In the lexicon of the Left, the adjective “unconquerable” has now attached itself to the noun “Afghanistan” just as indelibly as the adjective “illegal” once attached itself to the noun “war in Iraq.” The New York Times, NPR, the Huffington Post, and the BBC, let alone the wilder shores of the liberal blogosphere, all take it for granted that Afghanistan has always been “the graveyard of empires” — thereby more or less openly encouraging us to draw the inevitable conclusion that the present struggle against the Taliban is unwinnable. Yet the truth could not be more different; rather than the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan has historically been their revolving door.
Half-recalled and grossly embellished folk memories of what the Afghan tribesman and his ancestors are supposed to have done over the centuries have created a myth of a hardy warrior people who have defeated every imperial power since Alexander the Great, be they the Persians, Mongols, Moghuls, Russians, British, or Soviets. We are invited to remember the First Afghan War of 1839–42 and that painting by Elizabeth Butler of the lone horseman riding back into Jalalabad after the massacre of every single European in the Retreat from Kabul. Similarly, we are reminded of the British defeat at Maiwand in 1880, and of course the humiliation of the USSR in the 1980s. Anyone who tries to invade Afghanistan, the legend implies, is thus flying in the face of history.