Afghanistan: The Graveyard of Empires

(Originally posted on the 21st Century Anti-Imperialist League page)

Because the media of this day and age consistently extol the virtues of short memory spans, it is necessary for the newly-crowned Anti-Imperialist League of the 21st century to revisit history and teach the lessons so often forgotten in historiography.

Afghanistan has, for over a century and a half, been labeled as the ultimate ’Graveyard of Empires’. What does that term mean, exactly? In essence, each time a world power has attempted to invade Afghan territory to maintain an institutional presence, or to impose a mercantilist-type occupation, the invading power has nearly bankrupted itself in the process.

The empire to bear the heaviest burden in history has been Great Britain, invading Afghanistan on four separate occasions in 1839-1842, 1878-1880, 1919, and the current occupation which began in October of 2001.

Not wanting to be left behind, the Soviets also did their part to seize the precious trading routes laden within Afghanistan’s borders. They invaded in 1979 and did not fully withdraw until 1988. It was during this time that the United States armed and trained the Mujahideen fighters to overtake the Soviets, including Osama Bin Laden and the first principal jihadists of Al-Qaeda (for a popular retelling of this story, watch the film Charlie Wilson’s War).

In the present century, it is the United States of America which currently bears the burden of an Afghan invasion. After the attacks of 9/11, the U.S. focused its attention on the Afghan ruling authority of the Taliban, who had “given a safe haven to Al-Qaeda” to plan the attacks on targets in New York City, Washington D.C., and rural Pennsylvania (most likely headed for Washington as well).

A full-scale invasion put boots on the ground in October of 2001 and they have been a continuous presence ever since.

(A more-detailed examination of the history of Afghan intervention is provided by Milton Bearden, former CIA station chief in Pakistan)

In all cases, the eventual withdrawal of thousands of troops was not because of any significant “victory” or particular “achievement”. Instead, it was necessitated because of dwindling imperial resources to continue the occupation of such a harsh, brutal, and unstable land.

The anomaly of Afghanistan is difficult to specifically quantify, but it grounds itself mostly in the absence of a coherent nation or culture, being that strong tribal allegiances are more important than any flag or imposed ruler. The mountainous territory with trade routes to the East (the Silk Road, most famously) and scores of rich opium fields.

As history demonstrates, as well as the countless stories of violence and civil war documented here, Afghanistan is a true Graveyard of Empires, fostering the past decline of Soviet and British power in the last century.

As long as the United States of America attempts to impose its imperial will on the Afghan people in the most unstable of regions in the world, it shall soon be prescribed the same woeful fate.

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