Twenty years ago last week - February 15, 1989 - the last soldiers of the Soviet 40th Army pulled out of Afghanistan, marking the end of Moscow's bloody and disastrous imperial adventure. In a decade of savage fighting, the Red Army and its Afghan Communist allies killed over 1.5 million Afghans and drove 2.5 million into exile in Pakistan and Iran.
The new Soviet reformist chairman, Mikhail Gorbachev, determined the Afghan war that was begun by his dim predecessor, Leonid Brezhnev, and a cabal of party and KGB hardliners, could not be won. He called for a change of policy.
Fortunately for the world, Gorbachev proved a leader of profound humanity, decency, and intellect. Gorbachev courageously accepted defeat in Afghanistan and brought his soldiers home. Soon after, the Soviet Union, a bankrupt empire held together by fear and repression, began to crumble.
To his eternal credit, Gorbachev refused to employ force to hold the Soviet Empire together. Had he done so, World War III could well have been the outcome. Mankind owes Gorbachev an enormous debt for averting this horror. He put humanism ahead of nationalism and imperialism.
The new president of the bankrupt American imperium should have learned from Gorbachev's example. Barack Obama's inauguration offered a perfect opportunity to pause the U.S.-led Afghan War, and open talks with Afghan groups resisting foreign occupation (or 'terrorists' as both the Soviets and U.S. branded them at different times). Instead, President Obama vowed to intensify the eight-year war which has officially cost the U.S. over $ 62 billion so far, and further billions in secret payments.
President Obama recently declared that he will send 17,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan on top of the 6,000 troops dispatched by George Bush. Another 13,000 will follow in the spring, raising the total U.S. garrison to at least 66,000. Most of these reinforcements are supposed to come from U.S. occupation forces in Iraq.
But Pentagon hardliners and their Republican allies are trying to delay or thwart troop withdrawals from Iraq. Iraq is in a temporary lull, but things could quickly heat up in Mesopotamia. Pulling out U.S. forces may prove far harder than Obama expects. Without the protection of American troops, the U.S.-installed Baghdad government might be swept away and replaced by either pro-Iranian factions or even a revived Ba'ath Party.
Afghanistan is no longer George Bush's War. It is now President Obama's War. The new President did not simply inherit an eight-year old conflict, he willingly embraced it.
Obama just defined his goals in Afghanistan as: 1. 'preventing it from being used as a launching pad for attacks on North America;' and 2. 'defeating al-Qaida.' He also alluded that some sort of negotiations to split Taliban might be attempted.
Both stated goals are patently false. 9/11 was organized in Germany and Spain, allegedly by Saudis and Pakistanis. Attacks on New York, Washington, London, Madrid and Mumbai were plotted in apartments and houses, not in the mountains of Afghanistan. Most of the so-called 'terrorist training camps' in Afghanistan in 2001 were actually camps run by Pakistan intelligence where mujahidin were being prepared to fight in Indian-held Kashmir.
Al-Qaida never had more than 300 men and is today reduced to a handful of fugitives hiding in Pakistan's tribal territories and Baluchistan. The movement's primary function, as my new book American Raj explains, was as a guest house and data base for foreign mujahidin fighting the Soviets and Afghan Communists. It was not and is not a 'worldwide terrorist organization.' Catching al-Qaida's survivors requires police work, not thousands of heavy troops.
Taliban sheltered Osama bin Laden as an honored veteran of the anti-Soviet war. It knew nothing of his plans to attack U.S. targets and offered to hand him over to justice if provided with a legal extradition request. This was never forthcoming. Taliban, devoted to fighting Communism, drugs and anarchy, was, in fact, a U.S. ally and received funds from Washington until four months before 9/11.
By expanding the Afghan war, Obama fuels the growing threat of a major explosion in Pakistan. Today, U.S. warplanes and CIA killer drones operate from three secret Pakistani air bases with covert Pakistani government cooperation. Washington has rented 120,000 Pakistani troops for $100 million monthly (plus. equally large, secret CIA payments to senior Pakistani government officials and officers) to support the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan.
In an unprecedented act, Pakistan's government is being paid by Washington to attack its own people, and to allow U.S. forces to do the same. Watching Pakistan's new government dance to Washington's tune is an embarrassing spectacle for friends of Pakistan, and a subject of sneering contempt for its foes.
Pakistan is bankrupt. The previous U.S.-backed Musharraf regime made off with whatever money there was. Yet at some point, Pakistan's rent-an-army of modern-day sepoys (native mercenaries) may rebel and turn against the government that orders it to kill fellow Muslims while letting India expand its influence in Afghanistan and crush Muslim independence fighters in Kashmir.
Meanwhile, to the anguish of America's anti-war movement, the Obama administration seems set on continuing many of the illegal, repressive policies of the disgraced Bush administration that it had vowed to end: torture, kidnapping, wiretapping, assassinations, Constitutional infringements, and denial of due process.
Guantanamo may be closed, but the equally cruel U.S. gulag at Bagram, Afghanistan remains open. None of the Bush administration officials who sanctioned torture and other crimes will face justice.
What happened to the Obama who was supposed to bring change? Leftover hardliners from the Bush days appear to be driving Obama's foreign policy in Afghanistan and the Caucasus. The mighty Israel lobby retains its guidance of U.S. Mideast policy. During the Gaza bombings by Israel, Obama ducked out of sight and remained mute.
The Pentagon warns that a defeat of NATO in Afghanistan will destroy the alliance - the foundation of U.S. hegemony over Europe. After Iraq, another defeat cannot be tolerated.
Soviet veterans of Afghanistan warn the U.S. and its allies that they face defeat there. The Obama administration cannot even articulate a coherent political strategy for Afghanistan. Its latest big idea is to kick out the hapless Hamid Karzai and install a new 'asset,' one of the CIA-groomed 'good' Afghans who the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, colorfully brands 'dog-washers.'
Washington hopes U.S. troop reinforcements will finally bludgeon the Afghan national resistance into accepting American domination. Then the long-planned pipeline from the Caspian Basin across Afghanistan to Pakistan can finally be built.
In a stunning historic irony, while U.S. troops and CIA teams were turning over ever rock in Afghanistan looking for the wicked Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, it turns out that the gravest national security threat to America was actually the unsupervised, crooked financiers and reckless gamblers on Wall Street who wrecked America's economy and brought down the global financial system.