July 28, 2010
One of the memes of those who advocate a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan is that historically the Afghans have never been conquered; that Afghanistan is “the graveyard of empires”. I have argued against this view in the comments sections of other blogs as well as here, most recently last year when Ralph Peters once again called for us to withdraw. Once again I must be a trend setter because now almost a year later Foreign Policy magazine has published an article entitled, “Bury the Graveyard” which advances the idea that the graveyard of empires meme is hurting our progress in Afghanistan:
The Victorian British and the Soviet Union, the story goes, were part of a long historical continuum of arrogant conquerors that met their match in the country's xenophobic, fanatical, trigger-happy tribesmen. Given a record like that, it's obvious that the effort by the United States and its NATO allies to stabilize the shaky government in Kabul is doomed to fail.
Look, failure is always a possible outcome, especially judging by the way things have been going lately. But if the United States and its allies end up messing up their part of the equation, blame it on their bad policy decisions. Don't blame it on a super simplified version of Afghanistan's history -- especially if you prefer to overlook the details.
One of those myths, for example, is that Afghanistan is inherently unconquerable thanks to the fierceness of its inhabitants and the formidable nature of its terrain. But this isn't at all borne out by the history. "Until 1840 Afghanistan was better known as a 'highway of conquest' rather than the 'graveyard of empires,'" Barfield points out. "For 2,500 years it was always part of somebody's empire, beginning with the Persian Empire in the fifth century B.C."
Unfortunately, popular views of the place today are shaped by the past 30 years of seemingly unceasing warfare rather than substantive knowledge of the country's history.
So, what does this mean as far as the current war in Afghanistan go? Well in practical terms probably not much. The COIN strategy that GEN Petraeus is likely to pursue is inherently based on the idea that a stable government (or more accurately a stable enough government) can be established. All that an acceptance of this view of history can really accomplish in the current fight is to foster an acceptance, among the political class, that it actually can be won, and I stick by that assertion. From the article:
I made my first visit to Afghanistan that same year (ed. 2001). The Afghans I met were neither xenophobic nor bellicose. What they wanted most of all was peace, and they didn't trust their own leaders to bring it. "We're sick of fighting. We hate war. We want to have a free election," one grizzled -- and illiterate -- warrior told me. "And let's have the United Nations come in and make sure it's fair, so the warlords don't interfere." I heard similar views from many Afghans.
Really the fight is ours to lose, but given the attitudes currently in existence in D.C. I think that we are well on our way to that outcome.
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