Research / National sovereignity

"Conquering Afghanistan? Impossible..."

Abstract: The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has created a shock in international politics and could drastically change international political relations in Asia. Throughout history, many great empires have sought to gain strategic influence over Central Asia, including Afghanistan. The Persians, the Macedonians, later the Islamic conquest, the Mongols, and in modern history the British Empire and Russia, and during the Cold War the Soviet Union and the United States. The historical failures of the great empires in Central Asia, and particularly in Afghanistan, provide a number of interesting lessons: the geography, social and cultural conditions of Afghanistan make it extremely difficult to establish long-term political control and a stable political system in Afghanistan.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan shook up international politics. Yet the United States is not the first great power in world history to fail in Afghanistan. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British Empire and the Soviets have all sought to bring the region under their influence, often at great cost in bloody fighting. The defeats of the great empires provide an interesting lesson in why it is so difficult to build and run a stable political government in the barren rocky desert.

The failure of the United States in Afghanistan may symbolise a new chapter in international political history. A host of political, economic and military experts have analysed in on why the US cannot maintain its position in the Central Asian country. However, it is worth looking back in history and seeing why empires such as the British

Empire and the Soviet Union, or one of the greatest figures of antiquity, Alexander the Great, failed in this region centuries ago.

And before the historical analysis, it is appropriate to quote the opening lines of Artyom Borovik's great account: 'Afghanistan isn't a country. (...) For those who were there, Afghanistan is more like a prayer. Not only a prayer to God, but to oneself."[i] - Borovik wrote in his book about his harrowing experience of the Soviet-Afghan war.

Alexander the Great in the "Land of Bones"

It was the Persian rulers who first managed to extend their influence over the territory of present-day Afghanistan, sometimes for longer, sometimes for shorter periods. The first large-scale military invasion was launched by one of the most influential political rulers in human history, and one of the greatest military leaders: he was Alexander the Great, the king of Macedonia. Some statues and engravings found in Afghanistan show that Alexander the Great was depicted as a lion even centuries after his death. This says a lot about the respect in which Alexander the Great's life's work was held in this area. Despite this, Alexander the Great's venture into Afghanistan has resulted in a controversial situation. An examination of the historical sources suggests that the Macedonians faced very similar problems some two and a half thousand years ago to those faced by Soviet troops in the 20th century and later by American forces. One of the major challenges is the geography of the area: the long mountain series cover nearly two-thirds of the country and stretch from China into central areas of the country. The porous, rocky terrain and lack of natural boundaries make it easy for the insurgents to control the area, and the high mountains and deep valleys make it difficult to keep the area under unified dominion. Another reason is the nature of the alliances and connections among Afghans, which vary from highly multi-ethnic tribal, interdependent relationships to fierce independence. This is further reinforced by the fact that only about 12 percent of the land area of Afghanistan, formerly known as Bactria, can stand under cultivation. Malnutrition, disease and death are therefore ever-present. Thus, the people there are fighting for their lives, swiftly changing allies and enemies according to the momentary interests of local warlords, with the ally becoming the enemy in an instant.[ii]  This has become a very disturbing factor for all conquering forces, which have been forced to deploy much larger forces and have been depleted both psychologically and physically more quickly (An interesting parallel is that recent surveys in the US military show that many more soldiers returning from Afghanistan did report mental health problems and the suicide rates was higher than before).


[i] Borovik, Artyom: The Hidden War. A Russian Journalist’s Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan. Grove Press, New York, 1990. 1.

[ii] Holt, Frank L.: Into the Land of Bones. Alexander the Great in Afghanistan. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005. 10.

Download the full article in PDF