- Norberto Paredes
- BBC News World
Since the days of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, many foreign powers have tried to conquer the area now known as Afghanistan. Nothing worked. That is why this country came to be known as the “Graveyard of Empires”.
The United States and its allies are adding to the long list of failed world powers in Afghanistan, and will leave in full by the end of August.
The British Empire tried to subdue the country in the 19th century, when Great Britain was still the greatest power in the world, but in 1919 they had to leave Afghanistan and give the country independence.
It was the Soviet Union who then succeeded in occupying Afghanistan in 1979, with the aim of perpetuating the power of communism (which was obtained from the coup in 1978).
It took them 10 years to realize that the Soviet Union would not win the war in Afghanistan.
Britain and Russia had something in common when they invaded Afghanistan, both at the time ruled by an empire, which soon began to crumble.
Twenty years after the 2001 US-led invasion, following a war that resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties, the Joe Biden administration decided to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in April this year.
This controversial decision was widely criticized, especially after Kabul — the capital of Afghanistan — quickly fell into the hands of the Taliban jihadist group.
Biden was adamant with his decision to pull the team. He said America should not die “in a war that Afghans themselves refuse to defend themselves”.
“There will never be a military force that can create a stable, united and secure Afghanistan,” Biden added, recalling the legendary nickname, “The Graveyard of the Rulers”.
For centuries, Afghanistan has been like a ‘graveyard’ for foreign forces and powers trying to control it. Although at first they seemed to have successfully invaded, but sooner or later, they were forced to leave the country.
“This is not because the Afghan people have great power, but what happened there is the fault of the rulers themselves, because of the limitations and problems of imperialism,” said defense and foreign policy analyst David Isby, who is also the author of the book. Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires (2010) to BBC Mundo.
Isby said Afghanistan is a difficult place “from an objective point of view”; it is a complex country, with poor infrastructure, limited development, and landlocked.
“But the powers of the ‘Rulers’, be it the Soviet Union, Britain or America, were unable to show flexibility against Afghanistan.
“They want and have to do things their way, without understanding the complexities of the country,” he added.
Afghanistan is also often said to be “impossible to conquer”, this is a false statement. Persia, Mongolia, and Alexander the Great had done it in the past.
But one thing is certain, the struggle to invade Afghanistan must be paid dearly by those who try it. The last three great powers proved to have failed to do so.
The British Empire and its three invasions
For much of the 19th century, Afghanistan was at the center of the dispute in the “Great Game” stage between the British Empire and Russia for control of Central Asia.
For decades, Moscow and London were embroiled in diplomatic and political disputes, which were later won by Britain-albeit at a very high price.
Britain attempted to invade Afghanistan three times in 1839-1919, and arguably all three ended in failure.
In the First Anglo-Afghan War — which began when the British occupied Kabul in 1839 for fear of the Russians taking over — London had to suffer the greatest humiliation in its history.
The armed forces that were once the largest and strongest in the world were defeated by Afghan tribes with the simplest weapons.
After three years of invasion, the Afghans succeeded in driving the British from the capital, and this troop withdrawal ended in tragedy.
Only one British soldier survived, out of more than 16,000 who left the British military camp on January 6, 1842 for Jalalabad, east of Kabul.
“This war undermined Britain’s expansion into the sub-continent, and influenced the narrative that was constructed that Britain was invincible,” Isby said.
Nearly four decades later, England tried again, with little success.
The Second Anglo-Afghan War, which took place in 1878-1880, ended with Afghanistan becoming a British protectorate.
In the end, the British elected and supported the new Afghan emir and withdrew troops from the country.
But in 1919, the Third Anglo-Afghan War broke out when Emir Amanullah Khan declared independence from Britain.
By that time the Bolshevik Revolution had reduced the threat from Russia and at the same time World War I had drained the British war funds, their interest in Afghanistan had faded.
After four months of war, Britain finally recognized Afghanistan’s independence.
Although Britain is no longer officially in Afghanistan, many say British influence over the country persisted for many years afterward.
Vietnam of the Soviet Union
These modernization efforts met resistance from several ethnic and religious leaders, which then sparked a civil war.
Tensions in the country continued until 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to maintain the power of a divided communist government.
Various mujahideen groups resisted Soviet occupation and began to resist, with funds and weapons supplied by the United States, Pakistan, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
Moscow launched ground and air strikes with the intent of destroying villages in the region it deems problematic, forcing local people to flee their homes or die.
This invasion by Russia was the bloodiest for Afghanistan, with around 1.5 million dead and about five million displaced.
For a time, the Soviets managed to take control of several major cities, but mujahideen forces moved relatively freely in many rural areas.
This war ravaged Afghanistan.
The Soviet leader at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev, eventually realized that they could not continue the war while improving the Russian economy.
Gorbachev decided to withdraw his troops in 1988, but Afghanistan never fully recovered from the war.
Afghanistan became a kind of Vietnam of the Soviet Union when it was associated with the United States. This was a costly and humiliating war for the Soviet Union.
Again, they had to be humiliated by being defeated by the local guerrillas.
“The Soviet Union claims to have legitimate power in Afghanistan, at a time when there are serious and fundamental contradictions in the Soviet system, its government and military forces,” said defense analyst David Isby.
“This war is one of the biggest mistakes of the Soviet Union.”
The Soviet Union broke up shortly after.
US troop withdrawal and ‘failure’
Following the intervention of Britain and the Soviet Union, the United States led a new invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, promising to create democracy and eradicate the terrorism threat from al-Qaeda after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Like its two predecessors, Washington managed to gain control of Kabul relatively quickly and forced the Taliban to cede power.
Three years later, the new Afghan government appoints a president, but bloody attacks from the Taliban continue.
Former President Barack Obama announced a troop increase in 2009 that succeeded in repelling the Taliban, but did not last long.
In 2014, which ended in the bloodiest war in history since 2001, NATO forces completed the mission and delegated responsibility to the Afghan military.
This allowed the Taliban to seize more territory.
In the following year, the group continued to increase in strength and launched a series of suicide attacks, among which they acknowledged, the attack on the parliament building and the international airport in Kabul.
According to Isby, many mistakes were made by the US in Afghanistan.
“Despite military and diplomatic efforts, one of the main problems is that neither America nor the international community can get Pakistan to stop its power struggle with Afghanistan,” he said.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan did cost more lives, but the American invasion cost more.
The Soviets spent about US$2 billion per year in Afghanistan, while in 2010-2012, the US financed the war against Afghanistan amounting to US$100 billion per year, according to data from the US government itself.
“This is Joe Biden’s Saigon,” tweeted Republican congressman Elise Stefanik. “An international failure that will never be forgotten.”
After the withdrawal of US troops and the subsequent victory of the Taliban, the world faces a new humanitarian crisis — thousands of refugees must find shelter.
“In the medium term, it is important to see if the Taliban regime can join the international community. Something that many doubt,” said David Isby.
And if the international community cannot accept the Taliban, then it is likely that other attempts will be made to re-invade the ‘Graves of the Rulers’.