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Research & Thoughts

History Lesson #12: A Graveyard of Empires

We can all see what's happening with the US pull-out of troops and civilians in Afghanistan. You might not remember this, but no president wanted to pull out of Vietnam and become known as the one who made America lose. That's what's happening to Biden now, but he had the courage to face the criticism. We were never going to get anywhere there.


I read an interesting comment somewhere about how governing Afghanistan could destroy the Taliban, so let them try. Problem, of course, is in how many innocent people are losing their lives there in the process. Could he have done better? We are armchair coaches in both support and criticism. But there has been so many already, names we've forgotten or have never known. Since Bush's invasion in 2001, there have been 47,000 civilians killed, along with so many military. Back in 2001 they wanted to get at Al Qaida and the Taliban, and after that, the mission was to transform the country into a democracy, though it was tribal, desperately poor, largely illiterate and deeply religious, according to The Week (August 27, 2001: 6). Mission a failure, and could never possibly succeed once Bush dropped that ball.


But the difficulties there didn't start with Bush. That's what we'll look at here; the history of attempts to govern here, and why it's such a difficult country in the first place.


When bin Laden escaped capture and the Taliban left Afghanistan, Bush switched his focus to something he felt he could win -- Iraq. This left Afghanistan open to becoming - what it was all along - a war we could not win. But it was all due to 9/11. Whatever impact those attackers hoped to have on that date, they were successful. The attitude in the U.S. changed dramatically. No longer "to stop communism," as the goal in Vietnam, but "to protect America." Nationalism increased dramatically, as did anti-Muslim and anti-black attitudes in this country.


The photo shows Panjshir Valley, where the anti-Taliban forces are maintaining a stronghold. There's only one way in. According to The Week (September 3, 2021), Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh fled there to join with Ahmad Massoud, son of an assassinated former warlord. As noted at BBC.com:


"The son of an Afghan army general, Ahmad Shah Massoud was born in the valley. His portrait can still be found in many places throughout Panjshir Province and in Kabul - from monuments to billboards and shop windows. Because of him, the Panjshir valley become a centre of anti-Communist resistance, after the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) won power in 1978 - and the Soviet Union moved in forces a year later."


Massoud was assassinated just two days before 9/11. And there are people who say he was a war criminal. I suspect you could say that about GW Bush, too. Say what you want against Trump. He was unable to start a war.


Panjshir Valley continues to be the anti-Taliban stronghold, where appeals are sent out for weaponry from the US and other countries to help them continue the fight. The resistence could become a civil war there.


The Soviets previously did better in Afghanistan; the Soviet-backed government there lasted for three years beyond the time the Soviet troops left. The U.S. government of Ashraf Ghani "was seen as a band of corrupt American puppets," and why not? They were corrupt nearly everywhere else they tried to help. (Read "From Lincoln to Trump" to see what Eisenhower did to Iran.)


As the above demonstrates, we need to see Afghanistan's long history to truly understand what's going on there. The BBC.co.uk reported the following:


"Once a cultural crossroads, Afghanistan has been ravaged by 22 years of war and the Taliban regime whose systematic destruction of the country's cultural heritage culminated in the blowing up of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Early in 2002, Dan Cruickshank travelled to Kabul to investigate what treasures remain and find out how Afghanistan's people have dealt with attempts to destroy their culture and national identity."


As early as 3,000 years ago, this country was a meeting point for the Chinese, Indian and European civilizations. Alexander the Great conquered the region in 300 BCE, allowing the silk road to pass through the center of the country. In relation to the comment above:


"The monastery of Bamiyan - where the trade route coming south from India met the route from China to the Roman Empire in the west - is a product of Afghanistan's rich past. Buddhist monks, moving along the Silk Route, created a monastery within the cliff face overlooking the road by hollowing out cells, halls and chambers and - in the 4th to the 6th centuries - carved there two colossal statues of Buddha. This was the first time the 'enlightened one' had been expressed not in abstract but in human form."


According to Wikipedia:


"Afghanistan's significant ancient tangible and intangible Buddhist heritage is recorded through wide-ranging archaeological finds, including religious and artistic remnants. Buddhist doctrines are reported to have reached as far as Balkh even during the life of the Buddha (563 BCE to 483 BCE), as recorded by Husang Tsang."


It wasn't until the 7th Century CE that Mohammed came into the religious picture.  "After the Kushan Empire's rule was ended by Sassanids— officially known as the Empire of Iranians— was the last kingdom of the Persian Empire before the rise of Islam. Named after the House of Sasan, it ruled from 224 to 651 AD."


From the Middle Ages to around 1750 the eastern part of Afghanistan was recognized as being a part of India while its western parts parts were included in Khorasan. Again in Wikipedia (the only source I found with complete history): "The early Arab forces did not fully explore Afghanistan due to attacks by the mountain tribes. Much of the eastern parts of the country remained independent, as part of the Hindu Shahi kingdoms of Kabul and Gandhara, which lasted that way until the forces of the Muslim Saffarid dynasty followed by the Ghaznavids conquered them."


From the 16th century to the 17th century CE, Afghanistan was divided into three major areas.


Loyn told NPR's Renee Montagne that "Afghanistan's sprawling deserts and 16,000-foot mountains are a key reason why the country has come to be known as the "graveyard of empires." The Panjshir Valley is nearly impregnable and a stronghold to whoever has it, and it's not far from Kabul.

The British invaded in the 19th Century, and found that to get through the country, there simply isn't another passable route. Loyn noted:


"Afghans tend to ally against a foreign enemy when the enemy comes in. But then they tend to fall apart like sand when you try to govern them from inside, and many Afghan kings have discovered that." He calls government corruption their biggest obstacle. As we learned in an earlier lesson, that's also been a problem for Haiti. But attempts at colonization didn't help. If only the Soviets hadn't walked in.


Here's where we tie past and present together, again, from Wikipedia:


"The Emir Dost Mohammed Khan (1793–1863) gained control in Kabul in 1826 and founded (c.  1837) the Barakzai dynasty. Rivalry between the expanding British and Russian Empires in what became known as "The Great Game" significantly influenced Afghanistan during the 19th century. British concern over Russian advances in Central Asia and over Russia's growing influence in West Asia and in Persia in particular culminated in two Anglo-Afghan wars and in the Siege of Herat (1837–1838), in which the Persians, trying to retake Afghanistan and throw out the British, sent armies into the country and fought the British mostly around and in the city of Herat. The first Anglo-Afghan War (1839–1842) resulted in the destruction of a British army, causing great panic throughout British India and the dispatch of a second British invasion army. The Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–1880) resulted from the refusal by Emir Shir Ali (reigned 1863 to 1866 and from 1868 to 1879) to accept a British mission in Kabul."


"In the wake of this conflict Shir Ali's nephew, Emir Abdur Rahman, known by some as the "Iron Emir", came to the Afghan throne. During his reign (1880–1901), the British and Russians officially established the boundaries of what would become modern Afghanistan. The British retained effective control over Kabul's foreign affairs. Abdur Rahman's reforms of the army, legal system and structure of government gave Afghanistan a degree of unity and stability which it had not before known. This, however, came at the cost of strong centralization, of harsh punishments for crime and corruption, and of a certain degree of international isolation."


While Afghanistan became officially established as a 'state' in 1880 after the second Anglo-Afghan war, recorded history of the land mass goes back to 500 BCE under the First Persian Empire. It became part of the empire under Xerxes I, who conquered much of Greece, including Athens, in 480 BCE.


After Alexander the Great died, it was ruled by a couple other empires until "the Iranian elites of the central plateau reclaimed power by the 2nd century BC under the Parthian Empire." The Persians were an Iranian people who arrived in what is today Iran c. 1000 BC and settled a region including north-western Iran, the Zagros Mountains and Persis alongside the native Elamites.


Gets complicated, doesn't it?


Conquered variously in those very early centuries established certain locations as places where people could live and trade. In the later centuries, colonization and overpopulation tended to destabilize and control people who may have been happy as they were.


The question Biden finally asked was: what the heck are we doing there? No, withdrawal is not pretty. But neither is conquest. Let's let history guide our future, for once.




The Week, August 27 and September 3, 2001.


Afghanistan: At the Crossroads of Ancient Civilisations, Dan Cruickshank, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/recent/sept_11/afghan_culture_01.shtml 


Afghanistan: The 'undefeated' Panjshir Valley - an hour from Kabul

By Paul Kerley & Lucia Blasco, BBC News, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58329527. 


BBC's Loyn: Afghanistan's History Of Defying Invaders

October 8, 2009, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113582498 


"History of Afghanistan," Wikipedia.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Afghanistan 

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