Taken in historical context, the 13-year presence of NATO combat troops in Afghanistan amounted to scarcely a footnote to centuries of foreign military intervention in the country. From the Achaemenid imperial army in the 6th century BC to the combined might of 48 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) nations that deployed in 2003, Afghanistan has endured more than two millennia of invasions of its territory.
There is a common misconception that runs like this: Afghanistan is a country that cannot be conquered, and every foreign power that has attempted to hold it has come to grief. The first assertion is false, the second is true.
Cyrus of Persia
Alexander the Great, thanks in no small measure to Oliver Stone’s 2004 Hollywood epic, is popularly accepted as the leader of the first great foreign military expedition in Afghanistan. The Greek historian Herodotus, however, speaks of Cyrus the Great subjecting large swathes of this territory well before that, in fact fully two centuries before the Macedonian king crossed the Hellespont, today’s Dardanelles, to embark on his path of Asian conquest.
As Classical scholar Bijan Omrani points out in his history of Afghanistan, ‘It is with the Persian Empire that the lands of Afghanistan first enter the annals of recorded history.’ This is substantiated by a rock inscription discovered in western Iran, he adds, according to which the founder of the Achaemenid Empire had captured the districts today known as Herat, the Kabul Valley, Kandahar, and Balkh.
No sooner had Cyrus triumphed over the Near Eastern kingdom of Assyria than he took his army further east across Persia to engage the Massagetae, a confederation of tribes inhabiting Afghanistan and the region to the north.
This is where Cyrus’s 30-year rule came to an abrupt end, and in most improbable circumstances for a land that in modern times would come to be ruled by the Taliban.
The king met his nemesis at the hands of a female warrior, Queen Tomyris, a veritable force of Nature: once the dust had settled on the battlefield at the banks of the Syr Darya, which Herodotus called ‘more violent than any other fought between foreign nations’, Tomyris had Cyrus decapitated and his head pushed into a goatskin that she had herself filled with human blood.
Central Asian fortress
Tomyris could be taken as a predecessor of the fanatical Pashtun women depicted in Kipling’s poem ‘The Young British Soldier’, who more than 2,000 years later would rush out after battle to mutilate dead and wounded British soldiers:
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
From the earliest days of its recorded history, Afghanistan has sat squarely in the sights of a succession of imperial invaders. All stumbled at the pitfalls awaiting aspiring conquerors of this forbidding, almost impenetrable land.
First, there is the geography that forms the country’s natural defences. The Hindu Kush, which runs from the north-east to the south-west, and the Oxus River on the northern boundary, present formidable logistical barriers for any invading army.
The mountain ranges are blanketed by snow from November to March. Peaks above 18,000 feet are almost all enveloped in permanent whiteness. The snow-melt starting in March turns streams into raging torrents: Alexander’s army was more than once caught in flash floods.
But it is not just a question of pushing troops and equipment over frozen passes or formidable waterways: the challenge is to keep supply-lines open, and this requires fortifying and holding established settlements in a hostile environment.
Once an army had breached these barriers, it would come up against one of the most savage warrior races known to history. The Afghans could not allow themselves to be displaced from their mountain habitats, for the simple reason that they had nowhere else to go.
Lack of social mobility and a rigid tribal structure meant that people were tied to their immediate environment. They would not be accepted by other clans, even of their own ethnicity, much less by different tribal groups. The land is too poor to admit domestic refugees.
The men were, and to a large extent still are, mainly farmers and herders who would not find wives outside their own tightly knit communities. In other words, throughout history, Afghans have not been fighting to defend a nation-state or even a tribal grouping, but their very existence at a village level.
The same holds true today, in the recent conflict with the Western powers, when most Taliban fighters waged war within a few miles of their homes.
From earliest antiquity, the tribes of Afghanistan honed their warrior skills fighting among themselves, for what little their harsh land had to offer. This struggle for survival was waged in inter-tribal battles between Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Turkmen north of the Hindu Kush, the Hazaras in the central mountains, and, in opposition to everyone else, the all-powerful Pashtuns from their historic strongholds in the south and east; the Pashtuns’ domain extended to what is now the north-west tribal belt of Pakistan.
Prehistoric evidence places the origin of the tribes some 25 centuries ago. The first visible participants in the cycle of nomadic invasions were the Aryan tribes, who crossed the River Oxus southwards into Afghanistan during the 3rd millennium BC.
These tribes encountered a native population that showed signs of wealth and great cultural sophistication, thanks in no small measure to international trade. These early inhabitants, with important administrative and religious centres at Dashly near Balkh and Mundigak in the Kandahar district, oversaw the export of tin and lapis lazuli to as far afield as Egypt and modern-day Iraq.
Some of the Pashtun tribes are quick to assure you that they are descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Shinwari, for instance, comes from Simeon, Yusufzai translates as Sons of Joseph, and Afridi is a derivative of Ephraim.
A more plausible, albeit less picturesque, version places their ancestry in a swarm of Iranian-speaking nomads who occupied the Helmand River basin and the Punjab in the 7th century BC. One of these tribes, Herodotus writes, bore the name Pactyes, the precursors of the Pakhtuns, or Pashtuns as we know them today.
The Pashtuns are a fearsome adversary, whose tribesmen make up more than 95% of the Taliban’s ranks. They were described in 1932 by veteran frontiersman General Sir Andrew Skeen as ‘the world’s most formidable fighters’, who come running down hillsides ‘like falling boulders, not running but bounding… These men are hard as nails; they live on little and carry nothing but a rifle and a few cartridges.’
Early Afghanistan’s internecine warfare was only interrupted when the tribes made common cause against a foreign invader – as the next great conqueror after Cyrus was to find out with a great deal of pain.
Alexander of Macedon
After subduing Persia, Alexander moved on Afghanistan between 330 and 326 BC. He first made a triumphant entry into Herat, taking the least difficult route from eastern Persia. The following year, he followed the Helmand River basin south-east to Kandahar, and then moved northwards to Kabul in the spring.
Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus, writing three centuries after the event, says that on his march Alexander had to deal with ‘a backward tribe, extremely uncivilised even for barbarians’. These ‘barbarians’ belonged to the same warrior tribes who would dig in their heels against every successive invader of Afghanistan.
Like Napoleon at Moscow, Alexander faced punishing storms that left the Macedonians cut off, lacking provisions, and facing every imaginable hardship of cold and fatigue. Those who made it to the comparative warmth and comfort of the Kabul Valley soon came up against the Hindu Kush mountains and found themselves lost in uncharted territory. Suffering greatly, Alexander’s columns crossed the mountains to Bactria and the city of Balkh.
By now, the Macedonian king had spent many months fighting the elements and an enemy who refused to give up. The conquest of Afghanistan was never achieved, and, after his invasion of India, Alexander retreated via a southern route that took him across Baluchistan, where he lost three quarters of his army to heat, dehydration, and exhaustion.
Alexander himself made it back to Babylon, but there he died in 323 BC, at the age of 33, his work of world conquest unfinished.
The Silk Road
Afghanistan’s landscape stood as a bulwark against invasion, but its geographical location also made its conquest too tempting a morsel for foreign armies not to attempt to breach its ramparts.
Here was the connecting point between the great empires of Central Asia and the warm, fertile valleys of the Indian Subcontinent. Standing at the heart of the Silk Road, it was inevitable that Afghanistan should be the stage for a continual clash of civilisations.
Plunder and imperial expansion were the drivers of land invasion for many centuries, until 16th-century voyages of discovery and 17th-century programmes of mercantile trade opened the sea-lanes to world commerce and gradually diminished the importance of the Silk Road.
Some who followed the path of conquest spread carnage and devastation across Afghanistan. The Mauryan Empire, founded around 300 BC, crossed the frontier from India to strike a deal with remnants of Alexander’s administration. In exchange for 500 elephants, the Indian invaders were given most of Afghanistan’s southern regions, where the intractable Pashtuns were, in any case, making life impossible for the Greeks.
In a spiritual awakening, the greatest of the Mauryan kings, Ashoka, introduced Buddhism to Afghanistan. The Buddhist faith thrived until the near-complete conversion of the country to Islam in the 10th century.
The country barely had time to catch its breath in a period of relative peace before confronting the lethal sweep of the Mongol hordes of the 13th century. The historian Louis Dupree says, ‘The fact that today Afghanistan is considered a rough rather than a fragile country – inured to warfare rather than prone to passive resistance – stems largely from the wholesale destruction of its sedentary element at this time.’
Mongols and Moguls
Dupree’s analysis is persuasive: Genghis Khan’s hordes laid waste to towns, villages, and irrigation systems in their path. These acts of vandalism forced the people to retreat to mountain strongholds, where they developed and refined the guerrilla skills that confounded later invaders of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Mongols at least realised that Afghanistan was ungovernable. So the next best thing was to destroy it, a task they carried out with breathtaking efficiency. In doing so, they unwittingly laid down a precept that holds true today: nobody wants Afghanistan – they simply want to deny it to others.
Mongol invasions did not end with Genghis Khan’s death. In 1583, his descendant Tamerlane followed the classic southern route from Herat, stopping to destroy Helmand’s rebuilt irrigation system, before undertaking the mass slaughter of all who stood in his path.
Between the 16th and 18th centuries – with the exception of a Persian incursion to take Kandahar, which was robustly crushed by the Pashtuns – Afghanistan enjoyed a life of relative calm. The Mogul Emperor Babur, who endeared himself to his Afghan subjects, left a written account of the difficulties of trying to rule the tribes. One could argue that it should have been read by NATO commanders before deploying to Afghanistan.
In 1747, the country embarked on an imperial adventure of its own under the Pashtun king Ahmad Shah Durrani, who extended his rule west and east across large swathes of Persia and India, and is today regarded as the man who defined the modern state of Afghanistan.
The Great Game
Once the great Russian and British empires of the 19th century had converged almost to the borders of Afghanistan, armed intervention became all but inevitable. This was ‘denying it to others’ taken to its extreme. It fell to uninformed and arrogant British politicians in London and Delhi to order a pre-emptive strike, on the basis of evidence comparable to the ‘dodgy dossier’ that took the US and Britain into Iraq in 2003, and with the aim of achieving a ‘regime change’ desired by almost no one – and certainly not the Afghans.
The disaster that followed in the wake of the 1839 British occupation of Kabul revealed an astonishing lack of understanding of the Afghan way of life.
The British left the Kabul tribal leaders with a sense of humiliation by halving the allowances paid to them to keep the peace and tolerate the army’s presence. By cavorting with Afghan women, the officers sent their menfolk into a quite understandable rage. The decision to allow these same officers to send to India for their wives and families was interpreted as a signal of long-term occupation, something the Afghans were not prepared to tolerate.
Finally, trusting the undertakings given by the son of the ruler they had dethroned, the British fell into a trap that cost 16,000 lives on the retreat from Kabul. True, a second army (à la ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’) dispatched from India dealt the Afghans a resounding blow, but this force also had to fight its way home under withering fire from the intractable Afghan guerrillas.
Less than four decades were to pass before the British, ever in dread of a Russian incursion into Afghanistan, launched another pre-emptive strike. With the amir having fled Kabul ahead of the advancing army, the British went about setting up what to the Afghans smacked of a permanent compound for their representative Sir Louis Cavagnari. Within weeks of his arrival, Cavagnari, his guards, and staff had been slaughtered to a man by a rampaging mob.
Following the disastrous Battle of Maiwand in 1880 – Britain’s worst military disaster in Asia until 1942 – feisty General Sir Frederick ‘Fighting Bob’ Roberts took a 10,000-strong column across Afghanistan. Maiwand was only one of nearly 20 engagements fought against the Afghans before Roberts’ ultimate victory at Kandahar – which allowed the army to march out claiming victory, while leaving more than 9,000 casualties behind.
Russian Bear and American Eagle
Britain’s fears of a Russian military incursion into Afghanistan were eventually substantiated, but not until a century later. British diplomat Sir Rodric Braithwaite cites a comment by a Russian general more than 50 years before the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan:
The country is extremely well adapted to a passive resistance. Its mountainous nature and the proud and freedom-loving character of its people, combined with the lack of adequate roads, makes it very difficult to conquer and even harder to hold.
Or, to put it another way, observes Braithwaite, you can take the country, but you cannot keep it, and you cannot do anything with it. Had the Kremlin bothered to heed this general’s remarks, they might have avoided nearly 70,000 dead and wounded in a decade-long conflict which, like other attempts to subjugate Afghanistan, ended in ignominious retreat – and, as it happens, contributed substantially to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 is the latest example of an ill-conceived military action which now, after the withdrawal of ISAF combat troops, risks leaving the country in a state of disarray.
The strategy was flawed from the outset: after ousting the Taliban and setting al-Qaeda on the run, in 2003 the Western nations trained their sights on Iraq in the mistaken belief that the enemy was a spent force. In 2006, they returned to Afghanistan to find a well-armed and determined insurgency ready and waiting for them.
General Sir David Richards, who in 2006 was given command of ISAF, is one of a handful of Western military leaders to articulate clearly the need to build bridges to the Afghan insurgents, who will not be defeated by arms alone. He has argued for doing a deal with the Taliban. ‘In the long term,’ he says, ‘the Taliban will have to be brought into the fold somehow’.
Back to the Future
Meanwhile, there is little evidence to suggest that Western leaders have taken on board the lessons of intervention in Afghanistan. The best that can be expected now is for properly channelled aid – minimising the percentage that will inevitably end up in the pockets of corrupt officials – so as to rebuild the nation’s economy and infrastructure, enabling it to emerge from the shadow of more than 30 years of warfare. But the best of all possible scenarios would be to ensure that this goes down as the last foreign invasion of Afghanistan.
There is a story, celebrated among frontier officers of the day, which illustrates the tribesmen’s contempt for outsiders who come to occupy their land.
In the 1930s, a political officer was on a tour of a Pashtun district of the North-West Frontier Province, today known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Geographically, as well as ethnically, the tribal border region of today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan must be spoken of in the same breath.
Over lunch, he posed this question to one of the village maliks: ‘In the event of war between Britain and Russia, which side would your people be likely to take?’
‘Do you wish me to tell you what would please you, or to tell you the truth?’, the greybeard asked.
The British officer, bracing himself for the worst, assured his host that he wished only to hear the truth.
‘Then I shall tell you,’ the malik chuckled. ‘We would just sit here in our hills watching you fight until we saw one or the other side utterly defeated. Then we would come down and loot the vanquished to the last mule! God be praised!’
Jules Stewart is a journalist and author of six historical works on Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier. His latest book, The Kaiser’s Mission to Kabul (I B Tauris, 2014) tells the story of a secret German expedition to Afghanistan during the First World War, to attempt to persuade the amir to invade British India.
Images: US Army/WIPL