designed to evade Soviet air defenses that were never created? Karzai is now playing the patriot who will line the pockets of his most influential countrymen, and he has turned to another source, suspecting that our funding might come with too many strings attached. He is proving to be a substantial leader, corrupt as he may be, in that he is no longer willing to play the puppet. This sort of rebellion happened before in Vietnam when Ngo Dinh Diem, the U.S.-imposed liberator, turned against us and our CIA assassinated him. How long before Karzai meets a similar fate?

This fatal syndrome in American imperial designs is well known to Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama's key civilian adviser, who played a similar role in Vietnam. Back then, when Holbrooke was involved in the Phoenix assassination program (he now is involved with the drone assassinations), the reckless murder of civilians was aimed at winning their hearts and minds. It didn't work because we destroyed too many of their bodies in the process.

The arrogance of these adventures in nation-building represents an enduring example of America's deeply provincial and blindingly self-centered role in the world. That Holbrooke has learned nothing from his trail of deceit posing as diplomacy is not so startling given the obtuse nature of the man, but that Obama has entrusted this most critical aspect of his foreign policy to the likes of a hack like Holbrooke is truly depressing.

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