Christian Caryl argues that we should bury the graveyard — or, rather, the myth that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires:
As Thomas Barfield pointed out to me the other day, for most of its history Afghanistan has actually been the cradle of empires, not their grave. Barfield, an anthropologist at Boston University, has been studying Afghanistan since the early 1970s, and he has just published a book — Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History — that takes issue with the hoary stereotypes that continue to inform our understanding of the place.
One of those 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,’” Barfield points out. “For 2,500 years it was always part of somebody’s empire, beginning with the Persian Empire in the fifth century B.C.”
After the Persians it was Alexander the Great’s turn. Some contend that Alexander met his match in the Afghans, since it was an Afghan archer who wounded him in the heel, ushering in a series of misfortunes that would end with the great conqueror’s death. Ask anyone who believes this is why Greek coins keep cropping up in Afghan soil today — in fact, Alexander’s successors managed to keep the place under their control for another 200 years. Not too shabby, really. And there were plenty of empires that came after, thanks to Afghanistan’s centrality to world trade in the era before European ocean fleets put an end to the Silk Road’s transportation monopoly.
What about the popular accounts that insist, awe-struck, that even Genghis Khan was humbled by the Afghans? Poppycock, says Barfield. Genghis had “no trouble at all overrunning the place,” and his descendants would build wide-ranging kingdoms using Afghanistan as a base. Timur (know to most of us as Tamerlane) ultimately shifted the capital of his empire from provincial Samarkand to cosmopolitan Herat, evidence of the role command over Afghanistan played in his calculations. Babur, who is buried in Kabul, used Afghanistan to launch his conquest of a sizable chunk of India and establish centuries of Muslim rule. Afghans seemed pretty happy to go along.
In fact, Afghan self-rule is a relatively recent invention in the full sweep of the country’s history, dating to the middle of the 18th century — and it took another century for Afghanistan to earn its reputation as an empire-beater. That’s when the Afghans trounced a British invasion force, destroying all but one of 16,000 troops sent to Kabul to teach the Afghan rulers a lesson.
But context is everything. Everyone tends to forget what happened after the rout of the British: In 1842 they invaded again, defeating every Afghan army sent out against them. True, they didn’t necessarily achieve their aim of preventing Tzarist Russia from encroaching on Central Asia; that had to wait for the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), when they succeeded in occupying much of the country and forcing its rulers to accept a treaty giving the British a veto over future Afghan foreign policy. Then there’s the fact that First Anglo-Afghan War preceded the end of the British Empire by more than a century. London, it should be noted, never intended to make Afghanistan part of its empire. Britain’s foreign-policy aim, which it ultimately achieved, was to ensure that Afghanistan remained a buffer state outside the influence of imperial competitors, such as the Russians.
And what about the Soviets? To be sure, the quagmire they faced in Afghanistan — with all of its economic, political and psychological consequences — was a major factor in the collapse of their political system. But even the most skeptical historians concede that, around 1984 or so, the Soviets were actually getting the better of the mujahideen. It was the U.S. decision to send shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles to the Afghan resistance, which robbed the Russian helicopter gunships of their superiority, that allowed the guerrillas to stage a comeback.
The bottom line, though, is that the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan represented a radical break with the country’s past, not an extension of it. The Soviets and their Afghan communist allies wiped out entire communities and devastated wide swaths of the countryside, sending millions of refugees fleeing across the borders. They systematically targeted traditional institutions and elites, leaving behind a power vacuum that was eagerly seized upon — but never quite filled — by a new brand of revolutionary Islamists, promoted by Pakistan and abetted from afar by eager cold warriors in Washington.
These communist attempts to impose utopian designs on a deeply traditional society triggered what Barfield describes as Afghanistan’s “first national insurgency” — one that transcended old dividing lines of tribe and ethnicity. As Barfield points out, the war against the Soviets was sharply different from previous rebellions in Afghanistan’s history as a state, which were relatively fleeting and almost always local affairs, usually revolving around dynastic power struggles. “From 1929 to 1978,” he says, “the country was completely at peace.”