Time to Bury the "Graveyard of Empires"

War and Peace

Expect to see Afghanistan in the headlines a lot during the next few weeks as President Obama meets with Congressional and military leaders to plot the next step of America’s Afghan strategy. That means you’ll also likely hear your fair share of pundits weighing in on the topic and more than a few of them are sure to refer to Afghanistan, perhaps in ominous tones, as “the graveyard of empires.”

The term refers to the military adventures of Alexander the Great, the British Empire and the Soviet Union, all of whom fought campaigns in Afghanistan. As the “graveyard” analogy goes, all tried and failed to bring Afghanistan under their control, and this failure then somehow led to the collapse of their respective “empires,” serving as a pretty powerful lesson from history. 

It’s also a pile of rubbish.

Let’s start with Alexander the Great, who led his armies from the tiny Balkan kingdom of Macedonia to conquer much of the known world (well, the part the Greeks knew about at least). A decade of war found Alexander and his armies thousands of miles from Macedonia, marching across Central Asia. At what’s now Khujand, Tajikistan, Alexander founded the city of Alexandria Eschate, or “Alexandria, the Furthest” (Alexander had a habit of naming cities after himself, humble guy that he was). From Alexandria Eschate he launched a campaign south through Afghanistan, battling and conquering as he went, towards his ultimate goal - India. 

But by the time his armies arrived at the Ganges, knowing ahead of them they faced even more battles against the powerful armies of the kingdoms of the sub-continent, they rebelled, refusing to go any farther – or as the noted historians Iron Maiden summarized in Alexander the Great: “they wouldn’t follow him to India, tired of the combat, pain and the glory.” Alexander finally relented and his armies began the long march back to Macedonia with Alexander himself dying in Babylon either from fever, poisoning, or a drinking binge – historians still don’t agree.

What about the Soviet Union, surely the decade they spent fighting a guerilla war in Afghanistan helped to bring about their demise? Not really. Yes, the Afghan War was a terribly costly affair for the Soviets, between 1979 and 1989, they lost more than 14,000 men and spent billions of dollars on the campaign. But the Soviet Union’s demise was decades in the making: a military budget that gobbled up a large chunk of their GDP, a bloated bureaucracy, a centralized and poorly run state economy, and an ineffective manufacturing base all were major contributing factors to its eventual collapse. 

The thing that finally doomed the Soviet Union though was Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts at reform. Gorbachev was (and is) a true believer in Socialism and thought that the Soviet Union could be made to live up to the promises of Communism if it could only be reformed. But once he began, Gorbachev would find that the system was beyond redemption; his policy that removed the Communist Party as the unchallenged head of the Soviet Union didn’t lead to reform, rather it led to some Republics trying to leave the Union entirely. The Soviet Union collapsed because Gorbachev let it rather than using force to try to keep it together, a series of events that would have happened whether the Soviets had gotten involved in Afghanistan or not.

Finally there’s the British Empire. Much of the mythos surrounding the British and Afghanistan comes from one event, the attempt by a British army in 1842 to capture Kabul. The campaign failed and the British began a retreat to their base at Jalalabad (in what’s now Pakistan). Over the course of the next week, the British were slaughtered in near-constant battles with fierce Afghani tribes. In the end, one man, Dr. William Brydon, stumbled into Jalalabad, the lone survivor of the march - legend has it that the Afghans left him alive to tell the tale of his 16,000 fallen compatriots.

The retreat from Kabul was a brutal chapter in British history, but it occurred in 1842. The demise of the British Empire didn’t begin in earnest until India and Pakistan won their independence in 1947, more than a century later. In fact, throughout the rest of the 19th and early 20th century the British were one of the world’s great powers; this was the time that “the sun never set on the British Empire.” That’s hardly a nation on its way to the graveyard.

Three great world powers, all now gone, all of whom were once involved in Afghanistan. But for it to be “the graveyard of empires”, their involvement in Afghanistan would have to be a proximate cause of their demise and in each case it clearly was not. For two, Afghanistan should be just a footnote in their history, the reason it has such an outsized role in Soviet history is because their involvement happened at the same time as Gorbachev’s reforms, the thing which ultimately led to the end of the Union (and arguably the Soviets likely would have won in Afghanistan if the United States did not fund, train and arm the Afghani mujahideen - this was certainly the train of thought in Washington during the 1980’s).

So why do we hear “graveyard of empires” tossed about so freely? Because it is the kind of facile, fortune-cookie slogan that passes for critical analysis in the day of the sound bite and “tweet,” never mind that it’s wholly inaccurate. There are some tough decisions to be made about the United States, and international community’s, engagement in Afghanistan today; we need to have an honest, sober analysis of the situation, not ready-made sound bites. It’s time to bury “the graveyard of empires.”

Afghanistan, History, Military, Obama, Russia, United Kingdom, US Foreign Policy