Afghanistan: The New Hotel California

Perhaps I’m a bit too young to be taken seriously when I say that I’m a huge Eagles fan. When I was born, the Los Angeles-based rock group had been disbanded for four years and it was not until I turned ten that they reunited for their Hell Freezes Over tour. Like many faithful followers, the group’s 1977 hit “Hotel California” thrills me with every listen. The haunting tale of a weary traveler who becomes trapped in a nightmarish resort with mirrors on the ceiling and pink champagne on ice captures my imagination and magically transports me to that distant auberge where “you can check in any time you like, but you can never leave.”

When the song came across my iPod playlist just days ago, I quickly queued it up and sang along with Frey and Henley. Listening intently to the lyrics, as I had done so many times before, it occurred to me that in light of contemporary political challenges in the Middle East, Afghanistan may very well be the new Hotel California. Like the lone traveler who had to stop for the night and wound up stuck in a deceptive, harrowing hideaway, the United States has become stranded in the “graveyard of empires,” unable to escape from the perpetuity of an ever-evolving war strategy and incessant political backtracking.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama assured war-weary Americans that the end would come. “This July, we will begin to bring our troops home,” he said to a thunderous applause that one would expect from a declaration of mass exodus. Though Obama has only been president for two of the war’s nine years, there is little doubt that he owns it; more than half of all U.S. fatalities have happened on his watch and according to reports issued by the Department of Defense, 2010 was the deadliest year of the war yet with 2009 following closely behind.

No president wants to lose a war — especially not in the midst of a dicey re-election bid. And as the word “victory” seems terribly misplaced in the context of this quagmire, it is likely that Obama will continue down his current path of Washington “wait and see;” he will muddle along a constantly fluctuating course of reassessments, readjustments, renegotiations, revisements, and reevaluations until some unknown, distant window of opportunity offers the possibility of a politically expedient exit.

The Afghanistan war strategy has evolved and devolved, from eradicating Al-Qaeda to ushering in democracy; from training the Afghan army to ensuring the long-term stability of the severed country. It seesaws from calls for 7,000 additional troops to the deployment of 30,000 troops; it yo-yos from “the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011” to an insistence that such a date was actually just the beginning of the beginning — “we said that we’d begin a transition phase that would allow the Afghan government to take more responsibility,” Obama said, adding another prerequisite for an American exit. General Petraeus later added that “there was not” a military recommendation for a July 2011 pullout.

2014 then became the new 2011 as Vice President Biden explained in late December of last year that the United States would leave Afghanistan “totally … come hell or high water.” Biden’s candid commitment was a far cry from the caveats and asterisks usually attached to such pronouncements.

Three weeks later at the presidential palace in Kabul, Biden backtracked. “The United States, if the Afghan people want it, are prepared and we are not leaving in 2014,” he said, standing alongside a smiling Hamid Karzai who himself had said just two months month earlier that “the time has come to reduce [American] military operations.”

Despite reports from the CIA that 50-100 Al-Qaeda militants remain in Afghanistan, a leading Pakistani journalist and security analyst suggests that the Taliban in the region will never be defeated. “They are fighting for their religion and they are fighting for their country so that is why they can fight forever,” he said.

For Senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a long-term Taliban presence could easily be conquered. He proposed in early January that the U.S. should devise a plan to stay in Afghanistan forever. “It would be a signal to Pakistan that the Taliban are never going to come back. In Afghanistan they could change their behavior. It would be a signal to the whole region that Afghanistan is going to be a different place,” he said.

The Magic-8 Ball war policies of the Obama administration leave much doubt that 2014 will mark the end of conflict in Afghanistan. More than likely, the year will come and go just as the past two years have come and gone — with preparations for preparations, and promises of preliminary talks on the possibility of more preliminary talks about the potential commencement of still more preliminary talks about the feasible-but-dependent-upon-conditions prelude to an uncertain, but hopefully sooner-than-later, exit.

Henly and Frey’s lush harmonies fade in: “And in the master’s chambers, they gathered for the feast. They stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast.” In a land that has crushed foreign occupiers for more than 2,000 years, perhaps the real beast is pride.

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons

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Nathan Lean

Nathan Lean is the Research Director at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. His three books include, most recently, The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims (Pluto 2012). Nathan's writing has been featured in the New York Daily News, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, CNN, Salon, The New Republic, and others. His newest book, The Changing Middle East, will be released by Rowman and Littlefield in 2015.

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