You have probably heard it from political analysts and newscasters as well. Surprisingly, the introduction of this phrase in Western vocabulary is quite recent.
The term appeared at the turn of the millennium and became fashionable during the American invasion of Afghanistan. However, critical examination offers ample evidence that this phrase is nothing short of hyperbole because, over the centuries, many empires have successfully navigated the Afghan region and have used it for strategic and economic advantages.
But, there is some truth to the statement as well – especially in modern times.
In the last century or two, the foreign invasion of Afghanistan has either coincided with the fall of invading empires or been the cause of it.
What makes this territory so compelling to foreign empires?
The most appealing aspect of the Afghan region is its geographical and strategic importance.
When global trade started to take off in the Late Middle Ages, Afghanistan was Europe’s key route from the Mediterranean to Central and South Asia.
With China and the Indian Subcontinent – i.e., modern-day states of Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan – on one side and Eurasia on the
other – it proved to be the perfect bridge for traders and merchants on both sides.
As an integral part of the ancient Silk Road, it enjoyed an intricate geographical position sought by many kingdoms.
Because it is so tightly knit with its neighbors, it should come as no surprise that Afghan history is also tied with the other countries of the regional.
Its triumphs and falls are closely linked with the history of India, Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
In addition to that, the politics of the Middle East influenced the region quite emphatically.
Some evidence suggests that Neanderthals were living in the area around 52,000 years ago.
The earliest evidence of urban life in Afghanistan dates back to 2000-3000 BCE.
Around this time or shortly after it, the influence of Mesopotamia reached the region.
The Afghan inhabitants practiced Zoroastrianism, the prevalent part of the ancient Iranian empires.
Their cultural connections extended far beyond Mesopotamia – especially to the Indus Valley Civilization.
One of the earliest civilizations in human history, the Indus Valley Civilization
stretched from northeast Afghanistan to most of Pakistan and northwestern India.
In the 5th century BCE, the Achaemenid Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BCE, was exerting its power and supremacy over Central Asia and South Asia.
The Persian Empire spanned most of the Persian Plateau, Mesopotamia, Levant ,Cyprus, Anatolia, Egypt, the Indus Basin, and the Hindu Kush.
In the 4th century BCE, the Kambojas, an Indo-Iranian group, controlled the Hindukush region.
When Macedonian emperor Alexander was at war with the Persian Empire, he arrived in the Afghan lands, where he was met with considerable resistance from the Kambojas.
He had defeated Darius III of Persia in the year prior and would soon make his way into the Indian subcontinent.
Contrary to anecdotal statements in modern media, Alexander did make his way through Afghanistan, albeit it proved more challenging than he had initially thought.
The modern city of Kandahar derives its name from “Iskandar,” a variation of the Greek emperor’s name.
People will often say that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires” because even Alexander the Great could not conquer it, but this is a false notion – only emerging in recent years.
Alexander traversed the land and ended up crossing the Indus River, which runs through the heart of Pakistan.
He sustained an injury in Multan and decided to retreat to Iran.
Some sources claim that a war with the Nanda Empire led to mutiny amongst his soldiers, and they could not wage war against the Indians. Due to the cultural diversity of the area, Hinduism and Buddhism started to appear in the region. When Greek influence in the region began to wane, the Maurya Empire took hold of the Afghan territory, asserting its position in the land by allying with a Greek faction.
The Maurya Empire was the first central power of the Subcontinent and is the largest South Asian empire in history.
It was responsible for the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism in the region.
Folk tales mention two students of Buddha who were merchants.
These disciples were responsible – directly or indirectly – for introducing the belief system in Afghanistan. The most prominent ruler of the Maurya Empire was Ashoka, who turned Buddha from a relatively obscure figure into a spiritual beacon for the entire land.
While historians have trouble placing the exact years of Buddha’s life, the consensus associates its popularity with Ashoka’s appreciation of his teachings.
The Buddhist influence on the Afghan landscape can be incredibly tangible in some cases and quite obscure in others, but archaeological evidence makes it hard to escape its presence in the area.
The Gandhara Kingdom, known today for its Greek-influenced art style, was located in the Peshawar Valley and Swat and was one of the sixteen mahajanapadas (a conglomerate of sixteen kingdoms) of the Indian land.
From the 3rd century BCE onwards, its cultural impact can be felt in the Karakoram Range, across the Indus River, and in Kabul.
The Greek and Hellenistic influences of Gandharan art were probably a consequence of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom.
After the death of Alexander, the Greeks had formed the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom that lasted for the following three centuries.
The Indo-Greek successors continued to rule the Afghan land, followed by the Indo-Scythians, Indo-Parthians, and the Kushan Empire. The Sassanian Empire, the last empire of the Persian world, toppled the Kushan rule.
In the mid-3rd century, the Sassanid emperor, Shapur I, entered and gained control over the Afghan land.
Around 325, Shapur II regained control of most territories of modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan.
During this time, the Hunan tribes started to emerge as major players.
In the Middle Ages, the cities of Ghazni, Kabul, Kandahar came to be known as Afghanistan, meaning the “land of the Afghan people They are ancestors of the Pashtun, but the origins of Afghan identity are disputed.
The three cities signified the region between Khorasan, the Iranian region, and the Indus River.
After the fall of the Kushan Empire, the Kabul Shahi dynasty had gained considerable repute.
They continued to rule Kabul and Gandhara from the 3rd century to the 9th century.
The Arab conquest, or the Islamic conquest, in the 7th century, had a crucial impact on the geopolitical landscape of Asia.
The first caliphate of Islam often called the Rashidun Caliphate, had witnessed a military
expansion in the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, North Africa, and parts of Central and South Asia.
However, it was not until the commencement of the second caliphate, known as the Umayyad Caliphate, that the Islamic imperialism in Asia intensified.
The Western Roman Empire had just disintegrated,
and the Arabs eventually dealt with the Persian Empire, which the Sassanids ruled at the time.
The Rashidun Caliphate had conquered most of West Asia so, Central Asia and South Asia were ripe for the picking. Although the Arab conquest did not reach Afghanistan, its influence certainly did.
Turkish and Arab arrivals made Islam the religion of choice for the Afghan people.Within just a few centuries, Buddhism and Islam had driven Zoroastrianism into obscurity.
In the late 10th and early 11th centuries, Mahmud Ghazni, also known as Mahmud of Ghazni, rose to power and turned Ghazni into a wealthy city and a cultural hub. From there,
he invaded medieval India seventeen times and collected loot – which he spent on enhancing the glory and grandeur of his capital city.
With his military conquests, he formed an empire that covered most of modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and eastern Iran.
Mahmud was a Sunni Muslim and was highly Persianized, which helped entrench those values in his kingdom.
The city of Ghazni provided a great route for entry into the Indian Subcontinent.
The Ghorid Dynasty overthrew the Ghaznavid Dynasty in 1186 to gain control of the empire.
In 1219, Genghis Khan invaded Afghanistan. The Mongol armies razed down cities and butchered their inhabitants.
Kabul and Kandahar were home to mass murder, whereas Ghazni witnessed the slaughter of all male residents and the enslavement of all women.
The damage to the infrastructure of major cities rendered them irreconcilable with their former glories.
Eventually, the Mongol Empire dissipated, and the local Afghan tribes regained control of
In 1370, Timur founded the Timurid Empire in Central Asia and invaded Afghanistan.
As a descendant of Genghis Khan, at least in ideology, he forcibly converted people to Islam and used it as an excuse to further his dreams of a Mongol Empire. In 1504, a descendant of Timur, Babar, arrived in Kabul. He had his eyes set on the Indian Subcontinent.
After capturing the seat of the Delhi Sultanate in 1526, he formed the Mughal Empire.
Afghanistan remained a tribal region for the next couple of centuries, partly ruled by the
Mughals and the Safavid Dynasty of Iran. In the 18th century, the Afghan people rebelled against the Persian forces and expelled them, turning the tribal area into an independent Pashtun state.
In 1738, another Persian emperor, Nader Shah, arrived in the Afghan region.
He defeated the local Hotaki Dynasty and conquered Afghanistan. After the assassination of Nader Shah, the Afghan people chose Ahmad Shah Durani as the representative of the Pashtun tribes.
In the 19th century, British imperialism was at its peak, and the British tried to invade Afghanistan repeatedly.
While they achieved this feat quite easily in the Indian Subcontinent, it proved next to impossible in Afghanistan.
The First Anglo-Afghan War took place from
1838 to 1842; the British lost and retreated. From 1878 to 1880, the two countries engaged in the Second Anglo-Afghan War, reaching the same conclusion as to their first conflict.
In the third war in 1919, Afghanistan agreed to a border with the British-ruled Indian Subcontinent.
Known as the Durand Line, this border still serves as the division between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Just as British imperialism was nearing its end, the Soviet communist movement was underway, In 1929 and 1930, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
However, the Soviet Union invasion of 1979 was much more intense and decisive for the Afghan people as their unwilling involvement in the Cold War led to catastrophic results for its citizens.
The United States and the Arab nations funded Islamic Mujahideen to mount resistance to the Soviet incursion.
Pakistan served as a proxy for scouting and assembling militant Pashtun groups along the border.
The Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, but the local militant groups settled in.
After some clashes among different groups, the Taliban emerged as the country’s leading political and religious force. After the World Trade Center incident in 2001,
the United States and its NATO allies invaded Afghanistan.
Fully aware of the subtleties of
the terrain, the Afghan militants are adept at guerrilla warfare, which has always made
Afghanistan a difficult country to invade. While Afghanistan has been invaded, manipulated, and exploited in the past, the task has proven quite difficult in recent times.
In 2021, the United States retreated from the region, leaving the Afghan locals under the control of the Taliban.
Where will things go from here? Only time will tell.