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 Salon.com, 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.