Afghanistan: The graveyard of British, Soviet and American empires
Afghanistan has been a haunted battlefield for the world’s fiercest armies, from Alexander the Great in the third century BC to Americans in the 21st century. It has also been the graveyard of superpowers, namely the former Soviet Union and the British Empire.
Americans are the latest to pack up and slip out of Afghanistan, without ceremonial grandeur or celebratory euphoria, in a humiliating and unceremonious retreat marred by violence and chaos.
The green-tinted night vision image of Chris Donahue, the last US soldier to leave Afghanistan, looking visibly jaded, aptly symbolized American failure and capitulation after the 20-year war.
Military strategists would now for weeks and months unpack the Afghanistan debacle – how the world’s best-equipped military was routed by a ragtag group of Kalashnikov-yielding fighters.
The answer lies in history. “Afghanistan,” we are often told, and quite rightly so, “is the graveyard of empires.” It has again lived up to its name, pounding the world's leading superpower.
Many foreign powers over the centuries sought to conquer this mineral-rich country lying at the crossroads of Central Asia and South Asia but the harsh mountainous terrain, ruthless tribal fighters and the inclement weather inflicted crushing defeats on them.
While the chronicles of foreign invasions in the region date back to Darius the Great in 522 BC and Alexander the Great in 330 BC, who faced fierce resistance from Afghan tribes, the failed invasions of modern Afghanistan, which took shape in the 18th century under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Durrani, earned the landlocked country the epithet of the ‘graveyard of empires.’
Durrani, the founder of the Durrani Empire who defeated Persian ruler Nader Shah, is known as the founder of modern Afghanistan. Durrani dynasty was replaced by the Barakzai dynasty as the rulers of modern-day Afghanistan in 1823, when Dost Mohammad Khan rose to power.
It was during the reign of Khan, in 1839, that the British first invaded Afghanistan, as they feared growing Russian influence in the Central Asian region. The empire that controlled the Indian subcontinent wanted to extend its influence to the Hindu Kush region. But the gamble did not pay off.
The invasion led to the first Anglo-Afghan War as insurrections broke out across the country, forcing the British to retreat in 1842. However, not before some 4,500 troops along with approximately 12,000 civilians travelling with them were massacred in an ambush near the village of Gandamak. It was a major setback to the invaders and created a backlash in London.
The second British invasion came more than three decades later, in 1878, which was also part of the ‘Great Game’ between the British and Russian empires. It ended in 1880 with the Afghan tribes keeping internal autonomy and the British withdrawing from the region following the Treaty of Gandamak. Once again, the numerically inferior Afghans prevailed over the mighty British empire.
The third and decisive confrontation came in 1919, also known as the war of independence in Afghanistan. This time around, Amanullah Khan, the future king who introduced sweeping reforms, invaded British India and proclaimed Afghanistan’s independence. It further reaffirmed the country’s reputation as a nemesis of big powers.
The Great Game, which began in 1830, lasted throughout the 19th century. British basically wanted to use Afghanistan as a buffer state to protect British India from potential invasion by Russians.
In the end, they realized that militarily invading the country, home to battle-hardened tribes, is a recipe for disaster. Adopting a soft-handed approach and backing local tribal rulers, as Mughals did in the early 18th century, is a more prudent policy than propping up foreign-backed rulers.
After the expulsion of the British, the Soviet Union came calling in 1979, to shatter the Hindu Kush region’s uneasy calm. The idea essentially was to shore up the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul but the invasion led to the emergence of guerilla Afghan fighters, who came to be known as ‘mujahideen’.
Nearly 100,000 Soviet soldiers were deployed across major cities and highways in Afghanistan. The invading forces ruthlessly crushed the rebellion mounted by mujahideen and their supporters. In the brutal war that lasted around nine years, an estimated one million civilians were killed, besides 90,000 mujahideen fighters, 18,000 Afghan troops, and more than 14,000 Soviet soldiers. The invaders were finally pushed out of the country, marking the end of another inglorious chapter.
The Soviet empire collapsed two years after, so did the Soviet-backed government in Kabul. Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union leader who oversaw the pull-out of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989, years later termed it a “political mistake”.
The disastrous Soviet experiment in Afghanistan in the 20th century was based on unlearnt lessons from the British adventures in the 19th century and offered lessons for Americans in the 21st century.
The withdrawal of Soviet forces from Kabul in 1989 and its aftermath, both in Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union, carried important lessons on war strategy for the US and its allies. But the successive regimes in Washington, driven by hegemonic ambitions, disregarded them.
All empires perish and the end is usually ignominious. Two of them were buried in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. The third one will be lowered into its grave sooner than expected.