The old cliché about Afghanistan not wanting to die

The only problem is that it does not have much to do with the actual story. Afghanistan has in its long existence unfortunately been more like the roadkill of empires – a victim of their ambitions. Understanding this historical reality is crucial to understanding why the United States is unlikely to suffer serious long-term effects from its long and wasteful occupation of Afghanistan – or from the bloody, cumbersome withdrawal. It is also crucial to recognize how much more likely smaller powers like Afghanistan will suffer lasting trauma than any of their larger, more powerful invaders.

Admittedly, the people who live in what is Afghanistan today have mightily resisted one haughty conqueror after another who defeated the Hindu Kush. Alexander the Great met fierce opposition from the locals when he invaded around 330 BC, and received an ugly leg ulcer from an arrow. But in the end, he crushed that resistance, founded what became the modern city of Kandahar and pushed on to India – leaving the Seleucid Empire, which lasted for 250 years. Genghis Khan conquered Afghanistan. So did Timur, better known as Tamerlane, and his descendant Babur. The Turks and the Huns, the Hindus and Islamic Arabs, the Persians and the Parthians did the same. So did several empires, peoples, and tyrants that you have probably never heard of: the Greek bacteria, the Indo-Scythians, the Kushans, the Sassanid Empire, the Maurys Empire, the Gahznaids, the Uzbeks, the Safavids, and the Hotak dynasty. Most of them stayed for decades, even centuries.

The idea that Afghanistan was a kind of geopolitical quicksand for empires seems to have started with the first Anglo-Afghan war, which ended in 1842. An army of 4,700 British and Indian soldiers withdrawing from Kabul was almost slaughtered. a man near the village of Gandamak, along with at least 12,000 civilians traveling with the army. The debacle was a major scandal back in London. It also came at a time when England’s dreadful ear and its narrators of the tribulations and glories of the empire were on their way. Like today’s tabloids and instant television news, their reports and images served to terrify and make the audience at home. (They also played into the racist, Western fascination, a fascination that lasted through the 19th century onwards, with the idea of ​​a gallant group of death row inmates, white warriors fighting to the last while helpless in the minority of “wild”: the Afghans at Gandamak or Sioux and Cheyenne at Little Bighorn, the Turks at Balaclava, the Zulus at Isandlwana.)

Less frequently mentioned in recollections of Gandamak is that Britain sent a “prison army” into Afghanistan a few months later, one that crushed any Afghan army sent against it, plundered and razed several towns and villages on its way and eventually plundered Kabul – burning the dazzling Char-Chatta Bazaar there in a final spasm of revenge. Britain would return to confront Afghanistan in the Second Anglo-Afghan War, which ended in 1880. Far from being buried, the British Empire would reach its peak in 1920 and extend its reign more than 13.7 million square kilometers or more than a quarter of the earth’s land mass.

The Soviet Union’s accident in Afghanistan was more damaging. The USSR suffered 14,453 deaths during its brutal occupation of the country in 1979-1988 and squandered a fortune in materiel and money. But with all due respect to the dead, it was about a typical half hour at Stalingrad. Although many people have claimed that the Soviet Union collapsed because of its failures in Afghanistan, it is impossible to deny the far higher price the USSR paid for keeping its many other submissive peoples in trouble, or for the blatant mistakes of communism.

As with many other places that lie between more powerful countries – Poland, for example – Afghanistan’s strategic value for geopolitics has often been exaggerated by short-space geniuses around the world. In fact, that significance has been very limited since the trade routes of the Spice Road began to disintegrate in the 15th century. As the world moved on to sailing ships, air travel, and other economic priorities, and the means to obtain them, it became less important to control Afghanistan. But that did not stop all the armchairs, Napoleons, who wisely remarked that it was right between the Russian and British empires, or the key to India, or on the road to China.

Eventually, all the empires that came to Afghanistan found good reason to move forward or limit their costs and expectations – as President Joe Biden has finally done, a brave decision, no matter how chaotic its execution has been. Unlike almost all the great powers that have trampled on Afghanistan for millennia, the United States actually had good reason to be there. We just did not have a good reason to stay.

A terrorist attack on the US capital and its largest city, one that killed thousands and was launched from Afghan soil with the Taliban’s approval and assistance – of course, this necessitated a powerful response. But despite all that President George W. Bush believed, the United States undertook to “build a nation” in Afghanistan after pledging to destroy al Qaeda, we did not. It was an impossible extension of the US mission in Afghanistan, which can be measured in the tragic loss of American life, taxes and goodwill that the US has suffered there since 2001 – losses that have continued right up to the bitter end of the US withdrawal. .

Of course, the American spoon addict is also a disaster for Afghans, especially women and girls, and anyone who believes that a true democracy can soon emerge. America has joined the endless parade of powers that made Afghanistan what it really has always been: a footnote to the empire, exposed to the delusions of outsiders for their own purposes, and then abandoned after their whim. This is the real tragedy for Afghans and so many people like them – how thoughtlessly and terribly they have been abused, for so long, with the best intentions and the worst, by others who saw them not so much as human beings, but as one more piece in a great game that has never been so great or necessary at all.

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