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Afghanistan—Graveyard of Empires?

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
April 29, 2014
Hoover Institution


Afghanistan long ago became known as the "graveyard of empires." But while it is undoubtedly a tough place to fight and a tough place to control, its reputation is vastly overblown. In fact the last two empires to try to dominate Afghanistan—the British and Soviet—largely succeeded in achieving their objectives even after pulling their troops out as long as they were willing to keep extending aid to Kabul.

The British encounter with Afghanistan is remembered primarily for the disaster of the First Afghan War (1839-1842) which culminated in a pell-mell retreat by Anglo-Indian troops and their camp followers from Kabul. Almost the entire force of 16,000 people, including 700 Europeans, was wiped out as a result of freezing winter temperatures and unrelenting attacks by hostile tribesmen. The British encountered further setbacks during the Second Afghan War (1878-1880), most notably defeat at the Battle of Maiwand in southern Afghanistan, when nearly 1,000 soldiers out of a force of 2,500 were wiped out.

Yet London managed to achieve its essential objective in Afghanistan: to keep control of Kabul's foreign policy and to keep Russian influence out. From 1880 to 1919 Afghanistan was a virtual protectorate of the British Empire, with the British supporting the rule of Abdur Rahman, "the Iron Emir," and his son Habibullah. Habibullah's assassination in 1919 brought to the throne his brother Amanullah, who launched the Third Afghan War to regain control of his country's foreign policy. He succeeded but only because the British were too war-weary to offer much resistance. In any case Russia, at that point in the throes of a civil war between Whites and Reds, appeared to pose little threat of trumping British influence in Afghanistan.

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