Afghanistan, A Troubled History

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A Brief History

On August 23, 1244, the main central citadel of the city of Jerusalem, the Tower of David, fell to the invaders from the remnants of the Khwarezmian Empire, a vast polyglot land that included parts of what is now Iran and Afghanistan along with other areas in Central Asia.  Afghanistan has a long history of war and fighting, and the people there have been battle hardened by centuries of conflict.  In August of 2021, the lone military super power in the world, the United States of America, has found out the hard way that Afghanistan may be temporarily occupied, but NOT conquered.  (See some of our other articles regarding Afghanistan and related topics, including Malala, Idiotic Places to Fight Over, One Survivor of British Army in Afghanistan, Largest Non-Nuclear Bomb Used, Kandahar Massacre.  Also click on our YouTube icon for videos relative to Afghanistan.)

Digging Deeper

Existing from 1071 until 1231, the Khwarezmian Empire was overtaken by the inexorable expansion of the Mongol Empire under their infamous leader Genghis Khan in the 13th Century.  At its peak, the Khwarezmian Empire covered an incredible 3.6 million square kilometers, placing it among the geographically largest empires in human history.  Population of the empire (c. 1220) was about 5 million people.

Afghanistan is a strategically located country of rugged terrain, situated on the overland trading path from Eastern Asia to Western Asia and Europe known as The Silk Road.  Because of the importance of this trade route, numerous great empires and civilizations have attempted to claim Afghanistan for their own, usually without lasting success.  Persians, then Alexander the Great and his Macedonian/Greeks temporarily controlled the land, as later did the South Asian (Indian sub-continent) Mauryas, then the Arabs, and the Mongols among others.  Britain did her best to tame the wild land in the 19th and 20th Centuries, with sometimes disastrous results, and the Soviet Union foolishly tried their hand from 1979 until finally giving up in 1989, after previous forays into the rugged crossroads of the world.  The Soviet debacle was an enormous blow to Soviet prestige and contributed to the breaking up of the USSR in 1991, after costing the Red Army over 14,000 killed.  Apparently the United States did not learn the lesson from previous attempts by larger powers to control Afghanistan, and in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001, the US invaded Afghanistan to root out terror cells and create an atmosphere of democracy and modern civilization among a people stubbornly resistant to both.

The United States invasion of Afghanistan seemed to have no definition of what constituted “victory,” nor was a coherent exit strategy publicized.  President George W. Bush left office in January of 2009 without ever completing the mission in Afghanistan and leaving a large US military and contractor presence there.  The situation in Afghanistan continued to smolder with persistent fighting on a reduced scale through 8 years of the Obama administration (2009-2017) and when President Trump took office in January of 2017, he also failed to wrap up American involvement in Afghanistan.  President Biden took office in January of 2021, inheriting a promise from President Trump to withdraw US combat forces completely from the country, but without a well thought out strategy for finally ending American military involvement there.  By August of 2021, American military withdrawal almost immediately resulted in the rapid taking over of Afghanistan by the Islamic fundamentalist sect known as the Taliban, the group the US had invaded to displace in the first place!

The US had invaded Afghanistan under the auspices of NATO, an allied conglomeration of American allies, though the largest and majority bulk of the manpower, equipment and money for the invasion was supplied by the USA.  The US military lost over 2400 men and women killed, while NATO allies lost another 1100 or so killed, with Britain bearing the greatest number of deaths among our allies at about 456 killed.  Well over 50,000 Afghans were killed by the US and its allies, with perhaps a similar number of civilians also killed by both sides as collateral damage.  Nearly 4000 civilian contractors from the US and other foreign countries also died during the 2 decades of warfare.

Although the terrible cost in American, allied, and civilian lives lost and the tens of thousands people crippled and maimed from the war is the main regrettable result of the most recent Afghan conflict, the cost to American taxpayers of something over $2 trillion (that is Trillion with a “T!”) is an enormous price to pay for virtually nothing to show for it now that the Taliban is back in control of the country.  To put this sum in perspective, the $2 trillion is like spending $300 million per day every single day for 20 years!  Think of the good that money may have done if spent on useful purposes in the actual United States.  (My head spins…)

Afghanistan is a Texas sized country of nearly 33 million people and has been called “The Graveyard of Empires” due to its habit of frustrating would be conquerors.  An agricultural country, Afghanistan produces many quality food products, but unfortunately also produces more Opium (from the Opium Poppy flower) than any other country, the base product from which Heroin is produced.  Perhaps a 6th of the Afghan economy is Opium based, and if this fact were not bad enough, Afghanistan is also a leading producer of marijuana.  American occupation has done little to change this drug based economy.

What is next for Afghanistan?  Will it once more become a haven for terrorists, and will the US and Western nations again feel compelled to attack the place militarily?  Will China and or Russia hurry in to fill the gap left by the retreating Americans?  Will the Taliban be more careful of provoking American and Western enmity and limit terrorist basing in their country?  What kind of reprisals are going to take place against those Afghans that cooperated with the Western occupiers and those Afghans not true to the medieval traditional brand of Islam mandated by the Taliban?  While we will have to wait to see what actually transpires, this author is not optimistic for any sort of happy ending.  Are you?

Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think the future holds for Afghanistan? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Malkasian, Carter. The American War in Afghanistan: A History. Oxford University Press, 2021.

Whitlock, Craig and The Washington Post. The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War. Simon & Schuster, 2021.

The featured image in this article, a map by Bkkbrad of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.