Afghanistan, the Graveyard of Empires – Really?

AfghanistanIt is sometimes claimed that Afghanistan is the ‘graveyard of empires’ and as a justification of why this is so, one usually hears that this was because no occupying power had ever ‘won’ in Afghanistan, or something similiar. The examples that are normally given to make that case are the Soviet Union and the British Empire. So let’s takle them first.

I realise that is not a scientific work, but nevertheless is quite conclusive as to whether the above claim holds any water. In short, it does not.

a) The Soviet Union (1917-1991)

In an 2009 article on the BBC website named “Reform, Coup and Collapse: The End of the Soviet State”, Professor Archie Brown writes (emphasis mine):

The Soviet Union on the eve of Gorbachev’s perestroika (reconstruction) had serious political and economic problems. Technologically, it was falling behind not only Western countries but also the newly industrialised countries of Asia. Its foreign policy evinced a declining capacity to win friends and influence people. Yet there was no political instability within the country, no unrest, and no crisis. This was not a case of economic and political crisis producing liberalisation and democratisation. Rather, it was liberalisation and democratisation that brought the regime to crisis point. There were five interconnected transformations in the last years of the Soviet Union which are too often conflated into one ‘collapse’ or ‘implosion’. It is especially important to distinguish between the dismantling of the communist system and the disintegration of the Soviet state, for the former preceded the latter by between two and three years.

This view is shared by others. From Wikipedia (emphasis mine):

East-West tensions increased during the first term of U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1981–1985), reaching levels not seen since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis as Reagan increased US military spending to 7% of the GDP.[citation needed] To match the USA’s military buildup, the Soviet Union increased its own military spending to 27% of its GDP and froze production of civilian goods at 1980 levels, causing a sharp economic decline in the already failing Soviet economy. However, it is not clear where the number 27% of the GDP came from. This thesis is not confirmed by the extensive study on the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union by two prominent economists from the World Bank- William Easterly and Stanley Fisher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “… the study concludes that the increased Soviet defense spending provoked by Mr. Reagan’s policies was not the straw that broke the back of the Evil Empire. The Afghan war and the Soviet response to Mr. Reagan’s Star Wars program caused only a relatively small rise in defense costs. And the defense effort throughout the period from 1960 to 1987 contributed only marginally to economic decline.[2]

In my view, it’s thus safe to conclude that the Afghanistan War (1979- 1989) was not the cause of the demise of the Soviet Union. It was a combination of factors other than the war that brought the Soviet Union down.

b) The British Empire (roughly 1583 – 1945)

Here let’s look at the second Afghanistan campaign of the British. From The British Empire (emphasis mine):

The battle of Kandahar finally settled the campaign once and for all (Although Ayub Khan did make one more unsuccessful attempt at capturing Kandahar after the British had left). The British really did now begin to withdraw and this time it was for good. At the end of the day, the British had spent an enormous amount of effort to achieve a situation that seemed virtually identical to that at the beginning of the war. However, events were to prove that their decisive action did indeed forestall Russian advances into the country, and things were to be as quiet as things ever can be in that part of the world for a while at least. The various tribes still made it abundantly clear that as little as they liked each other, they liked the British still less. The North-West Frontier was still considered the wild frontier and caused headaches for British planners in India for a long time yet to come. Although, as long as the tribes were fighting each other rather than inviting Russians in to help them the British were not overly concerned with the situation.

The battle of Kandahar (Sept. 1, 1880) was actually won by the British, and the British Empire continued to exist for another 65 years. It only ceased to exist after 1945, so here it is clear that it was the Second World War which destroyed the British Empire, and not it’s involvement in Afghanistan.

Let’s try another empire that was involved in Afghanistan.

c) The Sassanid Empire (224-651)

Sassanid EmpireFrom the Iran Chamber Society:

The reign of Khosro II (591-628 CE) was characterized by the wasteful splendor and lavishness of the court. Toward the end of his reign Khosro II’s power declined. In renewed fighting with the Byzantines, he enjoyed initial successes, captured Damascus, and seized the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. But counterattacks by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius brought enemy forces deep into Sassanid territory.

In the spring of 633 CE a grandson of Khosro called Yezdegerd ascended the throne, and in that same year the first Arab squadrons made their first raids into Persian territory.

Years of warfare exhausted both the Byzantines and the Iranians. The later Sassanids were further weakened by economic decline, heavy taxation, religious unrest, rigid social stratification, the increasing power of the provincial landholders, and a rapid turnover of rulers. These factors facilitated the Arab invasion in the seventh century.

The Sassanid Empire was weakened by continual wars with the Byzantine Empire, debt and a disintegration of central power. Not mentioning of Afghanistan at all.

d) The Ghaznavid Empire (963-1187)

Ghaznavid EmpireFrom Wikipedia:

Mahmud’s son Mas’ud was unable to preserve the empire and following a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Dandanaqan in (1040) lost all the Ghaznavid lands in Iran  and Central Asia to the Seljuks and plunged the realm into a “Time of troubles”.[14][15]  Mas’ud’s son Ibrahim who re-established a truncated empire on a firmer basis by arriving at a peace agreement with the Seljuks and a restoration of cultural and political linkages.[15]  Under Ibrahim and his successors saw a period of sustained tranquility for the empire. Shorn of its western land it was increasingly sustained by riches accrued from raids across Northern India where it faced stiff resistance from Rajput rulers such as the Paramara  of Malwa  and the Gahadvala of Kannauj.[15]

The Ghazvanid Empire fell victim to the Seljuks and the Rajputs and did not die because of its involvement in Afghanistan. It’w worthwile to note, that its center, Ghazni, was in Afghanistan.

e) The Mongol Empire (1206-1368)

Mongol Empire

Now, this one was the greatest land empire in history. The disintegration of the Mongol Empire started in 1260 when they lost Aleppo and Syria in 1260 and the Mongols started to get at each other. From Nationsonline:

In 1220 all of Central Asia fell to the Mongol forces of Genghis Khan. Afghanistan remained fragmented until the 1380s, when Timur consolidated and expanded the existing Mongol Empire. Timur’s descendants ruled Afghanistan until the early sixteenth century.

Afghanistan didn’t seem to be a huge problem for the Mongols. It certainly wasn’t the cause for the decline and demise of the Mongol Empire.

f) The Safavid Empire (1502-1736)

Safavid EmpireThis one did occupy only the eastern part of Afghanistan. From the Iran Chamber Society (emphasis mine):

After Abbas II died in 1667, decline set in again when Shah Soleyman (Safi II), who ruled from 1667 to 1694, took power. He was renamed, superstitiously, to Soleyman because the first year and half of his reign was so disastrous. Shah Soleyman was not a competent ruler, and shortly after his accession food prices soared and famine and disease spread throughout the country. Although pressing problems faced him, he increasingly retreated into the harem and left his grand vezir to cope with affairs of state.

Shah Sultan Hossein, who ruled from 1694 to 1722, have been described as the most incompetent shah of Safavids. He was similar to some others who had inherited power by accident of birth. Indifferent to affairs of state, Shah Sultan Hossein effectively brought Safavid Empire to its sudden and unexpected end. He was of a religious temperament and especially influenced by the Shi’a religious establishment. At their insistence, he issued decrees forbidding the consumption of alcohol and banning Sufism in Esfahan. In 1694 Shah Sultan Hossein appointed Mohammad Baqir Majlesi, the most influential member of Shi’a religious establishment, to the new office of “Mulla Bashi” (Head Mulla). Majlesi wrote “Bihar al-Anwar” (The Seas of Light), an encyclopedic work dedicated to the preservation of the prophet Mohammad’s words and deeds. He devoted himself to the propagation of a legalistic form of Shi’ism and to the eradication of Sufism and Sunni Islam in Iran. Under his guidance specifically Shi’a popular rituals, such as mourning for the martyred third Shi’a Imam Hossein (d. 680), Ashora, were encouraged, as were pilgrimages to the tombs of holy Shi’a personages. Majlesi’s policies also included the persecution of non-Muslims in Iran, including Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians. Unchecked by the Safavid regime, Majlesi and the Shi’a clergy emerged with increased strength and independence from the ruling government in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Safavid Empire had also declined militarily, leaving it more vulnerable to invasion, which came out of the east. In 1722 Afghan invaders under Mahmoud, a former Safavid vassal in Afghanistan, captured Esfahan and murdered Shah Sultan Hossein. The Afghan invasion was disastrous for Iran, which consequently in 1723 the Ottomans took advantage of the disintegration of the Safavid realm and invaded from the west, ravaging western Persia as far as Hamadan, while the Russians seized territories around the Caspian Sea. In June 1724 the two powers agreed on a peaceful partitioning of Iran’s northwestern provinces.

The Safavid Empire did have some trouble with Afghanistan, but that was when it had already declined and had been significantly weakened by conflicts with the Ottomans and internal strife. The Safavids main problem seem to have been a number of incompetent rulers and not Afghanistan.

g) Conclusion

I’ve checked six and I also looked at the Achmaenid Empire (ca. 550–330 BCE),  Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE), the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750) and the Timurid Empire (1370-1526), and found that none had their presence in Afghanistan as a significant – or a factor at all – as a reason for its demise.

That would be 0 out of 10 (zero out of ten). Which gives a rather compelling case that the claim that Afghanistan was the graveyard of empires is a myth and has no foundation in reality.


1 thought on “Afghanistan, the Graveyard of Empires – Really?

  1. This is a great compendium of the history of that region. Thank you. I was looking for something that puts the lie to the “Graveyard of History” meme, and this fits the bill perfectly.


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