Oft-called the “the Graveyard of Empires,” the wild region now known as Afghanistan has foiled would-be conquerors for millennia.
In 1809 a diplomat named Mountstuart Elphinstone led Britain’s first fact-finding mission to Afghanistan. In a land filled with strife and riven by independent factions, he met an elderly tribal leader and tried to convince him of the benefits of a firm central government. The leader’s response? “We are content with discord, we are content with alarms, we are content with blood,” the Afghan replied. “But we will never be content with a master.”
Indeed, 200 years later his statement still holds true. Uniquely among the nations of Eurasia, Afghanistan has steadfastly resisted conquest, despite being a crossroads for ambitious empires throughout ancient and medieval times and a battleground in the modern age during the Great Game and the Cold War. For millennia Afghanistan has stood at the center of recurrent conflicts, yet has never been forced to “be content with a master.”
Why should this region remain uniquely unbowed? Among several factors making it a formidable military objective, the most obvious is terrain. The eastern part of Afghanistan is entirely mountainous, and the Hindu Kush range—with peaks above 20,000 feet— bisects the country. What is not mountainous is largely desert, restricting settled communities to a few fertile river valleys. Invasion routes are limited, and defenders can easily plug or threaten key passages through the mountains, such as the Panjshir Valley and the Khyber Pass.
The difficult terrain has abetted chronic division among the Afghans, who often remain isolated, if not xenophobic, within their respective valleys, tribes or clans. So while foreign conquerors have never succeeded in subduing the Afghan people, neither has any indigenous Afghan government. The Pashtun (or Pathan) people, Afghanistan’s dominant ethnic group, are the world’s largest remaining tribal-based society, and local rules or rivalries count for more than edicts from Kabul. When Afghans do interact, it often takes the form of internecine warfare.
Winston Churchill, based as a young man in the North-West Frontier Province in 1897, wrote that “a continual state of feud and strife prevails throughout the land. Tribe wars with tribe. The people of one valley fight with those of the next. To the quarrels of communities are added the combats of individuals.…Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger.” Churchill was struck by how the socially unsophisticated Pashtun fighters were nevertheless equipped with modern arms: “To the ferocity of the Zulu are added the craft of the Redskin and the marksmanship of the Boer,” he wrote. “At a thousand yards the traveler falls wounded by the well-aimed bullet of a breechloading rifle. His assailant, approaching, hacks him to death with the ferocity of a South-Sea Islander.”
To say that Afghanistan has resisted conquest is not to say that it can’t be overrun. In fact, invaders nearly always find easy entry to the country, since the Afghan system—reins loosely held by the central government, and the disparate tribes and ethnic groups frequently at odds—does not lend itself to coordinated border defense. The core strength of Afghanistan exists in the hills, not in the few easily accessible cities. Thus, a foreign army at first may experience a period of deceptive calm, encountering only curiosity from the locals, before the ancient Afghan warrior culture coalesces to resist the invader.
The list of foreign powers the Afghans have thwarted is long and impressive, stretching from the world’s first superpower, the Persian Empire, to its latest, the United States. In between, failed would-be conquerors have included Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Victorian Great Britain and the Soviet Union—and many others. Some wrought more destruction than others, but none was ultimately successful.
Another step in understanding why Afghanistan has been such a tough nut for would-be conquerors to crack is to recognize that the country’s modern political borders are entirely irrelevant. Drawn toward the end of the 19th century by outside powers, the lines on the map marking Afghanistan’s boundaries simply have nothing to do with its true population or strength.
In 1893 Englishman Mortimer Durand was charged with drawing a border between Afghanistan and British India, a task he combined with birdwatching and hunting. His only specific instructions were to make sure such strategic points as the Khyber and Khojak passes and such important cities as Peshawar and Quetta fell on the Indian side of the border. This meant drawing a line through the heart of the Pashtun homeland, providing clarity for future atlas makers but confusing future military strategists slow to realize that a “true” border, such as would justifiably divide peoples, did not exist.
Before the creation of the Durand Line, Afghanistan included modern-day northwest Pakistan. Indeed, once the Pakistani state was established in 1947, its government quickly designated that border region as “tribal territories,” to which its writ need not be extended. It dubbed the remainder of its Pashtun region the North-West Frontier Province.
There are many cases in which borders arbitrarily drawn by great powers without regard to the ethnic groups they encompass have resulted in continual strife. But nowhere has cartography been more deceptive than with Afghanistan, which is effectively much larger than it appears on a map —some 25 million more people on the Pakistani side of the border are ethnically, culturally and religiously “Afghan.” Yet the Durand Line has kept this part of what might best be called “Pashtunistan” immune to those who wish to conquer Afghanistan.
Persia was the first civilized power known to have attempted to invade the Afghan region and apparently was the first to encounter troubles ensuing from its “conquest.” Though details are sparse, we know that Cyrus the Great was forced to invade the region twice. He died there in 530 BC in combat with a Scythian tribe near the Jaxartes River (the modern Syr Darya), a fight Herodotus described as “the most violent of all battles ever fought by barbarians.”
It was only with Alexander the Great’s invasion in 328 BC that we begin to learn the details of ancient Afghanistan. Once the Persian Empire had succumbed to his army, Alexander might reasonably have been expected to consolidate his gains, while rewarding his troops from the vast spoils of Mesopotamia. But after he failed to catch Darius III, the Persian ruler, a relative named Bessus, governor of Bactria (northern Afghanistan), declared himself the new Persian king, prompting Alexander to keep his army marching east.
This rationale was presented to his troops—most of whom just wished to go home or at least rest—but most scholars agree Alexander was truly motivated by a desire to exceed the achievements of Cyrus, which meant reaching the Jaxartes and the Indus. The trouble was that the land of Afghanistan, then barely known to the Greeks, lay in between, with its forbidding terrain and climate.
After some difficult battles with Persian holdouts and Bactrian cavalry in the vicinity of today’s Herat, Alexander moved south, where he found a stable, welcoming agricultural community in the Helmand River Valley (just as Cyrus had done). But then he decided to veer north across the Hindu Kush. The army ran into an unseasonable blast of winter that claimed many lives, crippling countless others with frostbite or snow blindness.
When Alexander’s army finally straggled out of the Hindu Kush, Bessus and his Bactrian cavalry missed the chance to exploit its weakened condition and instead took flight across the Oxus River (today’s Amu Darya). Alexander pursued him but failed to anticipate the 45 miles of desert that lay between the city of Balkh and the river. Without sufficient water, more of his men perished and others mistakenly gorged themselves once they reached water, causing “more casualties than Alexander had lost in any battle,” according to the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus. So far Alexander had merely crossed the territory of Afghanistan, suffering horrendous casualties from its climate and terrain alone. Next, he would pit himself against the fighters whose descendants would make that country’s warrior culture infamous.
Once Alexander crossed the Oxus, into a land then called Sogdiana (modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), his opponents handed over Bessus, hoping that would halt the relentless Macedonian advance. But Alexander was determined to reach the limits of Cyrus the Great’s empire and claim it for himself. He proceeded to the Jaxartes, where he laid siege to Cyrus’ fortress towns, now occupied by the Scythians.
By this time, a Persian general named Spitamenes had raised the entire region in revolt. The people of Balkh also revolted, and Spitamenes laid siege to the Sogdian capital, Samarkand. Up on the Jaxartes, Alexander fought fierce battles with the Scythians in their forts and on the steppe (in one of which he was wounded), while dispatching a 2,400-man force to deal with Spitamenes. Spitamenes’ warriors surrounded this force near Samarkand and nearly wiped it out, with at least 2,000 dead. Alexander marched back south but could only sate his revenge by laying waste the local population. His Macedonian phalanx could defeat any Eastern force in a pitched battle if the enemy would only stand and fight, but the hit-and-run tactics of the elusive nomads were a knottier problem.
After an unhappy winter at Balkh, marked by drunkenness, nostalgia for home and a plot against Alexander’s life, the Macedonians spread out in five columns in the spring of 328 BC. One of them caught Spitamenes and inflicted heavy casualties on his force, prompting his Scythian allies to hand over their leader’s head in hopes that Alexander would finally quit the territory. This time the gruesome peace offering worked, and after some mopping-up operations in Sogdiana, as well as a political marriage to a Sogdian princess named Roxane, Alexander finally moved on to India, which he hoped would be the final barrier before he reached “Ocean,” the end of the earth.
His campaign in Afghanistan had tied him down for three years, cost him more casualties than all his other campaigns combined and created such dissatisfaction in his army that after a brief campaign in India, his troops compelled him to turn back west. Alexander should have withdrawn the way he had come, however, as he subsequently lost most of his army in the deserts of modern Baluchistan and Iran, and he himself was wounded. He died in Babylon at age 32 before he could undertake another campaign.
Over the next thousand years, a succession of invaders entered what is now Afghanistan, from the south, west and, most important, the north, where turmoil on the steppes compelled multiple forced migrations in the face of ever-stronger mounted armies. Around 40 BC the last legacy of Alexander’s campaign in the East, the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, fell to hordes of Scythian nomads. They, in turn, succumbed to a new people who emerged from the mountains and valleys of modern-day Afghanistan—a people the British called Pathan and which we now know as the Pashtun.
In the 7th century a new wave of invaders broke into Afghanistan from the west, brandishing not just swords but a book called the Koran. The latter’s influence would soon spread throughout Afghanistan, whose fearsome warrior culture would be buttressed by fervent belief in the “one true God.”
Toward the turn of the millennium, a group of Turkic warriors who had become fierce converts to Islam founded a kingdom in the Afghan city of Ghazni. In 998 a man named Mahmud took the throne and embarked on a campaign of conquest. He turned toward India, terrorizing and forcibly converting the population while plundering Buddhist and Hindu temples. The modern state of Pakistan, which split from India due to its adherence to Islam, stems from these Ghaznavid penetrations across the Indus River.
Barely a century passed before another indigenous Afghan kingdom, this one based at Ghor in the midst of the Hindu Kush, arose to sack the city of Ghazni. It, in turn, succumbed to the great power of Khwarezm, an empire centered on Samarkand above the Oxus. Under Shah Muhammad II, Khwarezm became the most powerful Islamic state in the world at the dawn of the 13th century, absorbing Afghanistan into its rapidly expanding empire.
All that changed in 1220, when Genghis Khan’s Mongol army appeared on the banks of the Jaxartes. Tough, illiterate nomads from the far northeastern steppe, the Mongols cared not a whit for Islam and viewed sedentary communities only as impediments to their power and opportunities for plunder. They would massacre entire urban populations as a tactic to cow enemies and as a strategy to depopulate conquered territories and thus prevent future uprisings.
After Khwarezm collapsed before the Mongol onslaught, Genghis targeted the cities of Balkh and Herat; both were besieged, their populations massacred. A Chinese pilgrim passing by the once magnificent city of Balkh later reported that he could hear only the sound of barking dogs. When a Mongol army crossed the Hindu Kush, the Khwarezm prince Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu called out native warriors, who met the Mongols at Parwan, north of today’s Kabul. In a fierce two-day battle, the native Afghans withstood Mongol attacks and showered arrows from surrounding heights. The Mongol army broke and retreated and was largely massacred in the mountain passes. It was the Mongols’ only defeat in some 80 years.
But Parwan was a Pyrrhic victory, as it brought Genghis Khan himself across the Hindu Kush. When he besieged the city of Bamyan, a favorite grandson fell to a defender’s arrow, and Genghis massacred the city’s inhabitants, even down to its cats and dogs. Jalal ad-Din made a run for it. Genghis pursued him across the mountains of eastern Afghanistan to the banks of the Indus River and destroyed his army there, although Jalal ad-Din himself fought to the last and then swam the river. Genghis let him go after witnessing his bravery in battle.
Genghis died shortly after his invasion of Afghanistan, and the land, for the most part, became part of the Chagatai Khanate, a province of the greater Mongol Empire. The following century, a warrior named Timur Lenk, or Tamerlane (1336–1405), rose to rule the Khanate and proceeded to wreak havoc from the Mediterranean to Moscow to Delhi, exceeding even the Great Khan in far-reaching destruction. Since Afghanistan lay at the center of Tamerlane’s realm, it enjoyed a renaissance during this period, thanks largely to enslaved artisans.
During the Timurid period, and the Mughal period that followed, Afghans gained renown for their fighting ability. But it was around 1700 the Afghan warrior finally came into his own with the development of firearms, gunpowder having provided a solution to the long, terrifying reign of nomadic horsemen. With a gun in hand, the poor Afghan was a match for any invader, no matter how heavily armed or armored. In the power vacuum that existed after the decline of the steppe warrior, Afghan tribesmen alternately served as mercenaries for Persia and preyed on India, where their plundering expeditions were self-justified in part by flying the green banner of Islam.
Something akin to a modern state emerged in 1747 when an Afghan named Ahmad Shah Dur- rani formed a coalition of tribes and extended his writ north to the Oxus, west to Persian Khorasan and east almost to the Indus. By that time, however, history had entered a new stage: Europeans had completed their Age of Discovery, and sea power, as well as firepower, changed the equation for the ancient peoples of Central Asia. Sea-lanes supplanted the Silk Road as the essential avenue of trade, so Afghanistan was no longer a “crossroads of empire.” Sea power enabled the British to conquer the Indian subcontinent without an Englishman having to set foot on Afghan soil.
Ahmad Shah failed to provide his Afghan kingdom with capable successors, or indeed a government that depended on anything but plunder for its revenue. The Afghan people remained strangers to taxation and had no use for Kabul’s authority. During this era, Mountstuart Elphinstone undertook the initial British probe into the country. He wrote: “The internal government of the tribes answers its end so well that the utmost disorders of the royal government never derange its operations, nor disturb the lives of the people. A number of organized and high-spirited republics are ready to defend their rugged country against a tyrant.” This libertarian bliss was short-lived for the Afghans, however, as Afghanistan’s new status as a buffer state—as opposed to a crossroads—became evident when the British began to fear Russian encroachment on their new prized possession, India.
In 1839 Britain formed and sent its Grand Army of the Indus to invade Afghanistan and thus deny the territory to Russian. It was a fairly easy, if unnecessary, invasion, with only one pitched battle, at Ghazni. The British occupied Kandahar and Kabul with little inconvenience, aside from enduring the sullen stares of the inhabitants. But after two years of relative calm, resistance sprang up throughout the countryside, as rebels attacked British outposts and ambushed marching columns. Aside from normal resentment at being occupied by a foreign power, it was the first time in centuries Afghanistan had been overrun by infidels. Islamic militants gathered by the thousands to resist the invaders.
The British had supplanted a khan named Dost Mohammad and installed a compliant puppet ruler, Shuja Shah Durrani. But now the Dost’s son, Akbar Khan, appeared from above the Hindu Kush at the head of 6,000 horsemen. The British force at Kandahar was forced to fight tribal rebellions on every side. In Kabul the garrison hunkered down in a cantonment just outside the city, as British political agents tried frantically to secure allies among the populace. It was not that the British concept of good governance was misplaced, or that they were incapable of bringing benefits to Afghanistan in terms of medicine, education, rule of law and guarantees of individual rights. Rather, the Afghans simply saw no need to reorganize their present system—and would not submit to a non-Muslim power.
Just before the storm broke, the British, in an ill-considered cost-cutting move, had reduced their bribes to tribesmen holding open the supply route through the Khyber Pass to India. Ghilzai Pashtuns immediately closed the pass, prompting the garrison in Kabul to dispatch a force to reopen it. The weakened Kabul garrison quickly came under vigorous attack. Now the British were split, neither unit able to come to the assistance of the other. In early January 1842, the army in Kabul—after enduring harrowing bloodshed and facing imminent starvation—negotiated with Akbar Khan for safe passage out of the country. A huge, unwieldy column of some 4,500 soldiers and 12,000 civilians (most of them Indian) trudged out in the midst of a cruel winter, but the Afghan tribes were waiting in ambush in the narrow passes. During a disastrous week of one-sided battles and repeated, ruthless massacres, the entire column was wiped out in the mountains. Only one wounded Briton, Dr. William Brydon, survived to bring word of the debacle to the fortress at Jalalabad.
Immediately after the destruction of the Kabul garrison, Akbar Khan found his vast tribal force slipping away, so when Britain dispatched a new column (dubbed the Army of Retribution) from India, it had little trouble retaking Kabul. Once there it destroyed the famous Kabul bazaar and then vacated the country again. British prestige had been restored; however, the entire war had been a fiasco, and Dost Mohammad was even released from captivity to regain his throne.
In 1878 the British once again became apprehensive— without good cause—of Russian designs on Afghanistan and once more tried to strong-arm the weak government in Kabul into compliance with its wishes. They planned an invasion, then called it off in exchange for a diplomatic presence in the capital to monitor events. But disgruntled Afghan soldiers massacred the British envoy and his escort, and the Brits resumed a full-fledged assault on the country. After taking Kabul with ease, the invaders learned again that Afghanistan’s true strength lay in its countryside. Tribal fighters, summoned by mullahs, appeared in force.
This latest British army in Kabul, though surrounded, was able to inflict a devastating defeat on assaulting Afghans. This time the British weren’t accompanied by the thousands of Indian camp followers that had so complicated the 1842 evacuation and, under Maj. Gen. Frederick Roberts, fielded a lean force armed with breechloading Martini rifles. However, in the south at Maiwand, an Afghan army under Ayub Khan caught a British brigade on the plain and all but destroyed it. Roberts then marched more than 300 miles to Kandahar, where he thrashed the Afghan force. This victory was less impressive than it might seem, as most of Ayub Khan’s army, per usual Afghan tribal practice, had melted away after its initial victory, and Roberts was only able to punish the diehards and dullards who remained. In any case, the British once again evacuated Afghanistan.
The difference between the First Anglo-Afghan War and the second was that in 1878–80 the British no longer harbored ambitions to “build” the country or alter its age-old system—a purely punitive expedition, the second war’s only purpose was to ensure that czarist ambitions would halt at the Oxus/Amu Darya. The results were the same, however, as within their own territory the Afghans proved resistant to any form of outside control.
At the close of that conflict, Roberts delivered his view of Britain’s future relations with Afghanistan: “We have nothing to fear from [it], and the best thing to do is to leave it as much as possible to itself. It may not be very flattering to our amour-propre, but I feel sure that I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us, the less they will dislike us.”
A Third Anglo-Afghan War flared up in 1919 in the territory of modern-day Pakistan, as Afghans sought to exploit perceived British weakness after World War I to reclaim traditional Pashtun territory. This one ended soon after the British began using aircraft to bomb Kabul, a practice the Afghans considered barbaric.
Afghanistan was left to itself for much of the 20th century, until the December 1979 Soviet invasion to prop up a failing socialist revolution. At first the incursion went smoothly, and armed opposition was scarce. Gradually, however, the Soviets learned that the intelligentsia of Afghanistan’s cities—a minority in a mainly illiterate country still clinging to ancient ways—did not represent the land’s true nature. Like many predecessors, the Soviets realized that if the Afghans excelled at anything, it was warfare.
Calling themselves mujahideen (“strugglers”), the Afghan fighters—Pashtun, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen and Hazaras alike—acquired state-of-the-art weapons, aided first by Pakistan and China, then by other Islamic countries led by Saudi Arabia, and finally by the United States. The Soviets scoured the Afghan countryside, creating millions of casualties and refugees, but the Afghan resistance held on and grew. In tactical terms, a turning point came in 1986 when the U.S. began to provide shoulder-fired Stinger surface-to-air missiles to the Afghans, enabling them to down some 200 Soviet aircraft the following year. The Soviets were unable to neutralize the mujahideen safe havens in Pakistan, where nearly all the resistance groups maintained their supply and base camps. In drawing his artificial line dividing the Pashtun people, Mortimer Durand had performed a beneficial service after all, as “Pashtunistan,” not Afghanistan, became the Soviets’ primary problem.
Despite Soviet advances in weaponry and some success in counterinsurgency tactics, Afghanistan had become a military and political quagmire, and by the end of 1987 the Soviets, then led by Mikhail Gorbachev, had had enough. Following their withdrawal from Afghanistan on Feb. 15, 1989, the country devolved into civil war, as heavily armed fighters from all sides and ethnic groups vied for power in Kabul, again demonstrating their tradition of resisting rule from their own capital as much as from foreign invaders.
Afghanistan remains a unique case in history, for its tribal-based society, its myriad ethnic groups who share a sense of nationalism when challenged by an outside power, and for its prohibitive terrain. Its people have learned over the centuries to resist every kind of invasion —indeed, resistance appears to be in the nation’s lifeblood. Mountstuart Elphinstone succinctly summed up Afghanistan’s character some 200 years ago:
There is reason to fear that the societies into which the nation is divided possess within themselves a principle of repulsion and disunion too strong to be overcome, except by such a force as, while it united the whole into one solid body, would crush and obliterate the features of every one of the parts.
For further reading, Stephen Tanner recommends his own Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War Against the Taliban, as well as Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia, by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac.
Originally published in the September 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.