The Soviet failure several decades ago has given rise to a mistaken view of Afghan history that persists today.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979, but was ultimately defeated by the Afghan mujahidin, leading to the USSR to withdraw almost a decade later in February 1989.
The anniversary of this day, decades later, warrants reflection, as for Afghans it is the juncture that marked the beginning of their woes which continue to the present day.
In popular imagination, it was Moscow’s defeat in Afghanistan that proved to be one of the final nails in the coffin of the USSR. This event contributed to Afghanistan’s image as the “graveyard of empires”.
However, the invocation of this aforementioned cliche is misleading, even offensive, portraying Afghans as savages and denying them and their nation, historical agency.
Rather than being a vacuum that sucks in empires to die, Afghanistan is a symbol of the hubris of Western empires. On the other hand, throughout history it has been a vibrant part of past regional empires and even the birthplace of others, such as the Mughal Empire.
The graveyard trope
In 1841, occupying British troops supporting a regime friendly to London’s interests sparked an Afghan revolt, precipitating their withdrawal. As the British forces withdrew through the rugged snow-covered mountain passes of Afghanistan, they were constantly harassed by Pashtun Ghilzai warriors.
Out of more than 16,000 people who made up this foreign contingent, only a few survived to tell the tale of the massacre. The British-backed government of King Shuja Durrani collapsed without foreign support.
The tribal members of the Ghilzai confederation who took part in the attack against the British would join an organisation years later that would continue resisting foreign occupation - the Taliban.
One can imagine a British colonial officer in colonial India, in a pith helmet, drinking a gin and tonic, coining the term the “graveyard of empires” after this fiasco. Perhaps, one of the officials in the US Reagan administration boasted in 1989 that Afghanistan proved to be the graveyard of the Soviet Empire. The term definitely re-emerged after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August 2021, even invoked by US President Biden.
However, while “graveyard of empires” appears to have been bandied about since time immemorial, the term to describe Afghanistan was actually only coined relatively recently. Following 9/11, a former CIA official used it when attempting to dissuade the US from invading the nation. That article was published in the journal Foreign Affairs, the same journal that led to terms such as the “clash of civilisations” entering our political lexicon.
The fact that this term is of recent coinage does not in and of itself negate this popular trope. Rather, the historical record demonstrates Afghanistan has been an essential part of empires since antiquity.
The historical record
Afghanistan was part of the first empire that achieved superpower status, the Achaemenids, from 550 to 330 BC. Its predominant faith, Zoroastrianism, most probably had its origins, or at least flourished in the Afghan Helmand basin.
Afghanistan was not a graveyard for Alexander the Great, and the area witnessed a hybrid flourishing of Hellenic and local cultures. Nor was it a graveyard for the early Muslim empire under the first four caliphs or the later Umayyad Empire.
Ghazni, in today’s Afghanistan, served as the capital of the Turkic Ghaznavid Empire from 977 to 1186, while Herat served as the base of the Timurid Empire from 1370 to 1507.
In 1504, Babur, a Timurid prince, seized Kabul and turned it into his baseafter failed expeditions in Central Asia. Twenty years later he marched southwards, establishing the Mughal Empire that would rule over most of the Indian subcontinent until the British dissolved it in 1858. It was British interests in India, protecting its northern flank from Russian expansion, which ultimately led to the aforementioned failed expedition to shore up King Shuja.
The Western imperial experience
In the British, Soviet, and American cases, their efforts in Afghanistan failed due to an imposition of foreign cultures or models of rule. The three failed because they pursued their own interests without any kind of consideration of local culture.
For example, Biden in his speech justifying the American withdrawal in August 2021, said: “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralised democracy.” However, that was the elusive American objective for two decades.
One of the major factors undermining both the Soviet and American experiences in Afghanistan was their attempt to create a centralised system of governance based in Kabul where decentralisation would have suited the nation better.
Rather than a graveyard of empires, Afghanistan served as a lesson in Western imperial hubris. History demonstrates that the events on December 24, 1979, did not usher in another episode where Afghanistan would become a graveyard for another empire. Rather, that day marks when Afghanistan became a graveyard for Afghans.
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