Graveyard of empires and land of funerals

Ghassan Charbel
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Did George Bush commit a sin two decades ago similar to the one committed by Leonid Brezhnev four decades ago when he sent an army to Afghanistan for a quasi-unwinnable war in an indomitable country? Was sending the US army to topple Saddam Hussein another error that ended 20 years later with a shrunken American military presence in a handful of barracks being targeted by the “Iranian factions” in Iraq? Was America preoccupied with the action in Iraq and Afghanistan at a time when the Chinese were doubling the production of goods in the “world’s factory” and targeting countries with loans and contracts to recruit them to the Silk Road? Has the human and financial depletion in Afghanistan and Iraq weakened America’s ability to maintain the first place in the frenetic race that China has entered with full force?

It is clear that Joe Biden’s era will not only suffer from the costs of the coronavirus pandemic and the unknown source from which the epidemic was launched. This era will suffer from the looming return of the Afghan debacle that began as part of the major punitive campaign launched after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The exit of the US army from Afghanistan cannot be compared to its exit from Vietnam. These are different circumstances in a different world. But it is likely that the country in which the US has left more than two thousand of its soldiers dead and twenty thousand wounded will once again return to the shadow of those who embraced al-Qaeda and planned the New York and Washington attacks.


On the eve of the next September 11, the lord of the Kremlin will await with a mocking smirk. The US and NATO forces will have completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaving it to an unknown fate that can almost be guessed. It is most likely that the banners of the Taliban will wave once again over Kabul, which Ibn Battuta visited eight centuries ago, noting that its residents were people of strength and power.

Vladimir Putin feels a measure of revenge. It is not surprising that the Caesar is wounded and has vindictive feelings. These countries, which slumber for a long time under the snow, return to its old siege complex whenever the West approaches their borders. And who knows, the generals of the Russian army may exaggerate in the scenarios. In the nineteenth century, the British Empire tried in vain to dominate the Afghan terrain but failed after their resources ran dry. There are those who delved into history and came back with a significant conclusion: Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. The rest of the picture is that it is a country that does not show mercy to its invaders nor to its own children for that matter. Its people are tough in the face of outsiders. They are also ruthless when they are divided over ethnic, regional and sectarian differences, fighting and killing each other freely without any restraint. The graveyard of empires is, at the same time, the land of endless funerals. The Russian generals’ hatred of the West may lead them to imagine that the American army is also withdrawing to a country that, years later, will be forced to join the Chinese era and will no longer have the first and last word in the affairs of the global village.

The truth is that 1989 was an interesting year for the generals of the US Army and their peers in the NATO armies. There were some scenes we could have never previously imagined. The year began with Red Army convoys completing their withdrawal from Afghanistan. It was clear that the Soviet Union had lost the war and that Kabul would remain in the hands of those who had enriched its forces with their attacks. But the scene did not lead anyone to believe that this army, sleeping on a large nuclear arsenal, would return to a country that would erupt. Washington’s generals bet that the images of the wounded Soviet army leaving Afghanistan would make the world forget the scene of the American army fleeing with their flag from Saigon, leaving Vietnam alone facing its “red” fate.

Another event that shook the world was on the ninth of November of the same year. The winds of freedom blew down the Berlin Wall, and it collapsed and lost his dual function as guard of republican and imperial frontiers. And after two years, the Atlantic generals would enjoy a spectacle beyond their utmost dreams. Russia tore off its Soviet clothing and scattered its orphaned communists in every direction.

I do not want to say that the military intervention in Afghanistan was the main or only reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were many reasons, including economic failure, the costs of the arms race, the technological gap in favor of the West, in addition to issues regarding freedoms and beliefs. But what is certain is that Brezhnev’s “sin” represented in the decision to intervene militarily in Afghanistan had dire consequences.

Two decades after the attacks in New York and Washington, Biden insists that the withdrawal from Afghanistan must be completed because it is a war that cannot be won. In fact, the Afghanistan experience confirmed what had previously been confirmed in Iraq. The United States is a formidable power that possesses the most advanced military machine in history. This enormous force can hit any target on the surface of the Earth. It could dismember countries and armies and paralyze their capabilities. But this formidable force cannot build viable alternatives to the regimes it topples. The proof is that Iran was, and still is, the big winner from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

In Afghanistan, the picture is more complex. President Ashraf Ghani’s regime does not show that it is capable of withstanding the attacks of the Taliban, which has extensive experience in penetrating states and military bases. Most likely, the US exit will leave a void that tempts other players to fill parts of it. Pakistan is a natural player on the Afghan stage, especially since the Taliban was born in the Pakistani incubator. Iran also prepared for this stage and used its Afghan relations to form militias that were sent on missions to Syria. Turkey is trying to cash in its balance with Washington by showing readiness for a role in Afghanistan that will make the US forget about Turkey getting missiles from Russia. Moscow is also concerned because it cannot forget the security of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The game is complicated. Afghanistan is China’s neighbor, and Pakistan has something to offer to Beijing, which would not mind a share of the Afghan precious metals aside from the transportation problem that this difficult country presents. And when Pakistan is working closely with China, India is bound to worry. This leads us to see that the Afghan embers will soon be rekindled by many fires.

All of this does not mean that peace is returning to Afghanistan. Peace here is a strange habit. This country expels what it calls invaders to devote itself to its fierce civil wars. The Graveyard of Empires has become addicted to funerals, both of outsiders and of its own children. This is what the distant and recent history shows, and, in most cases, history lies to no one.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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