You may have noticed that when President Joe Biden made his speech on the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan on Monday he referred to the country as the “graveyard of empires.”
The poignant phrase has stuck to the middle eastern country throughout its turbulent history. With no attributable source, the nickname embodies a universal plight experienced by all nations — no matter how powerful — that attempt to invade Afghanistan.
Foreign powers have failed to successfully rule over Afghanistan, or establish a functioning state there, ever since the British Empire attempted to install its government there during the 1800’s. The country’s disparate, sprawling population is divided by an immense mountain range known as the Hindu Kush, and is made up of a vast array of ethnically unique tribes.
Afghanistan was first invaded by the British Empire during the “Great Game,” a heated competition between Britain and the Russian Empire for colonial power over Central and South Asia. Britain had already established a base in India and sought to expand its power further into Central Asia. Afghanistan was ruled at the time by Dost Mohammad Khan, a member of the Barakazy clan. Britain planned to eject Khan from power and insert a ruler of their choice — the former Afghan leader Shah Shoja — in a move to get the upper hand over Russia.
The British army entered Kandahar in 1839 and Shoja was crowned shah, but the Afghans were enraged by the idea of a leader installed by a foreign power, and waged war against the British army. The British eventually succumbed to the Afghan resistance and Dost Mohammad was restored to the throne in 1843. Britain returned to Afghanistan again in 1879 and 1919 in renewed attempts to exert influence in the country, but both conflicts were hastily shut down by the Afghans.
Afghanistan’s fragmented country is challenging for foreign invaders
Both colonial and modern attempts —like that of the Soviet Union and America — to invade Afghanistan have been challenged by the country’s brutal geography. Afghanistan is a landlocked country bordered by Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China. Because Afghanistan is an inland, landlocked country, there is no direct access for invasion: countries that wish to reach Afghanistan must pass through or over one of its neighbors beforehand, making an unannounced, seamless entrance impossible.
The geography of the region also presents a huge challenge for foreign powers. The country is overpowered by the Hindu Kush mountain range which fragments the country into sprawling valleys and winding roadways.
A wide variety of ethno-linguistic groups (and even more tribes) proliferate across its deeply partitioned terrain. The four main ethnic groups in Afghanistan are Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks, but the country has many more smaller groups, which include Aimaqs, Turkmens, Balochs, Pashais, Nuristanis, Gujjars, Arabs, Brahuis, Qzilbashs, Pamiris, Kyrgyzs and Sadats.
This intense geographic and ethnic fragmentation has resulted in the lack of a unified national identity. Many Afghans feel allegiance to their ethnic and tribal identities over the idea of any national “Afghan identity.” This tendency, along with the isolation caused by the Hindu Kush mountain range, has historically allowed for local governments to take precedence over individual regions rather than come under the rule of any central government.
Invading countries face the challenge of installing what the region itself could never successfully execute: a state capable of controlling all of Afghanistan. Numerous world superpowers much larger and stronger than Afghanistan have attempted — Britain, the Soviet Union, and most recently, the United States — and none have been able to install a stable, long-lasting political structure within the region.