From the ice-bound passes of the Hindu Kush to the blazing heat of the Karakum Desert, Central Asia is a sub-continent steeped in illusion. For more than two millennia conquerors have been lured by the mirage that it is a gateway to immense wealth: China to the east, India to the south, Persia to the west, and to the north, the riches of the Caspian basin. Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Mongols, British, and Soviets have all come and gone, leaving behind little more than forgotten graveyards and the detritus of war. Americans and our NATO allies are next.
It is a cliché that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, but a cliché doesn’t mean something is not true, just that it is repeated over and over again until the phrase becomes numbing. It is a tragedy that the US was “numb” to that particular platitude, although we have company. In the past 175 years England has invaded Afghanistan four times. Our 2001 invasion was itself built on a myth—that the Taliban had attacked the US on 9/11 was fabricated to lay the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq 17 months later. That both invasions turned into disasters is hardly surprising. Rudyard Kipling and TE Lawrence predicted those outcomes more than a 100 years ago.
Most of all, the war has been a calamity for the Afghan people. The country has staggered through more than 30 years of war. According to a recent UN survey, conditions for Afghans in the southern part of the country are desperate. Some one-third of the area’s young children—one million under the age of five—are acutely malnourished. “What’s shocking is that this is really high by global standards,” Michael Keating, deputy head of the UN mission to Afghanistan, told The Guardian. “This is the kind of malnutrition you associate with Africa, and some of the most deprived parts of the world, not with an area that has received so much international attention and assistance.”