At Large February 2002

After the Quagmire

Coping with closure; enduring the New Seriousness

Lo! the intrepid Afghan Taliban fighter of warrior lineage ancient. He who has vanquished countless foes, unassailable in his mountain redoubts, imbued with fanatical resolve, possessed by suicidal courage—and currently running around Mazar-i-Sharif getting his beard shaved and playing Uzbecki pop music on his boom box, and using Mrs. Afghan Warrior's burka for a bedspread in the guest room, soon to be rented to foreign aid workers.

The fighting in Afghanistan was so brief that CNN's Headline News had to delete three bars from its "Target: Terror" theme to keep the music from outlasting the hostilities. The Soviet Union fought the Afghans for ten years and gave up in ignominious defeat in 1989. What were the Soviets using for weapons—cafeteria buns and rolled-up locker room towels? The United States dropped a lot of cafeteria buns—or something very like them—on Taliban-controlled areas. Exposure to American school-lunch food may have been the deciding factor in the radical Muslims' demoralization. A country that can make something that dreadful from mere flour, yeast, and water is a country not to be defied.

However it was that we achieved victory, achieve it we did, although to what end remains to be seen. One effect of victory has been to make America's elite sanguine about armed conflict for the first time since 1945. "SURPRISE: WAR WORKS AFTER ALL," read the headline on the Week in Review section of The New York Times for Sunday, November 18. That same day The Boston Globe Magazine ran a cover story titled "The New Patriots": "College students support a country at war—and so do their Vietnam-era parents." Of course, there's always the possibility that the revived fighting spirit among America's elite has nothing to do with Afghanistan but is, rather, a collateral result of Harvard's first undefeated football season since 1913. I believe that Harvard played Mount Holyoke, Smith, Li'l Dickens Day Care Center, and several Pop Warner teams, but I haven't checked that. At any rate, the word "quagmire" suddenly disappeared from the lexicon of pundits, savants, and mavens and has been replaced by ...

It's uncertain what the successor term for "quagmire" will be. In view of previous Western involvements with Afghanistan, "up the garden path" is a suggestion. "Please, no nation building!" says my friend Mike Schellhammer, an Army major. Mike was deployed on such missions in Haiti and Bosnia. "We're the Army—we break things on the battlefield," Mike says. "We didn't study nation building in college." Maybe that was the problem the Soviets faced in the 1980s. They weren't trying to scare and scatter Afghans, after all; they were trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern, industrialized, educated, socialist nation. Maybe we should let the Russians try again (hold the socialism). That would make Vladimir Putin feel like a member of the Great Power Club and would keep him too busy to fiddle in the Balkans, prop up Belarus dictatorships, or pester Latvia about NATO expansion.

Meanwhile, what's next for us? Do we behave as we did after the Gulf War and just go home, have a recession, and elect Kathleen Kennedy Townsend as the next President of the United States? Or do we finish the War on Terrorism?

Go to the U.S. Department of State Web site and print out the "Overview of State-Sponsored Terrorism" (from Patterns of Global Terrorism 2000) released by the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism last April. Opportunities to achieve closure would seem to abound.

Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism ... It provided increasing support to numerous terrorist groups, including the Lebanese Hizballah, HAMAS, and the Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) ... Syria continued to provide safehaven and support to several terrorist groups ... Sudan continued to serve as a safehaven for members of al-Qaida, the Lebanese Hizballah ... Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the PIJ, and HAMAS ...

Or am I wrong? Because I've heard that all these nations are helping us to fight terrorism now.

Anyway, we are told, this is not a war between Western civilization and the Muslim world. There is, nonetheless, interesting reading to be done in Freedom in the World, a survey of political rights and civil liberties issued annually since 1955 by the nonpartisan organization Freedom House. Among countries whose populations are predominantly (60 percent or more) Muslim only remote Mali and tiny Benin are rated as "Free." On a scale of 1 (Canada) to 7 (god-awful), no other Muslim country receives a score better than 3 in political rights and 4 in civil liberties.

But perhaps these ratings are out of date. The world has changed so much of late. For example, a peace vigil is now held each Saturday at noon outside the town offices in Peterborough, New Hampshire. According to the November 15 edition of the Monadnock Ledger, "One week, when it was rumored that CBS might cover the protesters, 45 people showed up." By Saturday, November 17, the peace protest had in effect turned into a victory protest, and eight people were present. There was one sweet-faced, white-haired old lady and then another, so much older that she looked as if she might have been doing this sort of thing since the Hitler-Stalin Pact. There was a middle-aged man with hair that was both very long and gone from half of his head, a middle-aged woman on whose features smugness had made an extensive and permanent settlement, a young man whose devil-may-care sideburns clashed with his go-to-hell golf pants, and a tweedy professor type who spent the whole vigil reading a magazine. Plus there was a mom in hand-knits trying to keep an eye on a rapidly fidgeting eight-year-old, and an Asian woman of college age who carried a sign reading RETALIATE WITH WORLD PEACE. Considering how world peace has gone in many places for the past fifty-odd years, that's a harsh sentiment. After a while the Asian woman wandered off to window-shop.

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