When Bad History Leads to Bad Politics: ‘The Graveyard of Empires’

When a major political event happens, politicians and scholars usually cram desperately to fit the event into a simple framework: ideological, historical, or another type. Sometimes this is done to explain the events in a general pattern. Alternatively, it is done to fit the event into a set worldview (something often done by politicians). ‘The Graveyard of Empires’ is one such example of a thesis used to explain political events. This theory has been an essential part of the Western understanding of Afghanistan since its conception in 2001 by Milton Bearden. Bearden, reflecting mainly on the experiences of the British and Soviet Empires, asserted that the unruly geography and peoples of the country made any imperial project in Afghanistan doomed to fail. Contextually, he wrote this thesis around the start of the US invasion as a warning for the dangers of US intervention in the country, a warning that has formed a crucial part of the Western understanding of Afghanistan. President Biden, for instance, directly used the thesis to explain why his withdrawal of US troops was necessary. In his speech recently he echoed Bearden and attributed the clear failure of US statecraft in Afghanistan to the ungovernable nature of the land itself.

There are multiple issues here, all stemming from one major problem that is often overlooked: the thesis is not true. Afghanistan, over its history, has not been a ‘Graveyard of Empires’, indeed it has been far from it. Professor Alexander Hainy-Khaleeli has shown how the country was the heartland of many great empires across history, including even empires often used as supporting evidence for proponents of Bearden’s thesis. Alexander the Great’s empire, used by Bearden as an example in favour of his argument, successfully ruled Afghanistan for over one hundred years, and the often-cited British experience ignores the broad success of British policy after the Third Afghan War. When imperial missions did fail, it was not due to the overriding lawlessness of the Afghan terrain or peoples but instead a variety of case-specific factors.

Thus, Bearden’s thesis is a case of bad history, with Afghanistan’s past stuffed into an overly simplistic historical framework. Its usage by politicians is therefore problematic, as it means public policy and discourse is based on incorrect perceptions and knowledge. For example, by describing Afghanistan as ‘the Graveyard of Empires’, Biden oversimplifies the complex failure of the American project in Afghanistan. It assumes that the failure of American statecraft is not a failure of Washington but a result of Afghanistan’s unique nature. By imposing Bearden’s framework, it assumes no imperial policy in Afghanistan could ever be successful regardless of what the imperial power does. Biden’s speech was overwhelmingly centred around this idea – an inevitability of failure that no policy of his could ever rectify. 

US and UK troops leaving Afghanistan. (Credit: U.S. Department of Defence)

This has three significant implications, demonstrating the danger of basing politics on flawed historical theory. Firstly, it stifles the development of effective policy. When addressing an issue that you deem impossible to benefit from, policy becomes solely about mitigation. Biden’s long-held belief that the US was doomed to fail in Afghanistan in line with Bearden’s thesis means that he has approached Afghanistan from a position that the US needed to leave the ‘graveyard’ irrespective of the consequences, explaining, for instance, the unnecessary withdrawal of American contractors that led to the complete collapse of the Afghan army. It also explains the frantic nature of the evacuation effort because the clear urge to withdraw as soon as possible meant that there was little planning for, say, the evacuation of the Afghans who had helped US personnel. 

Further, through basing politics on a largely flawed historical framework, there is a real possibility that we will not learn the correct lessons from the Afghan war. By attributing blame for the operation’s failures on the nature of Afghanistan and not bad policy, the US risks failing to understand the reasons for the failures in the country over the last twenty years, and thus fail to make the necessary changes. In an era where the American Empire is under threat from another would-be hegemony China, failing to learn the correct lessons could be costly. As such, it is more important than ever that the US takes a nuanced look at its role and activity in the global system, which will be significantly hindered by viewing its largest single project over the last two decades through an overly simplified and ignorant framework.

Finally, the oversimplification of Afghanistan and the blaming of it for the West’s failures is deeply immoral. The graveyard thesis crams Afghan history into how it relates to predominantly European Empires, denying it credit outside the framework of imperial history. In reality, Afghanistan has had a fascinating and proud history outside of its relations with the European powers, and thus the promulgation of this thesis risks making discourse around Afghanistan incredibly demeaning. Moreover, calling it the ‘Graveyard of Empires’ suggests that the primary victims of imperial projects in the country are the Empires – British, Soviet, and now American – and not the people of Afghanistan. The country’s people have faced endless war and persecution due to Imperial ends and are the actual victims of the country’s recent past. By framing Afghan history as a one of imperial failure, political discourse is prejudiced in favour of the West at the expense of the true victims of imperial policy. 

These are, unfortunately, inevitable consequences of applying a single and incorrect historical framework to contemporary politics: it can be profoundly immoral but also practically ruinous. Further, it can cloud the judgement of policy makers looking to draw lessons from past failures. As such, while there are good reasons to base politics on history, when that history is incorrect, the results can be ruinous.

Julius Balchin, Summer Writer

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