An Unnoticed Rising Power

Our new executive branch leaders are warning us of death on the horizon. It might seem like an odd thing to do barely a week into their new administration, but that’s exactly what Vice President Joe Biden did in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Jan. 25.

First, Biden acknowledged difficulties placating Pakistanis angry about missiles fired over the Afghan border, allegedly at al-Qaeda operatives seeking refuge in the wild Waziristan region. He then characterized Afghanistan as a country where both the Taliban and an illicit opium trade are flourishing. According to the CIA, opium generates $3 billion a year in “illicit economic activity” in Afghanistan. Aside from the fact that a large piece of this economic pie belongs to the Taliban, corruption in the country is widespread. A recent report from the New York Times’ Dexter Filkins describes the corruption as so extreme that it runs from the highest government office to the lowliest traffic cop.

Such disarray and chaos isn’t stopping the U.S. from a deeper commitment to the war there–mainly in the form of American troops. The Obama administration has repeatedly promised a buildup of about 20,000 to 30,000 troops in 2009. But with the war on terror, the estimated need for troop levels can be a lot like a proposed budget. Numbers can change.

Now Biden—and by virtue of his position the Obama administration—is warning the American people to prepare for death. Here’s part of what was said during the Jan. 25 interview with Bob Schieffer:

“So should we expect more American casualties?” Schieffer asked about Afghanistan.

“I hate so say it, but yes, I think there will be. There will be an up-tick,” Biden answered.

An “up-tick”? Translation: more wounded and dead. And not just U.S. troops. If the Americans keep their promises for troop increases, they will make up but half of the boots on the ground that is now predominately NATO forces from other countries. And they are already being killed and wounded in numbers we rarely hear about in the news. Total U.S. casualties in Operation Enduring Freedom, as it’s dubbed, already stand at 642, according to The total number of Coalition deaths is 1,042. The figures don’t include the wounded.

Afghanistan is a country that, by virtue of its very geography and nature, has thwarted would-be conquerors, invaders and mighty empires for years. As Helene Cooper aptly pointed out for the New York Times on Jan. 25 in her piece, “Fearing Another Quagmire in Afghanistan”, Afghanistan was long ago dubbed a “graveyard of empires”. To emphasize her point, Cooper started her piece with an eerie quote from Rudyard Kipling:

“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains
And the women come out to cut up what remains
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.”

—Rudyard Kipling, “The Young British Soldier,” 1892

With the dramatic ebbs and flows taking place all over the world right now, it might be hard to imagine that a place like Afghanistan could become a rising power. Most countries fit into that geopolitical definition by virtue of a market-force influence, savvy business or diplomatic practices, or a hold on an increasingly valuable commodity, like oil. Nevertheless, perhaps Afghanistan should also be considered in this category as well.

A rising power could also be a nation-state that has the potential to be a virtual vacuum of law and order. Add in the presence of a formidable, unpredictable and bloodthirsty adversary like the Taliban, and some 70,000 Coalition troops—and you have a recipe for pure disaster. Disaster that will take lives and limbs, and that could have a domino effect on an already weak economy. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has already told the federal government we will need to spend about $136 billion this year for our Defense budget. It is precisely what former President Eisenhower warned about when leaving office: a military-industrial complex that is fed and sustained by its very existence.

If a so-called rising power can also be a country that has the potential to impact the rest of the world, then Afghanistan arguably fits into that category. For better or worse, this emergence is going almost unnoticed by the world community, and certainly by many Americans.

We are relieved to feel the pressure easing with the war in Iraq, and willing to believe that the darkest part of the night in the war on terror is over. But in Afghanistan, it could be just beginning.

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