American Golem

In the recent incarnation of Battlestar Galactica, the cylons were a human creation who turned on their creator. Such a motif is a classic literary form and can be found in Shelley's Frankenstein, Goethe's The Sorcerer's Apprentice and in the 16th century Jewish folktale of the golem. In the latter, the golem is animated by a Rabbi when the word emeth (truth) is carved into the clay figure's forehead. The golem was initially a protector of the Jewish population, but, as a testament to human hubris, the golem broke free and began to wreak havoc. In an attempt to contain the golem the Rabbi erased the word that gave power to the creature, leaving only meth (death). The golem instantly crumbled into pieces but, because it had grown so large, the Rabbi was crushed under the debris of his own creation.

As the Scrolls of Pythia state, "All this has happened before. All this will happen again." This has never been more true than in the case of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is one of the most rugged and inhospitable places on Earth. Those who learned to survive in that region did so by becoming battle hardened and determined. Between 1839-1842 the British attempted, and failed, to take over the region (and again between 1878 and 1880). In 1842 a single survivor, Dr. William Brydon, escaped the carnage just outside of Kabul to report on the British failure to hold the capital. The contingent he had been a part of included 16,000 soldiers and support staff that was ambushed in the snowbound gorges along the Kabul River. The rout that ensued was the first of many military defeats that the British Empire experienced in attempting to hold onto their colonies.

Archibald Forbes related one such ambush in the series of Afghan attacks made in defense of their territory in his 1892 history The Afghan Wars:

At the sound of hostile fire the living struggled to their feet from their lairs in the snow, stiffened with cold, all but unable to move or hold a weapon, leaving many of their more fortunate comrades stark in death. A turmoil of confusion reigned. The Afghans were firing into the rear of the mass, and there was a wild rush of camp followers to the front. . . The Ghilzai fire at fifty yards was close and deadly. The men of the advance fell fast. . . There had been left dead in the pass about 500 soldiers and over 2500 camp followers (pp. 111-112).

From out of this clay, the Reagan administration inscribed their own truth and created the modern Afghanistan that we are now engaged with. The mujaheddin was formed by bringing in the most fervent holy warriors from throughout the Middle East, training them in CIA-run camps and arming them to kill the "evil communists."

As Steve Coll reported in his 1992 expose for The Washington Post:

In all, the United States funneled more than $2 billion in guns and money to the mujaheddin during the 1980s, according to U.S. officials. It was the largest covert action program since World War II. . . CIA and Pentagon specialists offered detailed satellite photographs and ink maps of Soviet targets around Afghanistan. The CIA station chief in Islamabad ferried U.S. intercepts of Soviet battlefield communications.

Other CIA specialists and military officers supplied secure communications gear and trained Pakistani instructors on how to use it. Experts on psychological warfare brought propaganda and books. Demolitions experts gave instructions on the explosives needed to destroy key targets such as bridges, tunnels and fuel depots. They also supplied chemical and electronic timing devices and remote control switches for delayed bombs and rockets that could be shot without a mujaheddin rebel present at the firing site.

One of these mujaheddin fighters recruited from Saudi Arabia was Osama bin Laden.

The Reagan administration's plan worked brilliantly. The Soviet's ended up bankrupting themselves attempting to "win" in Afghanistan. However, the short sightedness of the American Empire neglected to consider what was to happen afterwards.

As Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk wrote about his embed with the Russian military:

I watched the tragedy play out in those bleak early months of 1980. In Kandahar, the people cried "Allahu Akbar" from the rooftops and on the roads outside the city, I met the insurgents - the Taliban of their time - bombing the Soviet convoys.

North of Jalalabad, they even stopped my bus with red roses in the muzzles of their Kalashnikovs, ordering Communist students from the vehicle. I didn't care to dwell on their fate. No different, I guess, than that of pro-government Afghan students caught by the Taliban today. Outside the city, I was told that the "mujahedin" - President Ronald Reagan's favourite "freedom fighters" - had destroyed a school because it was educating girls. Too true. The headmaster and his wife - after they had been burned - were hanging from a tree.

The Taliban was formed from the bitter infighting that occurred with the retreat of the Soviets. Bringing order to the region for the first time in decades, and being composed mostly of ethnic Pushtuns (as are the majority of Afghanis) they represented the best government Afghanistan could hope for at the time. The Northern Alliance and the other thugs who now form the Afghan government are the disparate forces that originally lost out in the post-Soviet period. They are remnants of Reagan's golem, and they are growing larger on US aid and heroin money. While they currently hold power in Afghanistan, they are not accepted by the majority of the Afghan people. If the US policy in the region is to win hearts and minds so that "they will ultimately be responsible for their own country," it has to be understood that they will not fight because they believe in their government, they will fight because they are paid to.

Because all this has happened before, and it will all happen again. As Robert Fisk remembers from his Soviet experience:

Afghans approached us with strange stories. Political prisoners were being taken from the country and tortured inside the Soviet Union. Secret rendition. In Kandahar, a shopkeeper, an educated man in his fifties who wore both a European sweater and an Afghan turban, approached me in the street. I still have the notes of my interview.

"Every day the government says that food prices are coming down," he said. "Every day we are told that things are getting better thanks to the cooperation of the Soviet Union. But it is not true. Do you realise that the government cannot even control the roads? Fuck them. They only hold on to the cities." . . .

In Moscow almost a quarter of a century later, I went to meet the former Russian occupiers of Afghanistan. Some were now addicted to drugs, others suffered from what we call stress disorder.

And on this historic day - when Barack Obama plunges ever deeper into chaos - let us remember the British retreat from Kabul and its destruction in 1842.

This American golem will eventually crumble. It is as inevitable as entropy and as preordained as the Scrolls of Pythia. And when it does it won't fall upon those who created it, but on whomever has replaced them and continues to give it life. The current US military strategy of supporting the second most corrupt government in the world and building an Afghan Army out of poor, desperate people who sign up mostly to have some form of employment, is one that already has death written on its forehead. Who will be underneath when our creation eventually falls?

Related posts:

Hope Smashes Through the Looking Glass in Afghanistan

Afghanistan's Arrow and the Cycle of Imperial Hubris
Rape, Opium and the Bravest Woman in Afghanistan

Note: Movie still is from the 1920 German horror classic Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam.

More like this

The Reagan administration's plan worked brilliantly.

Which is to say, Ronnie & his handlers successfully implemented the plan conceived and launched by Jimmy Carter & his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Another datum in support of the view that US foreign policy is consistent, regardless of which party is in power. The continuity between Bush II & Obama further illustrates that phenomenon.

Now if we just had a reasonable hypothesis as to why these varied administrations consistently pursue such self-defeating strategies...

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 04 Dec 2009 #permalink

"This American golem will eventually crumble."

I think we all, even the current administration, recognise that. At least I hope we do. The trick will be to avoid being 'underneath' when it does crumble.

@Pierce: Only too true. While Brzezinski developed the initial plan, and Carter signed off on it, it was the baby of right-wing hawks from the beginning. They were highly critical of Carter for not taking it far enough and, once Reagan was elected, committed billions of dollars to their covert operation. I fear that, like Lyndon Johnson before him, Obama is hoping to stave off the inevitable. When the Republican plan blows up in Obama's face, he will be blamed for failing in a strategy that had no opportunity for success.

The Soviet's ended up bankrupting themselves attempting to "win" in Afghanistan.

"Soviets", not "Soviet's". There should be no expression of ownership in your sentence.