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Afghanistan - The Graveyard of Empires

By: Connor Reardon

Throughout its history, Afghanistan has been a battleground of the Great Powers. In the late 1800s, when European colonial powers controlled 9/10 of the world, Afghanistan was at the center of a decades-long political struggle between the two largest countries the world had ever seen. The Russian Empire, which stretched from Warsaw to the Pacific, and the far-flung British Empire, which held colonies on every continent and whose military appeared invincible at the time. Afghanistan sits between Pakistan, which was a part of Britain’s larger colony in the Indian subcontinent, and the southernmost frontiers of Russia, with whom Britain held a tense rivalry. Both of the mightiest powers in the world invaded Afghanistan to try to obtain a geopolitical advantage on their frontier over the other, and both failed. All throughout the 1800’s and well into the 1900s, Afghanistan repelled foreign invasion and maintained independence as one of the few minor powers whose affairs were immune to the influence of distant Asian or European capitals. It would again be invaded in the 1980s, this time by the Soviet Union, who would again fail to achieve a victory in the country. Time and time again, the Afghan people fought impossible odds and retained control over their country. Time and time again, formerly invincible armies crumbled when venturing into that hostile terrain and against the determined Afghan people. In 2001, America’s time came.


For twenty years, the United States, just emerging from the Cold War as the most powerful country in history, fought in Afghanistan. For twenty years, the United States invested blood and treasure into the mountains of Afghanistan. For twenty years, the sons and daughters of America fought and spilled their blood in a land more distant than any America has invaded before. Taxpayers paid trillions of dollars to finance a seemingly unending war and a war which, following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, would soon be forgotten. Forgotten, that is, until August 2021. After years of non-commital attempts to withdraw US forces, it was finally decided that the last of the American troops would leave Afghanistan in September of this year, leaving what remained of the war to be fought by the democratic regime in Kabul. It wasn’t the withdrawal itself that made headlines, it was its immediate impact. Not long after the announcement of the impending withdrawal, which followed talks with the Taliban, the movement and government which was overthrown following the US invasion, the entire situation in Afghanistan began to crumble. Although the initial invasion was a brilliant success, and the Taliban’s government was overthrown in weeks, their soldiers and leaders quickly began a guerilla war, retreating to the mountains. The US’ direct occupation ended quickly, and the nominally democratic Islamic Republic of Afghanistan would be proclaimed in 2004. But the Taliban persisted. After a few years of low Taliban activity, it was believed the fledgling Afghan government’s infrastructure would be able to retain control. US troops began to withdraw. Quickly, several areas held by the government fell to Taliban insurgents in a sudden offensive. Clearly, the Republic’s defensive capabilities were inadequate to control the country in the long term. So, under President Obama, troops were sent back in en-masse. “The Surge” as it was called, saw a renewed military investment in Afghanistan, which undid most gains the Taliban had made. The fact that “the Surge” was necessary would make clear to the State Department and the Obama Administration that a perpetual American presence in Afghanistan would be necessary to uphold the Republic. The reason for this is that the Islamic Republic suffered from unchecked corruption. US funds to Afghan military units were given directly to unit commanders and were allocated based on the size of local forces. More soldiers meant greater funds. Many local officers abused this policy and “recruited” soldiers who would never see basic training. They would go door to door in villages, looking for men in need of a quick buck. In exchange for agreeing to use their name and enlist on paper, these villagers would see a one-time payment out of the commander’s budget. The result of this was most of the Afghan National Army existed solely on paper.


The Taliban, however, was very real. As the corrupt government in Kabul failed to address critical issues throughout the country, allowed disorder to persist in remote provinces, and opened the heavily religious country to Western markets, resulting in the import of industries whose practices and products clashed with traditional Islamic morality, the Afghan people began to look back at 2001 with nostalgia. In addition, the government was imposing policies that would make their Islamic Republic more appealing to Western powers. Equal voting, property, and military service rights between the sexes became a source of tremendous controversy. A press that pushed capitalistic moral ambiguity and defamed religiosity caused a stir. In essence, the Afghan government in Kabul was pushing for values completely different from the traditional Afghan way of life. Supporting this, the United States was undertaking its umpteenth attempt at nation-building since the turn of the century. But as was the case in Iraq, and in Libya, our nation-building efforts have failed in Afghanistan. Democracy brought instability. Capitalism brought immortality. The US Armed Forces brought with them war. These factors saw a public opinion in Afghanistan that preferred the harsh order of the Taliban over the free but chaotic Republic. And so, as US public opinion turned against the taxing war in a distant land, and troops again began to trickle out, the 2010s saw greater responsibility placed in the hands of the Afghan National Army for the defense of the Republic. As was mentioned before, most of its force existed only on paper. Many of its officers served only to get rich off US subsidies. The brave Afghan soldiers who were actually doing the fighting were mismanaged, and their comrades from the US were ordered out by politicians. By 2021, the writing was on the wall. The Taliban’s activity began increasing immediately after a decade in limbo. Rural provinces saw everything from guerilla raids on Army units to outright takeovers of villages. The Taliban had not spent these years in dormancy idling about. They had been preparing for a US withdrawal, and at last their day had come.


Over the Summer, the Taliban rapidly gained ground, and the US continued its withdrawal. By mid-August, it was believed by US officials that the Republic had a month to survive at most. But on August 15, far earlier than expected, the Afghan capital of Kabul was captured. The Taliban marched in after the Afghan National Army crumbled and deserted in the wake of their offensive. The city from which they had been expelled for twenty years welcomed them with a standing ovation. Crowds of Afghans flocked to the Taliban columns as they re-entered the capital. By the afternoon, the white flag of the Taliban was hoisted over the government buildings, as the Republic’s leaders fled to other countries. In the days to follow, the messy US withdrawal would finally be complete, and the Taliban would proclaim the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.


This lengthy history and account of the twenty-year war serve to bring us to the present. The United States has failed in its last remaining undertaking of the original War on Terror. In that time, we invaded Iraq, obliterating the only stable government in the country since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and leaving it under stronger influence from Iran than from us. We invaded Libya, doing the same, and leaving it in a civil war which persists to this day, and which plummeted what was once the most developed nation in Africa into one of the worst states of chaos on the continent. After twenty grueling years, the Afghan War ended in status quo antebellum. But the consequences of this go beyond just a military loss. The nascent Biden Administration took a massive hit to its already plummeting prestige at home and abroad, and the withdrawal was criticized across the nation. Republicans and Democrats, all major media outlets, many businessmen, celebrities, and countless ordinary citizens spoke up about their dissatisfaction with the lackluster withdrawal and the collapse of democracy in Afghanistan. This failure over the course of four presidencies has caused the idea that America cannot be consistent with foreign policy to be reinforced. What is worse is that the notion of America’s decline has been propelled to the forefront of international discussions. China is emboldened, Iran’s flanks are safe from US bases, and the American economy is worse off for the war. Another outpost of the “Free World” has collapsed under its own inefficiencies, and the supposed infallibility of the American ideology is called into question. This failure in Afghanistan is the final nail in the coffin of a geopolitical project of unprecedented scale, and it is a grave sign of what is to come for the increasingly unstable American Empire.


America first entered Afghanistan to usurp the Taliban’s regime and install a liberal democracy. Though the reason for this was not to bring them “freedom”. Nor was the purpose of the war oil, as is often joked about. In truth, in installing democracy in Afghanistan, the US would effectively conquer it. An ideological ally who is reliant on the US for its defense is an outpost of the American Empire. Such became the fate of Iraq. In fact, it is no coincidence that just after overthrowing the Taliban, the US quickly invaded Iraq under false pretenses. If one looks at a globe, they will quickly find that Iraq and Afghanistan, seemingly remote and beyond the scope of US interests, are on the flanks of another country. One which has been growing increasingly antagonistic to American ambitions in the Middle East. That country is - Iran. Iraq covers the bulk of Iran’s West, and Afghanistan covers its East. After the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the US established long-term military bases in both countries. People like to think of Afghanistan and Iraq as being two wars completely independent of each other, aside from their being entanglements in the broader War on Terror. This could not be further from the truth. A rudimentary analysis of geopolitics would reveal that Afghanistan and Iraq are a package deal, especially for American ambitions in Iran, which has been viewed for some time now as a part of the ever-changing and vague “Axis of Evil” of the countries most opposed to American liberal democracy. To control both Iraq and Afghanistan is to be able to wage war on Iran on two treacherous fronts, mountains, and deserts, and to at the very least keep Iran in check diplomatically. Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded to serve as outposts of the post-Cold-War order of worldwide liberalism. And what has become of those outposts since?


Over the course of the years, the Bush Administration became increasingly unpopular as the American people grew tired of a war that had little to do with their actual interests. To control Afghanistan and Iraq would be invaluable for the State Department and American corporations, but no return could possibly be seen for the taxpayers whose paychecks and loved ones were being sent thousands of miles away. In order to remain in office and to win re-election, countless politicians cow-towed to this popular whim. When demand for war rose, so too would politicians stoke the flames further, and order more troops in. When the people began to protest and complain, the leash was tightened on the American war effort, resulting in several half-measure withdrawals. After 2004, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the US had one foot in the water and one foot out at any given time. Obama campaigned fiercely on withdrawing American troops from Iraq, and fulfilled his promise, despite Iraq not yet being ready to maintain democracy. Obama became more popular, to be sure, but Iraq entered the civil war two years after the US withdrawal, and today it sits as a present tossed to Iran. And in the same term, the Obama Administration rushed more troops into Afghanistan during the distantly mentioned “Surge”.  Later, President Trump would commit to withdrawing from the many “endless wars”, and while he would not enter any new conflicts in the War on Terror, he also escalated commitments in Syria and was on and off with his policy on Afghanistan. That is until he set a firm deadline for withdrawal in 2021. All this time, America could not maintain a consistent wartime policy regarding Afghanistan. But all this time, the Taliban’s policy remained consistent. Reclaim power. America was not even sure what the objectives of the deployment of troops were to be in the long term. All along, the Taliban was certain of its objectives and pursued them ruthlessly.


Unsurprisingly, the invasion of a distant land by a liberal democracy proved to be a half measure. America’s unstable policy towards Afghanistan and failure to commit consistently, and ensure its resources were being used well, resulted in a slap across the face to the world order. America has emerged from the War on Terror with far less Islamic terrorism in the world, sure, but every attempt to establish an imperial outpost has failed. It has been a colossal geopolitical failure, while in that time Russia has annexed the valuable Crimean Peninsula and China is building islands in the South China Sea. In addition, every “democracy” established in its wake through bombs and the backing of corrupt governments, has proven itself to be capable only of the worst a liberal democratic society has to offer. In Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan, the rapid transition from firm governance and Islamic morality to secular capitalistic debauchery was met with harsh reactions from the populations. All of those countries have either returned to the status quo from before or have slid into dysfunction. Iraq, once the greatest power in the Arab World, has been a failed state for over a decade. The same is true elsewhere. The War on Terror has left America’s prestige and capacity for consistent diplomacy and military policy crippled. What happened in Afghanistan and Iraq was only a microcosm of America’s larger issue when facing the world. Every four years, we elect our president, and every four years we have the capacity to completely upend our foreign policy. This, while the autocratic powers we, or more accurately, the regime in D.C. opposes, are able to execute government plans which exceed a lifetime. The same is true for our economic policy, social policy, and all manner of other affairs of the State. America has been marred with instability all throughout this century, and it is becoming more and more apparent each passing year. Rioting, economic recessions, poverty, all of these are entangled with the same issues which are at the root of our failures in Afghanistan. This, while across the Pacific, China is ascendant, having recovered from the ongoing pandemic and being the only major economy to report growth. China builds infrastructure on an unfathomable scale, China reaches out to the world with consistency and dictates affairs on the terms in the interests of the nation, not companies or some ideological order. In essence, as the US declines very visibly, other powers are stepping in to jostle for the position of pre-eminence it once held. 

Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires, not because when great powers invade it and fail they instantly collapse. Rather, the inability of great powers to control this rugged country typically serves to prove that they are not as invincible as they once seemed. Invading Afghanistan did not destroy the British Empire, nor the Soviet Union, nor will it serve as the undoing of the United States. But importantly, Afghanistan has always occupied a central position in the context of the decline of these great powers. So too does it now occupy a central position within the broad array of issues that mar the declining power that is America. This is not to say there is no hope for America. This is not to say that America will collapse, or completely fade from international affairs. Neither of these possibilities is even on the table. However, it points to the fact that America is in decline. Its capacity as a world power is collapsing, and key issues on the homefront remain unaddressed. How can a body venture into the wilderness to explore and conquer if it is diseased and has broken bones? How can America possibly sustain a position of power in the world if its roads continue to crumble, its government continues to cow-tow to private interests, its policies fail to remain consistent, its people grow more impoverished, its racial and class divisions grow unchecked, and its politics remain divorced from any authentic national interest? Likewise, how can America operate on the international stage competitively when all of her opponents have done away with many of these issues? It will not be possible until the underlying defects of the American ideology are addressed. America’s venture in Afghanistan ended in disaster. But perhaps through the insight it has provided, there will be gains made at the homefront. Perhaps, just perhaps, as the American empire declines, the American nation will be rejuvenated.

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