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Afghanistan: Possession of Empires, not Graveyard of Empires

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Afghanistan is sometimes presented as a “graveyard of empires.” This view is often cited as a “fact” by journalists and self-styled experts. It is presented as a country that tripped up conquerors from “Alexander the Great…to Genghis Khan…to the Soviet Union.” Yet, this is clearly not true, as even a superficial glance at the history of the region will reveal. Consider, for example what Genghis Khan actually did to the city of Herat (in modern western Afghanistan). Though probably exaggerated, it is reported:

For a whole week the Mongols ceased not to kill, burn, and destroy, and it is said that 1,600,000 people were killed; the place was entirely depopulated and made desert. The Mongols then retired. Soon after they sent back a body of 2,000 to seek out and destroy any of the inhabitants who had escaped the former massacre. Over 2,000 were thus discovered and put to death. After the Mongols had fairly retreated, forty persons assembled in the great mosque—the miserable remnants of its once teeming population.

So, obviously Afghanistan is conquerable, and it doesn’t need a Mongol to do it.  Afghanistan has been part of someone or the other’s empire for most of history. There was never a country that even vaguely resembled Afghanistan until fairly recently, historically speaking. Which empires even met their end in the region defined by today’s Afghanistan? Interestingly enough, Afghanistan did not even exist as a country until the 18th century. Depending on how one interprets the events of that century, Afghanistan’s genesis can be dated to 1709, 1722,  or 1747, though the last date is the point after which no power from anywhere else exercised nominal control over the country.

Take note of this map of the region in 1700 AD. The Hindu Kush mountains run through central Afghanistan. The area to the east, around Kabul has traditionally been part of the Indian sphere while the area to the west, around Herat and up to Kandahar has traditionally been a part of the Persian sphere. Some of the areas in the north, around Mazar-e-Sharif (Balkh) are more closely associated with Central Asia. This traditional division, which also makes ethnic sense is demonstrated by this map. The Persian Safavid Empire controlled the western areas and the Indian Mughal Empire controlled the eastern areas. The Khanate of Bukhara, a Uzbek state, partially controlled some of the northern areas. None of these states had major “security” issues ruling their respective areas for over 200 years. However, Afghanistan was eventually created out of the territory defined by the box in the map below. Perhaps an element in its instability is the fact it was put together from disparate peaces. The southern areas are much more violent than the northern areas. There are other elements of course such as Pashtun nationalism and Pakistani involvement with the Taliban.


All of this ended when the Pashtuns revolted and carved out a state that included ethnic groups that were not Pashtun and territories that belonged formerly to other empires. Afghan is a synonym for Pashtun. It is true that the Pashtuns, most of whom live in eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, are a warlike and independent group. However, as long as they are conciliated to an extent, it is possible to control even their areas. Afghanistan was a fairly functioning country between the 1930s and 1970s under a Pashtun monarchy. Monarchy has the notable advantage of holding different groups of people together around a common dynasty.

Nonetheless, the Pashtun (or Afghans) are formidable warriors and and are known for a code of honor that results in them holding grudges and attempting to extract revenge against perceived and actual enemies. After all, it was a Persian attempt to force the Pashtun around Kandahar to convert to Shia Islam from Sunni Islam that lead to the revolt which gave birth to Afghanistan. Today, many Pashtun also believe it is their birthright to rule all of Afghanistan, but they are not a majority in the country and only inhabit the southern portion of it. I have always leaned towards the opinion that in the long run, it is probably better to split Afghanistan into two states. The conflict between the north and south is not necessarily and intense ethnic or religious conflict, but is a conflict between two sets of culture clusters that have different visions for the future. The mostly Tajik north (Tajiks are a term that refers to Persian speakers who live to the east of Iran) is generally more urban while the Pashtun sound is generally more tribal.

I wrote this to clear up misconceptions about Afghan history and to emphasize the fact that it is actually possible to hold Afghanistan, whether one is a domestic or foreign power. The myth about Afghanistan being the graveyard of empires probably arose as an explanation, or justification rather, for the defeat of the British and Soviets in Afghanistan. However, the British Empire was barely disrupted by their defeat there and the Soviet Union collapsed for other reasons. Today, many in the United States also embrace their theory so as to have a reason to depart Afghanistan. Obviously, many in the United States today also like this theory since it would there is no point in attempting to pacify that country, since it is unconquerable and trying to do so with lead the country that does so to a graveyard. Maybe- if too much treasure is spent without any benefit. But there are many opportunities too. Afghanistan is on the overland north-south and east-west trade routes of Asia and future oil pipelines would have to pass through it too. I am not particularly for or against the current US mission in Afghanistan, but it is important to keep in mind the actual historical reality of Afghanistan.


Written by Akhipill

December 17, 2012 at 7:10 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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