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The truth about Afghanistan                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Jan/18/2011 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: World Watching,

It has been said that Afghanistan is the “Graveyard of Empires.” If this statement is true, the United States needs to seriously consider the long term impact of our continued presence in this misleading and complicated place.

Afghanistan has a reputation for undoing the sometimes ambitious goals of empires and great powers. In the past two hundred years, both Soviet Union and British army’s have been forced to beat bloody and embarrassing retreats from Afghanistan, deprived of victories that, on paper looked easy, but in reality proved ultimately to be futile. Even the advancing tide of the armies of Alexander the Great stalled to some extent in Afghanistan. While the British Empire did not fall apart right after Afghanistan, it did represent the end of a long string of successes and the end of the empires expansion. For this reason Afghanistan has become known as the “graveyard of empires”.

I am sure this history is weighing heavily on President Obama's shoulders as he deploys thousands more troops to Afghanistan in the hope of finally crushing a relentless Taliban insurgency. While the American ambitions in Afghanistan are not empire oriented, they never the less tax our military and financial resources along with significantly impacting our international credibility. As with any reputation; Afghanistan’s image as “the graveyard of empires" means our American presence in Afghanistan has potentially ominous consequences. Of coarse, any military venture includes a potentially humiliating outcome along with risking more American lives.

Honestly, failure is always a possible outcome in a military venture, especially judging by the way things have been going in some of the Afghan provinces lately. But if the United States and its allies end up messing up their part of the equation, blame it on their bad policy decisions and the challenges of local culture. Don't blame it on an over simplified version of Afghanistan's history -- especially if you prefer to overlook the hitorical realities.

In truth, for most of its history Afghanistan has actually been the cradle of empires, not their graveyard. Any real, but summary study of Afghanistan’s history will show you that this stereotype has been grossly over emphasized and maybe a little more understanding is required. One of the prevailing myths, for example, is that Afghanistan is inherently unconquerable thanks to the fierceness of its inhabitants and the formidable nature of its terrain. But this isn't at all borne out by the history. "Until 1840 Afghanistan was better known as a 'highway of conquest' rather than the 'graveyard of empires.' For nearly 2,500 years the lands we know as Afghanistan were always part of somebody's empire, beginning with the Persian Empire in the fifth century B.C. (or BCE as is the new term).

After the Persians it was Alexander the Greats turn. There are some historians who contend that Alexander met his match in the Afghans, since it was an Afghan archer who wounded him in the heel, becoming the first in a series of misfortunes that would end with the great conqueror's death. I recently spoke with someone who spent some time doing relief work in Afghanistan and they pointed out that Greek coins continue to crop up in Afghan soil, even today. In fact, history shows us that Alexander's successors managed to keep the place under their control for another 200 years after Alexander the Greats death. There were plenty of empires that came after the Greeks thanks to Afghanistan's centrality to world trade. In an era before European countries had ocean going merchant fleets the Silk Road which passes through Afghanistan was an important transportation monopoly to hold.

There are some who feel that even Genghis Khan was humbled by the Afghans, but I don’t find this in my research to be true at all. Khan had no trouble overrunning Afghanistan. Babur, a descendant of Genghis Khan used Afghanistan to launch a very successful conquest of the most of the Indian subcontinent establishing centuries of Muslim rule. I doubt Afghanistan could have been used as a base for further conquests and expansion if their position was not reasonably stable and secure. It appears that many Afghan’s joined Babur’s armies in the conquest of neighboring lands implying that Mongols were very successful in their rule of the region which further reinforces this notion.

Obviously, most of Afghanistan’s history is of being ruled by others, their self-rule is a relatively recent invention in the broad scheme of the region’s history dating only to the middle of the 18th century. It was the middle of the 19th century before they had their first military success where they trounced a British invasion force, destroying all but one of 16,000 British sent to Kabul to “teach the Afghan rulers a lesson.” It should be noted that while this is often reported as the death of 16000 troops, it was actually 4500 troops and the balance were civilians. Obviously the Afghan ruler did not learn the intended lesson the British were hoping to teach. In fairness, the British troops were spread very thin trying to protect the nearly 12,000 civilians traveling with them.

But context is everything and we unfortunately hear things out of content all the time. Everyone tends to forget what happened after the rout of the British in 1842. The British army returned in the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880) where they achieved a decisive victory occupying much of the country and forcing its rulers to accept a treaty giving British leaders a veto over any Afghan foreign policy decisions. The British did not fight this war to avenge the earlier loss, or for territorial expansion of their empire. The British were driven by a fear of a Tsarist Russian expansion in Central Asia and felt their Afghan presence would impede this. So in truth, the British defeat in the first Anglo-Afghan War preceded the end of the British Empire by more than a century making it difficult to associate one with the other. It would also appear that leadership in London never intended to make Afghanistan part of its empire, instead they wanted to ensure it was a buffer state outside the influence of imperial competitors, such as the Russians. All of this rolled up, it is hard to consider Afghanistan to be a factor in the decline of the British Empire. The causes for the decline of the British Empire are very well documented and we should not put too much weight on the influence of the British incursion into Afghanistan.

Of course, at this point it is important to do a review of what happened to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. There is no doubt that for the Soviets their ten years in Afghanistan was as disheartening as the Vietnam experience was for the Americans. The thousands of Soviet deaths and the steady economic drain were certainly major factors in the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union. But that only tells the story of how things in Afghanistan ended for the Soviet Union, and not how they started. The Soviet forces were actually by most accounts getting the better of the “mujahideen.” They controlled the major cities and wrecked havoc in the countryside during the daylight hours with their helicopter gunships. The decision by the U.S. to send shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles to the Afghan resistance robbed the Russian helicopters of their superiority. The presence of these missiles and shoulder fire rockets also allowed the U.S. to fight the “Cold-War” via proxy. This allowed the Afghan guerrillas to stage a comeback. With their new ability to shoot down helicopters the Afghan resistance eventually controlled the countryside and was able to virtually create a siege of the major cities including Kabul where the Soviet forces were by this point confined for their own safety.

It is important to note that the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan represented a radical break with the country's past and not just another occupation. The Soviet military forces along with their communist Afghan allies wiped out entire communities and purged many of the historical elites in their effort to force a communist change and exert control. Millions of refugees fled the region in response to this devastation. The result of all this was a power vacuum in traditional institutions and regional leadership. Vacuums seldom last and Afghanistan’s was eventually filled by a class of warlords and Islamists revolutionaries all being eventually armed by cold war era Washington and the CIA. This new crop of revolutionaries is now credited with creating Afghanistan’s “first national insurgency.” Despite Afghanistan being almost completely at peace from 1929 to 1978, this national insurgency of the past +30 years has created the image of a war like people with a never ending series of insurmountable issues and internal problems.

Afghanistan’s is currently plagued by diverse insurgencies, crumbling infrastructure, no real economy, widespread cultivation of opium poppy and a government with a tenuous hold on power. The majority of these issues in truth date back to the Soviet invasion and the civil war that followed. There is no doubt that Afghanistan’s high altitude; rugged mountains, extreme weather along remoteness make it a difficult place to mount a military effort. The real long term challenge with Afghanistan is its lack of truly central government and viable economy. When people are struggling to get by on a day-to-day basis, they are often forced to make unsavory choices. Some of these choices include growing opium poppy instead of wheat and picking up weapons instead of trowels and shovels to build schools. As with any struggling area of the world, when the challenges are this severe they are also more vulnerable to the ideals and acceptance of what would generally be considered extremist groups if situations were better.

The reality is that Afghanistan is not the “Graveyard of Empires”, but Afghanistan does have a lot of problems. The U.S. sent military forces to Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks. After the World Trade Center towers came down. The executive decision was made that it is better to fight our enemies proactively in their own camp, than wait for an attack and hope we can thwart it in the nix of time. I agree completely with this policy, but I also realize that Afghanistan is not simply a place we can go to, kill the bad guys, and leave. The United States needs to help the Afghan people rebuild their infrastructure and government along with their faith in both. Neither of these issues is easy or quick to fix and will most likely take decades to fully resolve. For the U.S. the challenge is to support these slow and steady changes without draining our own resources, or losing our resolve along the way.

While the United States is not an empire, the last thing that we should allow to happen is for Afghanistan to bleed us dry. What we really need to do is to help the country's "graveyard" legend finally die.

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A.G. Lafley
You can never out work a problem, you have to out think it.
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