RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
The specter of history hovers over the present-day debate over America's war strategy in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is often called the graveyard of empires, a sort of shorthand to explain the failures of Great Britain and Russia there.
BBC: Two Hundred Years of British, Russian and American Occupation." In examining why Afghanistan has historically proved so difficult for invading armies, David Loyn points first to the brutal terrain of the land itself.
DAVID LOYN: Afghanistan is a country mostly of deserts and mountains, a very small part of the land is irrigable agricultural land. And all invaders have found it a really difficult place to hold. The British general, famous General Wellington at the beginning of the 19th century, said a small army would not be not be able to hold the country and a large army would starve.
MONTAGNE: And of course those mountains are still there and the country, in its way, is as it has been forever.
LOYN: And the British found during the 19th century that when they invaded Afghanistan they were following the same tracks as their ancestors 40, 50 years before in the second war, literally the military roads that they built, because those were the only ways that they could cross. It's natural guerilla territory. It's not an easy place for modern technological armies to operate. And beyond it lies the deserts of Afghanistan, and still further, higher mountain ranges still in the Hindu Kush to the north.
MONTAGNE: So added to a very unforgiving landscape - that is, unforgiving to anybody who tries to enter it. You've also got a history of a weak central government, which you bring out in your description of the very first British envoy back in 1808 to meet up with the king or Amir of Afghanistan.
LOYN: And this has been one of the constant problems in Afghanistan right from the beginning. Afghans tend to ally against a foreign enemy when the enemy comes in. But then they tend to fall apart like sand when you try and govern them from inside, and many Afghan kings have discovered that.
MONTAGNE: Which seemed to be on display quite vividly when the Soviets invaded, because the whole country, more or less, rose up against its government. The Soviets tried to prop it up. They rose up against the Soviets. When the Soviets left, they turned on each other.
LOYN: I discovered the very first use of the word talib as somebody who was a warrior against the British was 1880, and that really strong fundamentalist Islamic strand is one of the determinants of this way that the Afghans will ally against foreign forces, and we saw it most strongly in the 1980s after the Russian invasion, Christmas 1979, and as you say, exactly what happened after the Russians left was it all fell apart again. And it took the Taliban, who emerged out of the chaos of all that, as a sort of fundamentalist, rather purist group in 1995 to stop all this civil war among the feuding mujahideen, and to bring some kind of stability.
MONTGNE: Let me though throw a challenge at you. You have just told us all the ways in which history might inform what's happening today, but there are many different things today that exist in Afghanistan. For instance, the people are no longer so isolated there. They have the Internet, cell phones, they can communicate. In addition, they're weary of war, which would affect how they think about what might be called invaders. How do you put that together with these other strains that are still strong?
LOYN: I think there's a real opportunity to get Afghanistan right. There are now huge numbers of refugees who've returned to the country. I think the problem is that, you know, the mobile phones, computers, the customs of returning refugees who want a different future, all of that counts for nothing if the government center is so corrupt that if really simple things like justice, so that you can't sort a dispute with your neighbor unless you pay for it, like not having decent land title, and the Taliban have been able to recruit a substantial support because of the ineffectiveness of the central government, even though most people in the country might want a different kind of country.
MONTAGNE: Last question. You dedicated your book to the last king of Afghanistan. Why?
LOYN: And I dedicated it to a memory of a time in Afghanistan when there was significant foreign involvement that was benign. There was investment it the south of the country. Afghanistan exported more raisins than California. Women in the 1960s and 1970s began to feel genuinely free for the first time. There was a Miss Kabul Competition. My dedication of the book was a memory of a different Afghanistan, and perhaps an Afghanistan that could emerge again.
MONTAGNE: Hmm, thank you very much.
LOYN: Renee, it's really good to talk. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: David Loyn is author of "In Afghanistan: 200 years of British, Russian and American Occupation."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.