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Graveyard of Empires: Three Centuries of Turbulence in Afghanistan by Daria Fedotova

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Graveyard of Empires: Three Centuries of Turbulence in Afghanistan

Sunrise in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Photo: Mohammad Rahmani on Unsplash.

On August 15, 2021, the sun rose over Kabul. A new day had begun, and a new stage of history began with it. The polished sides of planes, overcrowded with refugees, glistened and the shadows of their wings left the earth as they rushed into the sky. Columns of vehicles entered the city, carrying armed men in traditional attire. The Taliban had returned. There was no resistance. The previous government fled, and the United States made no visible attempts to remedy the situation. After two decades of military presence, investments in the democratic regime, and dreams of a bright future, the West has finally admitted defeat. Not for the first time nor, probably, the last, Afghanistan has changed hands. A vast land of mountains and deserts, the Central Asian country is home to an ancient culture and a place where civilisations meet. It is also one of the world’s most unstable regions. 

For the last twenty years, the U.S. and its allies have tried to pacify Afghanistan. Still, the latest events demonstrate that all their efforts have been in vain. Why is this so? Are there some inherent traits that make violence inevitable? It appears that there are. Firstly, there is the country’s location, which has historically made it an important strategic asset worth fighting for. Secondly, there is the solid tribal structure of its society, which makes it prone to internal conflicts.

One might argue that these circumstances have always been a part of Afghanistan’s life and, given its past periods of success, they cannot be the cause of its current troubles. But there is a great difference between its history and present days. It was deprived of the core that kept it together: the monarchy, which, however imperfect, remained an effective unifying force for the last three centuries.

The country’s modern history begins with Mirwais Hotak and his successful rebellion against the Safavid Empire in 1709. Customarily for the region, it was caused by religious differences between the Shia Muslims of Persia and the Sunni tribes of southern Afghanistan. Typical for all of human history, mismanagement by the declining empire created a perfect opportunity for an uprising. Unlike the weak Safavid shah, Mirwais Hotak proved to be a capable commander and united the entire province of Kandahar under his rule; the fact that he was among the few who had died of natural causes speaks volumes about his authority. His successors went even further, conquering the Safavids. However, they bit off more than they could chew: they remnants of the previous regime counterattacked and expelled them back to the Afghan hills.

However, the defiant tribes still had more to offer. Just a decade after Hotak’s last defeat, a new leader arose—the one who would later be known as ‘the Father of the Nation’ and the ‘Pearl of Pearls,’ Ahmad Shah Durrani. He was a statesman and a warlord of considerable talent, winning himself an Islamic empire second only to the Ottomans. In 1757, he defeated the Mughal Emperor of India, seizing Punjab, Sindh, and Kashmir. The Durrani dynasty ruled for almost a century. Ironically, their successes against the Mughals opened the door to a new enemy, one more dangerous than any they had faced before.

It was subtle at first. Merchant ships loaded with textile and spices arrived and left, trading posts were established on the Indian shores, and some white foreigners decided to stay permanently. Soon, however, the settlers sensed the Mughals’ weakness and subdued them through the skilful application of force and commerce. One by one, the independent states of the subcontinent suffered the same fate. Britain became India’s new mistress. Seeking to protect this prized possession, the British turned their attention to the North-West Frontier and mysterious hills that lay beyond it.

Meanwhile, a rival empire advanced from the north, challenging the British claim to the eastern lands. Russia’s expansion reached Central Asia. Two mighty powers engaged in a clandestine conflict of espionage, diplomacy, and occasional small wars known as the Great Game; for them, the crumbling states of Persia and Afghanistan were little more than pawns.

In 1809, the British convinced Shah Shuja Durrani to sign a treaty, agreeing to oppose Persian invasions should they take place. However, he was soon deposed and fled to safety. Durrani rule ended fourteen years later, and Dost Mohammad Khan, who belonged to the family of Barakzai chiefs, ascended to the throne. By 1837, he understood how perilous his situation had become and realized that he had to pick a side. The British Raj was his first choice, but the governor-general had no interest in an alliance on his proposed terms, so he turned to the Russians instead. He realised his mistake when British troops crossed his border in 1838; they captured him, sent him to live in India, and brought back the docile Shah Shuja. But his rule did not last: Dost Mohammad’s son Akbar rebelled, and the war continued.

The First Anglo-Afghan war is remembered as an epic story of struggle against the backdrop of the barren wilderness and untamed tribal warriors of Afghanistan, but it is also an example of the British commanding officers’ striking incompetence. General Elphinstone’s incorrect assessment of the situation and lack of fighting spirit resulted in a disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842, and Shah Shuja was murdered. Upon hearing of their comrades’ grim fate, the remaining British forces counterattacked, disobeying the general’s order to evacuate, and in the process destroyed the Afghan army, burned villages and sacked the capital. However, by that time the political circumstances had changed, and their presence was no longer required. Dost Mohammad was released and left to rule; he later agreed to an alliance with the Raj.

His son Sher Ali Khan did not learn the lesson. In 1878, a Russian mission arrived in Afghanistan, while the British were denied the same. War was declared, and an expedition was sent to Kabul. This time, there were no complications. Sher Ali Khan fled the country; one of his successors surrendered, while the other tried to fight but was defeated. Finally, the British chose a suitable candidate themselves. The Barakzai dynasty remained in charge of internal affairs but was deprived of the right to decide about the country’s foreign policy.

Afghanistan remained under foreign influence until 1919: weakened by the First World War, Britain could not afford to keep it. 

After a short conflict, Emir Amanullah Khan proclaimed his kingdom’s independence. He then decided to embrace modernity in full, introducing radical reforms such as universal elementary education, the abolition of slavery, and a significant liberation of women. However, he had overestimated his countrymen’s readiness for such novelties. The tribes would have none of it. Britain was no longer there to bring in an army, and the Barakzai regime’s resilience had yet to be tested. In 1924, an Islamic fundamentalist group called the Saqqawists began its activities. Four years later, they rose up in an open revolt. Within two months, Kabul had fallen to them, and old traditions were restored. Amanullah abdicated, fleeing to Italy with his family. However, the Saqqawists’ reign lasted only ten months, after which they were defeated by another descendant of Dost Mohammad, Mohammad Nadir, who became the new king. His rule was brief as well: in 1933, he was assassinated.

His heir, Mohammed Zahir, was the last monarch of Afghanistan. He held the throne for forty years, until he was deposed by his own cousin, who became the country’s first president. No longer fond of isolation, the government tried to find its place among the nations of the world. It remained neutral during the Second World War and the Cold War, readily accepting bribes and aid from everyone who offered them. But while roads were built across the mountains, their spirit remained wild. Time and again, the tribes rebelled. And the Great Game was about to start anew. 

Just five years after its foundation, the Republic suffered a coup d’état, the president was killed—like so many scions of royal blood before him—and the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party seized power. Their socialist policies predictably met even more resistance than Amanullah’s reforms: in 1979, bands of jihadist guerrillas, the mujahideen, came down from the hills, engaging the pro-government troops all over the country. They were not alone. Neighbouring Pakistan supported their cause. So did the United States, funding and arming the very forces it would cross swords with a quarter of a century later. In one form or another, hostilities continued until the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 and turned already turbulent Afghanistan into a permanent warzone. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the mujahideen continued to fight each other after the communists were gone. In 1996, the victor emerged, taking control of the country: a fundamentalist group called the Taliban.

The Taliban began as an association of students of Muslim fundamentalist schools and as such, it insisted on the rejection of everything Western, choosing instead to maintain close relationships with other similar organisations across the Middle East. Al-Qaeda was one such connection, and its terrorist attacks dragged Afghanistan into conflict with the U.S. In 2001, the U.S.-led international coalition invaded, overthrowing the Taliban without much trouble. However, the allied command soon discovered that superior firepower did not guarantee victory, repeating the blunders of every empire that has dealt with guerrillas.

In the 1980s, the Soviets could not beat the mujahideen; in the 1970s, the U.S. was defeated in Vietnam; and in the 1780s, the British lost their Thirteen American Colonies—all misunderstood the nature of their opposition and the required steps. Taking cities and bombing strategic targets is of little effect without confident governance and maintaining order by any means necessary. 

In the latest Afghan war, the allies had a wealth of experience, using it to develop clever and useful tactics. Their mistake was not their ignorance but their adherence to democratic values, which often did not allow them to act efficiently. They measured this strange eastern land by their own standards and failed to see the core of its problem: without its traditional power structures, without its ruling dynasties that brought unity, and without a careful balance between brutality and magnanimity, Afghanistan could not govern itself. Both the democratic and socialist regimes depended entirely upon the foreign states that enforced them, and those states had no wish to rule directly. Thus, chaos reigned supreme, and it was only a matter of time until the Taliban—or something similar—resurged to challenge the weak and unstable system.

This is what happened in 2021. The NATO occupying forces were scheduled to withdraw, which meant the end of Afghan democracy. The Taliban’s victory was swift and undisputed, so much so that the United States had to leave behind their equipment and even some of their citizens. Although skirmishes continue as the remnants of the overthrown government try to form a resistance, the matter is all but decided.

“The Graveyard of Empires” seems a fitting name for the nation. Afghanistan does not destroy them; it measures their willingness to fight for their interests and, thus, their vitality. It is the heart of Asia, it is a barren land of blood and dust, the ultimate test of ambition. It is improbable that the United States will return; for now, it looks like its ardour and influence are declining. Who, then, will be the next to come and watch the sun rising over Kabul?

Daria Fedotova is a lawyer and writer based in Ukraine.

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