A graveyard for many armies


War: Throughout history, several invaders have tried to conquer Afghanistan, but few have succeeded.

September 18, 2001|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The mighty British Empire tried to conquer the impudent goat herders of Afghanistan three times in the 19th century. They lost thousands of soldiers and suffered three humiliating defeats.

The vast Soviet superpower, with its jet fighters and tanks, spent a decade trying to hunt down Afghan fighters hiding in mountain caves. They squandered $45 billion and lost 14,500 soldiers before they fled in failure in 1989.

To find successful invaders of this rugged Central Asian nation, historians have to search back centuries and dredge up names including Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great.

What would happen if the United States tried to repeat those conquests?

The question arises as U.S. officials discuss hunting down the suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden, who, they believe, planned last week's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. He may be hiding in Afghanistan with the cooperation of the ruling Taliban.

"Afghanistan has been the graveyard for British troops, Russian troops, Indian Mogul troops - they all regretted they ever set foot in the country," said Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

"We are dealing with hardened mountaineers who are absolutely ferocious about defending their turf," he said.

Afghanistan has a history of invasion by foreign powers that has forged a people with a fearsome spirit of independence and a culture that celebrates warriors, according to historians. In this way, they resemble the Vietnamese or the Chechens.

The Pashtun people who dominate Afghanistan are mostly poor goat herders and farmers. Today they are stalked by a famine that may kill 500,000 people this year. But they are resourceful and resilient, and have used their mountainous terrain repeatedly to defeat more powerful foes.

Many Afghan people would feel betrayed if the United States declared war against them.

Afghans until recently viewed the United States as an ally because in the 1980s the CIA sent missiles and billions of dollars to help the country's people repel the Soviet invasion, Starr said.

The United States also built roads and schools in Afghanistan in the 1950s and 1960s in an attempt to win favor with the country's leadership during the Cold War, Starr said.

Furthermore, bin Laden is not an Afghan; he's from Saudi Arabia. He's also one of about 4,500 Muslim Arabs whom the CIA encouraged to move to Afghanistan during the 1980s to fight the Soviets.

But if the United States attacks Afghanistan in an attempt to capture bin Ladin, it would be marching in the footprints of countless failed armies.

The tribesmen who defeated the Soviets are similar in their cleverness to the American patriots who defeated the British, said Justin Rudelson, an expert on Central Asia at the University of Maryland.

"These people really know how to use terrain," Rudelson said. "The Soviet war was similar to the American revolution, where the Americans wouldn't follow the rules and would hide behind trees and pick off the British."

Alexander the Great launched the first successful invasion of what is today Afghanistan in 328 B.C.

The Scythians, Huns, Turks, Persians and Arabs conquered it in following centuries, with the Arabs introducing Islam to the region when they seized power in 642 A.D.

Genghis Khan flattened cities and burned crops during the Mongol invasion of 1219.

The Pashtun tribe that now dominates Afghanistan came to power in 1747. Their tribal leaders elected their king, Ahmed Shah Durrani, after the assassination of a Persian ruler.

During the 19th century, the British and Russians fought over the region. They called it "The Great Game," with both empires wanting to expand into Asia.

But the British lost an entire army in the first Anglo-Afghan war (1839-1842). In a blood bath on Jan. 6, 1842, about 4,500 British and Indian troops were killed during a retreat from Kabul.

"The British assumed that they would whip these primitive people because they had better and more modern armies, and they were humiliated," said Muriel Atkin, professor of history at George Washington University.

Following the second Anglo-Afghan war (1878-1880), the British and Russians drew lines on a map to create the boundaries of what is today Afghanistan.

For much of the 20th century, the country was politically unstable. A Marxist leader seized power after a bloody coup in 1978.

When the tribal people resisted Marxist reforms, the Soviets invaded. But they were never able to seize control of the countryside, where fighters - called Mujahedin - violently resisted Soviet control, with the help of U.S. weapons.

The withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 sparked a civil war in Afghanistan, with rival warlords seizing control of various parts of the country.

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