Afghanistan has been known historically as the “graveyard of empires” for very good reasons. As we tally up the United States spending of more than $2 trillion on the Afghan war, there are many lessons to be learned in understanding how Afghanistan has become the graveyard of great empires— including the United States.
The land we call Afghanistan today is the gateway between the great past empires of Asia and Europe. Darius I of Babylonia conquered the land in circa 500 B.C. He was followed by Alexander the Great of Macedonia in 329 B.C.
There was an 11th Century conqueror from the dustbins of history called Mahmud of Ghazni whose empire ran roughshod from Iran to India. Genghis Khan took over in the 13th century. But not until the 1700s was Afghanistan united as a single country.
By 1870, Islam had taken root after invasions by Arab conquerors. More recently, the British Empire, the Soviet Union Empire, and the United States Empire were all determined to control the Afghan people— all took their armies home in abject failure after great expenditure of lives and treasure in ill-fated ventures.
“Does anyone in power ever understand history and learn from the great empires’ failures in Afghanistan?” That was a question I asked my staff back in 2001 as the U.S. announced its plans to “show Afghanistan who’s the boss.” As a history minor in college and an avid history reader, I knew we risked the American Empire for rewards that were never obvious.
Here’s a brief history lesson on Afghanistan’s defeats of the great empires.
Britain attempted to annex Afghanistan in a series of British-Afghan Wars (1838-42, 1878-80, 1919-21). The British Empire was weakened in the wake of World War I and defeated in the Third British-Afghan War of 1919-21. Less than 20 years later, the British Empire was, essentially, finished.
The Soviet Union gave up trying to pacify Afghanistan in 1988; two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed.
And then it became America’s turn. Now, after 20 years of war and a mere 10 days we can measure the failure quite clearly. But, will the next generation remember our nation’s futile efforts in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Iran?
$2 Trillion Dollars
The United States has spent an estimated $2,261,000,000,000, or more than $2 trillion, on the war effort.
merican service members served in Afghanistan since October 2001.
U.S. military members died in Afghanistan.
U.S. service members wounded in the war effort.
Humanitarian aid workers killed in the conflict as of April.
Journalists and media workers killed in the country after 2001.
An estimated number of anti-government opposition fighters in Afghanistan killed— exact figures never release.
The End of the Empire?
The question we are left with today is this: Will our latest venture into empire building be the one that topples the United States as Afghanistan’s wars of the past toppled the empires of Great Britain and the Soviet Union?
Let me repeat the financial facts… The United States has spent an estimated $2,261,000,000,000, or more than $2 trillion, on the war effort. This includes some reconstruction costs but not future obligations toward lifetime care for American veterans or future interest payments on money borrowed to fund the war.
The graveyard of empires has won again. I am not surprised.