A battleground, not a graveyard, for empires
Afghanistan is blessed — and cursed — with a geopolitical position that has repeatedly put it in the superpowers’ way
Afghanistan has long been called the “graveyard of empires” — 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 — or cursed, more likely — with a geopolitical position that has repeatedly put it in someone or other’s 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 “empires” 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.
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.
No finishing point: U.S. soldiers fighting Taliban fighters near Hazarbuz, Afghanistan, in June 2006.