Fireside Friday: August 27, 2021

Fireside this week! This week was the first full week of class, so the chaos that implies has delayed the last part of our look at Victoria II, hopefully just until next week. I also wanted to note that if you have sent me a guest-post pitch, I have not forgotten it but haven’t had a lot of time to go through them. Hopefully that should change and I should be able to start looking over pitches and drafts and getting that process moving this weekend.

In terms of upcoming features, my plan is to finish up our look at Victoria II and then briefly discuss – because it is related to Vicky2 – the popular (mis)conception of how trench warfare worked and what produced the deadly stalemate of the First World War on the Western Front. After that, as we are coming up on the normal season for graduate school applications and this is a question that comes up a fair bit from students and on social media and also in personal interactions, I thought I ought to write a bit about what pursuing a graduate degree in an academic field (particularly in the humanities) is like and why one should or should not do this thing.

Also in my backlog, our most diligent narrator has converted a number of posts over to an audio format including the Universal Warrior series (I, IIa, IIb, and III), Why Don’t We Use Chemical Weapons Anymore, That Dothraki Charge, and all of That Dothraki Horde. Check them out! I am really excited to see the list of posts available in audio format, as it is an accessibility option that I’ve always wanted but had neither the time, nor the expertise, nor the voice to do it myself.

The Academicats sitting in judgement. For those keeping track, Percy is on the left, Ollie is on the right.

For this week’s musing, as you might imagine a lot of my thinking over the past couple of weeks which hasn’t been focused on the flurry of preparations for the start of classes has been focused on the crisis in Afghanistan. I’m not going to get into my own policy views on the decisions being taken except to note that I think that anyone suggesting that these decisions were simple or easy or that there was a clear path to an outcome which would have resulted in some clean and clearly positive outcome are wrong. This was always going to be messy, the question was what kind of messy and which actors come out of that mess closer to achieving their strategic objectives. While I won’t get into my own views, I will list below in the reading a number of discussions of the crisis that I found useful to think with (some of which I agree with, some less so).

But I did want to grumble vaguely about a ‘take’ that emerged fairly predictably, which I think is not very good: the ‘graveyard of empires’ line, which presents Afghanistan as a uniquely unconquerable place, a place that is uniquely the site of imperial hubris. You see it in comics like this one:


This is one of those takes which hits the obnoxiousness sweet-spot of always being offered as a sort of world-weary bit of cynical-but-wise knowledge which is also not only wrong but obviously wrong in a way which can be proved with little more than a brief wiki-walk or google search. First off, this particular phrase isn’t that old only really bursting into use in 2001 when American intervention in Afghanistan was just beginning. It’s also striking the relatively limited historical awareness implied by how this trope is presented: we jump directly from Alexander the Great in 323 BC to the British Anglo-Afghan wars in the 1800s. The trope relies not only on the listener not knowing anything about the missing two millennia, but also not noticing those missing two millennia, being prepared to jump directly from one brief period of European (Macedonian) adventurism in Afghanistan to the next brief period of European (British and Russian) adventurism in Afghanistan. Was Afghanistan on vacation for the intervening 2,100 years?

Of course not. Mostly Afghanistan spent that intervening space being the site of large states or ruled from outside by them…which is rather the opposite of what we’d expect for the ‘graveyard of empires.’ It turns out quite a lot of people could and did successfully conquer and rule Afghanistan! One of those successful conquerors of Afghanistan? Alexander the Great. The number of people I have run into who think Alexander lost in Afghanistan is truly dumbfounding; Alexander did conqueror Afghanistan, with his conquests leading (eventually) to the Greco-Bactrian kingdom (generally just called Bactria) which governed the area from 245 BC to its dissolution in 100 BC (230 years after Alexander showed up! Not a bad run). After which, Afghanistan became part of the Parthian Empire, an Iranian empire famous for sparring with the Romans. In the first century AD, the area broke away and founded their own empire, the Kushan Empire which held together until the third century (also a solid run), when the Sassanids, another Iranian empire famous for sparring with the Romans, took over. Later on, the Saffarids, another Persian dynasty, ruled out of Zaranj (itself now in the modern state of Afghanistan) from 861 to 1003 (also not a bad run).

Jumping forward (we are skipping some successful rulers of Afghanistan here), the Mongols famously had no problem overrunning the region in 1219, but we should note they weren’t fighting some disorganized tribes but in fact a very well organized state, the Khwarazmian dynasty. The Mongols (in the form of the Ilkhanate) hold most of Afghanistan until 1370 (a quite respectable 150 years) when the area comes under the control of the Timurids, who also handily conquer the area; they lose much of their territory outside Afghanistan in the mid-1400s and fragment, but continue to hold Afghanistan until one of their princes, a fellow named Babur (1483-1530) used Afghanistan as his starting point in forming the Mughal Empire which controlled Afghanistan but also Pakistan and much of modern India at its height. As borders shifted, parts of Afghanistan were controlled by the Indian Mughals, parts by the Iranian Safavids, and parts by the Uzbek Khanate of Bukhara. Then in the mid-1700s, the Afghans founded another of their own empires, the Durrani Empire, which also extended eventually to control much of what is today Pakistan, in addition to Afghanistan. Their control of Afghanistan ended when Dost Mohammad Khan Barakzai made himself the Emir of Afghanistan and you may know that name because this is the fellow the British invaded in 1839 to get rid of because they favored the old Durrani ruler in part due to fears about undue Russian influence.

I should note here that of the empires supposedly buried in Afghanistan, only the USSR’s imperial adventure there came meaningfully close, chronologically, to the collapse of its empire. The British war in Afghanistan that everyone remembers is the First Anglo-Afghan war (1839-1842) which one may note comes towards the beginning, not the end, of the long ‘English Summer’ of British dominance in world affairs. The British actually won the later Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), installing their own choice of ruler in the country. Finally a third Anglo-Afghan War (1919) was a bit more of a wash; the British let Afghanistan go but obtained assurances over the border of the British Raj, which was the only thing the British had really ever cared for in Afghanistan in the first place. Though the British record in the country is perhaps unenviable, the British Empire left Afghanistan in 1919 very much alive. It is hard not to conclude that, of all of the events which occurred in the late 1910s, the final retreat of British influence from Afghanistan cannot make even the top-10 list of ‘things which weakened the British Empire.’

It turns out a lot of empires have had very successful times in Afghanistan; the Afghans themselves founded more than a few of them. Of course that means admitting that Afghanistan is not some intractable, naturally un-ruleable country, but merely that this or that (western) power lost there, a thing which happens from time to time to all powers, Great and minor, but which we have come to imagine does not happen to western Great Powers, except against other western Great Powers. But of course this is nonsense too.

Now one may then ask why has Afghanistan been so hard to control from the outside since the 1830s! What changed? I actually think the change goes back further and it has nothing to do with Afghanistan being ungovernable. Portuguese infiltration into the Indian Ocean in the 1500s realigned the old Silk road and spice trade from the overland route (which passed through parts of Afghanistan and led to the proverbial wealth of cities like Samarkhand) and reoriented it south and to the sea. Suddenly, Afghanistan was no longer situated in the mountains just south of the world’s most important overland trade-route.

That shift rendered Afghanistan some of the least valuable imperial real estate in the whole world, because the country is otherwise so remote from the major lines of trade in the world. While Afghanistan does have some valuable mineral resources, it’s a land-locked country. More than that, it is a mountainous landlocked country both with bad infrastructure but also where infrastructure is extremely expensive to build (because of the mountains). Consequently, getting anything of value out of Afghanistan is extremely difficult; so is getting heavy mining equipment into Afghanistan. Global trade, especially in bulk goods, still moves almost entirely by sea which is why Central Asia remains so stubbornly hard to develop – access to the sea is just so far away and hard to get to. Afghanistan compounds this because between it and the sea isn’t long swaths of Steppe (over which one might build lots of railroads), but some of the highest mountains in the world. Afghanistan simply has no resources worth investing the tremendous amount of blood and treasure required to get them even if the Afghans did nothing.

Consequently, Afghanistan holds the position it does because, given the current economic orientation of the world, it is the last place an empire would want to go and the first it would want to give up. It is no accident that the British only begin sniffing around Afghanistan when their dominance in the Indian subcontinent was pretty much entirely secure (it’s the same period where they’re sending military expeditions into Tibet, which rivals Afghanistan for being some of the least valuable global real estate for many of the same reasons). And because the value of Afghanistan is so low, it is much easier to push a foreign power over the line where it simply isn’t worth maintaining a presence.

Afghanistan isn’t the graveyard of empires. It is the midlife-crisis-car of empires: an overly expensive, not terribly useful thing empires buy when they are bored and not sure what to do with their excess income that is a swiftly regretted embarrassment. It may not always be so, of course; at times after the shifting of the silk road Afghanistan has been the seat of major empires and it may yet be again (if my country was next to Afghanistan, I might be more than a bit worried at where the battle-hardened and victorious Taliban might think to go next, if they decide to take their brand of Islamic rule on the road – though it is by no means certain they want to take it on the road). And on top of this it must be conceded it is rough country and the multiple linguistic and ethnic groups make it difficult to control (though this might be said of many other parts of the world too), a point which might not be fatal to imperial ventures there except that there is nothing worth the difficult in Afghanistan…unless of course that thing is ‘home.’

But some unique ‘graveyard of empires’ it is not.

On to Recommendations:

First, I wrote a twitter thread that may interest some, on how we know how long the Macedonian sarisa (the main infantry weapon in the armies of Philip II, Alexander the Great and his successors) was. It gets into not only the basics of that question but also many of the issues with reconstructing the weapon. Of particular note is the question of if the sarisa was carried in two halves connected by an iron sleeve. This is a very common reconstruction in popular works but as I note in the thread the evidence for this is extremely thin, based entirely on the interpretation of a single metal object which may or may not have been originally connected to the sarisa-components it was found with and which never appears in period artwork of the weapon.

Next, building on our discussion of frescos and the Roman attitudes towards color, take a look at this fascinating project using mosaic – artwork made up of many hundreds of small colored tiles – to try to restore a bit of color to Rome’s world. We’ve talked here about people but Roman cities generally were colorful places; the Romans liked to paint buildings and statues bright and often (to our eyes) garish colors. Mosaic, because the colors don’t meaningfully fade, provides a really useful window into that color which is typically lost on the surviving statues and ruins themselves.

There has also in the past few weeks, of course, been an absolute flood of things written about Afghanistan. I wanted to share some of what I found most insightful coming from the question as a military historian (though one who has never been to Afghanistan). Understandably, a lot of the discussion has swirled around the United States military as a party to the conflict, which makes sense, but I think obscures the role of the Taliban in bringing about this conclusion (one in which they win their war). One useful corrective to that, though it is now a bit aged, is this report, “Life under the Taliban Shadow Government” which details how the Taliban functioned and controlled territory (in its way) before the collapse of the Afghan government. Likewise, Jeremy Suri discusses (in a review of S. Guha’s Tribe and State in Asia Through Twenty-Five Centuries) the (un)surprising resilience of tribal societies in the face of state intervention.

On the USA/NATO side of the equation, I think Mike Jason’s piece in The Atlantic hit on many of the problems and failures of both the strategy and implementation of operations in Afghanistan, while I think Tom Nichols is correct as to where the ultimate responsibility for US actions lies in his essay, “Afghanistan Is Your Fault,” pointing out that both the war and the end of the war in Afghanistan were broadly popular. The average American voter got what they wanted and if it tastes bitter, thought ought to ask why rather than casting around for anyone else they can blame. Meanwhile, Michael Shurkin wrote around this time last year an article on “France’s War in the Sahel and the Evolution of Counter-Insurgency Doctrine” for TNSR. It isn’t about Afghanistan, but the points made about the frequent tension between the desire on one hand not to engage in imperialism (and thus to avoid political interference) and the desire to intervene to avoid certain outcomes. It also brings out the ways in which counter-insurgency doctrines developed for a colonial era can often be poor fits for post-colonial interventions which operate under very different potential constraints.

I don’t think these various essays necessarily represent the last word – or even the first true word – on Afghanistan, but I think that many of the questions they raise represent the beginning of a path to understanding what has happened.

Finally, for a book recommendation, this seems an appropriate moment to recommend W. Morgan, The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley (2021). The Pech river cuts a deep, fairly wide valley through Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan, descending from the Hindu Kush on the border with Pakistan. The Pech is perhaps less famous than its tributary, the Korangal, but both valleys were some of the most difficult areas in Afghanistan. Morgan embedded in Pech first in 2010, but his book begins with the earliest U.S. Presence in Kunar province, in 2002. This isn’t a book about the entire Afghanistan war, but about this specific valley, from 2002 to 2017 (with an epilogue bringing events up through 2020). There’s real value to this narrow approach because it allows for a degree of granularity that wouldn’t be possible in a book on, say, the entire war in Afghanistan 2001-2021. Morgan is also an engaging, effective writer; the book is frequently depressing, but never a slog. This is a deeply frustrating book, not because it is poorly written, but because it is well written and so accurately portrays the nature of its subject.

On the one hand, Morgan does not present ‘the reason why we lost.’ There is no easy concluding chapter laying out the ‘X reasons things went wrong.’ This is, after all, not a book on the whole war, but a book on a specific, small, hard-fought corner of it and Morgan is neither a military theory trying to craft a unified theory of war in difficult places nor is he a general trying in retrospect to justify himself. That said, readers of the book will find, I think, drawing lessons almost unavoidable and the mistakes – clear in retrospect, but not always in advance – jump out from the page. The over-reliance on airpower, the lack of clarity in the mission, the shifting strategies, the unit rotations that made it almost impossible to build a base of local knowledge, the under-investment in infrastructure and services (a consequence of the lack of strategic clarity) and on and on. And yet mixed with this are moments of real heroism, leaders of real quality, Afghans dedicated to trying to prop up their new government, or merely trying to survive their latest conflict. There is a profound and appropriate sense of tragedy in the events related, with soldiers fighting hard over a decade and a half for a valley that was probably irrevocably lost from a population-centric perspective in the first few years.

But I also think, precisely because of its embedded, documentary style, The Hardest Place offers one of the best windows, particularly for a general readership, into what went wrong. If you want to understand twenty years of unsuccessful war in Afghanistan, I can think of few better places to start.

126 thoughts on “Fireside Friday: August 27, 2021

  1. Typo:
    “Morgan is neither a military theory trying to craft a unified theory of war in difficult places nor is he a general trying in retrospect to justify himself.”

    Did you mean “theorist?

  2. Huh. I’ve taken “graveyard of empires” to mean precisely what you describe Afghanistan as: an inhospitable, worthless (for an empire) piece of land that is expensive to control and provides very little of value to any occupant. It is where many conqests naturally stop or move away form, because trying to maintain control of the lands at either side does not become easier by holding on to Afghanistan – in a similar way as the Himalayas.

    1. I agree. People interpret metaphors differently, and Brett’s interpretation is I think driven by the need for precise historical justification. Of course, he’s not wrong that others take the obvious, rather than the metaphorical meaning of a place not worth taking. This might also be a cultural thing. The difference betwen different English speaking peoples.

  3. The book by Morgan (as described) and the piece in the Atlantic are repeats of the experience in Vietnam: over-reliance on air-power, failure to build a base of local knowledge, no clear aim, too-frequent rotation, meaningless metrics…. Morgan’s book sounds exactly like Jeffrey Race’s War Comes to Long An – same mistakes, same result. Can’t say the US establishment is a learning organisation.

    1. And that is possibly the greatest tragedy. A vital element of COIN doctrine is when not to be there – this element is never included, but it is an essential part of the *policy* bit of COIN.

    2. While there are similarities I think there are also differences, mainly both in the geopolitical situation and the precise decisions that were made. (I readsome excerpts from the afghanistan papers and there were plenty of attempts to do things…. that often failed spectacularly forone reason or another)

      I think one was to provide fertilizer for farmers, but it turned out the farmers could make more money by selling the fertilizer (that got turned into IEDs) than they could ever make from selling the crops…

  4. I must say I’ve recently found myself using a lot of the concepts discussed in this blog over the last year or two

    Such as
    – unit cohesion, and the social underpinnings of why soldiers fight – judging by recent events US generals should have been thinking a lot more about that than the details of air support co-ordination skills. Maybe they should have thought more how cohesive a unit is when the officers steal the rations, for example.
    – different systems of war, particularly the way that Afghan warfare clearly has more space for older (more civilised?) ideas like being able to switch sides, or march out of a town as a unit in possession of arms, concepts which have faded from Western warfare
    – ‘Other-ing’, ‘Fremen-miraging’ – people seem to treat the Taliban as some mystical Eastern evil, rather than as expression of large chunks of Afghan rural society, which proved more cohesive than the large but ramshackle attempted-deracinated ‘professional’ force which the US stood up against it. (I may not like more or less any of the Taliban’s ideas, but they clearly did, and were willing to fight for them).

    The fact that a ACOUP post on the Rohirrim v the Saruman Orcs proved more insightful on the Afghan war than most media commentary 2005-18 is both impressive and damning of the media, I think…

    1. It’s easy to take cohesion for granted when that problem was largely solved over 100 years by most 1st world nations.
      Honestly afganistan shoulda just been a punitive strike against the Taliban, the political desire to nation build was incredibly misguided, and the fact everyone seems so surprised by this when Iraq did little better is rather silly.
      Maybe at least now we can try and politically deal with the taliban to curb islamic terrorism, using international trade as a carrot to make them politically useful.

      1. Unit cohesion is a problem that’s been solved in a multitude of ways for at least 2,500 years, but the point I took form Bret’s posts (e.g. s that the method used has to be both a match with the social system of the participants and the lived-in experience within the army has to align with that.

        So if you have a volunteer army then a) that has to fit with the belief systems of the recruits and offer them reasons to fight that align with their values and b) the experience of being in the army has to deliver on the implicit promise (e.g. if you’re fighting mainly for pay you have to get paid. In general you have to feel that your service is respected by your officers. etc).

        Equally if you have a militia then the structure of the militia needs to build organically on civilian life, so that you are serving with your friends and neighbours, and it often helps if civilian and military (and even religious) authority have similar sources. etc etc.

        Based on what happened to the Afghan National Army something really fundamental went wrong in raising it, in such a way that these things didn’t gel together correctly.

        1. “Based on what happened to the Afghan National Army something really fundamental went wrong in raising it, in such a way that these things didn’t gel together correctly.”

          I would argue, from my usual Machiavellian framework, that what was wrong in raising it is that the Afghan National Army, directly worked for the Kabul government, and the Kabul government was tremendously ineffective. The reason it was tremendously ineffective is that instead of being organically rooted in the sorts of internal power structures of Afghanistan, it had one and only one serious pillar of support, namely the U.S. Absent that prop, it quickly collapsed.

          I’ll admit, I’m no foreign policy expert and my exposure to Afghanistan’s recent history has been from news articles, not serious academic works, but as I understand it, the Afghan army could and did fight, as long as there was U.S. presence and promise of support. And often times, the promise was enough, even if it wasn’t delivered upon. The open collapse was something that was a relatively recent occurrence, mostly starting when it became clear that the Americans were leaving and weren’t even inviting the Afghan government to the withdrawal talks. Overall, this means less of a problem of army cohesion and more of a problem of civilian government cohesion, with the soldiers not wanting to fight for this particular government structure.

          1. My impression (also from media, and a couple of books) is that while ‘commando’ units fought well, regulars were a more mixed bag – a thing not unrelated to the fact that they were badly treated and that their food, pay and ammo were often stolen by their officers.

      2. I’ve read that Americans are generally speaking poor trainers of third world, low resource armies because they American way of fighting now well adapted to have a guaranteed air superiority and firepower advantages and how they fight is built on these assumptions. Assumptions that won’t hold for say, the Ukrainian army or the Afghan one. I heard from a Finnish soldier is one of the things they’ve figured out is that their foreign training units first have to train to fight in the way they intend to teach their students (including the proper way to handle an AK which differs a lot from an M16).

        Meanwhile the Americans very very successful training Afghan commandos and coincidentally, that’s a way of fighting America does a lot of an knows all about.

        We should be asking all sorts of questions about why the Northern alliance backed with money, Spec Forces and air power was a war winning force while the Afghan national army was not.

        1. I mean, I’m not an expert, but the cynical answer based on what I’ve read/seen is that the ANA was the Northern Alliance rebranded. As the Northern Alliance, they were able to contest territory in the north (appropriately enough), but needed foreign backing to take the rest of the country. As the ANA, they held territory outside of their support base exactly as long as that backing stuck around.

    2. “people seem to treat the Taliban as some mystical Eastern evil, rather than as expression of large chunks of Afghan rural society, which proved more cohesive than the large but ramshackle attempted-deracinated ‘professional’ force which the US stood up against it. (I may not like more or less any of the Taliban’s ideas, but they clearly did, and were willing to fight for them).”

      I want to push back on this in one small way. I agree that some commentators seem to believe the Taliban has some kind of Unbeatable Willpower – which in fairness probably do compared to the kind of people who say that – and that the U.S. attempt at nation-building was badly flawed.

      However, the Taliban was not just an “expression of large chunks of Afghan rural society” nor entirely native to Afghanistan. There is no majority ethnic group in that country, and while the plurality Pashtun tribe dominated the Taliban, they also recruited from extremists around the world. Their original leadership was educated in Pakistan (which likely hasn’t changed) and Pakistan’s ISI has basically protected and fostered it from the start. Many of their beliefs and actions were very strongly against the grain of the society of Afghani cultures, or even really the Pashtun tribe, then and now. The Afghani peoples may have been in a very conservative and heavily religious society by Western standards, but few displayed anything like the kind of violence or extreme behavior fostered by the Taliban.

      1. It think it should also be noted that the taliban are, ideologically and religiously, a different strain than the salafi-branded groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. It mostly gets down to weeds of theology, but the most practical difference tends to be that salafists are very concerned with “purifying” islam from things like traditional devotional practices while the taliban often love these things (becuase they are part of traditional islamic practicesin the region) stuff like veneration of saints, relics, etc.

    3. It really is unintentionally (?) one of the best pre-mortems on the Afghan National Army.

      “Again and again, we’ve seen efforts to apply modern ‘western’ military systems outside of modern industrialized countries (which have large, already deracinated urban populations tailor-made for this kind of army) just fall apart because that military system wasn’t indigenous to those people and it was very poorly suited to their social and cultural conditions…I am sure in Saruman’s immaculate planning document (which I have no doubt exists and probably have an accompanying powerpoint), his Uruk army looked very impressive. Well-equipped (for the wrong battle, but we’ll get there) and nothing like the ‘rabble’ of Rohan’s barely-armed peasants it was facing. A modern army. I can almost hear the modern version of Saruman bragging about the expensive jet-fighters…he created a paper tiger (or paper-Mûmakil?) that is going to fall apart the moment things begin to go wrong and its cohesion is properly tested.”

    4. This may sound strange, but perhaps the United States should have tried to create the Afghan military from already established Afghani institutions. Perhaps organizing them around family and tribal, rather than statist and ideological structures, would have created a more effective military?

      1. I agree. In a tribal society, effective units need to be raised based on tribal affiliation, stationed in their tribal homelands, given names and emblems based on tribal traditions, officered by tribal leaders, etc. Or else, there should be some transcendent ideology that overrides tribal loyalty. Hatred of foreigners might work, as might a universalist, demanding religion. The US doesn’t have those tools available, however. There simply aren’t large numbers of men in Afghanistan, or maybe anywhere else, who want to fight for women’s education and gay pride.

        1. Oh, I don’t know. I feel sure there must be some way of denouncing the Taliban as heretics for some reason or other. There always is.

          And there are plenty of Muslim countries in the world that have NOT been taken over by an Islamist insurgency. Most of them, in fact. It is not obvious to me why this fate must overtake Afghanistan but not, for example, Niger.

          1. The risk of denouncing Talibans as heretics would be someone even worse, like Daesh, to use this as an opportunity to waltz in ?

        2. Agreed, although I can understand Western powers’ reluctance to do this. If you don’t intimately know or trust each of the individual tribal groups, or their relationships with each other, you’re potentially just creating a complete powder keg of endemic warfare. It’s the same issue that kings had in fuedal Europe, with their power in a given region dependent almost entirely on the goodwill of their vassals.

          It’s likely the only way that would produce a functional army, but it would be an incredible gamble that all of these different players would average out to a majority on your side (or even on the same side as each other). I’d argue it’s doable, but as you say it would need some transcendent ideology (or perhaps charismatic leadership) that stands above tribal loyalty. The promise of Western prosperity might do it, but you’d need to do it tenderly so it doesn’t prompt a strong conservative reaction. Also hard to deliver on that promise ahead of time to prove you mean business when you’re still in an active warzone.

  5. Thank you for that Michael Shurkin article, it was quite interesting, especially for someone like me, working and living in Mali.

  6. The average American voter got what they wanted and if it tastes bitter, thought ought to ask why rather than casting around for anyone else they can blame.

    Maybe the average American voter was affected by the massive propaganda campaign of the time, same as in Iraq? It isn’t as if political elites in 2001 were sitting there like some Japanese official of the 1930s, trying to find a way to peace while other parts of society forced them into a war they didn’t want – they were actively, aggressively pushing the public in every way towards a policy of military intervention. The fact that the American public eventually turned against the war is more a “You can’t fool all the people all the time” situation than anything like the wishy-washiness proposed in that article.

    (Also, it is bizarre to say on the one hand that “You would need an electron microscope to detect the effect of Afghanistan on any congressional race in the last decade,” and on the other that “we must look inward and admit that we told our elected leaders—of both parties—that they were facing a no-win political test. If they chose to leave, they would be cowards who abandoned Afghanistan. If they chose to stay, they were warmongers intent on pursuing “forever war.”” If the average American cared so little that there is no perceived effect – and I think we all know that even this comically humiliating withdrawal will have a minimal effect on Biden’s 2024 election chances – then why were the political elites keeping us there?)

    1. In addition, look at the ‘liberal’ MSM – they flooded the airwaves with ‘experts’ who had been wrong for 20 years. That was the clearest example of ‘liberal media conspiracy’ that we’ve seen in many decades.

    2. The larger effect will be if he stacks the judicial branch or the ‘security’ of the app they’ll use to count votes.

    3. Oh, and don’t forget that ~90 million people (~35% of the US voting population) are now of age to vote, and weren’t back in 2001 – are we also to be considered responsible for this dumbass war?

      1. A lot of my same age or younger friends on have been (rightly IMO) making the same response. Also, this is small relative to the base effect but the relevant politicians were elected before the start of the war and some currently eligible voters are immigrants so…

    4. As a Canadian with lots of access to domestic US channels, I was fascinated to watch the war propaganda that was being broadcast at the time. I remember thinking it was a lot more subtle and sophisticated than claiming the kaiser eats babies, instead every media outlet took it for granted that war was coming and there were no dissenting voices presented. Textbook manufacturing consent, which was great since my political science class was reading that book right at that moment.

    5. It was only a couple of months after 9/11. It didn’t take much of a push to get Americans to support a war.

      1. Also, 9/11 was coordinated from Afghanistan. We had launched a cruise missile strike against Certain groups there a year or so before, with Afghanistan being a top of the list area to watch in the future. All of which was promptly ignored when the new administration came in.

  7. “the Romans liked to paint buildings and statues bright and often (to our eyes) garish colors”

    I’ve seen the repainted statues used to show how they were supposed to look, and they look very flat and garish. But it makes me wonder, did the Romans, skilled enough to make those beautiful statues, not have the skill to paint shadows and vary the color? Just because you find a pigment all over the statue, doesn’t mean it was applied with the same density/saturation everywhere, right?

    So maybe Devereaux knows, but do we know if the paint was applied evenly with no tint/color variation, or is that a guess?

    1. One also notes that in Greek and Roman literature, comparing a color to statues always meant a white shade, not colored. It was commonplace to leave them unpainted, too.

    2. I’ve seen this being talked about before, but I think “flat” and “garish” are two different things about the statues’ paintings.

      “Garish” is an aesthetic preference that’s personal and cultural in a lot of ways. The idea that colors, decorations, and the like should be “tastefully understated” rather than being as bright, attention-getting, and showily expensive as possible is not one shared by every culture; the stereotypes about Saudi decoration (for instance) mostly come down to a mismatch with a culture where the overt display of wealth is the whole point. The recreated paints seem to be this, all bright greens and yellows.

      “Flat,” though, I think the digital recreations and images might miss out on some of how that would work in real life. Art that tries to capture shade (if that’s the goal–Orthodox icon painters aren’t unaware of the last thousand years or so of western European art development) is using pigment to recreate the effect of shape and angle and shadow on the flat surface of a canvass. A life-sized statue doesn’t need to recreate this effect, because the shadows on the statue is just as pronounced as it would be in the figure the statue recreates.

      1. As a mini-figure painter (not quite comparable, but perhaps useful), shadows do help but can only take you so far. I wouldn’t have been surprised at all if they added a bit of accentuation to natural shadows with shading.

  8. The article is a little long in the tooth nowadays, but I’d be very curious in your views on “Rage against the machines” by Jason Lyall and Isiah Wilson. You can pick it up for free here.

    The short version is that they argue that highly mechanized forces, like what we have in advanced, western militaries today, are uniquely bad at counterinsurgency. With the supply needs of the armed forces requiring highly technical products that are probably unable to be sourced where they’re operating, there is far less interest or necessity in involving the army’s day to day operations with the locals. This is in stark contrast to pre-mechanized forces, which tend to have food as their first major supply need, small arms ammunition as their second, and both are usually locally procurable. The state that sent those forces in the first place is also usually much poorer and less able to set up a big logistics tail stretching all the way back to their home country for everything the army might need. This necessitates some degree of dealing with local elites, which in turn gives the sort of awareness necessary for decent counterinsurgency.

    I have to admit, I’ve kind of thought it a little unpersuasive myself. Just because the army doesn’t need to deal with those elites every day doesn’t mean they can’t, or don’t; but I have to admit I’ve never been able to come up with a definitive refutation for the argument or the considerable amount of data they put in, as well as some of the alternate theories they try to test for. (In fact, I first came across the article trying to look up stuff about the “tied hands” argument, that counterinsurgency is difficult primarily because western countries, trying to present a humanitarian angle, are insufficiently brutal in dealing with insurgencies to really put them down. Authoritarian regimes actually don’t do any better at counterinsurgency though, which at the time I found stunning but this seems much better sourced) But the extent of my political science knowledge is a couple of undergraduate courses, reading the news, and navel-gazing theory. I’d be very curious to see what a professional thinks of it, but I do realize that it’s a 40 page article and you’re already swamped.

    1. I think that there is a conceptual problem with occupation in a war of choice for a mechanized/modern system army. A modern system army uses what they call ‘force multipliers’ to get the most possible killing power per soldier, and direct it at a organized large peer force.

      But, when fighting a war of choice, these same armies tend to deploy the smallest number of troops capable of exerting enough killing power to destroy an enemy field army. But, the number of troops they end up deploying is woefully inadequate for occupation.

      Afghanistan is a country of 33 million people with relatively poor infrastructure. At the height of the war effort the United States had deployed apx. 110,000 troops, but usually between 40,000 and 60,000 soldiers. This sounds like a lot until you realize that New York City, a pacified urban area with fantastic infrastructure, employs 60,000 people in the NYPD with 35,000 sworn officers for a population of approximately 9 million people.

      So, when compared to policing a pacified and connected community, the commitment of the US Armed forces to Afghanistan was woefully under resourced. For most of the Afghan war, the US deployed fewer soldiers to Afghanistan than the NYPD deploys 365 days a year.

      And if you compare to successful occupations by the US in Germany and Japan the striking thing is, once again, woeful under resourcing. The US deployed 1 million men to occupy Japan in 1945, a country of 77 million. The US deployed 334,000 men to occupy 15.6 million Germans.

      Now the natural argument would be – but that was WWII. And that is also a large part of the point. The US saw Germany and Japan as real threats and the conflict was not discretionary. The US was going to deploy enough troops to do the job – however many that was. But, in wars like Afghanistan, the US is deploying the minimal force necessary to avoid facing a peer field army. Which, puts the US well understaffed when compared to metropolitan police forces, let alone the man power requirements of truly successful occupations.

      The understaffing also leads to the failures that recur in American COIN projects. Overreliance on air power? Why that’s a force multiplier – how else are 60,000 men going to do the job. Fighting wars and battles of attrition, then abandoning all gained territory to the enemy? Well, there are only 60,000 men to cover 250,000 sq. miles. Afghanistan is the size of Texas!! Etc. etc. etc.

      The size of the deployment is relative to the political and economic will to complete the mission. If a insurgency rises up, all they have to do is raise the political and economic costs beyond the political and economic will.

      1. I do want to point out that the paper concerns more than American COIN projects, and posits a casual relationship with *all* counterinsurgency projects undertaken in the last century or so, even ones that are internal to a regime and thus presumed to be met with maximum force ,like the campaign against the LTTE, or Saddam’s campaigns against the Kurds in the north of Iraq.

  9. Had to laugh out loud SO hard at the “midlife-crisis-car of empires” metaphor 🙂 Even though, arguably, that one is not much more correct than the “graveyard of empires” – after all, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that at least the British Empire had rational geostrategical reasons to get involved there? And the USSR was trying to gain influence pretty much everywhere – Afghanistan would’ve made as much sense as anywhere else (and, again, taking geography into account, more so than, say, Angola).

    But in any case, thanks for shedding some more light at Afghanistan’s history, an interesting read as always!

    1. Being pedantic myself, but it was the Russian Empire, not the USSR. This is the 19th century, before Karl Marx was even writing, let alone any states had taken up his mantle.

        1. Indeed 🙂 Thank you for clarifying! and @Adam: no harm no foul, my comment was quite concise and jumped from topic to topic a bit!

    2. The British Empire’s interest in Afghanistan was a) no Russian presence and b) preventing/limiting raids into the NW Frontier of India. It took them a little while to realise that the solution was a demonstrable ability and willingness to invade if interests a) and b)…but that actually invading was counter-productive (as Bret outlined)

      1. I think that Kipling’s Ballad of East and West is a great illustration if this strategic guideline. The Colonel’s Son shows extremely good understanding of how tactics mix with strategy: going alone to fetch the horse is a demonstration – not only of personal provess but of imperial power. The guy knows he will not be shot at, and he also can note, confidently, that his killing will be avenged with a punitive expedition. On the other hand, he allows the bandit leader to save face by resorting to custom of hospitality and gift-giving. Essentially, it is an poetic version of your prose.

    3. I think there was a bit of paranoia there. The Russian Empire could *possibly* threaten British possessions in Northern India if they completely secured Afghanistan and improved it’s infrastructure and didn’t have any insurgency problems of their own then…

      1. I think there’s also an element that the Brits of that period had a lot success with painting the map red by essentially showing up with a modern army in all these remote locations so it was a bit of a shock to have to settle for lesser goals than conquest even if that was more sensible.

        1. The Brits won India by partnering with Indians. They secured the NW Frontier with a combination of long-serving political officers versed in Pashtun customs and language and locally-recruited troops (the Frontier Guides), backed by carefully-targeted Indian Army main forces. The political officer explained the rules and the consequences, the Guides did patrols, shows of force and police actions, the army came in last, directed by the politicals. Elphinstone may have dreamed of conquest, but the other Viceroys settled for no Russians and no raids.

    4. The USSR was actually even more complicated, the original communist coup was well… largely homegrown, but they were also VERY hardline (in a way that meant the USSR saw them as a liability) so the USSR replaced them, which lead to the entire civil war thing and the US spending a decade in afghanistan and absolutely flattening the country. (seriously, Tooze has an article about it, compared the 80s the US occupation has been a relatively low intensity affair with relatively few deaths)

  10. If we really wanted to ‘westernize’ afghanistan then we should’ve taken a far more brutal approach, the aim would’ve been to eradicate the base culture and replace it with our own. Dismantle the tribal structures with forced relocations, kill off the pre-existing power structures. Behead prominant figureheads and purge their families. Then resettle the land with homesteaders from our own poor and disenfranchised, during this process erase the local culture i.e. banning the local language and killing off traditional trades.

    After this the local population should be demoralized and fairly destitute, we can then foist our own politics and ideals onto them starting with a bedrock of enlightenment philosophy. This will be done via mandatory public education that whitewashes the process and lionizes the ‘modernization’ process, while denegrating the previous tribal systems. This should alter the childrens thought process to see their parents way of life as backwards as racism, continue this for several generations and we can remove the previous culture entirely.

    Now this is a monstrous process and entirely bloody, but is what moulding a hostile culture into a subordinate one looks like. Previous examples are whales, Ireland and the Ainu. Any state unwilling to perform cultural genocide will have to rely on more passive methods (i.e. mass media) which in the age of the internet is difficult to dominate.

        1. I don’t know about the Ainu but the process rather signally failed in Wales and Eire. It didn’t work on Poland either.

          1. I had the same thought, but maybe George is referring to Northern Ireland, where the local population was displaced and subjugated by a large number of settlers? Although they weren’t forcibly converted to Protestantism, which would have been necessary to truly complete the process.

    1. Complete destruction of the Taliban should have been our endgame. But America doesn’t fight wars to win anymore.
      Forget morality. The process you describe would be far too much work!

      1. Considering the Taliban likely had popular support from at least part of the local population you’d need to change their culture so radically so as to no longer support the Taliban.
        Also Wales and Ireland were vassalized for a significant amount of time, with northern Ireland still part of the UK.

        We shoulda just made an example of the Taliban leadership and then left the shithole entirely.

        1. Then who are all those desperate people trying to flee?
          Still, I think we are in basic agreement. The Taliban should have been eliminated as a threat.

          1. A substantial portion supported the taliban, a substantial portion consider them their enemies, a substantial portion are undecided/waiting and seeing how things turn out.

            Just like in just about all civil wars.

            And of course, people have been fleeing afghanistan for 40 years now.

      2. The Americans *did* more or less destroy the Taliban, such that the few leaders retreated out of Afghanistan and offered to officially surrender. The US then managed to to screw up local politics sufficiently to trigger a new rural uprising which took the Taliban brand name and re-integrated lightly with the escaped Taliban leadership (this is now making for ….complicated politics in the new Kabul.

        Given that the underlying driver seems to be rural Afghan men wanting simple, honest governance *and* Islamic fundamentalism, bombs could not solve the problem. As noted hundred-year brutal colonialism can make a bit of a dent in the social structures and access to arms of these kind of groups…but still no guarantees of ‘success’ and the process is horrible

      3. @Roxana

        Complete destruction of the Taliban would have resulted in Afghanistan undergoing one or more of the following:

        1) Being ruled by a US puppet government.
        2) Being partitioned by the neighbors, Iran and Pakistan, if they saw fit to bother,
        3) Undergoing a period of anarchy followed by some tough new bunch of warlords taking over. Those tough new warlords would probably have had a striking resemblance to the Taliban, or eventually themselves been overthrown by someone else who did.

        (2) was unacceptable to the Bush administration and I doubt you like the idea either, Roxana. Bush intended to cast the Iranians as villains in 21st century American geopolitics, so letting them get a land grab out of Afghanistan was out of the question.

        (3) leads to “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” The fundamental problem Afghanistan’s faced ever since the Soviets left is the difficulty of finding a source of legitimacy that would enable anyone to govern the country. Just winning a civil war isn’t enough; you can build a throne of bayonets but you can’t sit on it for very long. Islamic religious conservatism is one of the few things left in the national culture that provides a solid foundation for legitimacy, so any government that emerges organically from Afghanistan after a period of anarchy is likely to be some form of “Islamic Republic.” I’m not sure you’d be satisfied with that outcome either.

        As others point out, (1) is the outcome we got- the Taliban effectively destroyed and the country run by a US puppet government. But “Taliban” is not just a specific group of people, it is a word. You can’t kill a brand name if the public doesn’t want it to die, even if you kill all or nearly all the people currently using the brand name.

        Trying to destroy the Taliban without creating a superior competitor to fill the space it used to occupy was as pointless an exercise as trying to destroy a major corporation by assassinating the senior executives. I lost count of how many times the US killed the “number two” of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or both; it just didn’t matter.

        As long as there are still stakeholders who want the organization to go on existing, a reputation or brand that can outlive the individual humans involved with it, and the physical assets to be run by the organization in the first place, individual leaders can be replaced over and over.

        You can’t kill the brand name of a popular product, and “the Taliban” was effectively a brand name marketing “acceptably less-corrupt governance with a side order of Very Pious” as far as most Afghans were concerned. Sooner or later, they were going to go back to buying what it was selling.

    2. Westernisation should not have been the objective. Making Afghanistan less likely to be a rear base/training ground/incubator for terrorist groups should have been the objective.
      Being distracted by waging war against Iraq wasn’t a help in that regard.
      Needlessly antagonising Iran, who helped in the initial fight against the Taliban, wasn’t very helpful either. Cooperation in Afghanistan could have been the beginning in of a détente, but instead W made his axis of evil speech even after Iranian forces helped in the fight against the Taliban.

        1. George Walker Bush, the 43rd president of the United States.

          “W” to distinguish him from the other President Bush, his father:

          George Herbert Walker Bush the 41st president of the United States.

          1. A more typical example of Americans with the same name: John Sidney McCain III, son of John Sidney McCain Jr., son of John Sidney McCain Sr.

          2. @GreatWyrmGold

            I ‘m not sure your comment to people overseas is very accurate–why would we need designations for “Jr” or “III” following a name, if fathers didn’t want sons with the same name to carry on the family name?

          3. @Ed8r

            Rather than giving his son exactly the same name plus Jr. at the end, Bush gave his son exactly the same name minus one of his middle names. That’s the weird part.

          4. Naming a son after the father more or less verbatim is not a universal or even extremely common practice among Americans as a whole.

            But it seems to be quite common among WASP upper class families. And George Herbert Walker Bush was WASP upper class down to his toenails, as are his sons.

      1. Interesting point about Afghanistan – it’s landlocked, meaning you have to approach it from the North (route blocked by Russia after the Ukraine crisis 2014-15), the west (route blocked by Iran) or the south through Pakistan (who allowed supplies through on the condition they were left unmolested to support…the Taliban).

        Reasonably shitty strategic situation, really.

        1. I am inclined to agree, although I also wonder just what Pakistan sees in the Taliban. If I were them, contemplating rivalry with India, I would care much more about America or China than Afghanistan.

          1. They see Afghanistan through the lens of the Indian rivalry – everything that’s not a Muslim fundamentalist is a potential Indian puppet.

          2. Its complicated.

            You know pashtuns, the not-majority-but-largest-ethnic-group in Afghanistan?

            There are three times as many Pashtuns in Pakistan, where they make up 18% of the population, than in afghanistan, where they make up 40%.

    3. That didnt work. The USSR did that. They resettled millions of afghans, tried to break up local tribal identities, killed millions….

      They spend a decade there, killing ten times as many afghans as the US did in two. They still failed. With all the resources and power of a totalitarian state.

      1. But it clearly *can* work : a better recent(ish) parallel would probably be what the European powers did in North America to the Native Americans ?

        1. When you kill off up 95% of a group by pure accident, the consequences are not going to be similar to any conquest lacking that trait.

  11. I do know that Alexander won in Afghanistan. I also know that the British lost due to some stupid decisions. The same is true of us.

    Also CATS!!! 😺😺😺😺😺

  12. Looking at the time since World War II Afghanistan seems far from unique. France failed in Algeria, the Netherlands failed in Indonesia, Portugal failed in Angola and Mozambique, the US itself failed in Vietnam and Iraq as well, etc. It seems to me that an insurgency with enough local support and access to modern weapons is almost impossible to defeat and can drive up the costs of war (in money, blood, and popular support) to a level that makes it unsustainable. Maybe there are some counter-examples (Chechnya?), but the trend is pretty strong. And it isn’t simply about the willingness to use force, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan certainly didn’t shy away from cruelty and still failed.

    A part of me wonders if current military technology favors insurgency in general, or maybe only when a developed country is occupying and developing country.

    1. I don’t think it’s ever been easy for a major power to meaningfully occupy a geographically distant, culturally distinct region, barring the parts of the Early Modern Period where the occupiers had a ridiculous industrial/technological advantage over the occupiees. It’s just easier for major powers to try now.

      But the way that (relatively) low-cost weapons can wreck expensive weapons of war, while such weapons are destructive enough to be nullified by most any form/derivative of Fabian tactics, does reduce the advantage that global powers have over Global South insurgents. The USA (and similar states) can’t increase their firepower past a certain point, while the insurgents have all the tools they need to make the occupiers’ lives hell.

    2. The Russians would appear to have been quite successful in Syria – President Assad still seems to be President Assad. France has been known to back various West African governments against Islamic insurgents, and the Islamic insurgents seem not to have marched into anyone’s capital. The Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rough in Cambodia in 1979, and the Khmer Rouge did not pop back up when they withdrew from Cambodia.

      I think you can concentrate too much on how much money or violence a government is willing to throw at its problems. There are other issues. For example: who was running American efforts about Afghanistan? The White House? The Embassy? Neither?

      1. Well, the Khmer Rouge kept up fighting for decades, even when the debacles are less catastrophic rooting out insurgencies is hard.

      2. To be fair, the Khmer Rouge had done very, very little to endear themselves to any Cambodian who was not themselves a member of the Khmer Rouge.

        After a year or two of the Vietnamese army making it a fatal mistake to publicly carry arms and proclaim membership in the Khmer Rouge where a lot of other people could see you, the job was therefore done. They could count on the Cambodians themselves to, if not immediately crush the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, to at least fight hard to prevent the Khmer Rouge from reconquering the country for fear that they’d kill another third or so of the population.

        By contrast, one of the reasons the Taliban were able to so swiftly reassert themselves in Afghanistan after Trump knocked out the props by releasing Taliban prisoners and promising to leave was that the Taliban seem to have made credible promises to just… not slaughter a ton of people and let things go back to a rough approximation of whatever ‘normal’ was in 1990s Afghanistan. Which, to the median Afghan man, seems to be acceptable.

        Meanwhile, the Russians and French have had their success stories against insurgents by taking the shrewd and straightforward move of backing an incumbent rather than trying to create a new government out of thin air. If the Russians had been trying to prop up someone who didn’t already have massive influence and inertia on his side in holding control of much of the country, they probably wouldn’t have been able to keep their puppet as firmly in charge of Syria, for instance.

        1. Perhaps, but that last point suggests that keeping a government going is easier than overthrowing one and setting one up for yourself. Which suggests that the initial post was mistaken, and it is still harder to be an insurgent than counter-insurgent.

          Indeed, if you think of the war as starting in 2001 and consisting of a US attempt to overthrow the Taliban government of Afghanistan, and ultimately failing, you could think of the US as supporting an unsuccessful insurgency!

          1. As Dr. Devereaux discussed in the last chapter of his Fremen Mirage series, Desert Power, roughly two thirds of insurgencies fail.

            So yes, it is harder to be an insurgent than to be a counter-insurgent, in the sense. If you have to pick a side to be on randomly in an arbitrary insurgency conflict without knowing anything about the particulars, you will be more likely to choose the winners if you go with the government attempting to suppress the counter-insurgency.

            Of course, the devil’s in the details. The question “so who usually wins, the government or the rebels in the jungle” is a bit different from the question “if you are a distant foreign power attempting to break the back of a bunch of rebels in the jungle, what do you need to do, and can you do it if your local allies on the ground are a bunch of corrupt nincompoops?”

            The US does not normally involve itself in petty insurgencies that are likely to be defeated by the relevant national government, unless it has a strong strategic reason to do so. By the time the US involves, it is often clear that the allied government has no reasonable chance of defeating the insurgents alone, thus creating a biased sample.

    3. Chechnya is now a de-facto independent region ruled by the Beno clan, which is essentially an autocratic Muslim regime whose only difference with the separatists is that they are willing to recognize the NOMINAL Russian sovereignty on the republic, while retaining all the actual power. All the blood and money that Moscow spent was largely useless, so when the infight among the local ruling class was won by the slightly more reasonable faction, Russians just packed their stuff and went away, content with the fact that the terrorism was likely to stop and that they avoided the humiliation of a formal secession.
      I think that Western observers are often oblivious of the lenses they have to wear when interpreting the news that come from dictatorships. I mean, OBVIOUSLY Russian newspapers say it was a great victory and that their Dear Leader sacked those saucy rebels, what else would they be allowed to say? In reality, a situation like Chechnya would have been considered a complete defeat by the Western public

  13. Quoting the pedant ” While I won’t get into my own views, I will list below in the reading a number of discussions of the crisis that I found useful to think with (some of which I agree with, some less so).”

    I would very much like to read the author’s views; either in private email or at some other site. The author’s thoughts very much help me think outside my box

    Thank you for your weekly posts

  14. We’ve talked here about people but Roman cities generally were colorful places; the Romans liked to paint buildings and statues bright and often (to our eyes) garish colors.

    As a guy casually learning about history over the past decade, this pops up over and over: Stuff was painted. Greek columns, terracotta soldiers, Maya Buildings, it got clear pretty quickly that just about all bare rock ruins today were colored in some way in the past, and this hadn’t filtered into pop culture much.

    Which makes some more modern architecture based on the ruins kind of funny/cool, in that they aren’t based on anything previously used, so in a sense are an unintended, completely new and somewhat cool looking type of architecture.

  15. Afghanistan’s decline on the trade routes also had a lot to do with its neighboring countries not being as rich as (say) Switzerland’s neighbors in the rest of Europe (a mountainous, landlocked country can still be quite wealthy if its neighbors are rich and integrated in trade).

    (if my country was next to Afghanistan, I might be more than a bit worried at where the battle-hardened and victorious Taliban might think to go next, if they decide to take their brand of Islamic rule on the road – though it is by no means certain they want to take it on the road).

    That’s already happened with a branch of the Taliban that stayed around and mostly focused on Pakistan after 2001. A few years ago, there was a period when they were within 30 miles of Islamabad IIRC, but then got a major pushback finally from the Pakistani military.

    And yet they still get supported by the Pakistani government, and especially its intelligence service ISI. It reminds me of argument I read once about how back when the US-Pakistan effort to combat the Soviets in Afghanistan was picking up, Pakistani intelligence supposedly recruited a whole bunch of new officers from the border region so they could better work with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan (and later with the Taliban recruits trained there). Fast forward 30-40 years, and those guys are all the senior officers in ISI now. They keep backing the Taliban because they themselves have personal and religious connections to them, and it’s easy to rationalize as being in Pakistan’s national interest because it gives them “strategic depth” in a conventional war with India.

  16. I should note here that of the empires supposedly buried in Afghanistan, only the USSR’s imperial adventure there came meaningfully close, chronologically, to the collapse of its empire.

    Well, technically also Alexander the Great’s empire, but Alex’s dad’s Greek adventures were also chronologically close to his empire’s collapse. It’s hard to argue that Afghanistan was why Alexander the Somehow-Burning-Twelve-Ends’s empire collapsed when it did.

    And I can see the “graveyard of empires” crowd discounting times when Afghanistan was the empire, though they probably shouldn’t. But even ignoring them and including Alexander for some reason (I guess Alexander might have caught typhoid or whatever in Afghanistan???), the title relies on the reader only knowing about the big-name Western powers and not how obscure Central Asian powers like (checks notes) the Mongols conquered the region with ease.

    1. I suspect that few Westerners do know that the Mongols conquered Afghanistan. Until recently, I didn’t.

      The meme essentially relies on the assumption that few Westerners know anything about the history of Central Asia.

      1. Fair enough. I just find it amusing that the one thing Westerners know about Central Asia (“The Mongols conquered stuff”) can deconstruct this political meme.

  17. To win at Afghanistan, you have 2 prerequisites:
    1) Have resources to spare.
    2) Use them at least decently, if not well or brilliantly.

    USSR/Russian Federation failed at first one; DRA fell once they were unable (read: unwilling) to provide significant support against insurgents bankrolled by everyone else of note. To note, the year is 1993 – well after soviets withdrew their forces.
    USA & Co failed at second one: With Taliban being able to extract wealth internally and exploit western investments to do so, no amount of money would have saved the puppet government.

    IMO, the easiest solution would have required support of DRA through the 90-s; After the fall of USSR, there was a credible government in place that could have been bought out – add in cutting support to the insurgents, and you have a viable way to get palatable Afghanistan in a couple of decades at the cost of some investments.
    As a bonus, you get a hardly assailable base poised to strike at both Russian and Chinese interior… Well, once you figure out how to supply it.

  18. “Portuguese infiltration into the Indian Ocean in the 1500s realigned the old Silk road and spice trade from the overland route (which passed through parts of Afghanistan and led to the proverbial wealth of cities like Samarkhand) and reoriented it south and to the sea.”

    The aphoristic version of this is something like: “Afghanistan is poor and troubled because Singapore is rich and stable.”

    1. It can’t have helped to have formed a culture where skimming the trade without actually adding anything was a way to make money (perhaps even a living).

      1. I’m legitimately impressed; we’ve found common ground between Afghan hill bandits and Wall Street quants.

          1. Not especially; the comparison suggests itself readily enough when considering the practice of quantitative trading.

            Bear in mind that whereas classical stock trading in principle attempts to identify stocks that are undervalued so that they can be bought low and sold high, quantitative trading tends to rely much more heavily on blind computational analysis of the stock price itself.


            The stock market as a whole can contribute added value to the economy through a variety of processes. But the quantitative trader is less able to add value through these processes, simply because they generally do not care about the nature of the companies they are buying or selling shares in. Meanwhile, they are very well-equipped to “skim the trade” without adding value..

      2. Why assume that was any more common in Silk-Road era Afghanistan than the Straits of Malacca? In more recent eras, Afghanistan would seem to have had little trade to skim.

        1. Cultures can sometimes show signs of a historical effect long after it has been the least bit useful.

  19. Somewhat off-at-a-tangent question on Roman statuary & portraiture.

    I live near what was the Raetian Limes, and spent a fair bit of time when my son was smaller visiting various museums on the sites of former frontier forts. (The Danube river patrol mini-galleys at Manching are seriously impressive)

    One thing all of these have in common is large collections of busts of emperors. These tend to be of quite high artistic quality, looking like actual portraits of real people with differing appearances & personalities. So: how did the local sculptor at some army camp on the upper Danube – or, I assume, Hadrian’s Wall or Morocco or Syria – have any idea what the Emperor hundreds of miles away in Italy (or at a different army camp in Illyria probably, if we’re talking 3rd century onwards) looked like? Or were these busts manufactured centrally and distributed?

    1. Presumably, there was a lot of copying being done.


      There may also have been a lot of relatively cheap but accurate replicas made out of wood or clay or something else less durable than stone, based more closely off the few originals. These in turn could have provided references for the rest of the stone busts… But the duplicates might well not have survived the centuries as well as the stone ones did.

  20. That photo of your kitties is perfect!

    As usual, a few proofreading corrections to consider:
    Alexander did conqueror-> conquer
    that (western) power-> query to Bret: many of your earlier posts have capitalized references to Western–what is your actual choice of style for this word? If it is to capitalize the word when used in this manner, then please review remaining parts of this post to make consistent.
    it’s a land-locked country -> landlocked
    nothing worth the difficult -> difficulty
    question of if the sarisa -> question of whether
    bitter, thought ought to -> they ought to
    a military theory -> theorist

  21. As I understand this argument, the idea is that Afghanistan has been in recent history unconquerable only in the sense that people could hardly be bothered to conquer it. The least resistance would persuade them to withdraw, if they had ever tried to attack in the first place.

    But the US fought for twenty years in Afghanistan. It would seem to have been quite important to the US, which is not surprising as it was the base for a direct attack on US soil, as it was never the basis for any significant attack on Britain or Russia. So the apparent futility of this effort probably requires an explanation other than “no one cared about it”.

    1. We put in a lot of time in Afghanistan, but with fewer troops than Iraq. It was never a top priority.

      1. As can be seen on how the US tackled the question of how to secure their supply lines into Afghanistan. There were 3 routes, each with a price
        1. Through Russia and Central Asia. Price: blind eye to Russian action against Ukraine
        2. Through Iran. Price: normalisation of relations with Iran, annoying Israel and Gulf States
        3. Through Pakistan. Price: financial subsidies and acceptance of Pakistani support for Taliban, endangering government of Afghanistan.

        The US chose to prioritise not paying prices 1 & 2 and paid price 3. The prioritisation was clear. (Personally I’d have picked route 2, but they didn’t go for that).

    2. The US fought for twenty years because it wasn’t actually costing us very many casualties, the money was meaningless to both American political parties,* and because being the one to withdraw from Afghanistan would result in the hawks calling the party responsible ‘chicken.’

      The Afghan-American War was perpetuated almost entirely by the cost in prestige from admitting that it was unwinnable. Which is a cost that was in relative terms much higher in the eyes of American politicians c, 2012 than in the eyes of British or Russian politicians in 1842 or 1992, respectively.

      *(neither Republicans nor mainstream Democrats seem to have a problem with deficit spending to finance a war, a trait they share with many, MANY governing factions throughout history)

  22. A little bit of pushback on the Nichols argument: Yes, the American people wanted a withdrawal from Afghanistan. But they thought that there was at least some kind of plan to avoid this kind of mess, because surely the people in charge knew what they were doing.

    As it turned out, there wasn’t a plan, and the people in charge seemed to be caught as flat-footed by the collapse of the Kabul government as the people they were supposedly more informed than. That is all on America’s foreign policy establishment, and Nichols’s attempts at blame-shifting can’t change that.

    1. Yes, Americans supported a war to get Osama Bin Laden and prevent Afghanistan from being a training area for terrorists. That sort of morphed into converting into Afghanistan a united liberal democracy. Then the American public had enough of that, but expected at least that the national army commanders were taught not to steal the soldiers pay.

    2. It’s a pretty standard take for Tom Nichols – everything is always the fault of the people and never the establishment or the supposed experts. The fact that nearly all of the media, foreign policy experts (such as Tom Nichols), and high ranking officers were wrong doesn’t seem to enter into it for him.

    3. Yes, the Nichols argument is incoherent. First of all, there is no unitary entity called the American people, so the accusation that the American people want incompatible things is unpersuasive. Some people want one thing, some people want another. Some of them even change their mind when they learn new facts. That is why we have elections with multiple candidates. Second, very few Americans (myself included) are expert in military affairs, Central Asian history or culture, or any of the other fields that would be necessary to formulate an effective Afghanistan policy. Rather, most people depend on elected leaders to create processes that produce competent, knowledgeable people in high positions who will make effective policies. Perhaps our current military selection, retention, and promotion policies are failing to produce that kind of leadership, in which case those policies need to be reformed. If that is so, there is fairly small list of people (presidents, secretaries of defense, leaders of the various Congressional committees that oversee the military) who have failed to reform those processes over the past twenty years, and they are the ones who deserve condemnation.

  23. I say it’s China’s turn to invade Afghanistan and have Pakistan for an ‘ally’. After all, they managed their Uigher problem so easily as far as they’re concerned, surely they would be able to get it right where the decadent Western powers could not? And they did manage Tibet (though I suspect Tibet is just waiting things out, if it takes a century).

    1. >>I say it’s China’s turn to invade Afghanistan

      China would no doubt invade Afghanistan if the new regime would support actively a Uigur rebellion (though geographically it would be difficult for Talibans). They definitely would not need Pakistan since they have a common border – a small detail but something that makes an enormous difference with the USA. That’s why it’s very unlikely that either the Talibans would provoke China (even madmen can be tired of war I guess) or that China would invade them for the sake of ‘why not’. If you invade your neighbour just because you can you are making all your other neighbours more than nervous. The common border with China is also what makes the master here do a basic mistake: Afghanistan has much more strategic interest for China than Usa has; maritime transport has the huge advantage of being cheap yes, but also to avoid the vagaries of transit through third party countries. When you have a common border, direct investment and trade even through land is interesting and there are acceptable ways of transit even for heavy stuff like minerals (rail if you have enough engineering skills, somethng that’s not unheard of in China)

      1. It should be noted that the border between China and Afghanistan has only a few high-altitude mountain passes permitting travel, and is a narrow, very rugged “panhandle” of territory.

        While the Wakhan Corridor is not impassable, it does represent a very awkward bottleneck through which to sustain an invasion force, and even after passing through the Corridor, one emerges far from the most valued parts of Afghanistan.

        1. Yes awkward for an invasion – however if China want, it can mobilise more soldiers than Afghanistan has inhabitants, and the technical and industrial unbalance is even worse.
          What is more interesting is that it used to be a trading route and if it’s not used currently it’s because China don’t want it.
          If Aghanistan cease to be a client state of its biggest rival, China could very well reconsider. From the POV of an industrial power, 1T$ of mineral reserves are interesting
          If Talibans don’t make friends again with the USA, they don’t have much other possibility than to become friends with China – when they took power first, Afghanistan economy was more or less in equilibirum at a very low level. Now it’s more properous but it’s 100% dependent of foreign powers – their previous foes. There is an obvious strategical match.

          1. China can mobilize millions of soldiers to occupy Afghanistan, but they can’t make it pay to do so, because the ongoing cost of the occupation exceeds the cost of the mineral reserves. A trillion dollars worth of minerals sounds great until you realize the US blew two trillion on the occupation of Afghanistan over twenty years. Despite that, the US never had firm enough control to tap into the minerals.

            The Chinese might think they can do better on a smaller budget, but the cost-benefit analysis isn’t likely to be an entire order of magnitude more favorable for them. If the US was spending a hundred billion a year, the Chinese probably won’t be able to successfully pacify the country at ten billion a year.

            If the Taliban tell the Chinese to go to hell and withdraw into isolationism, they probably can and it won’t be worth the trouble for the Chinese, or anyone else, to dig them out of it. That was the status quo in the ’90s, after all. We have no reason to think it wouldn’t have lasted forever… if it weren’t for the Taliban making a rather unwise decision. If they hadn’t decided to shelter a terrorist movement with aspirations of blowing up high-profile targets in the continental United States, no one would have come knocking in the first place.

  24. ““Portuguese infiltration into the Indian Ocean in the 1500s realigned the old Silk road and spice trade from the overland route (which passed through parts of Afghanistan and led to the proverbial wealth of cities like Samarkhand) and reoriented it south and to the sea.””

    Isnt there some debate about this?

    Basically the argument is that rather than realigning the silk road, the Portugeuse in the short term strengthened it (because uh… They were horrible pirates who disrupted the indian ocean trade causing it to decline for a century or two) and that it took a century or two (so, 1700s, rather than 1500s) for things to become stable enough. The ottomans and venetians kept, if not a monopoly so at least a pretty big chunk of asian trade still for most of the 1600s, IIRC and it was only later (as central asia was thrown into chaos in the 1700s, and at the same time british contorl meant indian ocean trade started becoming more stable) that the silk road really declined for good?

  25. I definitely see the point Devereux was making with his takedown of the “graveyard of empires” metaphor, but for me the metaphor has always been more like short hand for a classic historical bad idea than anything deeper.

    “Never fight a land war in Asia”, “Don’t invade Russia from Europe”, “Don’t fight a two front war”, and “Don’t go to war in Afghanistan, it’s the Graveyard of Empires”. You can certainly find counterexamples from history, but going to Afghanistan still an example of Classic Blunders that certain empires (or would-be empires) can’t help but make.

  26. Late to the party, but I’d point out that “under-investment in infrastructure and services (a consequence of the lack of strategic clarity)” is something I deal with routinely as a local environmental activist. I would describe that as an American political disease that crops up almost everywhere, but I suspect that’s my parochialism showing.

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