From its dry deserts to its impassible mountain peaks, Afghanistan is a nation soaked in the blood of its own people, and many a foreign force.
Yesterday we heard the announcement that British forces would finally be handing over control of Camp Bastion to Afghan Security Forces – Our troops are coming home, but have the blood, sweat and tears UK forces – and their coalition counterparts – have shed truly been worth it?
Afghanistan has a haunting and rather self-explanatory nickname – “The Graveyard of Empires”. This comes from the fact that many foreign forces have tried and failed in their attempts to subdue this land.
The Soviets tried, The British Empire tried, several times and even Alexander The Great had much difficulty passing through (Alexander The Great, come on now..)
As an obsessive fan of history I feel that to not only understand current issues, but also to anticipate future scenarios occurring, we should always look back – to our failures, our misgivings and our successes. So to try and effectively explain how truly screwed we were from the onset in Afghanistan, and how the future may pan out, I’ll give you a brief, but hauntingly familiar sounding history lesson.
In Ancient times Alexander The Great and his all-conquering forces were one of the first recorded people to fall victim to the tenacity and rebellious nature of the Afghan tribes. Seeking to reach India via the Khyber Pass Alexander thought nothing of travelling through such an apparently barren and underdeveloped land – underdeveloped by 330BC standards, of course – However his supply chain was constantly harassed and there many multiple incursions with the local tribes.
If we fast forward more than a millennium the find the Mongols, arguably one of the most effective military forces mankind has ever seen. With an empire spanning from Eastern Europe to Korea, the Golden Horde was seen as a near-unbeatable fighting force by many of the unfortunate opponents they fought – and probably conquered. Although the Mongols were not bogged down in a lengthy conflict, they did once again come into contact with the unruly locals and begrudgingly came to an agreement on rights of passage through the region. This may come as a surprise to many as there is a common misconception that the Mongols simply burned, raped and pillaged every area with sentient life in it wherever they went – They didn’t, believe it or not they were exceptionally astute in their diplomacy.
It’s in the last two centuries we find that the ‘fear factor’ of Afghan invasions truly comes into the mind of any military strategist. The British Empire, for all it conquered and subdued in its near two centuries of world dominance launched three separate invasion attempts in Afghanistan, two of which seen terrible losses for the invading force.
The first attempt in 1839 was during a time known as “The Great Game” – The power plays between Great Britain and Russia in an attempt to control Southern Asia. The fist invasion is famed for the catastrophic losses incurred by British forces. After three years of war it was agreed upon that British Colonial Forces would withdraw in January of 1842, deep in the heart of winter.
16,500 men comprised of 4,500 military personnel along with 12,000 non-combatants and auxiliary personnel made the treacherous journey through the deep snows of the Afghan winter. The convoy was attacked and massacred whilst fleeing through the deep gorges and rivers of the Kabul region. It is famed that only one survivor made it to their destination, however some months later prisoners were re-captured. None the less this makes for a terrifying encounter.
The second and third Anglo-Afghan Wars were not such horrifying failures as their predecessor. In 1878 Britain once again invaded Afghanistan, this time capturing large swathes of the country and forcing the Amir of Afghanistan into a peace treaty. The third, was a short engagement in the summer of 1919 and once again resulted in British forces subduing indigenous forces in what can only really be regarded as a ‘tactical victory’ – mainly due to the presence and effectiveness of British airpower. Both these conflicts saw losses of nearly 9,000 and 2,000 respectively, largely due to disease in the second conflict.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979, at the request of the Communist government in Kabul, is widely regarded as the Soviet Union’s ‘Vietnam’ – a conflict where victory is simply so unattainable that all efforts are futile. This conflict led the Soviets down a nine year road that ultimately resulted in over 100,000 combat deaths on both sides, anywhere up to 1.5 million civilian deaths, the destabilisation of the country and its neighbours, near bankruptcy and a culture of disillusion among the populace at home.
It was the final blow for the Soviet Union in its 40 year struggle for dominance with the western democracies. Soviet Russia died in Afghanistan.
Overall a pattern remains ever present here, an invading force being unable to fully subdue Afghanistan in its entirety, being bogged down in a guerilla war and slowly being picked off by the indigenous forces who possess an insatiable motivation to fight. Now in the last 13 years I imagine many people have heard of the Soviet invasion and the fact that we are fighting in a near-unconquerable nation. The fact remains however, that with the announcement of our withdrawal, we must reflect on the apparent futility of the last decade or so. Over 3,400 coalition troops have died in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion, with thousands more injured and irrevocably scarred. Have the sacrifices made to ensure ‘stability’ in Afghanistan be truly worth it?
Sadly, no. Afghanistan is a nation divided by complex religious, cultural and ideological issues and has seen civil war before. Inevitably we will no doubt see the destruction of 13 years worth of coalition work and the nation will simply revert back to pre-2001 standards. The Taliban will most definitely bide their time and, once we are gone, they will simply crawl from the holes in which they have sheltered for years now. The government in Kabul is so divisive and unrepresentative of the several different ethnic and cultural groups in Afghanistan that we will no doubt see political – and ultimately – violent infighting.
For all its beauty and potential, Afghanistan’s flaws lie in its history, a history that will come to repeat itself once again.