It’s the mother of all clichés. Almost no one can resist it. It’s wielded by everyone from thoughtful ex-generals to vitriolic bloggers. It crops up everywhere from Russia’s English-language TV channel to scruffy Pakistani newspapers to America’s stately National Public Radio. The Huffington Post can’t seem to live without it, and one recent book even chose it as a title. Afghanistan, we’re told, is “the graveyard of empires.”
The Victorian British and the Soviet Union, the story goes, were part of a long historical continuum of arrogant conquerors that met their match in the country’s xenophobic, fanatical, trigger-happy tribesmen. Given a record like that, it’s obvious that the effort by the United States and its NATO allies to stabilize the shaky government in Kabul is doomed to fail.
Look, failure is always a possible outcome, especially judging by the way things have been going lately. But if the United States and its allies end up messing up their part of the equation, blame it on their bad policy decisions. Don’t blame it on a supersimplified version of Afghanistan’s history — especially if you prefer to overlook the details.
As Thomas Barfield pointed out to me the other day, for most of its history Afghanistan has actually been the cradle of empires, not their grave. Barfield, an anthropologist at Boston University, has been studying Afghanistan since the early 1970s, and he has just published a book — Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History — that takes issue with the hoary stereotypes that continue to inform our understanding of the place.