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More Afghanistan Myths. The Graveyard of Empires?

afghanistan political map history graveyard of empires military warThis is the sixth in a series on popular myths about Afghanistan.

Myth #6: Afghanistan has never been conquered by outside forces.

The Truth: of all the myths that permeate western narratives of Afghanistan, this one is perhaps the most enduring. This is partly because it is enthusiastically perpetuated by journalists, authors and other commentators, and partly because it is a potent part of the Taliban’s own internal and external propaganda. As Christian Caryl pointed out in Foreign Policy last year,

It's the mother of all clichés. Almost no one can resist it. It's wielded by everyone from thoughtful ex-generals to vitriolic bloggers. It crops up everywhere from Russia's English-language TV channel to scruffy Pakistani newspapers to America's stately National Public Radio. The Huffington Post can't seem to live without it, and one recent book even chose it as a title. Afghanistan, we're told, is "the graveyard of empires."

Several other specific examples of notable purveyors of this myth are found in this helpful compilation at OnViolence.

The myth also endures, I think, because it feeds an imaginary notion of the unknown world in the western consciousness, the romantic idea of an inhospitable swath of land in a forlorn corner of the world serving as the last great bastion against cultural assimilation and foreign penetration. The country is used to symbolize a giant middle finger swaggering at one group of greedy imperialists after another.

The myth, of course, also usefully serves as a warning to the West in its justification for demanding the withdrawal of the US and other foreign forces from Afghan territory. No one has ever managed to cling on in Afghanistan, the argument goes, so don't bother trying now. And as Nushin Arbabzadah points out, even for Afghans, "the myth's power is such that it makes the legitimate question of what will happen once independence is achieved sound ridiculous."

Yet, Afghanistan, like any state, is the very product of cultural assimilation and foreign penetration. For millennia, Afghanistan has absorbed outsiders from Zoroastrians, Indian Buddhists, Macedonians, Mongolians, Uzbeks, and Persians; as it has also wielded its own influence as a foreign invader, running the Mughal Empire from its seat in Kabul for instance, a territory of some 150 million people at the time, including most of the Indian subcontinent.

There has been remarkably little immunity to the evolution of Afghan languages, cultures, and ethnicities as a result of the coming and going of new populations or opportunistic aggressors, or the shifting borders that typically come with the consolidation of a state over many centuries. Perhaps even more so in Afghanistan that in many other parts of the world, because it sits along the ancient Silk Route, and it's nestled in the neighbourhood of so many past and present great powers, from the former Soviet Union, to China, and India.

Afghanistan has unquestionably been the subdued colony of foreign empires, including the Timurid empire, various incarnations of the Persian empire, or often having parts of its territory swallowed up by ancient Hindustan. Many major Afghan cities were founded by Alexander the Great, who took an Afghan wife, and then left behind him virile soldiers who never returned to their Mediterranean homes and instead mixed with the locals, introducing Greek and Macedonian genes as well as cultural practices into the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan. Alexander also left behind a trail of fortresses, the ruins of which are still visible today. Islam, too, came to Afghanistan via armed conquest, imposed by invading Arabs. Even the Soviets, the prime example used to demonstrate how Afghanistan is unconquerable, left their mark: they were resisted but not entirely ejected, maintaining a significant military presence in the country for a decade. Their influence is still felt in modern Afghanistan, whether in the concrete Soviet apartment blocks of Kabul or in the many middle-aged professional Afghans who are fluent in Russian. Similarly, British rifles can be still found for sale in Afghan bazaars. And neither were the British entirely defeated, as Caryl points out:

Everyone tends to forget what happened after the rout of the British: In 1842 they invaded again, defeating every Afghan army sent out against them. True, they didn't necessarily achieve their aim of preventing Tzarist Russia from encroaching on Central Asia; that had to wait for the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), when they succeeded in occupying much of the country and forcing its rulers to accept a treaty giving the British a veto over future Afghan foreign policy. Then there's the fact that the First Anglo-Afghan War preceded the end of the British Empire by more than a century. London, it should be noted, never intended to make Afghanistan part of its empire. Britain's foreign-policy aim, which it ultimately achieved, was to ensure that Afghanistan remained a buffer state outside the influence of imperial competitors, such as the Russians.

But like those who call the people "Afghanis" (instead of the currency), it's an error made about Afghanistan that stubbornly persists onward. But as we should be learning by now, simple, romantic stories about Afghanistan are usually too good to be true, though we quickly swallow them whole. Fortunately, several individuals truly knowledgeable of Afghan history are observing this out-of-control cliché with alarm, and working to debunk it.

Anthropologist Thomas Barfield's new book, "Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History" is one attempt, wherein Barfield points out that for most of Afghanistan's history, the country was better known as the "highway of conquest," and a cradle of empires, rather than the ubiquitous "graveyard of empires".

More recently, the always poignant Nushin Arbabzadah wrote in The Guardian about Afghans' own adoption of this myth and the havoc its wreaked as a result, whether it's "the jihadi leaders, their Taliban enemies and vocal dissidents such as Malalai Joya" who "all draw on this myth for legitimacy and popular appeal" and the sorrowful consequences of the way in which Afghans have been "encouraged to take pride in their country as the graveyard of empires. But Afghanistan remained a graveyard while the capitals of the former empires, Moscow and London, thrived and flourished after their so-called defeat by Afghans. The myth persisted even after the entire country had turned into a giant cemetery."

Those who continue to call upon this false history seem always to employ it to stop any appeal for progress in Afghanistan dead in its tracks. It's a myth thats main purpose seems to be to attempt to prove the futility of any outsiders trying to assist Afghans, even when the myth has done such an enormous disservice to Afghans for so long. Besides this reason, we must also lament such a collective, nauseating participation in the manipulation of historical fact. What of integrity in scholarship and reporting? Though Afghanistan is ever prone to simplistic narratives and romanticization in the service of fascistic abandonment disguised as pacifism, those who care about the truth must persist in unravelling the myths, as enduring as they may be.

Lauryn Oates is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist.



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