Five times in the last two centuries, some great power has tried to invade, occupy, conquer, or otherwise take control of Afghanistan. Each intervention has led to a painful setback for the intervening power, and the curious thing is, these interventions have all come to grief in much the same way and for much the same reasons — as if each new power coming into Afghanistan has vowed to take no lessons from its predecessors. The British invaded Afghanistan in 1839, suffered a disaster, and yet invaded the country again some forty years later only to make nearly the same mistakes. The predecessor from whom these folks failed to learn was themselves! Forty years later still, a third war broke the British grip on the country entirely. Sixty years after that, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and ended up in the same tar pit as the British. Now, the United States and NATO are mired in Afghanistan, and the familiar patterns have emerged again. What accounts for this historical amnesia?
I think back to an interchange I had in Kazakhstan a couple of years ago. I was there to promote a book I had written about world history as seen through Islamic eyes, but, everywhere I went, the conversation quickly narrowed down to Afghanistan — which was natural, I supposed, for I was an American citizen born and raised in Afghanistan, and the US intervention in my original homeland was hitting a critical stage just then. The topic had, however, a special urgency for Kazakhs, as I came to realize, because their country had been part of the Soviet Union, and many of the men in my audience had been in Afghanistan with the Soviet army of occupation during the 1980s.One open-ended question kept coming up. How would I compare the US involvement in Afghanistan to the Soviet one? I gave the answer I had given often in America: I saw disturbing parallels. The United States seemed to be sinking into the same morass as the Soviets. The United States had made commitments it could not easily keep for practical reasons and could not easily back out of for political reasons. The United States was squandering lives and money in Afghanistan without being able to explain exactly why. The United States was able to control the cities but could not seem to quell a rural insurgency carried out by people who believed themselves to be acting in defense of Islam. This answer failed to satisfy. One guy, I recollect, kept pressing me for follow-ups with questions so vague, I couldn't tell what he wanted. Finally I said, "Look: I can see you've got some answer of your own in mind. What am I not seeing?"
"You keep talking about the similarities," he complained. "What about the differences?"
"What differences? Tell me."
"Well, sir, we went into Afghanistan because we were invited. Afghans were in trouble and they turned to a neighbor for help. We didn't just send troops, we sent expert advisors in to help the progressive forces of the country. With you Americans, it's just a military invasion. That seems like a pretty big difference to me."
I could only shake my head and sigh.
"Really? You think the Soviets went into Afghanistan because they were invited? To help progressives save the country from reactionaries? In that case you've just articulated another parallel between the US and the Soviet involvements, because that's pretty much how many Americans would describe what we're doing in Afghanistan today. Afghans needed help, the United States came to drive out the thugs, not to conquer Afghans, and the United States is still there today to support development and bring about progressive change."
The whole interaction got me to thinking about how the story from the outside looking in contrasts with the story from the inside looking out. From the inside, the various foreign powers and their intentions seem pretty much the same. Out in the countryside, where the fighting is hot
right now, the insurgents make scant distinction between the Americans, the Russians, and the British. From the outside perspective, it is Afghanistan that seems never changing, Afghanistan that presents ever the same challenge, the same terrain of rugged mountains, burning deserts, and endless steppes, the same warlike people who are always thought to be religious, xenophobic, and "tribal" — the very word conjuring up images of turbans, beards, robes, scimitars, and horses, as if membership in a tribe precludes wearing a three-piece suit or playing in a heavy metal band.
Actually, Afghans have a story of their own, the story of a zigzag journey toward some end point despite regular interruptions by foreign interventions. And what is this Afghan story apart from its many interruptions? Here is a game called buzkashi that is played only in Afghanistan and the central Asian steppe. It involves men on horseback competing to snatch a goat carcass off the ground and carry it to each of two designated posts while the other players, riding alongside at full gallop, fight to wrest the goat carcass away. The men play as individuals, each for his own glory. There are no teams. There is no set number of players. The distance between the posts is arbitrary. The field of play has no boundaries or chalk marks. No referee rides alongside to whistle plays dead and none is needed, for there are no fouls. The game is governed and regulated by its own traditions, by the social context and its customs, and by the implicit understandings among the players. If you need the protection of an official rule book, you shouldn't be playing. Two hundred years ago, buzkashi offered an apt metaphor for Afghan society. The major theme of the country's history since then has been a contention about whether and how to impose rules on the buzkashi of Afghan society.
Over these same centuries, however, Afghan territory has also provided the field of play for another game entirely, what British author Rudyard Kipling disingenuously called "the Great Game," which involves world superpowers tussling for strategic position. Like all jockeying among sovereign nations, this too is a game without rules and it is not about Afghanistan per se; the stakes are global. Afghanistan is involved only because it happens to be situated on the line of scrimmage. Inevitably, when two unrelated games are in progress on the same field, the players crash into each other and the action gets intertwined. This has been happening in Afghanistan since the early days of the nineteenth century. Each game affects and complicates the other, but if you don't realize there are two different games going on, the action is apt to seem inexplicable. The great power interventions in Afghanistan truly make a compelling story, to be sure; but the intervened-upon have a story of their own as well, which keeps unfolding between interventions as well as during.
In this story the interventions are not the main event but interruptions of the main event. And if the foreign interventions tend to follow the same course, it's partly because they keep interrupting the same story, a story that never quite gets resolved before the next intervention disrupts the progress made. This is not to rehash the old "graveyard of empires" lament, the conventional wisdom that great-power interventions in Afghanistan are doomed to fail because this place is impossible to conquer. The tough terrain and the fractious people do present a special challenge to would-be conquerors, and yet Afghanistan has in fact been conquered many times. The Aryans did it three or four thousand years ago, which is why this area was originally called Ariana. The Persians conquered this country in ancient times, which is why Persian (a.k.a. Farsi, a.k.a. Dari) is the lingua franca of Afghanistan, spoken at least as a second language by 90 percent of the people. The Greeks conquered it, which is why Hellenic kingdoms flourished here for two centuries and green-eyed blonds still sometimes pop up in pockets of the country. Even Buddhists conquered this territory, which is why the unique art style known as Greco-Buddhist originated and flourished only here. The Arabs conquered Afghanistan, which is why 99 percent of Afghans are now Muslims. The Turks conquered Afghanistan, again and again. The Mongols swept across this land, and it didn't prove to be the graveyard of their empire — quite the opposite: they made this land a graveyard for countless Afghans. In the fifteenth century, a Turko-Mongol conqueror took over Kabul just before driving on into India to found the Moghul Empire. Afghanistan is not really impossible to conquer. It's just that all the successful conquerors are now called "Afghans." The earlier conquests made Afghanistan what it is.
This book tackles the puzzle of the last two centuries, during which time Afghans have fought five wars (depending on how you count) with great Western powers attempting to dominate their country. In these centuries, the story of Afghanistan and the story of the foreign interventions have interwoven like two strands of a single narrative, each strand driven by its own dynamics but each affecting the other. The global story explains why Afghanistan keeps getting invaded; the Afghan story helps illuminate why the interventions keep foundering. Here, I offer the story from the inside looking out, the story of a country that began to form around the same time as the United States but is still struggling to coalesce, because of constant outside interruptions and its own internal demons, and this story begins with a man named Ahmad Shah.
From Games Without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan by Tamim Ansary. Copyright 2012 by Tamim Ansary. Excerpted with permission of PublicAffairs.