BEWARE OF FINE PRINT: If people who can’t do wind up teaching, then I suppose writers are people who never quite got the hang of reading. A case in point: This past Tuesday night, I raced off to check out a talk given by New Yorker journalist George Packer about the trials and tribulations now befalling Afghanistan, the sorrowful nation vying with Vietnam to become the locus of America’s longest military crusade. What could be better? Packer’s a great writer, an even better reporter, and given that Afghan warlord-in-chief Hamid Karzai just popped into the United States for a four-day visit to make serious nice with the Obama crowd, the timing couldn’t be better.
Packer was initially scheduled to speak at Victoria Hall, but the location had to be changed after the theater became the scene of a full-bore psychic meltdown — described in polite society as a seismic retrofit issue — among its warring owners. So I zoomed off to the church where the talk was going to take place, only to discover, after stumbling into a 12-step meeting there, that I had the wrong church. “We can give you a talk,” said one of the 12-steppers gamely, “but I don’t think you’d like it.”
I rushed back to my office to get the right address, which turned out to be First Presbyterian at 21 East Constance. As I locked my bike up to one of the few sign poles by the church — sign poles being regarded as “visual blight” on the upper Eastside — I noted the general darkness of the edifice that sprawled out before me and conspicuous lack of millers-about. Not even Lee Moldaver, easily the most ubiquitous — not to mention omniscient — man in three counties, was to be seen. Something was seriously amiss. I would subsequently discover the Packer speech wasn’t to take place until the following Tuesday night. Clearly, my failure to apprehend this stated fact was evidence of a deep-seated learning disability that was never diagnosed. Or perhaps it was Attention Deficit Disorder.
Certainly lack of attention is the defining reality of the nine years the United States has now spent at war in Afghanistan. It started as George W. Bush’s war; Obama has since made it his own. We’ve got 90,000 troops over there right now — pretty much the entire population of Santa Barbara — at a cost of $3.5 billion a month, and no end remotely in sight. And somehow, this war barely qualifies as background noise in our collective unconsciousness. By waging war in Afghanistan — allegedly against its Taliban — the United States can prop up the government in Pakistan, the regime next door, without officially saying that’s what it’s doing. And Pakistan must be propped up against its own Talibanistas because it has the Bomb.
Making all this anti-Taliban business awkward is that Afghan Prez Karzai, in a recent major-league snit, just threatened that he might join the Taliban himself if the United States didn’t stop giving him such guff over corruption — okay, his baby brother is a well-known opium grower — and election fraud. Okay, he was a little obvious about it, having stuffed at least 25 percent of the ballots cast in last year’s presidential election. In fact, it was so bad that international monitors ordered a complete do-over.
That never got done because Karzai’s chief rival mysteriously withdrew at the last minute. American parents aren’t inclined to sacrifice their children in dubious battle unless it’s waged in the name of Democracy. So if you’re going to steal an election, don’t be obvious. Have your father pay off the Mob to get the votes necessary to assure victory, as John F. Kennedy did in 1960. Or have the Supreme Court justices steal it for you, as George W. did in 2000 with a few hanging chads in Florida. And whatever you do, don’t threaten to join the Taliban, especially when another Taliban faction appears to have underwritten the recent attempt, however inept, to car-bomb Times Square.
With all this in mind, one might have expected Karzai to be eating crow. Instead, he’s in D.C. demanding “special friend status” for Afghanistan, akin to that of Israel. I say, let’s go all the way. Let’s make Afghanistan part of the United States. Given how much we’ve already spent there — and how much we’ll be spending in the decades to come — you could argue we’ve broken it and bought, the two-prong test of the Pottery Barn rule of international relations. Give it the same twilight zone status as the District of Columbia, where people can vote in presidential races but get no congressional representation. Finally, D.C. would be supplanted as “Murder Capital of the United States.” In a typical year, twice the number of D.C. residents are murdered than troops stationed in Afghanistan are killed. Last year for the first time, numbers for both locales proved equally lethal.
It might be a better fit than you think. Many Taliban activists might find themselves right at home with the meaner-nastier brand of Republicanism that’s recently seized that party. But unlike many Republicans, I suspect, the Taliban actually practices many of the conservative social mores it preaches. Recent studies show that divorce rates and teenage pregnancies are significantly higher in conservative Red States than in their Blue State counterparts. You figure.
The sad thing is that three months after the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom against Afghanistan, where the 9/11 plot was hatched, the Taliban had crumbled. Utterly and totally. Where military success had eluded Afghanistan’s would-be conquerors — from Alexander the Great to the Soviet War Machine — we had military victory firmly in our grasp. In hindsight, we should have called it a day and gone home. Instead, we stayed and can’t get out.
Those who don’t learn from history, or so we are told, are doomed to repeat it. Of course, to learn from history, it helps to read it in the first place. My failure at reading caused me to attend a speech a week before it happened. I can still go next week. But when I come out, we’ll still be in Afghanistan. And for a very long time.