Afghanistan has long been called the Бgraveyard of empiresБ Б for so long that it is unclear who coined that disputable term. In truth, no great empires perished solely because of Afghanistan. Perhaps a better way to put it is that Afghanistan is the battleground of empires. Even without easily accessible resources, the country has still been blessed Б or cursed, more likely Б with a geopolitical position that has repeatedly put it in someone or otherБs way. In the 19th century, there was the Great Game, when the British and Russian empires faced off across its forbidding deserts and mountain ranges. At the end of the 20th century it was the Cold War, when the Soviet and U. S. rivalry played out here in a bitter guerrilla conflict. And in this century, it is the War on Terror, against a constantly shifting Taliban insurgency, with President Donald Trump promising a renewed military commitment. Wars of the last three БempiresБ to invade Afghanistan coincided with the age of photography, leaving a rich record of their triumphs and failures, and an arresting chronicle of a land that seems to have changed little in the past two centuries. Over an 80-year period, the British fought three wars in Afghanistan, occupying or controlling the country in between, and lost tens of thousands of dead along the way. Finally, exhausted by the First World War, Britain gave up in 1919 and granted Afghanistan independence. Soviet misadventure The Soviet Union spent the postwar period pacifying and modernising its Central Asian republics with great success.
But it was mistaken in assuming that the same programme could stick in Afghanistan. The Soviets invaded in 1979 to try to quell a brewing civil war and prop up its allies in the Afghan government, and they limped out in 1989. The Soviets brought schools and roads, civil institutions and freedoms for women. But their occupation was unbearable to a generation of Afghan insurrectionists who declared a holy war and enjoyed the extensive support of the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The Soviets left the Afghan landscape permanently disfigured with the bombed-out husks of tanks, and the earth itself seeded with more mines than anywhere else on the planet. When their client state in Kabul collapsed, what ensued was years of bitter civil war that destroyed many of the cities and led to the rise to power of the Taliban in 1996. The first U. S. military battle of the 21st century was fought in Afghanistan shortly after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. After nearly 16 years of fighting a shifting host of militant groups and the new Taliban insurgency, and now even a local affiliate of the Islamic State, there is no clear end on the horizon. More than one million American servicemen and women have served in Afghanistan; 2,400 of them lost their lives, along with another 1,100 NATO and other coalition allies killed. Afghan security forces lose three or four times that number just in a year now; the conflict killed more than 3,000 Afghan civilians in the past year, as well.
The U. S. century in Afghanistan is far from over; its book has not been written yet. NYT
Eric C and I love the NPR show Foreign Dispatch — a collection of some of the best coverage of news and events filed by NPR s corespondents from around the globe\”–but their latest episode trotted out an old cliche that we wish would die: Afghanistan has never been conquered! (I put that in italics, because I feel like that phrase is always spoken or written in exasperation. ) This little factoid sums up thousands of years of history in five words, forcing the conclusion that America, like all past conquerors, is doomed to fail, so get out of Afghanistan or die trying. (With an evil doctor \”Boo ha ha! \” following. ) One tiny, little inconvenient truth stands in the way of this delightful saying: Afghanistan has been conquered. A lot. Many times. Over and over. I don t blame the average person for parroting this myth. It s ubiquitous. I ve read it in books, including Sebastian Junger s War, which describes Afghanistan as too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off. Luttrell–of course–writes it on page forty two of Lone Survivor,. And if you think those examples are specific to the tribal areas, Seth G. Jones titled his book, In the Graveyard of Empires: America s War in Afghanistan. Jones isn t the only person to use that phrase as a title. Milton Beardon titled his Foreign Policy article.
And Malou Innocent and Ted Galen Carpenter titled their Cato Institute paper. Andrew Exum plays on the phrase and. The most famous example came from Michael Steele. He said,. And other people have said it, and. And. And. And. And. There are two problems with this sentiment. The first is that it is way too simplistic and factually inaccurate. As historian Thomas Barfield tells FP. com, Even Sebastian Junger, whom I quoted above, goes on later in War to contradict himself. He writes that the inhabitants of the Korengal were forcibly converted to Islam only 100 years ago. I mean, if a foreign ruler can change an entire valley s religion just a hundred years ago, surely it isn t as unconquerable as Junger described? The argument is, at its core, too simplistic. Afghanistan has only been unified as a country for barely 200 years. Up until then it was the center of empires, part of empires and a well-worn path of conquerors and armies. History is too long and convoluted to make some grand pronouncement that one region has never been conquered. Which brings me to my second point, how come no one else has thought, Hey, this doesn t sound right. I should check on this? Why don t we question our assumptions, quotations and references more frequently? There are two lessons to be learned. The first is that Afghanistan is not the graveyard of empires. The second is that everyone needs to questions simple platitudes, especially on the interwebs.