Art by Yousef Amairi

Art by Yousef Amairi
the struggle continues

August 10, 2010

Afghanistan is a graveyard of reputations too, By Dallas Darling, Aljazeera, 10/08/2010

With a number of religious and nationalistic underpinnings, it is little wonder that empires have often failed in conquering and subjugating the peoples of Afghanistan.

"Thirteen thousand men we had been, When our outset from Kabul was seen-Now soldiers, leaders, women and bairn, They are betrayed, and frozen and slain." --Theodor Fontane in the ballad: "The Tragedy of Afghanistan"

When General Stanley McChrystal's farewell to the Army started with confessing that, "This has the potential to be an awkward, even sad, occasion,"(1) it reminded me of how Afghanistan is not only a graveyard of empires, but a graveyard of reputations. McCrystal, known as one of America's greatest warriors and who helped destroy al-Qaeda cells in Iraq, was forced to resign from his command in Afghanistan after an article quoted him and his aides of making derogatory remarks about President Obama and other senior administration officials.

Although others believe the real reason McCrystal was fired was due to the disastrous direction the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan had taken, or to give the appearance the military was still under civilian control, either way, an additional military officer's reputation was ruined by another war in Afghanistan.

In ancient times, Alexander the Great found it extremely difficult to conquer Afghanistan, a feat which greatly weakened his forces just before he invaded and experienced defeat in India. After the Persian ruler Nadir Shah was assassinated, Afghanistan continued to be made a crossroads of trade and warfare. It also continued to destroy reputations as Persia, Russia and Great Britain fought for dominance in the region.

Mohammed Shah of Persia tried to invade Afghanistan but failed when Herat province offered stiff resistance. During the First Anglo-Afghan War, and when Akbar Khan called for a general revolt against the occupiers and British subsidies went unpaid to potentially hostile tribal leaders, Sir Robert Sale encountered such resistance from the Ghilzai tribesmen that he was forced to retreat and seek refuge in the fort at Jalalabad.(2)

Meanwhile, Major General William Elphinstone, who helped defeat Napoleon's army at Waterloo and led a distinguished military career, ruined his reputation in Afghanistan. As the Afghans laid siege to Kabul and bombarded the British camp, a negotiation for a free retreat failed. The bodies of British diplomats being dragged through the streets and losing command of some of his troops further damaged Elphinstone's status. Besieged by Afghan insurgents, Elphinstone capitulated. Thinking he had safe passage, Elphinstone left Kabul and tried to join Sale's forces at Jalalabad.

Having failed to secure the Khord-Kabul Pass, 3,000 of Elphinstone's men were killed. As military organization diminished, some soldiers either deserted, tried to return to Kabul, committed suicide, or froze to death. Elphinstone and other senior officers offered themselves as hostages which was considered a shameful act. Over 13,000 foreign occupation soldiers and civilians were killed, plus Elphinstone.(3)

With regards to the Soviet Union's disastrous 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, not only were a number of Soviet military commanders relieved during the ten-year war, but several of them lost their standing within the Kremlin's military structure and back in Russia. As the world condemned the Soviet Union for employing a harsh counterinsurgency approaching genocide,(4) another empire's reputation had been ruined in Afghanistan. In the final days of the war, General Boris Gromov almost disobeyed orders from the Soviet Minister of Defense who ordered him to violate a ceasefire with Mujahadeen commanders. However, three events saved his reputation. First, Russians had at last accepted the fate of defeat in Afghanistan.

Second, the Soviet's exit strategy and withdrawal agreement held and was aided by the United Nations. Finally, who can forget the image of Gromov being the last soldier on foot to leave Afghanistan and crossing the Friendship Bridge. Because of this, Gromov's character was salvaged and he had a successful career in Russian politics.

Perhaps a major reason high ranking military officials have had their reputations ruined in Afghanistan, is because they belonged to imperial powers which ordered and sent them to try and conquer an unconquerable nation. Not only are there numerous dialects spoken in Afghanistan, but the division of ethnic groups further subdivided into tribal affiliations. Neither do many of the tribes that inhabit the rugged mountain terrain adhere to a highly centralized from of government.

Consider also 225,000 square miles bordering Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, along with Russia, India and China that are nearby. With a number of religious and nationalistic underpinnings, it is little wonder that empires have often failed in conquering and subjugating the peoples of Afghanistan, even to the extent of ruining their own reputations in the process and their standing in the world.

McChrystal ended his farewell by questioning an increasingly skeptical public and by saying, "Caution and cynicism are safe, but soldiers don't want to follow cautious cynics." He continued, "They follow leaders who believe enough to risk failure and disappointment for a worthy cause."(5) But under McChrystal's command, fatalities among U.S. and NATO troops were increasing, as were deaths among innocent Afghan civilians. It almost seems the "worthy cause" that McChrystal (and the United States Empire) speaks of is no longer worthy, and that the cynics have become the realists.

If this is the case, then for U.S. and NATO forces, for the Afghan insurgency, and for innocent civilians: "Dispersed is the entire host, Who is alive, in the darkness is lost. A God to me salvation has sent-To save the rest you may make an attempt."(6)

-- Dallas Darling is the author of Politics 501: An A-Z Reading on Conscientious Political Thought and Action, Some Nations Above God: 52 Weekly Reflections On Modern-Day Imperialism, Militarism, And Consumerism in the Context of John's Apocalyptic Vision, and The Other Side Of Christianity: Reflections on Faith, Politics, Spirituality, History, and Peace. He is a correspondent for You can read more of Dallas' writings at and


(1) Jaffe, Greg. McChrystal bids farewell. Washington Post, Saturday, July 24, 2010.

(2) Haythornthwaite, Phililip J., The Colonial Wars Source Book. London, England: Caxton Editions, 2000., p. 133ff.

(3) Ibid., p. 134ff.

(4) Archer, Christon I., John R. Ferris, Holger H. Herwig, and Timothy H.E. Travers. World History of Warfare. Lincoln, Nebraska: University Of Nebraska Press, 2002., p. 454.

(5) Jaffe, Greg. McChrystal bids farewell. Washington Post, Saturday, July 24, 2010.

(6) Fontane, Theodor. "The Tragedy of Afghanistan."

-- Middle East Online


No comments:

Featured Story

A timely reminder:: Seymour M. Hersh on the chemical attacks trail back to the Syrian rebels, 17 April 2014

Seymour M. Hersh on Obama, Erdoğan and the Syrian rebels Vol. 36 No. 8 · 17 April 2014  London Review of Books pages 21-24 | 5870 words ...