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Afghanistan is NOT the Graveyard of Empires

Eric C and I love the NPR show Foreign Dispatch--“a collection of some of the best coverage of news and events filed by NPR’s corespondents from around the globe"--but their latest episode trotted out an old cliche that we wish would die: Afghanistan has never been conquered! (I put that in italics, because I feel like that phrase is always spoken or written in exasperation.) This little factoid sums up thousands of years of history in five words, forcing the conclusion that America, like all past conquerors, is doomed to fail, so get out of Afghanistan or die trying. (With an evil doctor "Boo ha ha!" following.)

One tiny, little inconvenient truth stands in the way of this delightful saying: Afghanistan has been conquered. A lot. Many times. Over and over.

I don’t blame the average person for parroting this myth. It’s ubiquitous. I’ve read it in books, including Sebastian Junger’s War, which describes Afghanistan as “too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off.” Luttrell--of course--writes it on page forty two of Lone Survivor,It’s probably worth remembering that no nation, not the Turks, the Tatars, the Persians, the Arabs, the Hindus or the Brits has ever completely conquered Baluchistan. Those tribesman even held off Genghis Khan.” And if you think those examples are specific to the tribal areas, Seth G. Jones titled his book, In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan.

Jones isn’t the only person to use that phrase as a title. Milton Beardon titled his Foreign Policy article “Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires.” And Malou Innocent and Ted Galen Carpenter titled their Cato Institute paper “Escaping the "Graveyard of Empires": A Strategy to Exit Afghanistan”. Andrew Exum plays on the phrase here and here.

The most famous example came from Michael Steele. He said, “Everyone who has tried, over 1,000 years of history, has failed and there are reasons for that. There are other ways you could engage in Afghanistan.” And other people have said it here, here and here. And here. And here. And here. And here.

And The Daily Show said it really clearly here.

There are two problems with this sentiment. The first is that it is way too simplistic and factually inaccurate. As historian Thomas Barfield tells FP.com, “Until 1840 Afghanistan was better known as a 'highway of conquest' rather than the 'graveyard of empires’...For 2,500 years it was always part of somebody's empire, beginning with the Persian Empire in the fifth century B.C."

Even Sebastian Junger, whom I quoted above, goes on later in War to contradict himself. He writes that the inhabitants of the Korengal were forcibly converted to Islam only 100 years ago. I mean, if a foreign ruler can change an entire valley’s religion just a hundred years ago, surely it isn’t as unconquerable as Junger described?

The argument is, at its core, too simplistic. Afghanistan has only been unified as a country for barely 200 years. Up until then it was the center of empires, part of empires and a well-worn path of conquerors and armies. History is too long and convoluted to make some grand pronouncement that one region has “never been conquered”. A quick trip to wikipedia solves this problem.

Which brings me to my second point, how come no one else has thought, “Hey, this doesn’t sound right. I should check on this”? Why don’t we question our assumptions, quotations and references more frequently?

There are two lessons to be learned. The first is that Afghanistan is not the “graveyard of empires”. The second is that everyone needs to questions simple platitudes, especially on the interwebs.

nine comments

I, in fact, just had someone tell me this phrase again last night at a taco party. Since I don’t like arguing with people in public, I just thought to myself, read the blog tomorrow…

I was always of the mind that no one cared to conquer the area or run the country if it was taken. If anything it has been a great buffer between civilizations. The Brits certainly didn’t leave the infrastructure they did everywhere else- unless I just haven’t heard about the Great Afghan Railway.

Excellent point, Jon, but just makes the case all the more. The country has nothing, so it isn’t so much like countries are defeated, but that the value in keeping the land is way lower than other places.

Exactly. I think at one point the Brits simply gave up all the land (after conquering it) because they only cared about running the area’s foreign policy. That being said, most my knowledge of The Great Game comes from Rudyard Kipling…

Interesting article. People look back no further than England and the Soviets and because it serves their purposes to make Afghanistan seem like a cauldron of Empire-dissolving acid.

I will spend some time reading those links.

People also “forget” that the Soviets had a tough time winning the hearts and minds of Afghans when they did stuff like put bombs into teddy bears and dropped those into villages to blow up little kiddies.

Yeah the whole point that Britain has something of value to extract from Africa, India, the Middle East, is an important point. Afghanistan isn’t hospitable or easily conquered, I’m not saying that. But that land has been conquered. I love too that most of the people who say that mention Alexander, then kind of skip to the British ignoring the millinia and a half that passed in the interim.


I’m not entirely sure what a taco party is, but I can make a few guesses and they all sound like a fun time. Salud.

LOL, Senor Stahlke.

Doesn’t the statement also imply that the United States is an empire? Are we resigning that sentiment to fact as well?