The Graveyard of Empires

by chabonsby

The title famously refers to Afghanistan, and I’ve never liked it. I have it in mind because I’ve been reading a book which might be seen to back up the assertion, but which actually reminded me of why I dislike it so much. David Loyn’s Butcher and Bolt: Two Hundred Years of Foreign Engagement in Afghanistan is exactly as it sounds, and it’s rather good at it. That two hundred years, much like the previous two and a half thousand, can be easily characterised as one of imperial failure, but that’s far too simple a narrative. Britain’s adventures in the 19th century take up a large chunk of Loyn’s book, and it not hard to claim that the empire exercised what was considered a sufficient degree of control over Afghanistan for over a century, even with the intermittent (and admittedly spectacular) setbacks. Plenty of others have had considerable ‘success’. The Mughal Emperors, for example, didn’t have too bad a time of it. Indeed, the history of Afghanistan is almost invariably a history of imperial activity, in all its forms. The truth is that all empires recede in time, invariably with some embarrassing defeats and retreats along the way. Large parts of Afghanistan are pure romance, and so a few high profile imperial failures combined with popular perception of a wild frontier and a supposedly indomitable populace and the legend-cum-cliche prospers.

Afghanistan: really, really, ridiculously good looking.

There’s plenty of writing out there rebutting the ‘graveyard’ thesis, usually citing examples such as those above or even Afghanistan remaining Seleucid for many decades after Alexander’s death. The strongest point, however, is that Afghanistan’s supposed resistance to one empire has tended to be due to the influence of another. The British in the 19th century had Russia to contend with, and the Russians in the 1980s had to face Charlie Wilson and the seemingly bottomless pockets of his Saudi friends. One could hardly call Pakistan an empire, but it is that nation’s imperialism which will eventually kill off NATO’s admittedly half-arsed effort. So part of my dislike of the ‘graveyard’ idea is that it is a perfect example of lazy history, the kind which picks up a simple narrative and ignores or squashes anything which doesn’t fit.

A graveyard of imperials, certainly.

There’s a bigger issue than the poor history behind the concept, however. Afghanistan does after all, have as good a record for frustrating imperial ambition as anywhere. Rather it is the lazy characterisation of the place and its peoples that such history encourages that is the real problem. The outside world has repeatedly used these stereotypes to wash its hands of Afghanistan, no more scandalously so than in the early 90s, when Afghanistan’s darkest moments drew effectively no interest from the so-called international community. There is a tendency to see the living tenants of the ‘graveyard’ as either somehow alien and inscrutable, or simply beyond civilisation. Afghans have long been seen by many as so bizarre, so distant from supposedly civilised people, as to be unknowable. Worse, they are seen as capable of savagery apparently incomprehensible to our lofty ideals. The inevitable response to seeing a country as a graveyard, and its people as alien, is to throw up one’s hands and declare the place best ignored. The two interlinked images of Afghans are perfectly represented by the two Afghan faces most famous in the west. One an ethereal, almost otherworldly face, the other marked by staggering violence:

One could do a PhD on media portrayals of asian women based on these two images alone.

Before one can take issue with the stereotypes themselves there must be derision heaped on their basis in the laughable idea of a singular Afghan people, an idea seemingly based on a presumption that Afghan means Pashtun. Indeed both Sharbut Gula and Bibi Aisha are Pashtun, as are a plurality of Afghans, but hardly a majority. Afghanistan is a huge and typically artificial country, with multiple ethnic groups and two sharply different official languages. While it is understandable that the east and south of the country, and the border/frontier region in particular, grabs most of the headlines, it is myopic in the extreme to ignore the entire rest of the country and the Hazara, Tajiks and so on who inhabit it. Of course, one can’t stereotype an entire people anyway, but it does make the tendency all the more irritating. The bigger problem is, again, not the intellectual sloth itself, but the abundant bigotry that results.

The only other Afghan face you’re likely to see in western media is one possessing beard, turban and kalashnikov.

Reading Butcher and Bolt has been fascinating in light of this desire for a more nuanced understanding of the people of Afghanistan. Most of the research I’ve done on Afghanistan has had a heavy focus on politics, religion and violence, but my favourite read has been The Places Inbetween, Rory Stewart’s account of walking across the country and meeting its people in the immediate aftermath of the NATO invasion. The connection with Loyn’s work is to be found in the multiple accounts of 19th century Afghans written by Britons, Russians and Indians on various imperial endeavours. When reading these accounts all I could think of was the many Afghans that Stewart described in detail, and how smilar the people of two different centuries were. In large part this is because they’re people, after all, and humanity varies relatively little across era or culture. It goes beyond that though, Loyn’s 19th century sources and Rory Stewart’s early 21st century accounts have a remarkable synergy, in some instances they could almost be describing the same people. Of course, Stewart is perhaps the closest thing you’ll find to a 19th century cavalry officer in the modern day, and this somewhat comparable outlook makes the similarities in character all the more striking.

Roderick James Nugent Stewart OBE FRSL MP, just possibly born in the wrong century

At this point the logical choice would be provide direct comparisons, but, annoyingly, I’ve misplaced my copy of The Places in Between. Regardless, the conclusion can be drawn that the people of Afghanistan are not mysterious and alien, it is simply that those Afghans who are the focus of media attention tend to be the poor and tribal, those who live lives largely untouched by the industrialisation that so completely defines the West. And yet even these differences remain blatantly superficial. Every account I’ve encountered has been relentlessly human, with all the tragic glory that defines our species. Even with an astonishingly stagnant, poor, and tribal society, Pashtuns, once you get past honour codes and language and so on, seem to be little more inscrutable than the French. Indeed Afghanistan itself is nothing special, it isn’t the supposed ‘graveyard of empires’, and nor is it some inscrutable wilderness full of bizarre alien peoples. Afghanistan is no more exceptional or inscrutable than Hungary or Indonesia or the United Kingdom, it just labours under certain lazy and dismissive stereotypes in the West. Stereotypes which are not only wrong, but have been, and will continue to be, deeply harmful.