Bury the Graveyard

June 24, 2012


Courtesy: Foreign Policy Magazine 

It’s the mother of all clichés. Almost no one can resist it. It’s wielded by everyone from thoughtful ex-generals to vitriolic bloggers. It crops up everywhere from Russia’s English-language TV channel to scruffy Pakistani newspapers to America’s stately National Public Radio. TheHuffington Post can’t seem to live without it, and one recent book even chose it as a title. Afghanistan, we’re told, is “the graveyard of empires.”

The Victorian British and the Soviet Union, the story goes, were part of a long historical continuum of arrogant conquerors that met their match in the country’s xenophobic, fanatical, trigger-happy tribesmen. Given a record like that, it’s obvious that the effort by the United States and its NATO allies to stabilize the shaky government in Kabul is doomed to fail.

Look, failure is always a possible outcome, especially judging by the way things have been going lately. But if the United States and its allies end up messing up their part of the equation, blame it on their bad policy decisions. Don’t blame it on a supersimplified version of Afghanistan’s history — especially if you prefer to overlook the details.

As Thomas Barfield pointed out to me the other day, for most of its history Afghanistan has actually been the cradle of empires, not their grave. Barfield, an anthropologist at Boston University, has been studying Afghanistan since the early 1970s, and he has just published a book — Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History — that takes issue with the hoary stereotypes that continue to inform our understanding of the place.

One of those myths, for example, is that Afghanistan is inherently unconquerable thanks to the fierceness of its inhabitants and the formidable nature of its terrain. But this isn’t at all borne out by history. “Until 1840 Afghanistan was better known as a ‘highway of conquest’ rather than the ‘graveyard of empires,'” Barfield points out. “For 2,500 years it was always part of somebody’s empire, beginning with the Persian Empire in the fifth century B.C.”

After the Persians it was Alexander the Great’s turn. Some contend that Alexander met his match in the Afghans, since it was an Afghan archer who wounded him in the heel, ushering in a series of misfortunes that would end with the great conqueror’s death. Ask anyone who believes this is why Greek coins keep cropping up in Afghan soil today — in fact, Alexander’s successors managed to keep the place under their control for another 200 years. Not too shabby, really. And there were plenty of empires that came after, thanks to Afghanistan’s centrality to world trade in the era before European ocean fleets put an end to the Silk Road’s transportation monopoly.

What about the popular accounts that insist, awe-struck, that even Genghis Khan was humbled by the Afghans? Poppycock, says Barfield. Genghis had “no trouble at all overrunning the place,” and his descendants would build wide-ranging kingdoms using Afghanistan as a base. Timur (know to most of us as Tamerlane) ultimately shifted the capital of his empire from provincial Samarkand to cosmopolitan Herat, evidence of the role command over Afghanistan played in his calculations. Babur, who is buried in Kabul, used Afghanistan to launch his conquest of a sizable chunk of India and establish centuries of Muslim rule. Afghans seemed pretty happy to go along.

In fact, Afghan self-rule is a relatively recent invention in the full sweep of the country’s history,dating to the middle of the 18th century — and it took another century for Afghanistan to earn its reputation as an empire-beater. That’s when the Afghans trounced a British invasion force, destroying all but one of 16,000 troops sent to Kabul to teach the Afghan rulers a lesson.

But context is everything. Everyone tends to forget what happened after the rout of the British: In 1842 they invaded again, defeating every Afghan army sent out against them. True, they didn’t necessarily achieve their aim of preventing Tzarist Russia from encroaching on Central Asia; that had to wait for the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), when they succeeded in occupying much of the country and forcing its rulers to accept a treaty giving the British a veto over future Afghan foreign policy. Then there’s the fact that the First Anglo-Afghan War preceded the end of the British Empire by more than a century. London, it should be noted, never intended to make Afghanistan part of its empire. Britain’s foreign-policy aim, which it ultimately achieved, was to ensure that Afghanistan remained a buffer state outside the influence of imperial competitors, such as the Russians.

And what about the Soviets? To be sure, the quagmire they faced in Afghanistan — with all of its economic, political, and psychological consequences — was a major factor in the collapse of their political system. But even the most skeptical historians concede that around 1984 or so, the Soviets were actually getting the better of the mujahideen. It was the U.S. decision to send shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles to the Afghan resistance, which robbed the Russian helicopter gunships of their superiority, that allowed the guerrillas to stage a comeback.

The bottom line, though, is that the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan represented a radical break with the country’s past, not an extension of it. The Soviets and their Afghan communist allies wiped out entire communities and devastated wide swaths of the countryside, sending millions of refugees fleeing across the borders. They systematically targeted traditional institutions and elites, leaving behind a power vacuum that was eagerly seized upon — but never quite filled — by a new brand of revolutionary Islamists, promoted by Pakistan and abetted from afar by eager cold warriors in Washington.

These communist attempts to impose utopian designs on a deeply traditional society triggered what Barfield describes as Afghanistan’s “first national insurgency” — one that transcended old dividing lines of tribe and ethnicity. As Barfield points out, the war against the Soviets was sharply different from previous rebellions in Afghanistan’s history as a state, which were relatively fleeting and almost always local affairs, usually revolving around dynastic power struggles. “From 1929 to 1978,” he says, “the country was completely at peace.” In some respects, one might hazard, the current insurgency — as an almost exclusively Pashtun affair — harks back to an earlier, more fragmented pattern of Afghanistan’s history. But that, by itself, doesn’t make it an insurmountable problem. Just the opposite, in fact.

Unfortunately, popular views of the place today are shaped by the past 30 years of seemingly unceasing warfare rather than substantive knowledge of the country’s history. Anti-war activists routinely blame the post-2001 Western military presence in the country for the destruction of national infrastructure and the widespread cultivation of opium poppies — both of which actually date back to the Soviet invasion and the civil war that followed. Others play up the notion of Afghanistan as inherently immune to civilization: “We are not going to ever defeat the insurgency,” said Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on CNN in 2009. “Afghanistan has probably had — my reading of Afghanistan history — it’s probably had an insurgency forever, of some kind.”

Barfield contends that the Afghans have long understood the tendency of foreigners to view them as untamable savages and have been happy to leverage the stereotype to their advantage. “The Afghans use hyperbole of history to exaggerate [their] strengths in order to deter invaders,” he says. “In this case, a poor knowledge of their history goes a long way to convincing others to stay away, but it can be a dangerous illusion.” Back in 2001, Barfield says, Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden recycled the myth to themselves — only to watch Taliban rule, and al Qaeda’s safe haven, collapse under U.S. bombing.

I made my first visit to Afghanistan that same year. The Afghans I met were neither xenophobic nor bellicose. What they wanted most of all was peace, and they didn’t trust their own leaders to bring it. “We’re sick of fighting. We hate war. We want to have a free election,” one grizzled — and illiterate — warrior told me. “And let’s have the United Nations come in and make sure it’s fair, so the warlords don’t interfere.” I heard similar views from many Afghans. Nowadays that vision sounds a bit like a dream, and it’s hard to say precisely how many of his compatriots shared it for real, but I can’t help recalling the sentiment. One thing is for sure: If we really want Afghans to attain the future they deserve, clinging to a fake version of their history won’t help.

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