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Commentary: Afghanistan

The philosopher George Santayana’s maxim, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” is a definitely a cliché. But just because it is a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not true.

The place in the world where belligerent forgetting may be the most perverse and consequential is Afghanistan. This benighted land has been a Great Power focus since Marco Polo and the Venetians in the 1200s. Over the centuries ambitious empires have had an outsize interest, not because of what’s there (e.g., no oil) but where it is, astride trade routes that go to all points of the compass, beginning for Europe with Polo’s Silk Road.

In the 19th century there was the Great Game between Russia, which wanted to protect its south empire (the other -stans) and Britain, which wanted to protect its north empire (India) and its interest in Persia. Afghanistan won. The Brits came to grief.

Fast forward to the 1980s. The Russians fomented a Communist revolution. The mujahideen fought back. The U.S. came to their aid because, well, they were fighting the Commies – it’s what we did. Stinger anti-helicopter missiles helped turn the tide. The Russians came to grief, abandoned Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

In 2001 after 9-11 the U.S. went after the Taliban for harboring the master mind of the attack, Osama bin Laden. We defeated the Taliban militarily. Then President Bush made two fateful and fatal decisions. He decided the new mission in Afghanistan was nation-building. And he decided to invade Iraq. Both were disasters.

Each subsequent president -- Barack Obama, Donald Trump -- kicked this radioactive can down the road. Obama authorized a surge that didn’t matter much. Trump declared it was time to end the war and then negotiated with the Taliban, leaving out the Afghan government. Perhaps Trump’s advisors knew, like every recent administration has known, that “Afghan national government” is an oxymoron. Between the corruption and incompetence and tribalism, there is not, and has never been, a legitimate Afghan national government. Someone had to pick up the can, and Biden bravely did it.

What is happening in Afghanistan was inevitable. The Taliban were going to return to power, however long it took, because they have dominated the countryside, where the real power in Afghanistan is – and always has been -- since 2002. It’s sad that the Taliban will probably take the country back to Medieval times. But it was going to happen eventually. And the national interest of the U.S. is not directly threatened.

Biden is taking a lot of heat for his courageous decision. But he’s not the president I feel sorry for. I feel sorry for the president who will be faced with China’s takeover of Taiwan. They will try, it will be in America’s national interest to stop it, and there may be war.

Back to Marco Polo: You played the game in a swimming pool as a kid. The kid who is “it“ has to keep their eyes closed and try to tag the other players, who taunt with the “Marco” and “Polo” call-and-response and are eternally elusive, because, unlike other tag games, Marco Polo is played in three dimensions. Why didn’t we learn the lesson about Afghanistan from a child’s game?

Dr. Terry Smith is a Political Science Professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.