The powerful British Empire made its attempt in the 19th century, when it was the world superpower, but in 1919 it had to leave Afghanistan and grant independence to the country.
Then it was the turn of the Soviet Union, which in 1979 invaded the country with the intention of keeping communism in power (instituted through a coup in 1978) – it took them 10 years to realize that they would not win that war.
The British and Soviets have in common that, when they invaded Afghanistan, they had empires of the first order and soon after began to fall apart.
Twenty years after the US-led invasion of 2001, and a subsequent war that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, Joe Biden’s government decided to withdraw his country’s troops from Afghanistan.
It was a controversial decision, heavily criticized and which led to the rapid fall of Kabul, the Afghan capital, at the hands of the Taliban jihadist group.
Biden defended the withdrawal of troops, saying the Americans should not “fight a war that Afghans don’t want to fight”. He argued that “no military force would ever achieve a stable, united and secure Afghanistan” and recalled that the country is known as a “cemetery of empires”.
Afghanistan has been the graveyard of the most powerful armies in recent centuries, which have tried to control it – with apparent success at the beginning of their respective invasions, but which later had to flee the country.
“It’s not that Afghans have a lot of power, what happened in Afghanistan was the fault of the invading empires themselves, the imperial pathology and their limitations“, defense and foreign policy analyst David Isby told BBC Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish service.
Afghanistan is a country with very poor infrastructure and difficult geography — Photo: Getty Images via BBC
Isby says that Afghanistan is, “from an objective point of view,” a difficult place: it is a complex nation, with very poor infrastructure, limited development, and landlocked.
“But the empires, whether Soviet, British or the US, have not shown flexibility in dealing with Afghanistan. They wanted and had to do things their own way and they were never able to understand the complexity of the country,” he adds.
It is common to hear that Afghanistan is “impossible to conquer” – a wrong statement: the Persians, the Mongols and Alexander the Great have done this in the past.
What is certain is that it is an adventure that cost a lot to those who tried. And the last three empires that tried to invade Kabul simply failed.
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The British Empire and Its Three Invasions
For much of the 19th century, Afghanistan was the center stage of the “Great Game” between the British and Russian empires to control Central Asia.
For decades, Moscow and London waged a diplomatic and political struggle that the British eventually won, but at a high price. The United Kingdom tried to invade the country three times between 1839 and 1919, and it can be said that they failed all three times.
In the First Anglo-Afghan War – which began when the British captured Kabul in 1839 out of fear that Russia would do it before them – London suffered perhaps its greatest humiliation in history: the army of what was then the most powerful nation in the world was completely destroyed by tribes with very simple weapons.
After three years of invasion, the Afghans finally forced the invading forces to leave the capital, and the withdrawal resulted in tragedy.
Only a British citizen survived, among a group of over 16,000 people who left a British military camp on January 6, 1842 intending to go to Jalalabad (city east of Kabul).
“This war weakened the advance of British expansion into the subcontinent and also affected the narrative that the British were invincible,” explains Isby.
Nearly four decades later, the UK tried again with a little more success.
THE Second Anglo-Afghan War, which took place between 1878 and 1880, ended with Afghanistan becoming a British protectorate., but London was forced to abandon its policy of keeping a resident minister in Kabul.
Instead, he selected and supported a new Afghan emir and withdrew his troops from the country. But in 1919 a third war broke out when a new Afghan emir declared independence from British influence.
At that time, the Bolshevik Revolution had reduced the Russian threat, and at the same time, World War I paralyzed British military spending so that interest in Afghanistan waned.
So, after four months of battles, London ended up recognizing the country’s independence.
Although officially the British were no longer in Afghanistan, they are considered to have retained their influence for many years to come.
Vietnam of the Soviet Union
During the 1920s, Emir Amanullah Khan tried to reform the country and, among other measures, abolished the traditional burqa for women. The series of reforms disturbed some tribes and religious leaders, triggering a civil war.
Tensions in the Asian country stemming from power struggles continued for decades until the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979 to keep a deeply fragmented communist government in power.
Several mujahideen (religious extremist) groups opposed the Soviets and began to fight them, with money and weapons supplied by the United States, Pakistan, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Moscow launched ground and air attacks with the intention of destroying villages and crops in areas it considered problematic, and the local population was forced to flee their homes or die.
THE Russian invasion was the bloodiest of all, leaving an estimated 1.5 million dead and an estimated 5 million refugees.
At some point, Soviet forces managed to control major cities and larger towns, but the mujahideen moved with relative freedom in many rural areas.
Soviet troops tried to crush the insurgency with various tactics, but the guerrillas generally managed to avoid their attacks.
The country was in ruins.
Then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev realized he could not continue the war as he tried to transform the Russian economy and decided to withdraw his troops in 1988, but the country’s image was never restored.
Afghanistan became the Soviet Union’s Vietnam. It was an expensive and shameful war, in which despite using all its muscles, the Soviet Union was defeated and humiliated by local guerrillas.
“The Soviets claimed legitimate power in Afghanistan, precisely at a time when there were serious and fundamental contradictions in the Soviet system, its government and its army,” says analyst David Isby. “That was one of the big mistakes of the Soviets.”
The Soviet Union fell shortly thereafter.
The United States and its “disastrous” withdrawal
After the failed interventions of the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, the United States led a new invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, vowing to support democracy and eliminate the terrorist threat of al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks.
Like the two previous invading powers, Washington managed to take Kabul quickly and forced the Taliban to surrender power.
Three years later, a new Afghan government took over the presidency, but the Taleban’s bloody attacks continued.
Former President Barack Obama announced a troop increase in 2009 that helped repel the Taliban, but not for long.
In 2014, which turned out to be the bloodiest year of the war since 2001, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) forces fulfilled their mission and delegated responsibility for security to the Afghan army.
This action allowed the Taleban to conquer more territories.
The following year, the group continued to gain strength and launched a series of suicide bombings. There were attacks on the parliament building in Kabul and another near the capital’s international airport.
According to Isby, many things went wrong in the American invasion.
“Despite military and diplomatic efforts, one of the main problems was that neither the United States nor the international community was able to get Pakistan to abandon its successful power war,” he said. “It turned out to be more successful than guns.”
While the Soviet invasion was much bloodier, the American one had higher financial costs.
The Soviets spent about $2 billion a year in Afghanistan, while between 2010 and 2012 the cost of war for the US rose to nearly $100 billion a year, according to data from the US government itself.
And the fall of Kabul has also been compared to events in South Vietnam.
“This is Joe Biden’s Saigon,” tweeted Republican Congressman Elise Stefanik. “A disastrous failure on the international stage that will never be forgotten.”
With the withdrawal of American troops and the consequent triumph of the Taleban, the world faces a new humanitarian crisis with thousands of refugees who will have to find a new home.
“In the medium term, it will be necessary to see whether a Taleban regime can be integrated into the international community, which I have great doubts about,” said David Isby.
And if it becomes impossible for the international community to deal with the Taleban, it will be necessary to see if another power risks venturing into a new invasion of Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires.