05 October 2009

Exiting Kabul: A Popeye'd Perspective

"Which way (out of) Afghanistan?"

Or so runs my paraphrase of a question that seems to be on a growing number of official lips these days. Which proves - to me anyway - that you can do just about anything reasonable with a conclusion except jump to it. Oh, no doubt it would be a mere nothing at all to get out of Afghanistan, compared to the really big danger - er, challenge - that lies in wait for us. For if the past 20 years have taught us anything, surely it is the nature of the Ultimate Problem: How to get away from Afghanistan. Apparently this tortured country has become the instability that keeps on bleeding . . . and infecting . . .

On the other hand, I suppose nothing would be more tempting than to conclude that, in proportion as we Americans have been wrong about their country, in the same degree the Taliban have been right. And certainly one does have to give them credit for being tenacious, resilient little bastards. I imagine there's very little they don't understand about (their region of) Afghanistan. Indeed they may have a magical finger on the pulse of the country as a whole - except for that percentage of its people who'd be driven stark raving miserable under their holy rule. A percentage that is all but sure to grow exponentially once Sacred Victory has been achieved. Really, have these guys learned nothing from 1970s Cambodia?

And does that ever bring me back. Phnom Penh May 1975. The Khmer Rouge had just spent the previous 4 years learning in spades what clumsy, heavy-handed, half-hearted occupiers we Yanks were. And then their own proudly home-grown version of earthly hell broke loose. Funny how the Khmer Rouge never managed to turn their same, US-oppression-exposing mirror back on themselves. If only they'd bothered to learn half as much about their own people - not to mention their people's neighbors (e.g., Communist Vietnam) - as they'd obviously come to learn about us. In the same way, I suspect the Taliban know us Americans, along with our proverbial weaknesses, follies and stupidities, far better than they know their own people. I want to say these new poster-hero "we-beat-the-Americans" guerrillas: "You maniacs just have to live in the country you so delight in tormenting. The rest of us have the unenviable job of having to live with it. And worst of all, never knowing when we may quite literally have to go back in - again."

So naturally - no matter how well or badly things turn out - any American thinking with all her brain is going to continue to keep a respectfully (as distinct from contemptuously) vigilant eye on Afghanistan. She knows how quickly the misery of people on the ground can become the misery-and-horror of people in distant skyscrapers. She understands how easy it is to disrupt locally before hammering globally. Of course one may still question whether the US should be in AfPak for a long military haul. And I'm sure those who do have a number of valid concerns. But before we conclude anything rash, we Yanks would do well to recall the example of a cartoon hero from a more edifying period of our history - a hero who, if I remember correctly, detested bullies of all stripes, no matter how locally-grown or righteously-inspired they might fancy themselves. What was it Popeye often said, from out of the thick of battle with his worst enemies? Something like "I can take it if you can"?

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