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In the wake of several deaths among its contingent of troops in a previously peaceful province in Afghanistan, New Zealand (like France and South Korea) is now expediting the departure of its 140 soldiers. That’s not exactly headline-making news here in the United States. If you’re an American, you probably didn’t even know that New Zealand was playing a small part in our Afghan War. In fact, you may hardly have known about the part Americans are playing in a war that, over the last decade-plus, has repeatedly been labeled “the forgotten war.”
Still, maybe it’s time to take notice. Maybe the flight of those Kiwis should be thought of as a small omen, even if they are departing as decorously, quietly and flightlessly as possible. Because here’s the thing: once the November election is over, “expedited departure” could well become an American term and the United States, as it slips ignominiously out of Afghanistan, could turn out to be the New Zealand of superpowers.
You undoubtedly know the phrase: the best laid plans of mice and men. It couldn’t be more apt when it comes to the American project in Afghanistan. Washington’s plans have indeed been carefully drawn up. By the end of 2014, US “combat troops” are to be withdrawn, but left behind on the giant bases the Pentagon has built will be thousands of US trainers and advisers, as well as special operations forces to go after Al Qaeda remnants (and other “militants”), and undoubtedly the air power to back them all up.
Their job will officially be to continue to “stand up” the humongous security force that no Afghan government in that thoroughly impoverished country will ever be able to pay for. Thanks to a ten-year Strategic Partnership Agreement that President Obama flew to Kabul to seal with Afghan President Hamid Karzai as May began, there they are to remain until 2020 or beyond.
In other words, it being Afghanistan, we need a translator. The American “withdrawal” regularly mentioned in the media doesn’t really mean “withdrawal.” On paper at least, for years to come the US will partially occupy a country that has a history of loathing foreigners who won’t leave (and making them pay for it).
Tea Boys and Old Men
Plans are one thing, reality another. After all, when invading US troops triumphantly arrived in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in April 2003, the White House and the Pentagon were already planning to stay forever and a day—and they instantly began building permanent bases (though they preferred to speak of “permanent access” via “enduring camps”) as a token of their intent. Only a couple of years later, in a gesture that couldn’t have been more emphatic in planning terms, they constructed the largest (and possibly most expensive) embassy on the planet as a regional command center in Baghdad. Yet somehow, those perfectly laid plans went desperately awry and only a few years later, with American leaders still looking for ways to garrison the country into the distant future, Washington found itself out on its ear. But that’s reality for you, isn’t it?