It is taken as fact that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires—an isolated, medieval land removed from history, unconquerable and ungovernable. It is a trope that many in the media endlessly parrot (including Maureen Dowd, who just today described Afghanistan as “a place where battle has been an occupation, and preoccupation, for centuries”). The Telegraph, in fact, published in 2010 a handy (and entirely relevant) guide to the invasions of Afghanistan, going all the way back to Alexander the Great. Even serious treatments of the country focus on Afghanistan’s “medieval” character.
This trope, despite its prevalence, is, like many such tropes, wrong. The history of Afghanistan is not of a place set apart from the rest of the world, a sort of geographic black hole. Going back to the 11th century, Afghanistan has been successfully ruled (and occasionally conquered) by the Ghaznavids, the Qarakhanids, the Chaghatay khans, the Timurids and the Moghuls. From the early 18th century onwards it was governed mostly by local, indigenous rulers and dynasties. That Afghanistan was able to avoid being subsumed within the British or Russian empires in the 19th century (like its neighbor, Iran) is more of a historical accident than a sign of its utter impregnability. And rather than a violent, anarchic land out of time, Afghanistan was for much of the 20th century a relatively stable, functioning—if decidedly third-world—country.
(There was an international conference of academic historians held in Kabul in 1978. Think about that. Afghanistan was normal and modern enough only 34 years ago that a bunch of professors could fly there, stay in hotels, eat at restaurants and hold an academic conference. Hardly the stuff of a centuries-long preoccupation with violence.)
The problem with this trope, beyond its inaccuracies, is that it colors how we understand the current situation in the country. Rep. Walter Jones yesterday said, in a Congressional hearing on US military action in Afghanistan, that “…there is one thing we cannot do, and that is change history, because Afghanistan has never changed since they’ve been existing.” Such a view (which is by no means uncommon) completely distorts the picture of Afghanistan’s history. Afghanistan has changed; not just over centuries, but in the last thirty years. To deny this fact is to misunderstand everything that has gone on there. Most importantly, it is to misunderstand our (i.e., America’s) role in this process.
This transformation of Afghanistan is the result of over thirty years of unceasing violence and warfare within the country. We are directly responsible for much of it. To be sure, the violence was started by the Soviets, whose invasion in 1979 set off the decades of on-going fighting. But the US, through its support of anti-Soviet factions (namely the Mujahideen) prolonged the fighting following the initial Soviet takeover, leading to the breakdown of government power in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal. (In fact, a case could be made that Afghanistan on the whole would be better off today if the Soviets had won.)
By arming and funding what were essentially foreign mercenaries, the US contributed to Afghanistan’s transformation from a modestly stable and functioning place to a country wracked by anarchy and chronic violence. This was not Afghanistan’s permanent state, but the result of the actions of two superpowers and their proxies. The Taliban are not medieval; they were formed in 1994. (They emerged as a response to this situation, and their ideological origins date back only to British India in the late 19th century).
The point of this is not to place blame on American foreign policy. This analysis is made with the immense benefit of hindsight, and the goal of stopping the conquest of an innocent country by a totalitarian state in an act of wanton aggression is, on paper, obviously pretty noble.
Nevertheless, we helped ‘change history’ by changing Afghanistan, and it only took thirty years. To remain ignorant of this fact is by implication to surrender an entire nation to the hellish, war-ridden circumstances in which they currently find themselves. If we assume Afghanistan as it is now is not only how it has always been, but also how it always will be, then we assume that no amount of soldiers, foreign aid or elections will matter. Our self-defeating tautology will be correct; Afghanistan is Afghanistan and always will be.
This attitude, if left unchecked, will color our entire understanding of what happened in Afghanistan, to say nothing of how we will understand future foreign interventions. If nothing could be done to fix Afghanistan, then we couldn’t have failed there. No lessons will have been learned. Whether we choose to continue in Afghanistan or cut our losses (and I’m not taking a position here), let’s at least get our facts right.