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As Long as We Remember...

June 13, 2006

Where's Kipling?

Roy Meachum

Perhaps by the time Barbara and George Bush's son came along, nobody read Rudyard Kipling any more. The celebrated poet and story-teller faded from sight along with the British Empire that provided his sustenance and his fame.

George W. Bush preaches what Mr. Kipling called "the white man's burden," the self-designated responsibility of white western civilization to "save" countries of darker colors. Still, this president almost certainly knows little beyond Mr. Kipling's name and perhaps his most famous phrase.

The thought comes to mind because of what is happening in Afghanistan now. While I'm writing, the Taliban have taken back large swatches of the country, particularly in the south. The country's president announced he will be delivering weapons to tribes, meaning them to serve as a first line of defense.

Speaking anonymously, European officials have warned that as the U.S. presence decreases to a mere 20,000 troops, the once defeated Islamic fundamentalists are displaying increasing signs they mean to kick all foreigners out. Again.

Writing principally from India, the most important of England's 19th century possessions, Mr. Kipling described next-door Afghanistan as a nest of cutthroats, kidnappers and bandits. He did not report on the destruction of an entire British army that sought to "pacify" the cutthroats. He had not yet arrived. His nation's fear was that a Russian conquest of its neighbor would seriously threaten India; it didn't happen of course.

Into the 20th century, long after the poet passed, both Afghanistan and Iran, formerly Persia, remained "bones" contended by the top powers. Russia was the constant, the Soviets picking up the drive of the tsars. England's decline led to America's involvement.

All the world knows the fate suffered by the Soviet interlopers. The world's second mightiest military power invested 10 years and hundreds of lives in the attempt to defeat the mujahidin, the "holy fighters" who became the Taliban.

The Russians pulled out of Afghanistan in February 1989, not by coincidence the year the Berlin Wall fell, in November. The events are not unrelated, although it's the height of simplicity to say the Red Army's departure from Kabul caused East Germany's collapse.

Scholars continue to debate how much the venture into Afghanistan contributed to the final demise of Russia's socialist state. But the speed with which it happened stands as fact. The Soviet Union had lived beyond its worth: it took, however, the arrival of Boris Yeltsin, in 1992, to accept reality.

Not up for debate is the role Moscow's last gasp armed attempt to further international communism led directly to the rise of militant Islamism. Israel's problems with the Palestinians became small potatoes, by comparison.

Ironically, many of the weapons used to kill and maim Russians were marked "Made in the USA." They were handed out by the same CIA hands that were turning over virtually identical firepower and explosives to Saddam Hussein, for his attempt to invade of Iran. (A question never answered: Did America also provide the poison gas used by the Iraqi army?)

Future historians and ideologues may figure out how this nation switched from Islam's biggest friend, as in Russian-occupied Afghanistan, to devil incarnate for many Muslims.

Palestinian casualties from the recent and prolonged intifadah are deemed by many Arabs as America's fault; we supply Israel with money and weapons to maintain a strong defense force. Some bombs dropped in Gaza were clearly stamped as made in the USA.

That Carter-era alliance with Iraq's president contributed a share. Secularist Saddam carried a terrible reputation among Islamists. Sunnis and Shiites knew of his disregard for their faith. Washington's vain attempt to tie him to Osama bin Laden prompted widespread disbelief in the Middle East. "Mush maghoul" is the Arab phrase; it loosely means "impossible!"

The rush to invade Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein provides much of the deadly irony of the present situation. Four years ago American military forces, acting virtually without international assistance, quickly quelled the Taliban; sent them scurrying into the hills and across the border with Pakistan. Important to note: They were not wiped out! They were alive and watching their country, waiting for Americans to leave. We did!

As long as uncertainty remains, there can be no rush among Afghans to support actions against the Taliban; they remember full-well the vicious regime that killed people for not conforming entirely.

Expect a rise in German and French casualties, as the Americans get out of Dodge. These are the nations castigated by Vice President Richard Cheney, called Old Europe and so much worse, for not sending their troops into Iraq. At the very moment Mr. Cheney spoke Kabul's security forces were commanded by a German general because the troops around the capital were his.

European troops have filed into American trenches, so to speak; but it's not the same. Many of the U.S. withdrawals have gone to replace units overextended in the war.

Assaulting Iraq before the Taliban leadership had been rooted up and removed was a deadly mistake. The radicals can always get followers. At its base, their financial structure relies on contributions from their countrymen who cover their bets: What if the Taliban come back? They have.

Refugees from the fierce fighting have told the media they have seen Taliban faces as far away as the Kabul market. But even more frightening are the victories they've won. The Canadian commander of the southern sector has admitted Islamist fighters have held towns overnight. They make roads unsafe. In at least one case, they tried, convicted and hanged a man, for allegedly acting against their rules and laws.

Makes me wonder as the fighting threatens to continue years to come, how long the White House can resist calling for a draft? The Vietnam War would have been ever-so much shorter without one.

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