It's the mother of all clichés. Almost no one can resist it. It's wielded by everyone from thoughtful ex-generals to vitriolic bloggers. It crops up everywhere from Russia's English-language TV channel to scruffy Pakistani newspapers to America's stately National Public Radio. The Huffington Post can't seem to live without it, and one recent book even chose it as a title. Afghanistan, we're told, is "the graveyard of empires."
The Victorian British and the Soviet Union, the story goes, were part of a long historical continuum of arrogant conquerors that met their match in the country's xenophobic, fanatical, trigger-happy tribesmen. Given a record like that, it's obvious that the effort by the United States and its NATO allies to stabilize the shaky government in Kabul is doomed to fail.
Look, failure is always a possible outcome, especially judging by the way things have been going lately. But if the United States and its allies end up messing up their part of the equation, blame it on their bad policy decisions. Don't blame it on a supersimplified version of Afghanistan's history -- especially if you prefer to overlook the details.
As Thomas Barfield pointed out to me the other day, for most of its history Afghanistan has actually been the cradle of empires, not their grave. Barfield, an anthropologist at Boston University, has been studying Afghanistan since the early 1970s, and he has just published a book -- Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History -- that takes issue with the hoary stereotypes that continue to inform our understanding of the place.
One of those myths, for example, is that Afghanistan is inherently unconquerable thanks to the fierceness of its inhabitants and the formidable nature of its terrain. But this isn't at all borne out by history. "Until 1840 Afghanistan was better known as a 'highway of conquest' rather than the 'graveyard of empires,'" Barfield points out. "For 2,500 years it was always part of somebody's empire, beginning with the Persian Empire in the fifth century B.C."
After the Persians it was Alexander the Great's turn. Some contend that Alexander met his match in the Afghans, since it was an Afghan archer who wounded him in the heel, ushering in a series of misfortunes that would end with the great conqueror's death. Ask anyone who believes this is why Greek coins keep cropping up in Afghan soil today -- in fact, Alexander's successors managed to keep the place under their control for another 200 years. Not too shabby, really. And there were plenty of empires that came after, thanks to Afghanistan's centrality to world trade in the era before European ocean fleets put an end to the Silk Road's transportation monopoly.
What about the popular accounts that insist, awe-struck, that even Genghis Khan was humbled by the Afghans? Poppycock, says Barfield. Genghis had "no trouble at all overrunning the place," and his descendants would build wide-ranging kingdoms using Afghanistan as a base. Timur (know to most of us as Tamerlane) ultimately shifted the capital of his empire from provincial Samarkand to cosmopolitan Herat, evidence of the role command over Afghanistan played in his calculations. Babur, who is buried in Kabul, used Afghanistan to launch his conquest of a sizable chunk of India and establish centuries of Muslim rule. Afghans seemed pretty happy to go along.
In fact, Afghan self-rule is a relatively recent invention in the full sweep of the country's history, dating to the middle of the 18th century -- and it took another century for Afghanistan to earn its reputation as an empire-beater. That's when the Afghans trounced a British invasion force, destroying all but one of 16,000 troops sent to Kabul to teach the Afghan rulers a lesson.
But context is everything. Everyone tends to forget what happened after the rout of the British: In 1842 they invaded again, defeating every Afghan army sent out against them. True, they didn't necessarily achieve their aim of preventing Tzarist Russia from encroaching on Central Asia; that had to wait for the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), when they succeeded in occupying much of the country and forcing its rulers to accept a treaty giving the British a veto over future Afghan foreign policy. Then there's the fact that the First Anglo-Afghan War preceded the end of the British Empire by more than a century. London, it should be noted, never intended to make Afghanistan part of its empire. Britain's foreign-policy aim, which it ultimately achieved, was to ensure that Afghanistan remained a buffer state outside the influence of imperial competitors, such as the Russians.