Jeanette Strong: Graveyard of empires

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“When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains, And the women come out to cut up what remains, Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.” Rudyard Kipling, “The Young British Soldier,” 1890.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack in our history. Four highjacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, killing 2,997 people.
This act of terrorism was committed by al-Qaida, a group based in Afghanistan. The Taliban government of Afghanistan had given safe haven to al-Qaida. President George W. Bush decided to overthrow the Taliban and destroy al-Qaida’s base of operations.
On Oct. 7, 2001, the U.S. officially launched military operations in Afghanistan. Within a few months, the Taliban was overthrown and al-Qaida’s base was dismantled. The goal had been achieved.
On April 17, 2002, Bush changed the objective. He outlined a plan to rebuild Afghanistan into a democracy. This would require a huge investment of American resources, but the administration decided it was worth it.
America isn’t the first country which has tried to mold Afghanistan. It’s been invaded and occupied many times. In 330 B.C., Alexander the Great invaded Afghanistan on his way to India. He later said that Afghanistan was “easy to march into, hard to march out of.” That’s a lesson that’s been repeated over and over.
Afghanistan’s tribal structure makes it difficult to conquer, which earned it the nickname “Graveyard of Empires.” In 1837, the British attempted to subdue Afghanistan. After failing, they tried to withdraw in 1842. As they left, the entire British contingent of 16,500 people was slaughtered by Afghans.
In 1878, the British again invaded Afghanistan. By 1901, they had established the country’s current borders. In 1919, after years of fighting, the British left Afghanistan for good.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Soviet influence expanded in Afghanistan. In 1978, after a violent revolution, the Communist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was created. The Soviet Union signed a treaty with the DRA, setting off an insurgency by the Afghan people. This led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
The Soviets began planning their withdrawal in 1985; by February 1989, they were gone. The Communist government collapsed in 1992. Afghanistan, already one of the poorest countries in the world, was now controlled by drugs and terrorism. The insurgent Mujahedeen, who had been financed by the U.S., became the basis for al-Qaida. They were the ones who carried out the 9/11 attacks.
It was this culture which Bush wanted to change into a functioning democracy. That might have succeeded if Bush hadn’t decided to invade Iraq.
“In 2004 an Army officer told me we had removed the critical mass of troops from Afghanistan to invade Iraq, and the Taliban immediately moved back in to the less populated regions, slowly rebuilding and biding their time. It all looked good because the population centers were still under US control, but eventually it would all come crumbling down, and people would be surprised by it.” (Washington Post, Aug. 16)
After that, Afghanistan was essentially lost to the U.S. One writer said, “George W. Bush started us on a war without a plan, without any goal, and without an exit strategy at all. A commitment to a war without end.” (Daily Kos, Aug. 16)
Dan Berschinski, a retired U.S. Army officer, related what a local shopkeeper told him in 2009: “Lieutenant, I met the previous American lieutenant 12 months prior, I will meet another American lieutenant in 12 months when you leave.” This man, who hated the Taliban, knew they would be there long after the Americans left. That is the reality the Afghan people face. (Washington Post, Aug. 20)
We’ve spent 20 years, 2,461 American military lives, and over $2 trillion trying to do something no country has ever done. We finally realized that more time, blood and money won’t help. But what we may have done is give the Afghan people hope. A comment in the Aug. 20 Washington Post conveys this idea.
“What I do know is that in these 20 years many Afghans have realized there is hope, there is opportunity. I can only hope that the seeds planted will bear some fruit for the future. I doubt the Taliban stands a chance as a governing body. I am thinking this is not the last word for the Afghan people. At least I am hoping.” As should we all.
Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at


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