A LOOK AT HISTORY
In the aftermath of 9-11, the United States invaded Afghanistan in an effort to destroy the Taliban government and Islamic extremists deemed responsible for the attacks. One could reasonably argue that during the Iraq war, the United States took its eye off Afghanistan, resulting in a resurgent Taliban and new political instability. However, with the new American administration and the security-agreement-mandated force reductions in Iraq, Afghanistan may quickly become the new white-hot point of American foreign policy. Regardless of whatever future policy the United States pursues in Afghanistan, it will be preceded by a nearly twenty-five hundred year historical record.
Geographically, the region of Afghanistan is the eastern-most extension of the Iranian Plateau. Harsh deserts and extreme mountain ranges, such as the Hindu Kush, divide and fragment the region. Its mountain passes have provided the great land routes connecting the East—China, India, and Central Asia, with everything West—the Middle East and eventually the Mediterranean. However, since the late Middle Ages, the development of maritime technologies, and obviously the aviation technologies of the modern era, have gradually reduced the economic importance of these overland passes. Nevertheless, they have remained extremely important to Afghan history.
A BUFFER STATE
The designation “Afghanistan,” referring to the specific, sovereign, geographically defined state as it is now known, is a development of late nineteenth century European interests. Their intent was to create a large buffer state separating British India from Russian expansion into Central Asia. However, typical of the European colonial age, the boundaries did not take into account the ethnic and tribal differences that divide Afghanistan into warring factions. South of the Hindu Kush, the Pashtun ethnic group dominated. However, north of the Hindu Kush, Uzbek,
Tajik, and Turkmen ethnic groups remained beyond the control of any government.
Historically, the British-drawn borders contributed mightily to the nearly unending cycle of civil wars that still fragment modern-day Afghanistan. The recent interest of the United States in the Northern Alliance is recognition of the difficulties created by the drawing of these boundaries.
Contrary to recent history, a Taliban-like Islamic fundamentalism has not been a part Afghanistan’s history. Persian Zoroastrianism, and later Buddhism, along with countless indigenous tribal and ethnic cults, provided a religious environment for the Afghan people. Arab Muslims pushed into Afghanistan in the late seventh century. However, Islam established itself more through cultural assimilation than by force. The flowering of Islamic culture in the region marks one of the early highpoints of Afghan culture.
THE “SECOND ACHILLES”
Afghanistan’s sequential history is dense, filled with two kinds of players: First, outsiders carrying large appetites for power who did not consider the region important politically, culturally, or in terms of natural resources. For them, Afghanistan was often the means to greater ends beyond its borders; and second, Afghans themselves who were able to balance competing tribal rivalries to create a relatively unified government for brief periods of time.
In 334 B.C.E., Alexander the Great, the 22-year-old king of Macedonia, left Greece for the last time, crossing the Hellespont into the westernmost extension of Asia. Historians report that he immediately stopped at the ancient site of Troy to visit the tomb of the mythic Greek warrior, Achilles, and took possession of his divinely made armor.
During the next five years, this “second Achilles” defeated the army of the Persian king, Darius III, pushing east through his entire empire. By 329 B.C.E., Alexander’s army reached Bactria—roughly the northern half of present-day Afghanistan, marched through to Arachosia (Kandahar) and the Hindu Kush mountains, finally reaching Kabul.
However, except for a brief push to the Indus River (India), present-day Afghanistan would represent the farthest eastward extension of Alexander’s military campaigns. The ferocity of the resistance Alexander faced in Afghanistan exhausted his will and that of his army. He would soon begin a southern withdrawal along the Indus River to the Arabian Sea and then west to Mesopotamia. In 323 B.C.E., Alexander died of a fever in Babylon, never returning to Greece or consolidating his conquests into lasting political settlements.
INVADERS INEVITABLY FAILED
Although a faint trace of a Greek–Bactrian cultural and political synthesis remained, subsequent Hellenic kings were unable to control
Afghanistan. With one notable exception, Alexander and the Greeks set the pattern for the next two thousand years: foreign peoples and invading armies would find little, if any, lasting success in Afghanistan. The notable exception was the Mongols. Genghis Kahn—first quarter of the thirteenth century, and later Tamerlane—mid-fourteenth century—brought a particular level of mindless havoc and destruction to the Afghan peoples, their culture, and infrastructure. Many historians have noted that the actions of these two men seemed aimed more at systematically destroying the region rather than merely conquering and controlling it.
Nevertheless, even in the wake of the Mongols, one thread of Afghan culture remained constant and marks two very different sides of Afghanistan. While the cities along the great overland routes easily fell to outside armies, the independent, autonomous warrior culture of the mountain, ethnic tribal peoples remained. These tribes were feudal in organization, intensely factional, and beyond the reach of any centralized government, native or foreign.
Left to themselves, they often waged bloody wars against one another; however, it was a different story when an outside invader appeared. Living “under the mountains” as described by outsiders, these warrior tribes emerge united and have exacted terrible costs in terms of manpower and resources far out of proportion to the relative might of an invading force. British, Soviet, and now American forces have felt the sting of these groups.
THE FIRST NATIVE AFGHAN EMPIRE
By the early 1760s, Ahmad Shah Durrani established the first native Afghan empire, encompassing all of present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, and some Indian territory east of the Indus River. His geographic definition of Afghanistan would lead directly to the British boundaries of the 1870s. Durrani’s success depended on his highly personal ability to retain the loyalty and cooperation of Afghan tribal leaders. Ahmad Shah Durrani died in 1772. He was followed by three sons, who, predictably, were not as capable, and by 1820 had squandered their father’s political achievement.
During a lengthy portion of the nineteenth century, Great Britain and tsarist Russia engaged in what has been called the Great Game, some of which directly involved Afghanistan. The British, already firmly entrenched in India, became increasingly wary of Russian movement eastward along the northern steppe regions of Central Asia. Britain considered Afghanistan a potential buffer against this expansion.
By the summer of 1839, and after gentlemanly deference to the Afghan government of Shah Shuza, British forces successfully invaded and occupied Afghanistan. On the surface, the British tactic appeared brilliant, except for considerably underestimating the long term response of Afghan mountain tribal groups. Within three years, the British were effectively driven from the country. Two events of 1842 came to symbolize Afghan fury against the outsiders. The long British retreat from Kabul to Jalalabad claimed the life of every British soldier—something close to seventeen thousand—save one. The same year, the decapitated and de-limbed body of Sir William McNaughton, a primary architect of British policy in Afghanistan, could be seen hanging from a hook in Kabul.
THE SOVIET INVASION
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its confrontation with the Mujahideen in the late 1970s and 1980s, was in many ways a repetition of the classic pattern seen so often in Afghan history. The additional elements of Muslim fighters on both sides and American assistance to the Mujahideen did not really affect the pattern of previous
history. In the end, the outside invader paid a high price for its actions.
As the Americans and their NATO coalition partners have so painfully discovered, victory in Afghanistan, if even possible, will take a considerable length of time (some experts say decades), be expensive in fiscal resources, and costly in human lives, both military and civilian.
For most of its long history, Afghanistan remained one of a handful of Central Asian territories considered pawns in the geopolitical struggles of both greater regional and world powers. Despite the chaos of its internal tribal politics and behavior, Afghans have consistently exacted a heavy toll in manpower and treasure from outsiders who enter.