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Is Afghanistan really a 'graveyard of empires?'

By Barry Neild, CNN
  • Afghanistan has reputation as "graveyard of empires"
  • Analysts say some truth to this, but needs strong qualification
  • British, Soviet empires both collapsed after involvement in Afghanistan

(CNN) -- The hand of history will be weighing heavily on U.S. President Barack Obama's shoulders as he deploys thousands more troops to Afghanistan in the hope of finally crushing a relentless Taliban insurgency.

Known as the "graveyard of empires," Afghanistan has a reputation for undoing ambitious military ventures and humiliating would-be conquerors, a fate his opponents at home say is not worth risking more American lives for.

In the past two centuries, both Soviet and British invaders have been forced to beat bloody retreats from Afghanistan, deprived of victories that, on paper, looked easy, but ultimately proved futile.

And can it only be coincidence that in the wake of their Afghan disasters both the British and Soviet empires -- like that of Alexander the Great's, which extended over the region more than two millennia earlier -- crumbled? Almost immediately, in the case of the Soviets, a century later for Britain.

This, say some, is the inevitable Afghan experience. Isolated, poverty-stricken and brutalized by interminable conflict that technological advances in warfare fail to end, the country apparently remains as impervious to today's military adventurers as it was to yesterday's.

"It's a hard place to fight, to conquer and rule," says Patrick Porter, a lecturer in defense studies at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, Kings College London.

"The geography is very hard: It is a country of mountains and deserts, of quite severe winters and that makes it difficult not only to fight in, but also to operate logistically. It limits your mobility and it is difficult to project power."

No wonder, he says, that the country's "graveyard" legend dies hard.

"I don't think there's some determinism in history that says things always go wrong in Afghanistan, otherwise we'd all pack up and not bother.
--British counter-insurgency expert David Benest

This is, after all, the setting of the "Great Game" of spying and geo-political horsetrading chronicled by the British empire-era author Rudyard Kipling; a spectacular CinemaScope landscape of snowy peaks, azure skies and mud brick villages peopled with proud warriors.

America's backing of the Afghan Mujahedeen in their Cold War-era struggle against the Soviets helped enhance the modern reputation of the Afghan fighters, with U.S. politicians casting them as noble anti-communist warriors to win funding for military operations.

This cliche was seized upon rather memorably in the third of Sylvester Stallone's Rambo films, when the frequently shirtless Vietnam veteran joined their struggle in a mind-blowingly violent movie that was released just as the Soviets were actually withdrawing from Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan is certainly, historically, a difficult place to conquer and to rule, and the 'graveyard of empires' does suggest some things that are true -- but they need to be strongly qualified," said Porter.

Though empires tend to fall after their Afghan skirmishes, he says, for the British this was largely down to World War II, for the Soviets, it was ideological crisis in eastern Europe and for Alexander the Great it was a failure to ensure the stable succession of his Asian empire.

"The notion of a 'graveyard of empires' is actually a false extrapolation from something that is true -- that there is tactical and strategic difficulty," Porter says.

"It is possible in wars against guerrillas to flood cities with troops. It is much harder to flood mountains. And Afghanistan is a country not of very powerful cities but of thousands of isolated villages cut off in severe winters, allowing guerrillas and insurgents to melt away and return."

For Gen. Victor Yermakov, a former Soviet commander in Afghanistan, the situation is more clear cut. Summed up by what he says are the words of Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty that ruled much of central Asia in the 1500s: "Afghanistan has not been and never will be conquered, and will never surrender to anyone."

Michael Codner, director of the military sciences department at the British think tank Royal United Services Institute, says claims that Afghanistan's sovereignty has never been violated are somewhat undermined by historical fact.

Codner points to the Persian empire which extended over Afghan soil in the 18th century, having contributed to the collapse of the once-mighty Kabul-based Mughal empire that reigned over the region two centuries earlier.

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But while Codner insists there are vast differences between modern and past military operations in Afghanistan, he acknowledges inescapable similarities, chiefly the terrain, climate and impregnable clan loyalties.

"It is not the same sort of situation you had with the Soviets and before, having said that Afghanistan is a mountainous country with a very complex tribal system and a variety of ethnicities -- and therefore a very complex country to try to manage.

"These were features facing the British in the 19th century and the Soviets, so there are obviously some continuities, but what the United States and NATO are trying to do is not the same as before."

So can the planned troop surge help the United States and its NATO allies succeed where the superpowers of the past have failed?

"I don't think there's some determinism in history that says things always go wrong in Afghanistan, otherwise we'd all pack up and not bother," says David Benest, a former Parachute Regiment officer who served as a British counter-insurgency adviser in Kabul.

Benest -- who earlier this year spent time with Afghan army officers who, crucially, are fighting alongside rather than against NATO troops -- says the recruitment of former anti-Soviet fighters who saw off the Soviets on the side of NATO is key to this.

Not only are these men well-versed in the techniques of Afghan insurgency, they learned from Soviet mistakes in the battle for hearts and minds, he says,

"Talking through counter-insurgency with Afghan colonels earlier this year, they told me: 'We're never going to do what the Soviets did because we all know how brutal it was and how it turned people against the Soviet regime.'"

Benest argues instead that the current conflict will as likely be solved in corridors of government as it will on battlefields stained with the blood of vanquished invaders.

"The idea that the Taliban can't be defeated is nonsense, if there is a common thread in counter-insurgency it is that you've got to get the politics right."

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