Graveyard of Empires

The Great Game

Graveyard of Empires is a sobriquet associated with Afghanistan. It originates from the alleged historical tendency for foreign powers to fail in their invasions of the country. It is unclear who coined the phrase, and its historical accuracy has been disputed.

Several superpowers have attempted to invade Afghanistan without maintaining a stable, permanent rule. Modern examples included the British Empire during the first and Third Anglo-Afghan Wars (1839-1842, 1919), the Soviet Union in the Soviet–Afghan War (1979-1989) and the United States in the War in Afghanistan (2001-2021).

Some had attributed ancient empires to the narrative, including the Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Turks, and Mongols. The difficulty in invading Afghanistan was attributed to the prevalence of fortress-like qalats (fortified places), the deserts, the mountainous terrain, its severe winter, and its ‘impregnable clan loyalties.’

Anthropologist Thomas Barfield notes that ‘for 2,500 years Afghanistan was always part of somebody’s empire, beginning with the Persian Empire in the fifth century B.C.’ Following Persian rule, Alexander the Great and his successors ruled over Afghanistan for 200 years. The Mongols, Timur and Babur of the Mughal Empire all used Afghanistan as a base in their expansion.

The British Empire was not destroyed after the Third Anglo-Afghan War, and the British had great successes against Afghanistan during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The fall of the British Empire was more commonly attributed to World War II. While the Soviet–Afghan War was a major factor in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the opposition in Afghanistan was only possible with U.S., British, Pakistani, and Saudi Arabian aid. Furthermore, there is reason to believe that the Soviet Union would have collapsed regardless of the campaign. Nonetheless, the narrative allowed for argument from analogy and the claims of ‘history repeating itself,’ which proved popular amongst authors and pundits.

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