The term "graveyard of empires" has become the norm when discussing the War in Afghanistan lately, but few realize how far back this term really extends. While it is well known the USSR was defeated there, causing the collapse of their empire, it is not as well known that the British also failed to conquer Afghanistan — three separate times. Alexander the Great, Mahmud of Ghazni, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, the Seljuks, the Hotaki Dynasty, the Moghul Empire, and the Ilkhanate; all fell to the unconquerable people of Afghanistan.
Their rich culture has been forged in the fires of insurgency, and refined during the course of 2000 years. The idea of American exceptionalism demands that we not yield to this study in history — but it will force our empire to its knees anyway. This would not be all bad, if you and I were not paying for the blossoming military budget that is being wasted in the sands of Afghanistan. Listed above are ten mighty kingdoms, countries, leaders, and empires that were defeated due to the insistent agitating of Afghanistan's insurgents. The number of empires who have successfully conquered Afghanistan and retained control for any lengthy amount of time? Zero.
Alexander the Great's empire was undoubtedly the most powerful on the earth at the time it existed, but it was no match for the tenacious fighting spirit and rugged terrain of Afghanistan. Genghis Khan is considered one of the most vicious and successful military commanders in the history of the world, and commanded a massive mobile army in 1219. That army, which eviscerated its enemies in battle after battle all over Asia, was soundly defeated in Afghanistan. The USSR, one of the two superpowers of the world at the time, invaded Afghanistan in 1979 with over 100,000 soldiers and 1,800 tanks, and yet they were utterly confused by the asymmetrical warfare they faced. Over the course of the next decade, the USSR would send over 620,000 soldiers to forcibly subdue Afghanistan's insurgents, and failed.
Unfortunately, that phrase, "the graveyard of empires" is not taken as seriously as it should be. While "the graveyard" part gets plenty of play in the media and in D.C., the "empire" part is completely ignored. Our empire has engaged the insurgency in Afghanistan and invoked their wrath.
In light of the historical fact that the Afghanis have an irrepressible desire for self-determination combined with the fatigueless insurgents that the harsh landscape seems to cultivate, perhaps the United States ought not to be attempting to escalate the conflict there. Learning the lessons of history is not where Americans excel. Our imperial history reaches back to James Madison's land grabbing of the West Florida Republic in 1810, it is as engrained in our governing structure as the two-party system and corruption — and exposed or contested less than either of them. By the end of 2009, estimates are that the War in Afghanistan will have cost the United States almost $440 billion, with no end in sight. The Soviet-Afghanistan war bankrupted the USSR and it will bankrupt America, both financially and morally. There can be no doubt that the United States, with Barack Obama at the helm, will continue the foolish War in Afghanistan, where empires go to die. Let us hope that the death of the empire will come quickly, but not adversely affect the citizenry at home. President Obama should get busy picking out our headstone, because America will shortly join that long list of empires which is laid to rest in the imperial bone yard. It would only be fitting to bury our empire next to the old USSR.
May 20, 2009