This phrase, “The Graveyard of Empires” is used for Afghanistan since the 19th century. However, no one certainly knows that who coined this exact phrase. Anyways, the interest is not in the “who” but in the “why”. This article will explain you in detail about why Afghanistan is called “the graveyard of empires”.
It is a land locked country with only 12% of the land being arable i.e, suitable for farming. The south is a dessert and the north and middle is occupied by the Hindukush Mountains which roughly bifurcate the country. Yet major world powers from Alexander The Great to the British empire everyone wanted to attack or conquer Afghanistan. So why is it so that a dessert like Afghanistan had so much of an “empire appeal”. The answer lies in its geography. Afghanistan occupies a central location in the map of Asia. It also acted as a trade link between Europe and Asia. Located in the middle of all the traditional powerhouses, the geopolitical advantage that Afghanistan enjoyed was unmatched. It was literally the “crossroads of the world” for trade and commerce. The main causes for the title are:
- Easy to invade.
- Difficult to conquer
- Impossible to rule- by any foreign power.
The reasons for these causes are the geography again (the desert and mountainous terrain) and the tribal as well as ethnic divisions.
Those were the reasons why so many external powers tried to establish themselves in Afghanistan but could not succeed. However, that was history. In contemporary times also, Afghanistan holds more than it’s fair share of miseries. It all started with “The great game”.
The Great Game:
Soviet Union had control over majority of the Asian continent. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan all came under the Soviet Union. On the other hand the Indian subcontinent included the modern day Pakistan was a British territory and Afghanistan was in the middle of these rivals. Soviet wanted to control Afghanistan so than it could get a sea access via Pakistan or Iran which would’ve been great for the Soviet trade business. But obviously, being a rival the British couldn’t let that happen. As a result many wars were fought between the British and the Soviet Union in the Afghanistan region. In short, the great game was nothing but a conflict of supremacy in the central Asia between the Brits and the Ruskies. Eventually this conflict came to a haul towards the end of the 19th century. With the consent of both, the British as well as the Soviets a border was decided, which came to be known as the Durrand Line. And Afghanistan became a buffer zone between both the powers. In 1919 a treaty was signed between the ruler of Afghanistan and the British Empire, declaring Afghanistan as an independent nation. And hence, concluded the great game.
After the independence Afghanistan remained neutral in the second world war as well as the cold war. In the middle of 20th century the then king of Afghanistan Zahir Shah brought in modern reforms in 1960s like elections, political rights to the citizens and women’s education. King’s cousin Daoud Khan ousted him in 1973 and declared himself the new President as well as Prime Minister of Afghanistan.
The Saur (Communist) Revolution:
In 1978, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan(PDPA) organised a coup against Daoud Khan. Well, for Daoud Khan it was a coup but PDPA called it a Revolution. A new communist government was form and they started implementing the ideals of communism in the country. They continued modernization but the land reforms introduced by PDPA in the country were widely detested by the tribal population of the nation which majorly lived in the rural areas. This lead to a tribal uprising in several areas. PDPA tried to control it with a hard crackdown. Though this helped to supress the uprising for a short term but it was majorly a failure. Eventually PDPA knocked on the doors of Soviet Union for help. USSR sent advisors as well as military equipment to help the new communist government. But this was not enough due to the infighting in PDPA (another coup), rising rebellions in the rural areas, the fear of Iran’s Islamic revolution spreading to Central Asia. So eventually on 24th December i.e, Christmas Eve 1979 – The Soviet Army marches in. After this date Afghanistan never remained same. The three major events which led to this condition of Afghanistan were:
1. The Soviet – Afghan war (1979 – 1989):
34 Muslim nations and the UN general assembly opposed the Russian invasion but it did’nt had much affect on the intentions of the Soviets. USSR did’nt wanted Afghanistan to get engulfed in Iran’s Islamic revolution because that would have proved to be the end of communism in Afghanistan and USSR would have lost a major communist ally that was situated in very fruitful geopolitical location.
Soviet army soon took over the major cities including all the communication systems. But it could not take over the rural areas which were situated majorly in the hinterlands, due to the absence of roads and the mountainous terrain. From these rural areas, the rebellion against the USSR started. All disparate tribes, rebel groups and warlords joined hands to fight the godless invader i.e, USSR. These rebels called it the “Holy War” or Jihad. Those who fought in this holy war were called the “Mujahideen”. Ismlamic youth from all over the world flocked towards Afghanistan take part in this so called holy war. In the 80s along with these flocks of men also came a boy from Saudi Arabia, he belonged to one of the richest families of Saudi, his name was Osama, yes this was the infamous Osama-bin-Laden. These Mujahideens were supported by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, China and USA. All these countries had their own reasons to support these fighters. Due to the mountainous terrain these fighters mastered the skill of Guerrilla warfare. Various warlords like Ahmad shah Massoud and groups like Taliban and Al-Qaeda emerged in the 1980s. USA provided weapons and support to the Mujahideens via Pakistan with the help of ISI, this lead the war to a bloody stalemate as neither the Soviets were able to capture the rural areas nor the mujahideens were able to retrieve the cities. The introduction of the Stinger missile was a major blow for the USSR. Gradually the Soviet invasion started to wind down. In 1986 a Soviet backed government was formed in Afghanistan and till 1989 all the Soviet forces have the country. Soon after the Soviets left the warlords stated fighting for supremacy and this led to the Afghan Civil War.
2. The Afghanistan Civil war (1989 – 1996):
1991 marked the collapse of the Soviet Union in turn leading the collapse of the Najibullah government in 1992. This created a power vacuum which resulted in the fighting of warlords for supremacy. Finally Taliban emerged. Some believe it emerged in the city of Qandahar while others believe the roots of Taliban were in the Pakistani refugee camps. No matter the origins, Taliban defeated all the warlords in Kabul and rose to power by 1996 majority of Afghanistan came under the rule of Taliban. The Taliban govt. ruled Afghanistan till 2001. These 5 years of the taliban government were the epitome of human rights violation because Taliban implemented the controversial Shariya law in the country. According to a survey in 2002 the worst place for a woman on earth was Afghanistan.
Taliban wanted to rule Afghanistan. On the other hand was Al-Qaeda, which was an international network of terrorist groups who believed in the extremist form of Islamism/Salafism. It had leaders like Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri who were supported and sheltered by Taliban.
Al-Qaeda carried out many terrorist attacks in America as well as rest of the world. The most (in)famous ones were:
- WTC bombing, 1993
- US embassy bombings in Africa, 1998
3. The American invasion:
9/11 led to George Bush’s “War on Terror” and he said “Either you are with us or against us”. This was a clear warning to the Taliban government to hand over the terrorists involved. Taliban refused to do so and USA attacked Afghanistan. By december 2001, taliban government fell and the fighters went into hiding. This was known as Operation Enduring Freedom (2001 – 2014). Hamid Karzai was appointed as the President of the interim government and he remained the president of Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014.
Now, for over a decade Taliban is in it’s insurgency mode. Guerilla campaigns to get back territory, ambushes, roadside IED’s, taliban is using everything that it has got. America lost only two hundred troops when it overthrew the taliban government in 2001. But in the past 10 to 12 years they have lost more than four thousand soldiers to this asymmetric warfare.
It once again, proves the reason that though it is easy to invade Afghanistan but containing it for long is nearly impossible.