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

The Hindu - - WORLD - Rod Nord­land

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.

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.


No fin­ish­ing point: U.S. sol­diers fight­ing Tal­iban fight­ers near Hazarbuz, Afghanistan, in June 2006.

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