Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires?

by | May 2, 2019

Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires?

by | May 2, 2019

I. Introduction: The Graveyard of Empires

In discussions of Afghanistan in today’s world, the assertion that the country is a “graveyard of empires” is often made. While the statement is correctly accepted as a caution against overconfident intervention by foreign powers in the region, the historical narrative behind this statement makes for much more interesting discussion. Its analysis also provides a large body of information that helps us to understand why the United States and company have faced so many major problems in their operations in Afghanistan. As I have researched Afghanistan’s history, an interesting realization I have come to is that the moniker “graveyard of empires” is not exactly as accurate as I previously thought, or at least not until the advent of the modern era (which in the context of this post I am defining as roughly the years since the French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic Wars in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries). On the contrary, parts of Afghanistan have been subject to the rule of a number of foreign empires throughout its long history, ranging from the ancient Achaemenid Persian Empire to the Mongol Empire of the middle ages to the Mughal Empire of India in more recent times.

However, after the creation of an independent Afghan state in 1747, Afghanistan transitioned into the seemingly unconquerable (and, as some more critical observers have put it, ungovernable) region that has flummoxed American military might for the last 17 years. In this post, I want to begin to explore why this apparent change in the character of the peoples of Afghanistan occurred. I will naturally fall short of explaining this phenomena as thoroughly as I want, and will probably periodically add to the work that follows in future posts. However, I want to start today by tying together several different approaches to analyzing this feature of Afghanistan.

So, in the paragraphs that follow I will draw on historical narratives of the region from sources such as Frederick Starr’s wonderful book Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane. I will also make use of an anthropological-based approach to Afghan affairs, drawing largely from Dr. Thomas Barfield’s book Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History. I will also be drawing inspiration from New Developmental Economics, particularly the concept of Institutional Stickiness developed by my own school’s Drs. Peter Boettke, Peter Leeson, and Christopher Coyne. Finally, I will combine all of these concepts along with some intensive on the ground research in recent decades conducted by the likes of Ahmed Rashid, Alex Strick Van Linschoten, Felix Kuehn, and others, to show why Afghanistan has become the formidable force to outsiders that the United States faces today.

II. Was Afghanistan always so hostile to foreign invaders?

I have already pointed out that Afghanistan was occupied by many different empires in ancient and medieval times. As Sir Martin Ewans, former Head of the British Chancery in Kabul, recounts in his book Afghanistan: A New History, Afghanistan has “over its long history been a ‘highway of conquest’ between west, central, and southern Asia” , and “has been incorporated into a series of empires” (10). In ancient times the first major power to gain control of part of Afghanistan was the Achaemenid Persian Empire, which controlled modern day Afghanistan from roughly 550-330 BC. This long period of Iranian dominance in the region, which left a massive cultural footprint, was broken up by the world-changing eastward explosion of Hellenistic military might under the short reign of Alexander the Great, whose armies destroyed the Persian Empire and conquered their former territories, including Afghanistan. Following the collapse of Alexander’s empire after his death, Afghanistan became a battleground that left it under the control of various Greek, Indian, central Asian, Turkic, and Iranian empires that dominated the region at one time or another for the next 200 years. By the time that the calendar switched to the C.E. years we have today, the region had been consolidated under the regionally based Kushan Empire, which would remain in power for almost 300 years. Following the fall of the Kushans, Afghanistan once again became a battleground, trading hands at various times among Iranians, central Asians, and Hindu Indians, until the advent of a new world-shocker entered the region in the 600-700s.

The Arab conquest of Afghanistan in these years left possibly the most influential legacy that governs the region to this day. The transition to Islam and the subsequent golden age experienced in Afghanistan (indeed the region was arguably the cultural and economic center of the world for several hundred years after the Arabs invaded) are more influential than ever today.

After the Arab invasion, Afghanistan remained constantly occupied by foreign invaders for the next millennium, from the Mongol Empire (in which the Khans literally destroyed many of the most splendid cities in contemporary Afghanistan), to the homegrown Tamerlane, and all the way up to the Indian-based Mughal empire until the mid-1700s. Only with the founder of the Durrani dynasty by Ahmed Shah Durrani in 1747 would Afghanistan finally experience a long period of self rule.

It was after this foundation that the Afghans truly became the empire killers that they are known to be today. The four notable foreign invasions of Afghanistan after its foundation as an independent empire are the two British invasions, resulting in the Anglo-Afghan Wars of 1839-42 and 1878-80, the Russian Invasion lasting from 1979-89, and the United States led invasion beginning in 2001 and continuing to this day. Of these four, the Afghanis won the first three, while the fourth has simply stalemated as anti-American insurgents attempt to wait out the occupiers. In all four, massive segments of the Afghan population were involved in the uprisings and subsequent victories. And also in all four, the death toll to the Afghan people has been significantly worse than nearly every previous invasion in the region’s history, with the most notable exception being the ruthless invasion of Genghis Khan. Now we will turn to the reasons for these changes.

III. Different types of views of nation-states

Among the biggest reasons that modern occupations engender so much more opposition than the occupations of the past lies in the changing nature of occupations themselves. This difference lies in different views of the role of the state within its nominal territory. Dr. Thomas Barfield, in his work Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, likens the differing views of states to two different kinds of cheese. The modern centralized nation state (which is commonly cited as developing out of the European Peace of Westphalia ending the 30 Years War, but which I, for several reasons which I will leave to a future post, prefer to date to the French Revolution) is equated to a slice of American cheese. American cheese is solid all throughout, with no holes. Similarly, modern state governments such as the United States control the entirety of their territories. There are no regions in the U.S. which are largely ignored by the central government. Each of the 50 states is subject to the same federal laws, regulations, taxation, etc.

On the other hand, states such as Afghanistan and its neighbors in Central and South Asia are traditionally more similar to a slice of Swiss cheese. Unlike the solid American cheese, Swiss cheese is full of holes. Similarly, traditional state systems in the regions in and around Afghanistan operated with many holes in their territories. Generally, rulers of these regional empires focused nearly all their power, military presence, and economic influence in the economic and cultural centers of their empires, namely the major cities and areas with productive and profitable farming. Rural and non-economic centers, on the other hand, were largely left to their own devices, not paying much (or often any) in taxes or military service and simply being asked in return to not cause much trouble for the regional ruler. Since in the pre-modern world the vast majority of territory was of this non-important type, generally relying on subsistence farming to survive instead of farming to sell products, many seemingly massive ancient and medieval empires were in reality many degrees smaller than they appear on a map today.

In modern western cultures, Barfield posits that “It is this American cheese model that is implicitly projected onto the past” (67). In other words, we tend to assume our very centralized form of state governance applied to all empires and nations throughout world history. This tendency is shown through our obsessive needs to carve out boundaries between different state entities on maps throughout human history, despite the reality being that these boundaries were often in constant flux and ignored by (even unknown to) people living on both sides of the borders. The negative consequences of this western tendency can be found in the carving up of the Middle East by Europeans into western-style nation states during the negotiations leading up to the Treaty of Versaille after the 1st World War. The consequences of these actions are still reverberating throughout the world today in a myriad of forms, including that of international Islamic terrorism. This difference in views of the state also forms a major reason why Afghanistan has become so hard to control.

IV. Terms and methods of analysis

In order to analyze the differences in foreign occupations, I first need to explain some concepts that will keep the discussion organized. First, when discussing the different time periods of occupations, I will use the term “Pre-Modern Occupation (PMO)” to apply to occupations occurring before the year 1747, as this was the year in which long term Afghan independence was finally established by Ahmed Shah Durrani. The term “Modern Occupations (MO)” will be applied to occupations of Afghanistan occurring from the foundation of the Durrani dynasty up to the present day. When labeling the two types of foreign occupation, we can distinguish between two general categories: what I will call “Traditional Occupations (TO)”, in which the foreign power simply attempts to gain control of the economic centers while leaving the majority rural territory mostly alone, and what I will call “Nation-State Occupations (NSO)”, in which the foreign invader wants to consolidate the entire territory of Afghanistan under its control. As with all broadly defined categorizations, the realities on the ground throughout history was much more nuanced than the labels suggest, and there was generally some facets of each of these categories involved in all foreign occupations of Afghanistan. However, the categories are in general suited well enough to give us insight into the broadly different types of foreign invasions in Afghanistan.

Having established the terms to be used in our analysis in the next section, I’ll now briefly discuss the method of reasoning I will apply to show why foreign invasions have become less successful over time in Afghanistan. I am drawing largely from the concept of “Institutional Stickiness” in the field of New Development Economics, especially from the 2008 journal article “Institutional Stickiness and the New Development Economics” written by Peter Boettke, Christopher Coyne, and Peter Leeson. Institutional Stickiness is defined by the authors as the “ability or inability of new institutional arrangements to take hold where they are transported (332)”. Institutional changes can be indigenous (insider driven) or foreign (outsider driven), as well as endogenous (developed spontaneously from the bottom-up) or exogenous (developed by institutions such as the state and implemented from the top-down). The authors contend that the further proposed institutional changes are from being developed from the bottom up by the indigenous peoples of a territory, the more likely they are to be at odds with local customs and conditions in the target region, and hence the higher probability that they will be rejected.

Now we have both the necessary terms and method of analysis needed to carry out our discussion of modern Afghanistan.

V. Why Pre-Modern Occupiers were more successful

When analyzing the characteristics of PMOs and MOs, we can see several glaring aspects of each that contribute to their different levels of success. First, we see that the difference in the parties that expected to be involved in ruling the territories were much different. Traditionally, the invading armies of Afghanistan viewed their imperial wars as wars aimed only against the leaders of their enemy country, in our case Afghanistan, and not against the masses of the country. Due to the high costs required to raise armies in these parts of the world at the time, the idea of waging any sort of “total war” within Afghanistan was a fantasy. The limits on the military means of rulers at the time was complemented by a view of territories and peoples as a sort of property investment. Conquering a new territory was essentially an economic investment, and therefore destroying large parts of said territory in the process of conquest would be equivalent to destroying one’s own house. As a result, foreign occupiers tended to be very relaxed in the intensity of taxation and interference in the affairs of their citizens, both due to the high military costs to impose stricter measures and the risks of losing  their economic bases entirely. These lax policies allowed indigenous populations to keep their basic endogenously created and preferred institutional arrangements while foreign dynasties came and went, giving them little incentive to reject new rulers from outside Afghanistan.

In the period after the formation of the Afghan State in 1747, foreign invaders into Afghanistan became less focused on creating new economic founts of wealth through conquest in Afghanistan and more focused on minimizing security threats emanating from the country. Due to the greater unity of the Afghan people after the foundation of their independent state and the massive decrease in the prices for weapons, far larger percentages of the populations were viewed as potential threats to a foreign power. Similarly, the advent of total wars in the wake of the French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic conflicts in Europe meant that Europeans gained a sort of paranoia over the threat of mass uprisings in neighboring countries that could threaten imperial stability. Thus, the Anglo-Afghan wars were characterized by the British occupation forces attempting to enact widespread institutional changes to Afghan society in order to neutralize what the British saw as Afghani cultural affinities towards warmaking. These broader attempts at institutional changes made by the British allowed for more incompatible variations with local conditions and customs, making the eventual rejection of British policies by large percentages of Afghanis much more likely. We saw similar reasons for the Soviet invasion in 1979, when the threat to their borders and to their communist puppet regime caused the Soviets to try to enact massive institutional change to bring the Afghan people over to the communist side. The U.S. invasion saw the same problems, as the stated goal of keeping Afghanistan from ever again becoming a “safe haven” for terrorism forced the Americans to try to change almost all of the institutions of Afghan governance, which has left us with a massive insurgency on our hands.

The second difference we find is in the extent of control over Afghan territory that the ruling class desired to exert. Traditionally, PMOs aimed only at consolidating economic and urban centers in Afghanistan. The majority rural and mountainous territory of the country was and is largely a subsistence farming and nomadic economy, which does not produce enough goods to be profitable areas of imperial control. Therefore, these regions of Afghanistan were more or less left to their own devices, so long as they did not cause to much trouble for their nominal overlords in the cities. By limiting themselves to urban centers and heavily irrigated agricultural havens, these TOs once again lowered the amount of institutional changes their conquests needed to impose on their new populations. Furthermore, the urban areas where the bulk of institutional changes were being made were also the areas where these conquerors had the best knowledge of local conditions. This minimized potential variances with the established institutional preferences of the local populations.

Unlike their TO counterparts, modern NSOs have tended to prefer the consolidation of the entirety of Afghanistan under the central government. This tendency is likely due to the biases of western leaders towards seeing the whole world like the American cheese slice discussed in Section III. The best example of this tendency is to be found in the use of Counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics in Afghanistan by US forces during the troop surge at the beginning of the Obama Administration. COIN was designed with the intent of “winning hearts and minds” in part by occupying as many localities in the target country with as many troops as possible, intending to win the population over by providing them with security. However, the problems with these types of methods once again go back to the concept of institutional stickiness. The more all-encompassing a foreign occupier wants his rule to be over the target country, the more opportunities he will have to impose institutional changes that are incompatible with the customs and conditions of the locality. Therefore, as the US or others attempt to incorporate more territories of Afghanistan into the central government, the higher percentage of these territories on the margin will become alienated from the occupying administration.

A third difference that we see is in the major differences between the foreign invader and the Afghan people, especially in the field of religion. Traditionally, some of the most successful occupiers of Afghanistan were those who shared a common religion with their Afghan subjects. These included the pre-Islamic ancient Zoroastrian empires, the Hindu and Buddhist occupiers, and then the many Islamic occupiers after the Arab Invasion. MOs of Afghanistan have all been characterized by serious religious differences from the deep Islamic character of the Afghan people. Religious differences (and other cultural differences) greatly exacerbate the variances between proposed institutional changes by the foreign occupiers, which are often deeply informed by their own Christian (or secular in the case of the USSR) religious principles, and the Islamic influenced institutional preferences of the Afghan people.

VI: Conclusion

These factors (among others) all combine to make the institutional changes proposed by MOs nearly impossible for the indigenous peoples of Afghanistan to accept, leading to the major anti-foreign struggles that has given Afghanistan the well-earned name “the graveyard of empires”. These institutional incompatibilities reflect very poorly on the prospects of continued American occupation of Afghanistan. However, I will leave the specific circumstances of the American occupation to a future post.

Graeme Alderman


“Achaemenid Rule (550-330 BC).” Afghanistan. Accessed November 02, 2018.

Barfield, Thomas. Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Boettke, Peter J., Christopher J. Coyne, and Peter T. Leeson. “Institutional Stickiness and the New Development Economics.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 67, no. 2 (April 2008): 331-58. doi:10.4337/9780857931733.00011.

Britschgi, Christian. “Despite $900 Billion Spent and 2,400 U.S. Lives Lost, Afghanistan Continues to Deteriorate.” November 01, 2018. Accessed November 02, 2018. reason/HitandRun (Reason Online – Hit & Run Blog).

Chughtai, Alia. “Afghanistan: Who Controls What.” Al Jazeera. October 19, 2018. Accessed November 04, 2018.

Constitution of Afghanistan [Afghanistan],  3 January 2004, available at: [accessed 3 November 2018].

Coyne, Christopher J., and Thomas K. Duncan. “The Political Economy of Foreign Intervention.” Edited by Peter J. Boettke and Christopher J. Coyne. The Oxford Handbook of Austrian Economics, 2015. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199811762.013.30.

Ewans, Martin. Afghanistan: A New History. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2001.

Frey, Bruno S., and Heinz Buhofer. “Prisoners and Property Rights.” The Journal of Law &

Economics 31, no. 1 (1988): 19-46.

Hastings, Michael. Operators. Place of Publication Not Identified: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016.

Hastings, Michael. “The Runaway General: The Profile That Brought Down McChrystal.” Rolling Stone. June 22, 2010. Accessed November 04, 2018.

Kuran, Timur. “Why the Middle East Is Economically Underdeveloped: Historical Mechanisms of Institutional Stagnation.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 18, no. 3 (Summer 2004): 71-90.

Linschoten, Alex Strick Van, and Felix Kuehn. An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban-al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Pape, Robert Anthony. Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. New York: Random House Trade Paperback Edition, 2006.

Pillalamarri, Akhilesh. “Why Is Afghanistan the ‘Graveyard of Empires’?” The Diplomat. June 30, 2017. Accessed November 04, 2018.

Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Starr, S. Frederick. Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.

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