For Invaders, A Well-Worn Path Out Of Afghanistan History and recent struggles suggest that the U.S. will continue to find frustration in Afghanistan.
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For Invaders, A Well-Worn Path Out Of Afghanistan

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For Invaders, A Well-Worn Path Out Of Afghanistan

For Invaders, A Well-Worn Path Out Of Afghanistan

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GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.


And I'm Melissa Block.

The Obama administration is now deep into another major review of its strategy in Afghanistan. And with that in mind, we have a series of stories on the country this week. We begin today with a history lesson. What do the armies of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and now the United States all have in common? They all shed blood and sweat in the unforgiving mountains of Afghanistan.

NPR's Quil Lawrence has this report from a place known as the graveyard of empires.

QUIL LAWRENCE: For centuries, Afghanistan sat at the crossroads that connected East Asia and the economies of Europe. Desire to control the routes through the Hindu Kush Mountains brought empires knocking on the gates of Afghanistans cities. Tribal warriors with deadly accurate muskets often greeted the invaders.

Prince ALI SIJRAJ(ph) (Afghanistan): It's exactly the same outfit that the Taliban are wearing today. The attire is the same as it was in 1879 during the second Anglo-Afghan war.

LAWRENCE: That could almost be a picture of today.

Prince ALI SIJRAJ: This could be a picture of today, just change the muzzle loaders, the front locks, with machine guns.

LAWRENCE: Prince Ali Sijraj, cousin to the last King of Afghanistan, is looking at a picture of 19th-century Afghan guerrilla fighter on the wall of the small British cemetery in Kabul. The legend tells of British travails during the three Anglo-Afghan wars, which were really proxy wars between Britain and Russia in their great game for access to the riches of India.

Instead of a crossroads, the British wanted Afghanistan as a roadblock, an army-swallowing buffer-state. Prince Ali Sijraj says they got caught in their own trap.

Prince ALI SIJRAJ: For me, I feel sorry for the families of the people who died in vain in Afghanistan. They came here, and they failed, and they left their dead behind.

LAWRENCE: In the 1830s, the British Army lived in cantonments at the edge of Kabul, alongside a hand-picked monarch named Shah Shoojah. Shoojahs collaboration with non-Muslim occupiers earned him the hatred of many Afghans. Shoojah had no control outside Kabul; many Afghan historians compare him to todays President Hamid Karzai.

After a tribal uprising and a string of calamitous decisions, the entire British army, along with their wives, children and a legion of servants, tried to march through the icy jaws of Afghanistans mountains in December, 1841. The wife of a British general, Lady Florentia Sale, kept a journal of the fiasco.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Reading) When the rear guard left, they were fired upon by Afghans. The servants all threw away their loads and ran off. Private baggage and ammunition were nearly annihilated at one fell swoop. And the whole road was covered with men, women and children lying down in the snow to die.

LAWRENCE: Lady Sale lived to tell the tale only because she and dozens of others were submitted as hostages during the retreat. Of nearly 17,000 troops and camp followers, one survived: Dr. William Brydon. Afghans still mention it with pride, says Mark Sedwill, the senior NATO official in Kabul and former British ambassador here.

Mr. MARK SEDWILL (NATO): Well, Ive been to his memorial up in the Khyber area. Pretty much every time I see President Karzai, theres some reference if not to that piece of British history then to some other piece of British history.

LAWRENCE: Prince Ali Sijraj says the British experience delivered one all important rule.

Prince ALI SIJRAJ: All foreign invading forces must learn that its easy to enter Afghanistan, its very difficult to leave Afghanistan.

LAWRENCE: Two more Anglo-Afghan wars followed, ending with a declaration of independence in 1919 under a progressive king, Amanullah Khan. But Amanullah tried to drag Afghanistan into the future too quickly, introducing reforms like mandatory education for girls. The Afghan countryside rebelled, just as they would 60 years later, when the Soviets tried the same thing.

In 1978, a communist coup installed a pro-Soviet president. The tribes rose up, and the Soviets invaded. Andrey Avetisyan is Russian ambassador in Kabul.

Mr. ANDREY AVETISYAN (Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan): It was a mistake in the first place to send troops, but when the decision was made in Moscow finally, nobody, as far I know, planned to stay here for a decade. But when they entered Afghanistan, they found out that it was very difficult to go back.

LAWRENCE: Mujahedeen, holy warriors, set up ambushes in the high mountain passes. Russian fighter jets and helicopter gunships screamed out of Bagram airbase, north of Kabul, to attack the holy warriors in the hills.

Mr. SAYED MUSHTABA FROTAN: (Speaking foreign language).

LAWRENCE: In 1978, Sayed Mushtaba Frotan was a 22 year-old soldier stationed in Kandahar when the Soviets rolled in. He took his government-issued Kalashnikov and came home to fight, here on the Shomali plains around Bagram.

Mr. FROTAN: (Speaking foreign language).

LAWRENCE: Its hard to say how many Russians Ive killed, says Sayed Frotan, pointing out the faded trenches his men used.

By the mid-'80s, the United States was aiding the Mujahedeen to the tune of half a billion dollars, leeching the USSR into bankruptcy. A new Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, called Afghanistan a bleeding wound. Gorbechev asked his generals to wrap up the war within one year. It took the Soviets four more years to extricate themselves.

Unidentified Man #1: A Soviet lieutenant general was the last Soviet soldier to leave Afghanistan today. When he crossed the border, the Soviet Unions nine-year occupation of Afghanistan ended on schedule.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

LAWRENCE: Today, attack helicopters buzz low over the Shomali plain, but these are U.S. Apaches, with rockets and missiles on display as they fly out of Bagram.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

Mr. FROTAN: (Speaking foreign language).

LAWRENCE: Frotan says hes not sure what these American birds are up to. He says his grandfather, who fought the British until 1919, taught him to welcome visitors. But invaders, his grandfather said, either kill them or die as a martyr.

Ambassador Mark Sedwill says NATO has taken that lesson on board.

Mr. SEDWILL: How do we bring peace to Afghanistan? We bring it to Afghanistan the way, in a sense, we learned very hard 150 years ago, is by ensuring that all of the local issues are dealt with properly, that local tribal disputes are resolved, and they dont get knitted together into a national insurgency of the kind that the Taliban have sought to achieve.

LAWRENCE: But Prince Ali Sijraj worries the lessons may not have been learned. The Americans pushed out the Taliban and al-Qaida easily in 2001 because Afghans welcomed them. That welcome is wearing thin.

Prince ALI SIJRAJ: Eight years down the road, theyre beginning to look more and more upon the NATO forces as an invading force. That is because the people are being disregarded. Everybody talks about the population of Afghanistan in the third person. So this is why we are not succeeding.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR news, Kabul.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Tomorrow, our series continues with a look at Afghanistan in the 1990s and how the holy warriors who defeated the Soviets became warlords, some of the same warlords accused of abusing their power in Afghanistan today.

(Soundbite of music)

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