December 13, 2011

Graveyard of Empiricism

An article co-authored with Javid Ahmad appeared on the Af-Pak Channel on on December 13, 2011. Excerpts are below. The full article can be read here.

A number of questionable assumptions about the Afghan people - concerning their attitudes to foreigners, their history, their society and their values - go unchallenged. Historical analogies and socio-economic data are regularly manipulated by various parties to validate their own biases and preconceptions, and readings of Afghan history are, when not completely erroneous, unapologetically Western-centric. For example, one common view that has gained circulation among think tankers, policymakers, and Congressional staffers, is that a majority of Afghans are inherently hostile to the United States. And yet, this viewpoint is not borne out by polling data, however imperfect. The last poll conducted by ABC News, the BBC and ARD German TV, for example, says that nearly seven in 10 Afghans support the presence of U.S. forces in their country.

Another, perhaps more damaging, misperception is of Afghanistan as the ‘Graveyard of Empires': a historically insignificant strategic backwater where great civilizations - inevitably European ones - ended up mired in ruinous war. But even a cursory examination of the region's history makes a mockery of this now entrenched concept. During his conquests, Alexander of Macedon spent about two years solidifying his control of what is today Afghanistan and Central Asia, referred to in his day as Bactria and Sogdiana. In fact, his army chose to reverse its course in today's Punjab, over two hundred miles to modern Afghanistan's east, after the Battle of the Hydaspes. The 19th century British Empire, despite an initial setback, won subsequent engagements against the Afghans in its bid to create a buffer zone to British India's northwest. And the defeat of the Soviet military in the 1980s was only made possible with American, Pakistani, and Saudi support.

The Graveyard of Empires canard also largely ignores non-Western history. Ancient and medieval Afghanistan was in fact at the heart of a number of major civilizations, including the Greek Bactrian states, the Kushan Empire, which was a contemporary of imperial Rome, and the Ghaznavid sultanate from the 10th to 12th centuries, whose rulers made regular military forays into the subcontinent. The great Mughal Empire, at its zenith perhaps the most prosperous realm on earth, had its foundations in what is today's Afghanistan, when its progenitor Babur established a presence in the region between Kabul and Peshawar. Count, on top of all this, several centuries of sustained Persian rule over the region.