Afghanistan Without the Exclamation Point (or Even the Question Mark)

Afghanistan!

Whether the story is the fall of a major city to the Taliban, the destruction of a hospital with staff and patients still in it, or the president's announcement that U.S. troops will remain in that country until at least 2017, it's true that you never feel there's an exclamation point after "Afghanistan." Fourteen years later, it remains part of the relatively humdrum background reality of American life. And yet imagine for a moment that you jumped into a time machine and took a spin back to 1978. There, you told the first American you ran into that you had just mainlined into the future and discovered that, starting in 1979, the U.S. would be involved in two wars (broken by a decade-long semi-absence) in a single country adding up to a quarter-century of conflict. If you had then asked for a guess as to which country that might be, I can guarantee you one thing: no American would have said Afghanistan.

I can guarantee you something else, too: if you had insisted that this was America's war-fighting future, you might have found yourself institutionalized. Back in 1978, if an American knew anything about that country, it was probably as an exotic stop on the "hippie trail," not as a war-torn land the U.S. could never leave. The very thought that Afghanistan was crucial to American "national security" or that the U.S. would someday pump hundreds of billions of dollars into that country in a fruitless attempt to "secure" it would have seemed laughable. Similarly, in the endless years of our second Afghan War, that the country would become the world's leading producer of a single agricultural product with consistently record-breaking yields -- I'm talking, of course, about opium -- and be responsible for 75% of the global heroin supply, would have seemed like material for a science fiction novel, not reality. All of this would have been beyond imagining in the America of 1978.

So welcome back to the twenty-first century! That none of this shocks us today, that the word "Afghanistan" isn't joined at the hip to an exclamation point (or at least a question mark) in our thinking, if not the news, tells us just how strange -- and yet how normal -- the bizarre imperial world of the planet's "sole superpower" has become. As retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore suggests today in "Tourists of Empire," what this country needs is a medical intervention. After all, as he points out, in Afghanistan and elsewhere we're suffering from Imperial Tourism Syndrome.