July 24, 2002
A FEW WEEKS back, Zahir Shah, the former king of Afghanistan who was brought back to Kabul — he has a palace in the capital but no actual powers — to provide at least an image of continuity, talked with an Italian reporter form La Stampa in what he thought was an off-the-record conversation. As always, it's when people aren't talking from a script that they're most likely to talk the truth. The war against the remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda had become, "stupid and useless," remarked the ex-king. "The sooner it is ended the better."
Two recent news items confirm just how prescient was the old guy despite his age and his many years in exile.
The first is the report that Afghan civilian deaths as a result of U.S. over-reliance on high technology — the same push-a-button-from-a-safe-distance tactics that resulted in the deaths of four Canadian soldiers — has now reached more than 400, with many more wounded, sometimes seriously.
The second is this week's announcement in Washington that American troops will take over from Afghan soldiers responsibility for the security of President Hamid Karzai, the country's ruler who was appointed to that post (nominally, he was elected locally) by Washington.
Call it the Vietnamization of the war against terror.
The Americans come in as heroes and saviors, full of confidence and of firepower. They stay on, originally for only a few months, in order to get the job done properly. As the months go by, though, they get increasingly involved in the hopelessly complex local politics. Local warlords, who are concerned with their power and not with the American war aims, quickly learn how to manipulate the outsiders, such as by getting them to knock off their local enemies.
The quick, decisive victory over the Taliban and Al Qaeda of last fall is turning into a quagmire; morally, politically, even militarily, with the Americans and their allies (including the Canadian contingent) conspicuously failing to catch any terrorists, let alone either Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar.
History never repeats itself exactly, of course. The American public is totally behind the war on terror. (Although it should be remembered, support for the war against the Viet Cong was overwhelming in its early days). But the underlying factors remain the same. One of Lyndon Johnson's problems in the late 1960s was that his attempt to give Americans both guns and butter — all-out war but no tax increase to pay for it — failed, with the cost of the war in Vietnam causing inflation and economic stagnation at home. This time around, Bush has to cope with corporate scandals and a depressed stock market. Unlike Johnson, he didn't cause this economic pain. Like Johnson, he's incapable of curing it.
Entirely aside from the fact that Bush (and many of his cabinet ministers) are products of the very same crony capitalism that they are now deploring — including using many of the same insider information tricks to make their personal fortunes — Bush simply doesn't have the energy to both fight terrorism and fight corporate corruption.
As happened with Johnson, economic problems are now starting to erode Bush's public support. Not seriously yet, but for the first time his numbers are trending downward.
The difference, over the decades, is that the U.S. today has no rival in the world. But omnipotence brings temptation as well as opportunity. The U.S. back then limited its activities to Vietnam itself. Today, under Bush, the U.S. is extending itself all over the globe, to the Philippines, to Pakistan, to Georgia, to Yemen, and now to Palestine.
Bush is trying to do too much, or, in the case of the economy, is doing nothing because he is doing too much elsewhere.
It's possible to spot just one clear way out of this morass: To go even deeper into it.
This is what Bush is going to do by his attack — probably early in the new year — on Iraq. It won't be a walkover as in Afghanistan. But it will provide Bush with a clear victory, like the one over the Taliban and Al Qaeda. And he'll have Saddam Hussein's head at the end of it, to distract Americans from the fact that he failed to catch either bin Laden or Omar.
That's when he'll pronounce a victory and bring the troops home. That the conditions which have been a principal cause of the terrorism — poverty, repression, humiliation, hopelessness — will continue unchanged, and sooner or later will cause more terrorism, won't matter. He'll be out of the quagmire.
This, in the end, is why he'll go into Iraq. Not to fight terrorism (Iraq is a shadow of its former self) but to get himself out of his quagmire.
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