Look upon it, ye mighties, and despair:

The Soviets retreated in 1989, leaving Afghanistan to a civil war that swept up the Soviet-constructed edifices in the conflagration. However improbably, a few of these are still inhabited, like an engineering school, the Auto Mechanic Institute, where a second-year student in a green T-shirt picked his way one recent afternoon from the ghostly wreckage of bombed-out classrooms.

Others are simply wrecks, prowled only by the homeless, drug addicts and dogs — sobering artifacts that confront the United States and its allies as they begin pondering what their own legacy might be.

“The Soviets came in believing they could re-engineer other people’s societies, releasing Afghans from their medieval backwardness,” said Sir Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to Moscow whose book “Afgantsy” is about the Soviet occupation. “They didn’t transform Afghan society any more than we are going to.”


Watching them, another Afghan taking in the air, Harun Merzad, 34, who was jobless and wearing a black hat and a G-Star Raw jacket, spoke of the Americans’ impending departure, and of the Soviets’ before it, with indifference — as if it was inevitable that once again Afghanistan would revert to what it always had been.

“I don’t have anything bad to say,” he said of the Russians with a shrug. “Except they were infidels.”

George W. Bush, in his second inaugural address:

Some, I know, have questioned the global appeal of liberty – though this time in history, four decades defined by the swiftest advance of freedom ever seen, is an odd time for doubt. Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals. Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery. Liberty will come to those who love it.

It turns out we, like the Soviets, are surprised by the enduring power of Afghanistan’s traditional ideals. We Americans always seem to be surprised by things like that, don’t we? I’m just so glad that the Republican candidates for president are addressing the lessons learned from our failed attempts to turn the Iraqis and the Afghanis into liberal democrats. Oh, wait…