​​Has the United States Fallen Victim to the Graveyard of Empires?

Recent events in Afghanistan have been tinged with a saddening inevitability. After twenty years, the United States are withdrawing from Afghanistan, and in concurrence the Afghan government they propped up has fallen to the Taliban. It seems that everything the US had set out to do in Afghanistan has been undone, and the US’ worldwide reputation has been gravely damaged. A look at Afghanistan’s history makes the events of the last few months seem like a familiar story in the so-called ‘Graveyard of Empires’. This sobriquet has been applied to Afghanistan due to the immense difficulty foreign powers face in trying to completely conquer and administer it. 

An American soldier in combat gear. (Credit: Image: The US Army via Creative Commons.)

Afghanistan has proven a difficult challenge for many empires. Alexander the Great’s army suffered immense casualties in taking Afghanistan. During the Muslim conquests, it took two centuries for Arab Muslims to defeat the Zunbils of Afghanistan whereas it had taken only decades for them to bring down the empires which had dominated the Middle East since antiquity. When the Mongols swept through Asia and Europe, they faced strong and effective resistance from the groups living in Afghanistan. The casualties inflicted upon the Mongols included Genghis Khan’s favourite grandson. 

In more modern times, the British waged three disastrous Anglo-Afghan wars from 1839 to 1919 while competing with Russia over influence in Central Asia. The most infamous of these conflicts was the Second Anglo-Afghan War, in which the entire British force in Afghanistan— which totalled about 16,000 people— was completely wiped out in their retreat bar one survivor. In the end, the British failed to take Afghanistan, only making pyrrhic gains which were undone following the Third War in 1919.The Russians subsequently also suffered defeat in Afghanistan. In 1979, the USSR invaded Afghanistan to support the newly-established Communist government against insurgents. Like the British, the Soviets suffered heavy casualties against local guerrilla fighters, with their death toll reaching 15,000 with 35,000 wounded by the end of the war. In both instances, the invading forces heavily outnumbered the local fighters and yet they still took huge casualties. 

Similar patterns played out in 2001, when a coalition of Western powers, led by the United States invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban government, which had been hosting terrorist groups including Al-Qaeda. Western troops faced difficult resistance from the Taliban, who, once routed, waged war sheltered in fortified Afghan hills, from where they were ultimately unable to dislodge them. And yet, the US, unlike the British or the Russians, was able to take Afghanistan and establish a new government there. Yet this government collapsed eventually and was only ever nominally in control of the entire country. So, to affirm whether the US’ defeat is simply due to the factors which plagued previous invading powers, whether it was a victim of the ‘Graveyard of Empires’, warrants examination of why Afghanistan has been awarded that title.

In conquering and administering Afghanistan, the key challenge is terrain. Afghanistan hosts some of the highest mountains in the world. The Hindu Kush mountain range runs through the country, isolating communities and dotting the map with caves and easily fortifiable positions. This isolation makes it difficult for a central government to have control over local areas. Communities have tribal power structures and local tribal leaders are the power brokers. But this Afghan tribalism is primarily a product of Afghanistan’s vast diversity. 

Through the centuries, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and other ethnic groups have all settled in Afghanistan and thus have produced a very divided nation. Many Afghans identify with their local ethno-cultural group rather than the nation of Afghanistan, which grew out of an eighteenth century empire rather than being formed from nationalist ideas and shared culture such as Italy or Germany. In earlier centuries, diversity resulted in lots of conflict, and so much of rural Afghanistan is heavily fortified. This has been exacerbated due to Afghanistan being in constant state of conflict since the 1970s. And so, Afghanistan is hard to administer, traverse, and conquer, and its people are hard to unite, especially behind a central government such as the US-backed Republic.

These factors may suggest that American failure was inevitable and a prolonged presence in Afghanistan was folly. Yet this is not necessarily the case. Many empires in the past did manage to conquer and administer Afghanistan. Indeed, for most of its history, it has been a part of a foreign empire. It’s more successful rulers, such as the aforementioned Mughals, understood and took advantage of local culture and power relations and governed Afghanistan quite loosely. While the United States did attempt to use local power relations to their advantage, these attempts, such as supporting local warlords, often backfired and undermined confidence in the central government.

But more damagingly, the US’ main focus was to transplant an American-style political system and social structure to a country where it was fundamentally alien. The recent report published by SIGAR— the body which oversaw the US’ reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan— details numerous instances where the Americans in dealing with corruption, solving local disputes, and training the army among other things, assumed that such issues could be dealt with in Afghanistan in the same manner as they would in the United States. The US did construct a more democratic Afghan state and there were improvements under this state, but it was dysfunctional and it would have been perpetually reliant on the US. If the US had been more attuned to local culture, they would have still made an improvement in Afghanistan, which, importantly, would have been far more sustainable. The general difficulties encountered by foreign states in Afghanistan did make administering the country a hard task for the US, but it was their own approach to doing so which led to their failure. The United States has not fallen victim to ‘the Graveyard of Empires’ but rather to a serious deficit in pragmatism.

Jonas Balkus

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