Historically, Afghanistan Not the ‘Graveyard of Empires,’ but Site of Horrifying Shambles Today

August 23, 2021 Updated: August 24, 2021


In addition to innumerable other untruths, obfuscations, instantly retracted briefing information, and implausible apologia for the horrifying shambles in Afghanistan, there is also a good deal of misstated history.

American television commentators who do not know anything about the history of the region toss off aphorisms about “the graveyard of empires,” and assure their viewers that Afghanistan has a long record of attracting great powers and destroying them like a giant geopolitical Venus fly-trap.

It is alleged that this began with Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC. In fact, Alexander besieged the king of what was then called Bactria in his mountain fortress but settled amicably by accepting Bactria as a client monarchy defending Alexander’s great empire from the barbarians to the north, and Alexander married the king’s daughter Roxanne for good measure.

A number of his senior officers made similar tactical marriages and Alexander’s accepted legitimate heir, (though he was deprived of his inheritance), was the son that he had with Roxanne. His visit to Afghanistan was a success, and the arrangements he made with Bactria survived him.


The second grounds for lamenting the graveyard of empires requires a flash-forward of over 2000 years to the British incursions into Afghanistan in 1839 to 1842 and 1878 to 1880.

The first was an insane conception in which tens of thousands of extraneous personnel, families, and servants of officers, and huge quantities of personal effects and supplies including cattle and poultry to feed this itinerant force as if it had not left its well-stocked bases in India, joined a combat force of something over 20,000.

They had some initial successes but then were harassed by guerrilla forces and tortured by the appalling climate. The mission was a disaster and was known in Britain thereafter to be a disaster. The British lost more than a thousand dead and many thousands of loyal Indian soldiers and accompanying personnel died with them.

But the British immediately mounted a punitive expedition which entered Afghanistan, roundly defeated the Afghan army, and inflicted extensive damage in several cities for the sole purpose of vengeance and deterrence, and retired.

The second Anglo-Afghan War, which was also a response to a mistakenly apprehended Russian advance in the area, was between 1878 in 1880. While it was somewhat more successful than the first invasion of Afghanistan, it still did not achieve any serious objective, and the British retired, having on balance, more than held their own.

After the first Anglo-Afghan war the Afghan leader Dost Mohammed said that he had had occasion to note the great power of the British Empire and that he could not imagine why the leaders of such a great and flourishing worldwide imperial state would have “crossed the Indus to deprive me of my poor and barren country.” Answer, came there, none.

The British got a bloody nose in Afghanistan, to be sure, but it paid the obstreperous natives back smartly and gained an official right of oversight of Afghanistan to ensure that it did not tumble into the lap of the Russians, and Britain maintained that status for 65 years.

Afghanistan was no more a graveyard to the British than to Alexander the Great and they continued in the full force and panoply of their empire for nearly 70 years after their last foray into Afghanistan and the British Empire did not fail or suffer defeat. It pared itself back and granted independence to scores of countries, without any significant indignity to itself.

Soviet Union

The third candidate for an empire that foundered in Afghanistan is the Soviet Union which attempted what amounted to an occupation from 1979 to 1989. The USSR took approximately 23,000 dead compared to approximately 50,000 Afghan dead, and it cannot be said that it accomplished anything useful in the period of its partial occupation of Afghanistan.

The United States supplied the Mujahadeen guerrillas who evolved into the Taliban with extensive military equipment including over-the-shoulder anti-helicopter missiles that caused the Soviets great difficulty. The reform Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev soon concluded that the effort in Afghanistan was not worth the cost of it and was not leading anywhere likely to justify it.

With the usual face-saving formalities he withdrew Soviet forces. Civilian and vulnerable elements were withdrawn first as is the normal process for evacuations, and the military followed in an orderly retirement to and across the Soviet border. It was a failed operation as an invasion but the withdrawal was conducted without any embarrassment.

Nor can it be said that Afghanistan brought down the USSR. Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika reform initiatives encouraged separatist movements in the constituent republics of the USSR, and President Reagan’s pursuit of his satellite-based Strategic Missile Defense discouraged the Soviet leadership at the prospect that even though they were spending approximately 50 percent of GDP on defense, they could lose their deterrent capability and cease to be a geopolitical rival to the United States.

Afghanistan was not remotely as great a fiasco to the Soviets as Vietnam was to the United States and was not the graveyard of the USSR.

Saigon and Dunkirk

Comparisons with Saigon 1975, are also false, other than visually. The United States fought to a standstill and withdrew with honor and dignity. The Saigon regime continued for two years. Only Watergate prevented the return of American air power to stabilize the country when the North Vietnamese reinvaded the south, as it had in the great North Vietnamese offensive of April 1972, when the South Vietnamese defeated the North and Viet Cong with American assistance in the air only.

There have also been some rather flippant invocations of the evacuation from Dunkirk across the English Channel of 240,000 British and 100,000 French soldiers in May 1940. It is a very tenuous comparison. The German army left the northern Anglo-French armies no choice but to take to the sea or surrender. There were no other options and there was no civilian evacuation involved.

The last-ditch French defenders and the Royal Navy and Air Force covered the retreat magnificently and in fair weather British vessels ranging from ocean liners to small launches ferried the Allied soldiers to safety. But Prime Minister Churchill struck exactly the right note: “Let us not exaggerate the triumph of this deliverance. Wars are not won by evacuations.”

American Withdrawal

President Joe Biden said on the weekend that history would ratify his judgment. His guess deserves the same hearing as anyone’s, but it is impossible to agree with it.

There was no need to withdraw the NATO forces, three quarters of them from countries other than the U.S., the war had reached a stasis with the Taliban in which NATO and its Afghan collaborators ruled the cities while the Taliban clearly had preponderant strength in much of the rural areas. Hostilities had settled down to a minimum and in the last 18 months in which the U.S. Armed Forces in Afghanistan had not sustained a single fatality, the cities of America endured approximately 2000 deaths from gunfire.

If Biden was determined simply to leave, and had accordingly advised the allies whom he has been assuring that the United States “is back,” an evacuation of all personnel starting with the most vulnerable and ending with the strongest military units, which would have coordinated and covered the entire operation could have been executed. The president would have had trouble defending the evacuation as a strategic step but would at least have spared himself the terminal embarrassment of the chaos, cowardice, and desertion that he has inflicted upon himself and his administration.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Conrad Black
Conrad Black
Conrad Black has been one of Canada’s most prominent financiers for 40 years and was one of the leading newspaper publishers in the world. He’s the author of authoritative biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, and, most recently, “Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other,” which has been republished in updated form. Please follow Conrad Black with Bill Bennett and Victor Davis Hanson on their podcast Scholars and Sense.