August 15, 2021, became the most critical day in the history of modern-day Afghanistan. On this day, Taliban militants entered the capital city of Kabul and overthrew the democratically elected government of Afghanistan. It marked the end of two decades of America’s ‘War on Terror’ in Afghanistan. President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. The country fell into chaos. This is not the first time the entire status quo in Afghanistan has been uprooted. Taliban takeover would still be one of the more peaceful transitions of power in the history of Afghanistan as most of the resistance forces just surrendered to the Taliban or fled the country. Geographically, Afghanistan is located at the heart of central Asia. It is the gateway to South Asia. Due to its strategic location, volatile politics, presence of various distinct tribal groups, and abundant natural resources, Afghanistan has always been a victim of imperialistic advances of multiple empires. 

Afghanistan is difficult to conquer due to its hilly terrain, but it is even more difficult to govern it. Various empires have tried and failed. As a result, Afghanistan got the nickname as the ‘Graveyard of Empire.’

This article is an attempt by the author to refute this nickname of Afghanistan being a ‘Graveyard of Empires.’ It showcases that with the rise and fall of every subsequent Empire in Afghanistan, the civilian population of Afghanistan suffered the most. Afghanistan is not a ‘Graveyard of Empires’; it has always been a playground for history’s most powerful empires.


The ‘Great Game’ strategy worked between Russia and Britain in the 19th century. Both significant powers were incredibly intertwined and struggled to establish a buffer zone between their empires. Due to its strategic location, Afghanistan became the obvious choice. Between 1839 to 1919, British Empire fought three major wars in Afghanistan to curb Russian presence close to the boundaries of British India. 

The first Anglo-Afghan war was fought between 1839 and 1842. It ended with utter humiliation for the British Empire when only 1 out of 16,000 British Imperial soldiers made it out alive. Even though British forces captured Kabul and set up a puppet government, they were eventually subdued by the ambush attacks of various Afghan tribes. British troops had to retreat. The British sent a ‘retaliatory army’ to crush the Afghan tribes a few months later. It destroyed several towns and villages

Britain invaded again in 1878 as they feared that Russian Empire might invade Afghanistan. In the Second Anglo-Afghan War, Britain sent a regiment of about 33,500 soldiers fighting on three different fronts, but a cholera outbreak weakened the British forces. Even with a decisive victory in the Battle of Kandahar in 1880, the British troops had to withdraw from Afghanistan. With their retreat in 1893, the British made an artificial border between British India and Afghanistan, called the Durand Line. 

The Russian Civil War of 1917 neutralized the Russian Empire as a threat to the British Crown. Due to World War I, British Empire seemed weak. Seeing an opportunity, the then ruler of Afghanistan, Amanullah Khan, launched an invasion to free Afghanistan from British influence. But British Empire had the latest weapons technology, including airplanes. Afghan forces were easily outgunned. There was no actual loser in this war as both the parties, England and Afghanistan, got what they wanted. Afghanistan wanted to free its foreign policy from British influence, and England wanted an Afghan ruler favorable towards the west. Afghanistan was declared independent by the Treaty of Rawalpindi, and the British placed a pro-west ruler on the throne of Afghanistan. British got a strategic victory, but Afghanistan achieved diplomatic success. 

The Anglo-Afghan wars resulted in around 14,786 military deaths for the British Crown. But the number was much higher for Afghanistan. More than 12,000 civilian lives were lost in just the First Anglo-Afghan war. The total number of deaths in all three wars is still unknown. The Anglo-Afghan Wars left Afghanistan dilapidated with a weak governmental structure. 


Soviet occupation in Afghanistan was reinstated in 1953 when Mohammed Daoud Khan, a pro-Soviet general, became the Prime Minister of Afghanistan. It further intensified in 1973 when Daoud orchestrated a military coup and overthrew the regime of King Mohammed Zahir Shah. Daoud established the Republic of Afghanistan, backed by the USSR. Daoud ran Afghanistan on communist principles and tried to modernize the country. But in 1979, Daoud was killed in another coup by Nur Mohammad Taraki. Taraki sought to run Afghanistan on lines of Islamic principles. Because of this, Taraki was at loggerheads with the Soviet Union. Taraki was killed in 1979, and the Soviet Red Army entered Afghanistan. USSR placed Babrak Karmal, Taraki’s deputy, as the government’s head. Soviet Army entered Afghanistan to support the communist PDPA party and its Saur (Communist) Revolution. This attack was heavily criticized by all the Islamic countries and the United Nations. 

Due to Cold War politics, the U.S. started funding Pakistan and the Mujahedeen to counter the communist rise in Central Asia. America began its ‘Containment Policy’ in Afghanistan. CIA even launched a dedicated program called ‘Operation Cyclone’ to channel war money and weapons to Pakistani dictator Mohammed Zia-ul Haq. He radicalized many Islamic volunteers to fight Communist rule. Osama Bin Laden was also one such youngster radicalized by Haq. Bin Laden later executed the biggest terrorist attack of modern world history. America provided high-tech weapons to Mujahedeen. Most notable among these if the anti-aircraft Stinger Missiles, which could counter the well-refined Soviet air tactics. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan invited Mujahedeen to the White House. He referred to them as “freedom fighters.” With guerrilla war tactics, U.S. funding and weapons technology, and religious radicalism, Mujahedeen could weaken Soviet control in Afghanistan. With around 14,453 fatalities, USSR was forced to withdraw from Afghanistan and sign the Geneva accord of 1989

Over 1.3 million lives were lost in the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. Most of these deaths were of civilians. About 1.5 million people were injured, and more than 6 million people were displaced. By 1982, 2.8 million Afghans fled to Pakistan and another 1.5 million to Iran.

In 1991, USSR collapsed. With this, the Najibullah government in Afghanistan also collapsed. The country fell into chaos. Various tribes were now fighting among themselves to establish control over Afghanistan. Finally, the Taliban emerged as the largest and the most powerful group. By 1996, the Taliban established control over most of Afghanistan, barring the area controlled by the Northern Alliance. Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. 

In the civil war caused by the collapse of the communist regime in Afghanistan, 1800 civilians died due to the bombing campaigns of Hekmatyar in August 1992 alone. Over 10,000 civilians were killed in one year of 1993.Between 1995 and 1999, more than 1 million Afghans fled to take refuge in neighbouring Pakistan. 


The 9/11 attacks shook the world. Apart from being the biggest terrorist attack in history, the 9/11 attacks put a big question mark on the intelligence agencies of the USA, especially the CIA. An attack of such scale was imminent with the assassination of the military commander of the Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud, on September 9, 2001. But CIA was unable to prevent this attack which caused the death of 2,996 people, including the 19 hijackers. Around 6,000 people were injured, and properties worth billions were damaged. In response to this attack, the U.S. launched ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ and commenced its War on Terror against Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Taliban Government of Afghanistan accepted that it supported Bin Laden and viewed him as a ‘great mujahid.’ Taliban provided support and shelter to al Qa’ida, and in return, Bin Laden helped the Taliban spread its influence. Therefore, the Taliban government refused to give up Bin Laden to the USA. In retaliation, America invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban regime with the help of NATO and the Northern Alliance. 

Due to various campaigns launched by the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, most of the top leadership of the Taliban and al Qa’ida fled to Pakistan. Taliban was still active and used guerrilla warfare techniques on the U.S. soldiers. America supported the new government of Afghanistan and remained in Afghan territory to continue counterterrorism operations. On May 2, 2011, American intelligence agencies finally tracked down Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan and killed him. In June 2011, President Obama announced a systematic troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. It took America another decade to completely withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Operation Enduring Freedom continued till 2014, but America remained in Afghanistan till 2021. U.N. Security Council constitutes an International Security Assistance Force for assistance in Afghanistan. Taliban continued its guerrilla war in Afghanistan. 

In 20 years, America spent more than $2.3 trillion in Afghanistan. As of October 2021, more than 20,000 US soldiers were injured and over 2,300 dead in Operation Enduring Freedom. The number of Afghan civilian deaths could never be decisively determined, but as per various U.N. reports, over 47,600 civilians died in 2 decades. The number of people displaced by the war is still unknown but could be anywhere between 37 million to 59 million people. Even though America claimed to have tried to modernize and develop Afghanistan, they could not do so. Even before the completion of U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban claimed victory over the whole of Afghanistan. The only difference is that the Taliban is much more powerful, technologically advanced, and politically strategized this time.


The originator of the nickname ‘Graveyard of Empires’ is unknown. Superficially, the term seems accurate for Afghanistan. Over the last two centuries, three of the world’s most powerful empires have tried and failed to control Afghanistan. Occupying Afghanistan has been relatively easy for these empires, but governing it has always been a challenge. Additionally, these empires declined significantly after their retrieval from Afghanistan. But a closer look at history will prove the nickname inaccurate. 

British Empire fought the Anglo-Afghan wars to create a buffer zone against expansionist Russia. Even though they could never establish complete control over the country, they did maintain substantial control over Afghanistan’s foreign policy. Thousands of civilian and military lives were lost in this conflict. Afghanistan gained independence in 1919. Arguably, the British Empire lost much of its power post-1945. But Afghanistan was not the only or even the primary cause for this decline. World Wars ended in 1945. Even though the British were victorious, the financial and military costs were very strenuous for the Empire. After the end of the World Wars, the idea of nationalism and self-governance gained momentum in the British colonies. Various British colonies started demanding their freedom. This, combined with the atrocities that the Empire committed for raising war funds, led to the eventual decline of the British Empire. 

The Soviet occupation in Afghanistan continued till 1988-89. Just two years after the Afghanistan misadventure, USSR collapsed. It can be argued that it collapsed because it failed in Afghanistan. Afghanistan may have been the last nail in the coffin, but it was not the only reason for the collapse. The policies of Mikhail Gorbachev led to the fall of the Iron Curtain and the emergence of democratic reform movements in communist Russia. Socialist policies of the Empire led to economic stagnation and huge-scale black marketing. The economy was further burdened with increased military spending to counter President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative. Corruption was rampant, and the public was enraged during this period. All these factors combined with Afghanistan led to the fall of the USSR. However, even after its disintegration, the newly formed Russian Federation continues to be one of the most powerful countries in the world. 

America entered Afghanistan following its “War on Terror.” President George W. Bush believed that America had a responsibility to build Afghanistan. For a brief period, America achieved some success in this regard. It was even able to attract investment from other nations like India into Afghanistan. But eventually, the domestic politics and the cost of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan made the U.S. completely withdraw from Afghanistan. Taliban rose to power at a pace that no one expected, and the 20-years U.S. occupation in Afghanistan was, essentially, for nothing. Admittingly, this is the biggest humiliation for the U.S. after the Vietnam war. But U.S. decline cannot be marked just by its defeat in Afghanistan. With the rise of China as a significant player in the world arena and its collaboration with Russia, the USA is in a constant decline. The world is moving towards multipolarity with not China, India, and the U.S. as the major powers. India and China are both emerging economies predicted to surpass America by 2030. U.S. defeat in Afghanistan cannot be considered a reason for U.S. decline; instead, U.S. decline is the reason for its defeat in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan cannot be a ‘Graveyard of Empires’ as history proves that various empires emerged and thrived in Afghanistan. For instance, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan conquered Afghanistan, and their successors ruled the land for centuries. The Kushans ruled it between 30 A.D. to 350 A.D., the Ghaznavids between 977 to 1186, and the Timurids from 1370 to 1526


The loss of life and dignity for the local Afghans has been the highest in all the invasions witnessed by the country. Afghanistan has always been a victim of imperialism and expansionism. Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt, least developed, and poorest countries globally. The international funds that were supposed to be used for the upliftment and education of children are embezzled by corrupt government officials. Illiteracy is very high in Afghanistan. 

The Soviets planted a considerable number of mines in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan during their occupation in Afghanistan. These minefields are still active and lead to the deaths of many locals every year.

Afghanistan’s long history of violence has been most detrimental to the local Afghanis. Now, with the rise of the Taliban and its brutal regime, their misery will only increase. Due to its history and the myth of Afghanistan being a “Graveyard of Empires,” the world is not coming to the aid of local Afghanis. Afghanistan always was and still is a “roadkill of empires.”

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