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.
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.