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Graveyard of a Cliché

by Andrew Roberts

Afghanistan presents no impossible military challenge, its ‘history’ notwithstanding

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.

Yet that’s all it is: a legend. For as Thomas Barfield of Boston University, author of Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, points out: “For 2,500 years [Afghanistan] was always part of somebody’s empire, beginning with the Persian Empire in the fifth century b.c.”

The reason that Alexander stayed in Afghanistan so briefly was that there was so little to keep him there, in terms of wealth or produce; he went to Afghanistan to pass through into India. Afghanistan had already been conquered by the Median and Persian Empires beforehand, and afterwards it was conquered by the Seleucids, the Indo-Greeks, the Turks, and the Mongols. The country was quiet for most of the reigns of the Abbasid Dynasty and its successors between 749 and 1258. When Genghis Khan attacked it in 1219, he exterminated every human being in Herat and Balkh, turning Afghanistan back into an agrarian society. Mongol conqueror Tamerlane treated it scarcely better. The Moghuls held Afghanistan peaceably during the reign of Akbar the Great, and for well over a century afterwards.

Hardly any of these empires bothered to try to impose centralized direct power; all devolved a good deal of provincial autonomy as the tribal and geographical nature of the country demanded in the period before modern communications and the helicopter gunship. Yet it was they who ruled, and the fact that the first recognizably Afghan sovereign state was not established until 1747, by Ahmad Shah Durrani, illustrates that the idea of sturdy Afghan independence is a myth.

All that these empires (and, later, the British Empire) required from Afghanistan was that it not be used as a base from which attacks could be mounted, in Britain’s case from czarist Russia during what was called “The Great Game.” NATO is not demanding that much more today, merely a modicum of human rights, especially for women. Had the Taliban not hosted and protected al-Qaeda while it masterminded the 9/11 attacks, Afghanistan would almost certainly have been left alone entirely. Today, NATO is simply trying to help the majority — as we discover from recent polling, the large majority — of Afghans “to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country,” in the words of President Obama.

Nor is Islamic fundamentalism a historically deep-seated phenomenon in Afghanistan. NATO is often accused by the Left of trying to impose Western values on the Afghans, but it was King Amanullah who instituted Kemalist modernization — such as monogamy, Western clothing, and the abolition of the veil — back in 1928. The only people seeking to impose a foreign culture on Afghans are the Taliban.

One of the more recent historical examples of Afghans’ supposed ability to fend off colonial powers, the country’s struggle with the British Empire, deserves close scrutiny. For all the undoubted disaster of Britain’s First Afghan War, the popular version of events is faulty in several important respects. It is true that 16,500 people died in the horrific Retreat from Kabul, but fewer than a quarter of them were soldiers, and only one brigade was British. The moronic major-general William George Keith Elphinstone evacuated Kabul in midwinter, on Jan. 6, 1842, and the freezing weather destroyed the column as much as the Afghans did; one Englishwoman recalled frostbite so severe that “men took off their boots and their whole feet with them.” Wading through two feet of snow and fast-flowing, freezing rivers killed many more than jezail bullets did, and despite Lady Butler’s painting of assistant surgeon William Brydon entering Jalalabad alone on his pony, in fact several hundred — possibly over a thousand — survived the retreat and were rescued by the punitive expedition that recaptured Kabul by September 1842. Early in 1843, the governor-general, Lord Ellenborough, sent Sir Charles Napier to capture Sind, and thereafter Afghanistan stayed quiet for 30 years.

Sir Jasper Nicolls, the commander-in-chief of India, listed the reasons for the defeat at the time as: “1. not having a safe base of operations, 2. the freezing climate, 3. the lack of cattle, and 4. placing our magazines and treasure in indefensible places.” The lessons NATO needs to learn from the Kabul catastrophe of 1842 are therefore precisely nil, for none of these are applicable in Afghanistan today, where NATO has not lost a single man from frostbite, has not lost a significant engagement against the Taliban, and does not fight with a baggage train of civilians four times its number. Lack of cattle isn’t so important nowadays, either.

The Second Afghan War, which was actually won by Maj. Gen. Sir Frederick Roberts (no relation) at the battle of Kandahar in August 1880, holds similarly few lessons for us today. The major problems in 1878 were the maintenance of lines of communication over the passes and the intimidation of people in the occupied towns. NATO’s lines of communication are not being harried today, and anyhow air power has transformed that as well as the battlefield. After 1880, in the words of Richard Shannon’s book The Crisis of Imperialism, “Afghan resistance was subdued and Afghanistan was reduced to the status virtually of a British protectorate” until it was given its independence in 1919. And for all its post-independence instability — of the five successors of Dost Mohammed, an emir and a leading figure in the fight against British colonialism, all were assassinated or overthrown — Afghanistan did not threaten countries outside its borders until 9/11.

If those British imperial precedents therefore don’t presage today’s fighting in Afghanistan, neither do the others we are commonly warned of by the Left. The Vietnam generation likes to try to equate this war to that one, despite the absence of jungle in Afghanistan and totally different methods of engagement. North Vietnam had an army of hundreds of thousands, was supported at different times by Russia and China, and had significant help in the South from the Vietcong. By total contrast the Taliban numbers between 10,000 and 15,000 men, is hated by ordinary Afghans, and is not supported by any of the Great Powers. Moreover, America lost over 58,000 men in Vietnam, whereas it has lost a total of 1,139 in Afghanistan.

Nor is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a useful precedent. The invasion of 120,000 men of the Red Army at Christmas 1979 was undertaken not by the Soviet Union’s best units, but by soldiers from the Soviet republics adjacent to Afghanistan, in order to make it look like a limited, local operation. These two-year conscripts were often drunk or on opium. The Soviets ultimately lost 15,000 men (i.e. more than ten times the number of Americans over the same length of time). Their helicopter gunships devastated most of the villages between Ghazni and Kandahar in February 1980, utterly regardless of civilian casualties. Their equipment, training, discipline, and morale were incomparably worse than NATO’s today, and NATO has sent the very best men it has, including the British Household Division and the U.S. Marine Corps. The Soviets had thousands of defections to the enemy, whereas NATO has so far had two.

British deaths in the current Afghanistan conflict — by no means all at Taliban hands, as many were accidental — now amount to 0.25 percent of the British Army. No country that wishes to play a significant part in the world can simply withdraw from a struggle because it has lost 0.25 percent of its army on the battlefield. Neither Britain nor America could have won a war in its entire history on that basis. Never in the field of human conflict have so many fought for so long with so few losses as in Afghanistan. Every individual death is a tragedy, but it is vital to put each in its proper perspective: that of a long, vital struggle against a vicious — but historically very unimpressive — foe.

– Mr. Roberts is author of Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941–45 (HarperCollins).

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