The Empire Stopper

When the American author James A. Michener went to Afghanistan to research his work of historical fiction, “Caravans,” it was 1955 and there were barely any roads in the country. Yet there were already Americans and Russians there, jockeying for influence. Later, the book’s Afghan protagonist would tell an American diplomat that one day both America and Russia would invade Afghanistan, and that both would come to regret it.

Michener’s foresight was uncanny, but perhaps that is not terribly surprising. Afghanistan has long been called the “graveyard of empires” — for so long that it is unclear who coined that disputable term.

In truth, no great empires perished solely because of Afghanistan. Perhaps a better way to put it is that Afghanistan is the battleground of empires. Even without easily accessible resources, the country has still been blessed — or cursed, more likely — with a geopolitical position that has repeatedly put it in someone or other’s way.

In the 19th century there was the Great Game, when the British and Russian empires faced off across its forbidding deserts and mountain ranges. At the end of the 20th century it was the Cold War, when the Soviet and American rivalry played out here in a bitter guerrilla conflict. And in this century, it is the War on Terror, against a constantly shifting Taliban insurgency, with President Trump promising a renewed military commitment.

Wars of the last three “empires” to invade Afghanistan coincided with the age of photography, leaving a rich record of their triumphs and failures, and an arresting chronicle of a land that seems to have changed little in the past two centuries.

The British Empire

Over an 80-year period, the British fought three wars in Afghanistan, occupying or controlling the country in between, and lost tens of thousands of dead along the way. Finally, exhausted by the First World War, Britain gave up in 1919 and granted Afghanistan independence.

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