In a 1998 interview with Le Nouvel Observateur, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, spoke proudly of how, in July 1979, he had "signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul" and so helped draw a Russian interventionary force into Afghanistan. "On the day that the Soviets officially crossed the border," Brzezinski added, "I wrote to President Carter, saying, in essence: ‘We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.’" And so they did — with the help of the CIA, Saudi money, the Pakistani intelligence services, and an influx of Arab jihadis, including Osama bin Laden. In fact, their Afghan War would prove far more disastrous for the Soviet Union than defeat in Vietnam had been for the United States. By the time the Soviets withdrew their last troops in February 1989, the economy of the Cold War’s weaker superpower was tottering on the brink. Less than three years later, the Soviet Union itself was no more, even as Washington, at first unbelieving, then celebratory, declared eternal victory.
It is far clearer now, as American economic power visibly crumbles, that rather than a victor and a vanquished there were two great power losers in the Cold War. The weaker, the Soviet Union, simply imploded first, while the U.S., enwreathed in a rhetoric of triumphalism and self-congratulation, was far more slowly making its way toward the exit. Seldom mentioned here, however, is a grotesque irony: as the U.S. seems to be experiencing the beginning stages of its imperial implosion, it is also — as the Soviet Union was in the 1980s — enmired in a war without end in Afghanistan against a ragtag army of Afghan insurgents supported by foreign jihadist volunteers.
One difference, of course: The Soviets were, in part, brought to the edge of bankruptcy and collapse by a war supported to the hilt, and to the tune of billions of dollars as well as massive infusions of weaponry, by the other superpower. The U.S. is heading for its analogous moment without an enemy superpower in sight. If anything, a single man — Osama bin Laden — might be said to have filled the former superpower role, which, were the results less grim, would be little short of farcical. That this has come to pass is, of course, partly the result of the Bush administration’s many imperial blunders, including its invasion of Iraq and its urge to garrison the oil lands of the planet from the Middle East to Central Asia. Like all historical analogies, the Afghan one may be less than exact, but it does stare us in the face and, eerie as it is, it’s hard to account for its absence from discussion here in the U.S.
If you want to grasp just how deeply the United States is now entangled in its own catastrophic Afghan War, you need only read Anand Gopal’s recent report from that country on the failed U.S. surge in Afghanistan — yes, there was one back in 2007 — the costs for Afghan civilians, and the increasingly powerful Taliban insurgency that has emerged from it. He ends his piece with what might be considered a pre-epitaph for the American war: "This is a war to be won by constructing roads, creating jobs, cleaning up the government, and giving Afghans something they’ve had preciously little of in the last 30 years: hope. However, hope is fading fast here, and that’s a fact Washington can ill afford to ignore; for once the Afghans lose all hope, the Americans will have lost this war." His report could not be more vivid or sobering for a country readying itself, under a new president, to pour yet more troops into Afghanistan.