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Death of an American Empire?

Afghanistan has joined the ranks of climate change, healthcare reform, and Amanda Knox as a topic that is paid the most frenzied kind of attention to in the news these days. And, as always, everyone is suddenly an expert, offering their Wikipedia-assembled point of view. The veracity of these views are inevitably confirmed with snazzy one-liners and quotes, the most atrocious of which has sadly made its way into public discourse: “Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires.”

You can just imagine the tagline for tourists: “Afghanistan, where empires go to die!” Those who promote such sentiments, perhaps out of wishful thinking, are better dramatists than they are historians.

The most oft-cited example of Afghanistan bringing down an empire is surely the Soviet Union. The story seems suspiciously familiar: a global superpower supporting its local Afghan allies is violently resisted by foreign-backed guerrillas. Proponents of the “graveyard” hypothesis would be glad to stop the comparison there, but the plot thickens. The Afghan mujahideen, joined by foreign Muslims, were fighting what they saw as a godless, communist, and alien government. It would be too hopeful to call the Afghan government of today a truly democratic one, but it at least competes with, rather than replaces, traditional society and power structures. Unlike the Soviet’s pet regime, it has the option defeating its opponents through cooperation and inclusion (as the Taliban before it did to some degree). Given time, it may even evolve into something of a representative government suitable for Afghanistan’s complex and diverse society.

The Soviet Union left defeated, not because Afghanistan possesses some mysterious, empire-killing quality, but because it was chased out by a determined, anti-communist resistance backed by the world’s only other superpower. Furthermore, the Soviet Union fell not because of the Afghan War, but because the war was just one of the many examples of the dictatorial Communist Party failing to fulfill the needs and desires of its people. Luckily for us, when one party fails us, we have the privilege of electing another, such as in the 2208 election.

What about Alexander? The Muslims? The Mongols? Fortunately, history is only ambiguous when you need to promote a platform. The mountainous terrain of Afghanistan has always made it difficult for foreigners to conquer, even doubly so in the ancient world (with its lack of helicopters, bombers, satellites, and advanced communications). Yet Alexander, the Islamic Caliphate, and the Mongols have all done it, achieving their political goals in some form or another.

And what of the British? The largest empire to have ever existed lost an entire army to Afghanistan in 1842, leading to their withdrawal (lets ignore that they returned victoriously later) and, purportedly, the death of their empire. Yet, as any Palestinian, Indian, Guyanese, Pakistani, or South African person could tell you, the British Empire lived in infamy well beyond the First Anglo-Afghan War.

Yet, this talk of empires is irrelevant to the discussion of the United States in Afghanistan today. While some decry what they see as vicious American hegemony, the global role of our military is not one of bloodthirsty conquest. Empires swallow up states, peoples, and cultures, giving no borders to the oppressive methods they use to further their goals, however noble or evil. After World War II, the Soviet Union “liberated” Eastern Europe by shackling it behind an Iron Curtain; America’s military occupations of Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea served the goal of protecting democracy and economic opportunity.

We are not in Afghanistan to rule it by force or by proxy. We don’t seek their resources, their women, or their religious affiliation. There is no Great Game, no beltway conspiracy to put down the bearded man. The Taliban created an atmosphere that allowed al-Qa’ida to plot against and attack America, so we removed them, as we should have. Search the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan and you will not find the graves of empires or superpowers, but perhaps one day we will see a modern state where none previously existed, protecting rights previously not enjoyed.

Our role in Afghanistan will not kill us, but losing our faith in the basic values that inform our existence as a country will. Freedom and liberty are not just buzzwords for use by the likes of Palin and Glenn Beck; they are the key difference between America and its more covetous predecessors.

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