The misquote most often attributed to Joseph Goebbles is: “if you tell a lie often enough, people will begin to believe it.” Regardless who actually said it, never has it been more true then when applied to Afghanistan being called "the graveyard of empires." In truth rather than the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan has historically been conquered and occupied by everyone that has even passed through it. Beginning with the Persian Empire in the 5th century BC, Afghanistan has always been part of somebody's empire.
For this recount of history, I have liberally borrowed from an article by Andrew Roberts which appeared in the 20 Sept 2010 National Review: Graveyard Of A Cliché - Afghanistan presents no impossible military challenge, its 'history' notwithstanding and on my exchanges with Retired US Army LTC Les Grau, an acknowledged Afghanistan expert and the author of two books on the Soviet experiences there: "The Bear Went Over the Mountain" and "The Other Side of the Mountain." Both are a “must read” for anyone interested in doing a serious examination of Soviet performance there. His assessment was: “for a conscript army with a conscript NCO corps, the Soviets did a reasonable job while they were there. In some respects, they were far ahead of where we are--and we make many of the same mistakes that they made.”
So what is the real history of Afghanistan? Despite the myth that Afghans are a fearsome warrior people who have defeated every imperial power since Alexander the Great, including Persians, Mongols, Moghuls, Russians, British, or Soviets, a closer review of history reveals this to be a myth. They have NEVER driven any conqueror out. The reason Alexander stayed in Afghanistan so briefly was that there was nothing to plunder there so why stay; he merely needed to pass through there on his way into India. By then Afghanistan had already been conquered by the Median and Persian Empires, and afterwards it was conquered by the Seleucids, the Indo-Greeks, the Turks, and the Mongols. When Genghis Khan attacked in 1219, he exterminated every human being in Herat and Balkh and turned the country back to the Stone Age. Mongol conqueror Tamerlane followed suit and the Moghuls held Afghanistan peaceably for almost two centuries.
Although conquerors ruled the country, none imposed any centralized direct control so allowed a good deal of tribal provincial autonomy as geography demanded in a period before modern communications. It was not until 1747 that even a primitive Afghan sovereign state could be detected.
All these empires including the British ever wanted of Afghanistan was that it not be used as a base from which attacks could be mounted. Britain's only interest was keeping czarist Russia away from its Greater Indian colony during what was called "The Great Game."
Today, people wishing to perpetuate the “Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires” myth like to cite the more recent historical examples of the Afghan struggles with the British Empire. Granted, despite some early disasters during Britain's First Afghan War of 1839-42, the popular version of events is distorted. Although it is true that 16,500 people died in the horrific Retreat from Kabul, fewer than a quarter of them were soldiers, and only one brigade was British. The incompetent commander, Major General William George Keith Elphinstone, evacuated Kabul on 6 Jan 1842 in midwinter and the freezing weather destroyed his column more than the Afghans. Several hundred -- possibly over a thousand -- survived the retreat and were rescued by the punitive expedition that recaptured Kabul by September 1842. Early in 1843, the governor-general, Lord Ellenborough, sent General Sir Charles Napier to capture Sind. General Napier is best known for putting down several insurgencies in India during his reign as Commander-in-Chief there and he once succinctly stated his philosophy about suppressing rebellions as: “The best way to quiet a country is a good thrashing, followed by great kindness afterwards. Even the wildest chaps are thus tamed.” He also said: "the human mind is never better disposed to gratitude and attachment than when softened by fear." This may explain why once he finished Afghanistan stayed quiet for another 30 years.
Lieutenant General Sir Jasper Nicolls, another commander-in-chief of India, examined the “Retreat from Kabul” and listed the reasons for the defeat at the time as: "1. not having a safe base of operations, 2. the freezing climate, 3. the lack of cattle, and 4. placing our magazines and treasure in indefensible places." The only lesson to be learned from the Kabul catastrophe of 1842 is don’t appoint incompetent commanders.
The Second Afghan War was actually won by Major General Sir Frederick Roberts at the battle of Kandahar in August 1880 and thereafter Afghan resistance was subdued and Afghanistan was reduced to being a British protectorate until it was given its independence in 1919. There was a short three month Third Afghan War in 1919 which the British also won that settled the political boundary with India. Having achieved all their objectives, the Brits withdrew from Afghanistan leaving a monarchy in place that survived until 1973 although there was a great deal of post-independence instability. It should also be noted that Islamic fundamentalism is not historically deep-seated in Afghanistan and it was King Amanullah who instituted Kemalist modernizations such as monogamy, Western clothing, and the abolition of the veil in 1928.
As for the Soviet involvement, it was the Afghan government that made repeated requests in 1978 and 79 for Soviet intervention but the Soviet government was in no hurry to help. It was not until the anti-communist rebel factions began receiving US aid that they stepped in. On 3 July 1979 President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order authorizing the CIA to conduct covert propaganda operations against the communist regime; six months before any Soviets deployed. Around Christmas 1979 the Red Army entered Afghanistan with about 120,000 troops; not the Soviet's best units but with soldiers from the Soviet republics adjacent to Afghanistan to make it appear to be a limited, local operation. These two-year conscripts were often drunk or on opium and the Soviets ultimately lost 15,000 men (about ten times the number of Americans over the same length of time). Their helicopter gunships devastated most of the villages between Ghazni and Kandahar in February 1980, and the Soviets showed utter disregard for civilian casualties. Their equipment, training, discipline, and morale were poor but as I quoted LTC Grau before: “for a conscript army with a conscript NCO corps, the Soviets did a reasonable job while they were there.” As far as the Soviets were concerned, their withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 was not a shameful escape accompanied by the hooting of the mujahedeen but rather the Soviet Army entered the country, accomplished its tasks and returned to the Motherland.
When the Soviets departed, they left in place a Communist puppet regime led by Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai or merely Najibullah. Though it failed to ever win popular support, it was able to remain in power until 1992. Much like South Vietnam fell when the US withdrew its support, the Najibullah communist government fell in April 1992 when the new Yeltsin government no longer wished to continue to support their former communist puppet. The Mujahideen replaced Najibullah with a new governing council and had the Taliban not hosted and protected al-Qaeda while it masterminded the 9/11 attacks, most Americans would still have never heard of Afghanistan.
Despite the revisionist history by those wishing to point to the past failures of Great Empires to be successful in Afghanistan, they have only succeeded in demonstrating their own ignorance of history. They have distortioned and greatly misrepresented the successes every invader has had against Afghans, a vicious but historically very unimpressive foe. Hopefully the US and our NATO allies will be as successful as the British Empire was in subduing Afghanistan and we leave it in such a condition that they can endure by themselves for at least as long as the last time the Brits left – 60 years (1919-1979)!