The more than weeklong series of violent demonstrations and attacks in Afghanistan, which came in response to the burning by U.S. military personnel of some copies of the Koran, is eerily reminiscent of the 1968 Tet Offensive that foreshadowed the collapse of the U.S. military position in Vietnam. The violence in Afghanistan has included the shooting deaths of two U.S. officers inside the Interior Ministry in Kabul and the wounding of several others in a grenade attack on an American military base.
No one with the exception of the rioters seems to think the burnings were intended as an act of disrespect. Rather, they were an effort by American military authorities to destroy documents containing secret codes penciled in by incarcerated terrorists as a means of communicating among themselves. And while many have criticized President Obama for apologizing to the people of Afghanistan, it can hardly be argued that it would somehow be in U.S. interests for the American military to even appear to have disrespected the religious culture of the host country.
Yet all things considered, the reaction in Afghanistan has, by any measure, not only been over the top but also extremely revealing.
We are now more than ten years into America’s invasion of Afghanistan, which was designed to rout the Taliban who had harbored Al Qaeda. The fighting has resulted in thousands of American and NATO deaths and casualties as well as billions of dollars spent. It would appear, however, that little has been accomplished in terms of American goals, with the Taliban still a formidable military and popular force in the country.
Nevertheless, declaring impending victory, the Obama administration many months ago announced plans for a military withdrawal and for turning over responsibility for securing Afghanistan against Taliban insurgencies. But not only does it now appear the Taliban can attack American and NATO forces at will, the widespread popular ferment over the Koran burnings demonstrates we have not come very far in gaining the respect of the people of Afghanistan or in moving Afghanistan out of the 10th century and into democratic nation-building mode.
Nor is the problem reflected purely in terms of rank-and-file Afghans. In response to the widespread attacks, the U.S. and its allies removed hundreds of military and civilian advisers in Kabul and across Afghanistan, which can only be seen as a signal that the international community is fast losing faith in President Karzai. Not only were the attacks an eye-opener with respect to his capacity to control his country, he did not endear himself to his ostensible allies in his news conference last Sunday.
Remarkably, he did not mention the U.S. deaths and casualties in his opening statement, focusing almost exclusively on the burning of the Korans. It was only when he was asked about the deaths by a reporter that he expressed his condolences, but even then pointedly refrained from apologizing. Coming after President Obama’s apology for what was at worst a misunderstanding, this will not go down well with the United States as it contemplates its future relations with Afghanistan.
In the larger sense, the Afghan experience only reinforces the lesson of Vietnam that military power alone, even of the overwhelming sort possessed by the United States, can no longer determine the course of another country’s history in the face of nationalism, ingrained sectarianism, and a lack of democratic tradition.
The idea that a lone superpower like the United States can use its power internationally in the long term, beyond putting out brushfires, no longer has currency. As the concept of the “Arab Spring” spreads, the further loss of dictators whom the U.S. could at least work with will contribute to increased international instability.
While the U.S. will still be able to maintain a key military presence around the world to maintain its strategic interests, it will no longer be seen as able to insinuate itself into ongoing local conflicts, particularly when those conflicts feature locals pursuing their own agendas and acting as surrogates for others.