Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Myth of Afghan Invincibility

Not too long ago during some significant downtime for the platoon I indulged in a Rambo movie marathon which of course included Rambo III whose events in the movie occur during the latter end of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It is easily the worst in the franchise (Rambo II remains my favorite even with its over the top, cartoonesque action sequences) for a number of cinematic reasons, but my principal problem with the film has to do with its simplistic portrayal of the Afghan people. Stallone's film falters for me because it engages in a gross romanticisation of the Afghans (the movie is in fact dedicated to them) by presenting them as a monolithic group of people who desire nothing more than to be left alone and to be free; honorable warriors who can do no wrong and who've never been defeated in war. It's this last emphasis on Afghan invincibility that I find particularly irksome and problematic historically. 

However, this isn't a myth that's sui generis to Rambo III; rather it's a widespread belief held by the public and policy makers alike that has persisted since at least the 1980s and has been neatly packaged in such references to Afghanistan in popular thought as "the graveyard of empires". The narrative of the myth goes something like this: Alexander the Great had great difficulty in conquering this region as did the Muslims and Mongols; the British were defeated several times by the Afghans; the Soviets with its huge technological advantage were beaten by the Afghans by nothing more than WWI enfield rifles; and the United States is now finding that it too cannot conquer this country or its people. Now just to be clear I in no way wish to disparage the unique fighting ability of these people for they have indeed proven themselves on the battlefield repeatedly. Nevertheless, this notion that they have never been conquered or defeated is a myth and one that needs demolishing. 

Unfortunately, there is a difficulty in attempting to survey a military history of Afghanistan because of the problem in pinpointing precisely when one can properly speak of a group of people called Afghans (even today this is problematic because you have a cluster of ethnic groups living in Afghanistan such as Pashtoons, Tajiks, Nuristanis, Uzbeks, et al.) because of its history of heavily mixed ethnic groups, tribal affiliations, and fluctuating borders. In addition, what we think of today as the political entity of Afghanistan didn't come into existence until the mid 19th century and even then its borders were essentially determined by British and Russian interests during their "Great Game" in Central Asia and not according to what would have been best demographically and/or geographically.

But for simplicity's sake let us assume that the Afghan people are those who have generally occupied the region that today encompasses the borders of modern Afghanistan since time immemorial. Given this condition an accurate military history of this region would run as follows:

1.) From what historians and archaeologists have been able to determine the region of modern day Afghanistan first came under subjugation during the conquests of Darius I and the Persian Empire circa 500 BCE.

2.) Alexander the Great defeated the Persian empire and subsequently, though with some difficulty, conquered this vast region c. 330 BCE. Upon his death the Macedonian empire split among several rulers, and Seleucus, a former Macedonian officer under Alexander, took it upon himself to govern the region that encompasses modern day Iran and Afghanistan. 

3.) The Mauryan Empire (an ancient Indian empire) under Chandragupta defeated the remnants of Seleucus' dynasty and conquered most of Afghanistan in roughly 200 BCE.

4.) Sometime in the late 1st century BCE the Scythians, a Steppe peoples, migrated into Afghanistan and subdued the various tribal groups there.  

5.) The Parthians, as part of their war with the remnants of the Seleucid dynasty, invaded and conquered Afghanistan (and India) and effectively maintained control of the region well into Late Antiquity. (Technically, it was the Indo-Parthians who ruled during this period, but historians consider them to be at least nominally a part of the larger Parthian empire.)

6.) Just prior to the middle ages another group from the Steppes, the White Huns, rolled into India and Afghanistan until a Hindu coalition pushed them out in 528 CE.

7.) In 642 CE the Arabs extended their conquest of the Middle East to Asia by subduing Afghanistan as well as introducing Islam to the area for the first time. For the next several hundred years rule of Afghanistan would vacillate between various Muslim and tribal leaders.

8.) In the 13th century the Mongols led by Genghis Khan invaded and conquered all of Central Asia and more. Khan and subsequent Mongol rulers maintained control of this region by a policy of depopulation. 

9.) Following the collapse of the reigns of Tamerlane (or Timur) and then Babur, Afghanistan divided into three major areas; the Khanate of Bukhara ruled in the north, the Sunni Mughals in the east, and the Shi'a Safavids in the west from the 16th to the 18th century. 

10.) Nadir Shah of the Ashfarid dynasty took advantage of the anarchy then enveloping Persia and successfully raised a military to defeat the Persians. He then marched his army into Afghanistan (and what was left of the Mughal empire in India) and defeated and deposed their rulers. But before he could consolidate his control over the region, he was assassinated in 1738 and following a loya jirga the soldier Ahmad Khan was elected to replace him. Ahmad Khan then moved quickly to complete the conquest of the Mughal empire (which at the time consisted of modern day India and Pakistan) and thereby established the Durrani Empire in 1747. (Most historians acknowledge the founding of the Durrani Empire as the birth of modern Afghanistan.) 

11.) Dost Mohammad became emir of Afghanistan in 1836 and due to fear of Russian encroachment into Central Asia made overtures to the British. But diplomatic missteps between the two resulted in the First Anglo-Afghan war in which though they were initially successful in deposing Dost Mohammad, the British suffered humiliation by being pushed out and ultimately slaughtered by a fierce Afghan insurgency. But the British successfully retaliated, taking back the major cities of Kabul, Jalalabad, and Kandahar. However, a change in British government resulted in the withdrawal of the British Indian army from Afghanistan.

12.) In 1878 the then ruler of Afghanistan Sher Ali Khan (somewhat unwillingly) accepted a Russian envoy to Kabul but rebuffed a similar British diplomatic mission that eventually resulted in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. But this time the British were overwhelmingly successful in both their military and geopolitical aims and though eventually deciding to withdraw its troops they continued to maintain control over Afghan foreign policy.

13.) Though initially neutral during WWI the Afghans eventually rose up against British rule that led to the Third Anglo-Afghan War. And though Britain successfully crushed the revolt, its war fatigue caused them to agree, through the Treaty of Rawalpindi, to relinquish control of Afghan foreign policy (as well as discontinuing British subsidies to the country) thus effecting genuine Afghan independence in 1919.

14.) In order to "prop up" an unstable communist Afghan government the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. But the mujahadeen with the covert aid of the CIA and other clandestine agencies defeated the Soviet Union which resulted in its withdrawal from the country in 1989.  But Afghanistan quickly fell into a costly civil war that "concluded" with the Taliban gaining control of most of the country by 1996. 

15.) The Taliban's refusal to hand over Osama Bin Laden led to NATO, headed by the United States, allying itself with the Northern Alliance; their combined forces successfully removed the Taliban from power and a few years later Hamid Karzai was elected president of Afghanistan. But rampant corruption in Karzai's government and a renewed Taliban led insurgency threaten to undo the progress made to date in Afghanistan. 

This lengthy, broad overview of the history of Afghanistan should, I would hope, make clear that more often than not the history of the Afghan people has been one of conquest and domination; not one of military success.

I think part of the reason this myth persists as it does is because for Westerners the most recent memory of the Afghans is their seemingly miraculous defeat of the Soviets. This in turn ties into one of Western civilizations' enduring myths: the biblical story of David's defeat of Goliath. You see we glory in the thought of a simple primitive people armed mostly with WWI era weapons defeating the mighty and evil Soviet Empire with its vastly superior technological capabilities because we think it displays a bit of ourselves in them. In sum, their honor is our honor; their glory our glory. (The reality of course is that without our covert aid, especially the Stinger missiles we provided which were crucial in bringing down the Soviet Hind helicopters, the Afghan people would have been crushed by the Soviets.)

Of course there is a sense in which myths can be fruitful. For instance, myths have the power to inspire and sustain us through trying times and can be useful as a didactic tool. But in the case of this particular myth I think more harm than good has been caused by its overwhelming acceptance. In fact, I believe our foreign policy towards Afghanistan has been hampered and adversely affected by our belief in this myth. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in crafting his military strategy at the onset of Operation Enduring Freedom referred time and time again to this myth as justification for his "light footprint" method which I believe is a central reason why the security situation deteriorated so rapidly in the subsequent years of the victory over the Taliban.

Sadly, even now I believe this myth continues to negatively affect our military as well as geopolitical objectives in regards to Afghanistan. Though it's a platitude often heard by the losing side of any conflict, if we do "lose" this "war" it will be because we put ourselves at an initial psychological disadvantage by our resolute belief in this myth of the unconquerable nature of Afghanistan and so will in the end have beaten ourselves. Therefore, I believe the first crucial step to success in Afghanistan begins with discarding this parasitic myth. But unfortunately, myths don't die easily and I don't see this one becoming extinct any time soon. However, until it does American foreign policy will continue to be indentured to this myth of Afghan invincibility. 

1 comment:

  1. Accidentally deleted yr reply to my post. Thanks for the note!