THE LAND WHERE
NO ONE CAN WIN (OR AT LEAST NO ONE’S DONE IT YET) BY STEPHEN TANNER
Given America’s surprisingly easy expulsion of the Taliban from power in 2001 – using few troops, thus suffering practically no casualties – it may come as a surprise to some to see the war in Afghanistan still raging worse than ever a decade later. Western coalition deaths (primarily US and UK) are now well past the 2,000 figure, with new records for soldiers killed in action being set every month. But for anyone with a passing knowledge of Afghan history this was only to be expected.
The basic question that’s befuddled every would-be conqueror since ancient times is: “What exactly is Afghanistan?” The name of the country and its political borders are modern creations, but the challenge of subjugating what is really an amorphous mass of pan- national tribal and ethnic groups – many of fierce and primitive mindset, interspersed among extremely harsh terrain – is another matter entirely.
When Alexander the Great marched in, he had difficult problems with Afghanistan’s climate, mountains, and desserts, but the armies he fought were mainly Scythians north of the Oxus (who later moved south and morphed into the Pashtun). He finally solved his problem by marrying a native princess, Roxanne, and was able to move on to India; however, the Greek kingdom he left behind in the Hindu Kush was soon obliterated.
Subsequent invaders fared just as badly, but given the problems of transportation in the day, the newcomers just as often blended in with the locals, reinforcing the warrior culture of the entire territory. One thing everyone learned was that Afghanistan’s lowland communities, along its few accessible transit routes, were easily overrun by any technologically superior foreign army that had a notion to do so. The true strength of the territory gradually shifted to the hills, from which the native fighters could outlast, and repeatedly counterattack, any would-be occupier, making their dreams of adding Afghanistan to an outside empire untenable.
“For a rare period in its history Afghanistan actually had a strong central government.”
The Mongols may have done the best job of all with their invasion, simply by killing everyone in reach and destroying their means of sustenance. Then again, Genghis Khan had very clear-cut goals – slaves and plunder – and there is no record that he ever bothered, as would later invaders, with installing “good government.” Even the Mongols suffered a devastating defeat in the Afghan passes, for which they exacted mighty revenge, but afterwards they simply vacated the place, leaving behind only an ethnic remnant called the Hazara, who are now the country’s most downtrodden minority.
The British experience in Afghanistan is a bit too well known to repeat here except for mentioning, in relation to Elphinstone’s retreat from Kabul, the phrase “the most pitiful disaster of the Colonial Age.” At least it can
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be said that one Briton, of the 16,000-person column, did get through the passes, despite being wounded in five places, and it is estimated that some 20 Indian servants also escaped.
The second Anglo-Afghan War was equally as fruitless, though not quite as gruesome. The British even pulled a singular degree of success out of their hat before retreating again, when they placed Abdur Rahman on the throne in Kabul before they withdrew. Abdur was the Saddam Hussein of his day, becoming known as the “Iron Emir,” and despite his former Russian affinities he agreed, in return for a steady flow of payment, to comply with British foreign policy. For a rare period in its history Afghanistan actually had a strong central government.
Countering their lucky find in the Iron Emir, however, the British erred in 1893 when they decided to draw an actual border between Afghanistan and India. Sir Mortimer Durand’s nonchalant stroll right through the centre of the Pashtun tribal group – his only firm instruction being to place every important pass or strategic point on the Indian (now Pakistan) side – has confounded every invader since. Neither Soviet nor US planners, on looking at modern maps, were ever fully aware that they were not waging war in “Afghanistan,” which was a theoretical concept, but against an invisible country that Sir Mortimer had obscured: Pashtunistan.
During most of the 20th century the country enjoyed its status as an utter geopolitical backwater (a humbling status for a former “crossroad of empires”) and was able to skip both World Wars while the rest of the globe nearly tore itself to pieces. But then the Soviets decided to stage their Christmas invasion of 1979, only to find that the former Scythians, Parthians, White Huns, Turks, and Mongols who populated the place were still as fierce as ever.
The Soviets overran all the major cities, as was expected, and even gained major allies among the intelligentsia, the progressive-minded, and entrepreneurial types. But they shortly found out that Afghanistan was a poor candidate for a worker’s paradise, and that the true ferocity of the country still lay in its primitive hills. These included the ones in the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan, where resistance base camps were supplied and abetted by the United States and others, as well as
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