Afghanistan: A graveyard of empires?

Ultimately, foreign forces must leave Afghanistan but this should ideally only happen when a peace agreement involving the Kabul government, Afghan Taliban and all other stakeholders in that country is a done deal.

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Afghanistan is a notoriously difficult country to govern. Empire after empire, nation after nation have failed to pacify what is today the modern territory of Afghanistan, giving the region the nickname “Graveyard of empires.” This is because Afghanistan has had a reputation for destroying ambitious military ventures for centuries.

It is, historically, a difficult place to conquer and to rule, a country not only of powerful cities but also thousands of isolated villages cut off in severe winters, allowing insurgents to melt away and return. Also, the Afghan population is racially and culturally diverse and accustomed to wars of resistance. Starting from Alexander The Great, the region remained deeply problematic for invaders like Genghis Khan, Taimoor and Babar.

Why is Afghanistan difficult to conquer?

Afghanistan is particularly hard to conquer primarily due to the intersection of three factors. First, Afghanistan because it is located on the mainland route connecting Iran, Central Asia, and India. It has been invaded many times and settled by a plethora of tribes, many mutually hostile to each other and outsiders. Second, because of the frequency of invasion, and the prevalence of tribalism in the area, its lawlessness led to a situation where almost every village or house was built like a fortress or qalat. Third, the physical terrain of Afghanistan makes conquest and rule extremely difficult, exacerbating its terrible tendencies.

Read more: Afghanistan, world’s least peaceful country: Who is responsible?

The British lost a nasty war in 1842 that ended when fierce tribesmen notoriously destroyed an army of thousands which compelled them to retreat from Kabul, and the Soviets, after a decade of war in Afghanistan, had to give in 1989.

The United States and its allies decided to leave Afghanistan, they would only be the latest in a long series of nations to do so. In fact, the signing of the peace agreement with Afghan Taliban by the US earlier this year is proof that the war is unwinnable as more than 2,400 American troops have been killed. Since the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, while more than 20,000 have been injured, Washington has pumped $ 975 billion into the war effort.

US’ failure to devise a ‘coherent eradication strategy’ in Afghanistan

The failing American strategy in Afghanistan appears to be a product of a number of mistakes that were committed by the US policymakers at critical moments subsequent to its initial success. The US, though its policy of distancing itself from stabilization of Afghanistan because of the felt urgency to move into Iraq, repeated a major mistake of 1990s that resulted in unanticipated consequences. The great haste with which the focus on Iraq resulted in America’s inability to contain the gradually deteriorating situation in Afghanistan raised many questions.

Read more: Foreign forces’ withdrawal from Afghanistan is not ‘hasty’

While it prepared for war in Iraq, US maintained a minimalist, military intelligence-driven strategy in Afghanistan that ignored peacekeeping, nation-building, creating state institutions or rebuilding the infrastructure. The low levels of international assistance including troops, police and financial aid made it difficult to stabilize Afghanistan as the insurgency began to worsen. And it strengthened the role of local warlords as they filled in the vacuum. Legalizing warlord authority which helped the Taliban to subsequently reorganize them was one of the most serious mistakes committed by the US administrations.

Initially the US ignored the issue and refused to even acknowledge that the drugs posed a hurdle in the war against terrorism despite reports to the contrary. It was not until 2005 that they acknowledged that drug money was “fueling terrorism.” The drug money paralyzed the reconstruction projects and caused the reemergence of the Taliban insurgency yet the US and NATO forces failed to devise a “coherent eradication strategy.”

Read more: US strikes target Taliban as fighting rages in Afghanistan

In the end, it would be incorrect to blame it on Afghanistan’s reputation as “graveyard of empires”. Although Afghanistan’s history as a “graveyard of empires” helps in explaining the US experience in Afghanistan, it does not make defeating the Taliban impossible.

It is mainly the wrong policy decisions made at critical moments by the US administration, which has caused the US to be defeated from the jaws of victory. Ultimately, foreign forces must leave Afghanistan but this should ideally only happen when a peace agreement involving the Kabul government, Afghan Taliban and all other stakeholders in that country is a done deal.

History tells us that leaving Afghanistan in a state of chaos as the Soviets did will only add to internal regional instability. Let us hope for the bright future of Afghanistan.

The author is a lawyer by profession. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.


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