I have seen a great deal of your government since I came to India. Your forts, your arsenals, your ships, all are admirable. I have been down to Calcutta, and have been astonished with your wealth, your palaces, your marts, and your mint; but to me the most wonderful thing of all is that so wise and wealthy a nation could have ever entertained the project of occupying such a country as Kabul, where there is nothing but rocks and stones.
With these words, Amir Dost Mahammad bade farewell to the governor general of India at the end of the First Afghan War. Mahammad had spent much of his life fighting to preserve his kingdom. His elder brother, Fatteh Khan, had been assassinated by Mahmud Shah Durrani, the very ruler of Afghanistan he had restored to his throne. As the leaders of the Barakzai tribe, Fatteh Khan’s brothers had to seek vengeance. They drove Mahmud from his throne and parceled out his territories among themselves. Mahammad received Ghazni, to which he later added Kabul, but his troubles had only begun.
These Pashtun rulers had powerful enemies and rivals. Ranjit Singh, the Sikh ruler of Punjab, seized Peshawar, an important fortress town that Mahammad had to recover, but in asserting his right and defending his territory, he involved himself in a struggle among far greater powers. These were the years of the Great Game between Russia and Britain over control of the region. Mahammad, though he was courted by Russia, preferred Britain. The British governor general, however, instructed Mahammad that to receive British assistance, he had to surrender control over his foreign policy to Britain, but, in return, the only help the British offered was the dubious protection of Ranjit Singh himself. In the inevitable war they had provoked, the British defeated the Afghans, and Mahammad himself surrendered in 1840.
Defeat and political decapitation were not enough to secure control over the country. When the First Afghan War ended in 1842 with the treacherous destruction of a British force that numbered (including civilians) 16,000, Amir Dost Mahammad was permitted to return to the people he ruled. It was on that occasion that he expressed his bewilderment to the governor general.
Colonel Malleson began his History of Afghanistan (1879) with this anecdote, because he wished to explain to his British readers why “this country of rocks and stones” had “an importance beyond its territorial value.” Malleson had some explaining to do, since Britain was already fighting the second of three wars over Afghanistan. In the Second Afghan War (1878-80), which ended with the defeat of Ayub Khan, Mahammad’s grandson, the British were, indeed, victorious. They had also learned (or rather remembered) at least one lesson. Ayub Khan had besieged Kandahar, until he was routed by General Roberts. Ayub was not the actual ruler of Afghanistan, and when his uncle the amir died at the end of the war, the British installed another nephew, Abdur Rahman Khan, as their puppet. Ayub Khan again attacked and seized Kandahar, but the amir, at the head of an army from Kabul, retook the city. These divisions—always encouraged by the British—made it easier to defeat the Afghans in the short run, though foreign occupation or domination would ultimately unify the country against the invaders. Once in power, even Abdur Rahman proved to be a wily diplomatist who effectively kept his country independent of Britain. If quiet was what the British wanted, they got it, but if they thought they had gained the friendship of the Afghan nation, they were sadly mistaken, as the Third Afghan War was to prove.
After the Second Afghan War, Britain once again took over Afghan foreign policy, but this time wisely paid the amir a subsidy and left him in peace. In the Third Afghan War (1919), the British were able to repel an Afghan attack, and the RAF inflicted great damage on Afghan cities, but British forces suffered greater losses than the Afghans, and the net result was a decline in British influence. I wonder what Colonel Malleson would have said about these conflicts, as Britain was abandoning her empire in India after World War II?
Are there any lessons to be learned from the British experience or, more broadly, from Afghan history, that can be applied to the current debacle? Some are obvious, and the Russians had to learn them the hard way. One lesson of experience is that it is easier to conquer Afghanistan than it is to hold her. It is usually possible to bribe one set of natives (“friendlies”) to fight their enemies, on Julius Caesar’s principle of divide et impera, “divide and rule.” Unfortunately, the English mistranslation of Caesar’s dictum, as “divide and conquer,” has proved to be more accurate for modern empires that find places like Somalia or Afghanistan easy to conquer but impossible to rule. The peoples (note the plural) of Afghanistan are violent and quarrelsome, but today they are in basic agreement in hating their American conquerors. E pluribus unum.
The word Afghanistan, which refers to a region and not to a nation, is a great stumbling block to any would-be overlord. Indeed, the whole mistake of the current American operation may be said to derive from the delusion that there is any such nation as Afghanistan. Anyone who has even the slightest familiarity with the political geography of Afghanistan—and that is all I claim for myself—will realize that the region is the product of a series of ethnic and religious eruptions from all points of the compass. In the earliest days, it seems, it was a cultural extension of the Indus River Valley that winds through what is now Pakistan. When the invading tribes that spoke dialects of Indo-Iranian came bursting in, some entered the Indian subcontinent, while others went to Iran. Afghanistan, so far as I can tell, became a continuum of Indo-Iranian dialects and cultures, though the Iranian element would have become more dominant under the empire of the Medes and Persians. When Alexander the Great conquered Bactria, that name was applied to a region encompassing northern Afghanistan and the neighboring “stans” to the north. When Afghans speak of their glorious ancient past and claim Zoroaster as a native son, they are really boasting of the fact that they were subjects of the Persian Empire.
When Alexander’s successors wisely withdrew, the region was taken over by the Mauryan dynasty, which ruled a Hindu empire that came to include most of the subcontinent. As the Mauryan Empire dissolved, the territory that is today Afghanistan fell under the control of Parthians and then the mysterious Kushan Empire, followed by the Sassanid Persians. As the Sassanian Empire crumbled, the region broke down into local fiefdoms until the Arab conquest of Persia exposed the land to Islamic conquest, a process completed by the Ghaznavid dynasty in the 11th century. The Ghaznavids themselves were of Turkic origin, though they became thoroughly Persianized in language and culture. At the height of their power, they ruled much of India, on which they imposed Islam. It is usual to say that the Ghaznavids, alien though they were, more or less created Afghanistan, but the reality is rather more complex. Afghan cities were the center of an empire ruled by a Turkic dynasty and dominated by Persian culture. A better claim might be made for their successors, the Ghorids, an Iranian people who ruled over Afghanistan and parts of Iran and the subcontinent.
The Iran-India axis has been dominant in much of the region’s history, but there is another, which might be called the Turkic-Mongol axis. Ghaznavid rulers were preoccupied with fighting off the Seljuq Turks, and both they and the Ghorids’ successors, another Turkic clan, were overwhelmed in the 13th century by the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan and his Turkic allies. Some of this history is embedded in the form of the Turkic Uzbeks and Turkmeni who inhabit Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and parts of Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is not a nation, much less a nation-state. It is an endless civil war, alternately lapsing into a cold, or blowing up into a hot, war. It is one Pashtun tribe against another, Pashtun against Uzbeks and Iranians, and Uzbeks against Iranians, old guard corrupt mujahideen against idealistic Taliban, and, overall, Shia against Sunni. I know too little about the place to speak with any more authority than the CIA experts who permitted a Jordanian triple agent to blow them up, but even that little is more than I wish to know. Returning veterans have said they find our Afghan “allies” as revolting as our enemies, and, from what I can gather, pedophilia and homosexual rape are routine pastimes, like bowling or having a beer with your buddies in the good old U.S.A. One friend told me he went to bed each night and woke up each morning with but one thought: “I don’t want to have my legs blown off for these people.”
Military men have told me that General McChrystal is an excellent officer, but his job—subduing Afghanistan—is not only impossible: It is not worth the doing. Two misinformed and ignorant American presidents have sent their countrymen to die in the rocks and stones of Kabul, protecting the right of child-molesting warlords to grow the opium that is poisoning the soul of Europe and America. Yes, we shall lose face in withdrawing. This is something that Messrs. Cheney and Rumsfeld might have thought about before going in, something that President Obama’s advisors might have considered before beefing up the mission. So far the government admits that our own First Afghan War has cost about $300 billion and 1,000 lives. The whole of Afghanistan is not worth a red cent to the American people, much less the life of one American helicopter pilot. It is time to cut and run.
This article first appeared in the March 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.