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The old cliché about Afghanistan that won’t die

The only problem is, it doesn’t have much to do with the actual story. Afghanistan, over the course of its long existence, unfortunately looked more like the slaughter of empires – victim of their ambitions. Understanding this historical reality is critical to understanding why the United States is unlikely to suffer serious long-term effects from its long and unnecessary occupation of Afghanistan – or the bloody and awkward withdrawal. It is also essential to recognize how much smaller powers like Afghanistan are more likely to suffer lasting trauma than any of their larger and more powerful invaders.

To be sure, the people living in what is now Afghanistan mightily resisted one haughty conqueror after another who swept through the Hindu Kush. Alexander the Great faced fierce opposition from the locals when he invaded around 330 BC and received a nasty injury to his leg from an arrow. But he eventually broke that resistance, founded what became the modern city of Kandahar, and spread as far as India, leaving behind the Seleucid Empire, which spanned 250 years. Genghis Khan conquered Afghanistan. Timur, better known as Tamerlane, and his descendant Babur as well. Turks and Huns, Hindus and Islamic Arabs, Persians and Parthians too. The same is true of many empires, peoples and tyrants that you have probably never heard of: Greco-Bactrians, Indo-Scythians, Kushans, Sassanid Empire, Maurys Empire, Gahznavids, Uzbeks , the Safavids and the Hotak dynasty. Most of them have remained for decades, if not centuries.

The idea that Afghanistan was a kind of geopolitical quicksand for empires seems to have started with the First Anglo-Afghan War, which ended in 1842. An army of 4,700 British and Indian soldiers withdrawing from Kabul has was slaughtered near a man near the village of Gandamak, as well as at least 12,000 civilians traveling with the army. The debacle was a major scandal in London. It also came at a time when England’s dreadful pennies and her narrators of the labors and glories of empire were catching on. Much like the tabloids and instant television news today, their reporting and imagery has served to horrify and enrage audiences at home. (They also played into the racist and Western fascination, which lasted throughout the 19th century and beyond, with the idea of ​​a gallant band of white warriors doomed to fight to the end, helpless in inferiority. numerical compared to “savages”: the Afghans in Gandamak or the Sioux and Cheyennes in Little Bighorn, the Turks in Balaclava, the Zulus in Isandlwana.)

Less frequently mentioned in Gandamak’s recollections is that Britain sent a “retaliatory army” to Afghanistan a few months later, one that crushed every Afghan army sent against it, looted and razed many towns and villages across the country. its passage, and ultimately sacked Kabul – burning the dazzling bazaar of Char-Chatta there in a final spasm of revenge. Britain would return to crush Afghanistan in the Second Anglo-Afghan War, which ended in 1880. Far from being buried, the British Empire would reach its peak in 1920, extending its rule over 13 , 7 million square miles, or more than a quarter of the Earth’s land mass.

The Soviet Union’s misadventure in Afghanistan was more damaging. The USSR suffered 14,453 deaths during its brutal occupation of the country from 1979 to 1988 and squandered a fortune in material and money. But with all due respect to the dead, it was about a typical half hour in Stalingrad. Although many have argued that the Soviet Union collapsed because of its failures in Afghanistan, it is impossible to deny the much higher price the USSR paid to keep in the grip of its many others. submissive peoples, or for the obvious failures of communism.

As with many other places between more powerful countries – Poland, for example – Afghanistan’s strategic value for geopolitics has often been overstated by map room geniuses around the world. In fact, this importance has been very limited since the Spice Route trade routes began to disintegrate in the 15th century. As the world shifted to sailing ships, air transport and other economic priorities, and the means to obtain them, control of Afghanistan became less vital. But that didn’t stop all the armchair Napoleons who wisely noted that it was right between the Russian and British Empires, or the Key to India, or on the road to China.

Eventually, all the empires that went to Afghanistan found good reason to move on, or to limit their costs and expectations – as President Joe Biden ultimately did, a bold move, chaotic as it is. its execution. Unlike almost all of the great powers that have trampled on Afghanistan for millennia, the United States actually had a good reason to be there. We just didn’t have a good reason to stay.

A terrorist attack on the US capital and its largest city, an attack that claimed thousands of lives and was launched from Afghan soil with the approval and assistance of the Taliban – of course, that required a response powerful. But for all that President George W. Bush believed America took on the obligation to “nation-build” in Afghanistan after going to destroy al-Qaeda, we did not. This was an impossible expansion of the US mission in Afghanistan, which can be measured by the tragic loss of American lives, treasures and goodwill that the United States has suffered there since 2001 – losses that continued until the end of the US withdrawal. .

Of course, America’s skedaddle is also a disaster for Afghans, especially women and girls, and anyone who believes in the emergence of true democracy. America has joined this endless parade of powers that have made Afghanistan what it always has been: a footnote to empire, subjected to the illusions of outsiders for their own ends, then abandoned. As they wish. This is the real tragedy for the Afghans and for so many people like them – how they have been abused and terribly mistreated, for so long, with the best and the worst of intentions, by others who saw them not as people but like one more person room in a Great Game that’s never been bigger, or needed, at all.


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Cory E. Barnes

The author Cory E. Barnes

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