A “Potemkin village” is a construction that is a façade to give an illusory appearance to the powerful and the remote that a village, a society, a country or other province is thriving, peaceful and happy. The term derives from the propaganda exercise organised by Grigori Potemkin when Empress Catherine the Great made a visit to the Crimea in 1787. The recently conquered province still simmered with discontent and resistance, and yet while Empress Catherine travelled on a river boat down the Dnieper River Potemkin had arranged theatrical stage props that resembled thriving, peaceful, grateful villages to be erected by the river side. It gave the visiting Empire an illusion of achieving its objectives – projecting power and developing the country.
Today, we are learning that this old propaganda trick, more an art of self-delusion than mass deceit, has been used by the United States of America for twenty years in Afghanistan. The United States, NATO and even Australian forces have occupied their own command centres, Green Zones, high-tech military bases, civilian contractors, warlord palaces and occasional surges to create a Potemkin Province that assured the leaders they could believe in the illusion of geostrategic control at the summit of Central Asia.
Now, the Taliban surround Kabul and control the country’s borders, most of its territory, and most of its provincial capitals. They have seized a treasure trove of American military equipment, left behind like Potemkin’s used stage props on the Dnieper. There are even reports this morning that the Taliban have seized American Black Hawk helicopters and can take to the skies in Kabul. This may cause some problems for the evacuation of the American Empire’s personnel from Kabul Airport. Thus , in a few blitzkrieg weeks, after the Americans declared – in an euphemism that will surely go down in the books like “collateral damage” and being “economical with the truth – they would “draw down their civilian footprint” to meet a publicity deadline of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the Taliban have exposed American power and control in Afghanistan as a projection of illusion, a Potemkin Province of an anxious empire in decline.
This denouement will bring shock, shame and, less certainly, some chance to reconsider America’s role in the world. What was it all for, this 20 years of war – or 40 plus years of war, if you count the arming of the mujahideen to sabotage the Soviet Empire? A striking and constructive response is below, from Maajid Nawaz, a former Afghani who moved to the United Kingdom. He even points out that the ostensible noble purpose of America’s War – to take revenge on Osama Bin Laden – was based on an illusion or a self-deceit – the strategist of 9/11 was in a Pakistani garrison town. Another intelligence failure?
But shame, humiliation and betrayal can do strange things to the mind, especially to the power-hungering mind of imperial strategists. The American airwaves are full with cries of shame – the search for scapegoats has begun, as has invention of legends of the stab in the back that deprived the generals, like General McMaster, of their meticulously planned war. The quality of reflection is poor. The generals look like they will walk scot-free for their incompetence and corruption, despite calls for accountability. Tucker Carlson in a remarkable monologue puts the acid on the American military, national security and political leadership. He concludes:
The Pentagon was supposed to build a functional national army in Afghanistan to protect the government, which we installed. But they didn’t do that. So people didn’t do their jobs and then lied about not doing their jobs. But they’re still wearing the uniform of our country. Why is that? Good question. So for the first time in a long time, maybe we could hold our own leaders to account for the calamities they have caused. That’s not simply a matter of justice, though. It definitely is that it is the only way to prevent disasters like this from happening again.Tucker Carlson, 14 August 2021
What are the odds of America’s leaders being held account for these calamities? Pretty low, I fear. More likely, the manipulators of the post-democratic society of America will create some new mirage, and allow failure, corruption and cultural viruses bring its decadent empire to its knees.