The Real Reason Why Afghanistan is the Graveyard of Empires
Simply put: it’s really far away from everything, and culture is complex everywhere on this Earth.
I’ma goin’ out on a bit of a limb to make an assertion I am 99.9% confident is scientifically accurate:
The average American knows close to nothing about how their military works.
And this ignorance is what allows the American media to sell dumb stories about military affairs that get young Americans killed.
Some America First types— especially the white men who dominate the two major parties and most defense discussions — are rushing to publish articles insisting Afghanistan really isn’t the Graveyard of Empires.
Everything that is happening is fine. In the end, America will be stronger for publicly abandoning a government it said was an ally.
Such bull. Utterly the opposite of what they were all saying ten years ago, when the US should have realized Afghanistan needed a different kind of governing system than the Kabul regime.
The usual suspects in the American media are playing this disgusting game because cheap nationalist cheerleading passes for cogent analysis in a dying country where only veterans have the slightest clue about military affairs.
A few others object to the term “Graveyard of Empires” because they see it as tied to European imperialism, but as much as I’m usually with them this is one of those situations where the words were coined to describe a simple effect produced by two very simple, exceptionally scientific principles:
- It is expensive to wage war far from one’s own population centers — exponentially so the further you get from home.
- If you try to and don’t appreciate the local cultural context, you’re gonna get played.
Americans are so brainwashed by the media to accept the nonsensical belief that their military is supremely powerful they don’t realize how fundamentally weak it will always be.
To send military forces abroad, the United States has to cross two vast oceans. To sustain them in place, it has to ship supplies thousands of miles. Units also have to travel long distances to get to bases, meaning if they’re expected to fight they’ve got to have local bases to operate from.
In simple, practical terms, this means that only 1/3 of the United States armed forces can be continuously deployed at any given time. Logistics always govern operations.
The United States maintains 11 aircraft carrier battle groups, a couple dozen squadrons of long-range bombers, and about 36 active-duty and as many reserve/National guard brigades plus around 10 Marine regiments which are a bit smaller than an Army brigade in size.
An impressive force that costs the average American over $2,500 per year to field, consuming half of all federal income tax receipts every year, over $710 billion in 2021 and so $7 trillion (at least) over the coming decade — about 1/4 of the entire national debt.
But it is far less impressive when only a third can actually be engaged in operations abroad.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq from 2003–2011 very nearly broke the Army and Marine Corps. This is because to sustain up to 20 brigades in Iraq required that every brigade be either deployed, recovering from deployment, or preparing to deploy.
I was myself on active duty in 2007 and saw firsthand what this did to the Army. Morale plummeted as soldiers had to be stop-lossed — forced to extend their service contracts — to fill billets. The Army lowered recruitment standards, meaning that 10%–20% of enlisted soldiers had criminal records or hadn’t finished high school. I literally observed West Point officers get together to game out how to get out of the service without having to deploy again.
And all this, 150,000+ Americans deployed over 8 years and over 4,000 dying, for absolutely nothing.
To occupy a country where the people don’t trust you requires around 1 soldier for every 50 or so civilians at a minimum. This was why senior American generals before the invasion of Iraq told the Bush Administration around 500,000 soldiers would be needed to invade, hold, and rebuild Iraq.
They never had more than a third of that number, even taking allied contributions into account. The country was never secured, an insurgency rose, and many, many people died who didn’t have to
Americans by and large simply refuse to understand that the ability to continuously deploy 12–18 brigades, as many combat squadrons, and 3 aircraft carrier battle groups does not make the American military superior to any potential rival near to its own borders.
All the United States can actually do, particularly with respect to Russia and China, is match their firepower — and only barely.
Why? Because if you fight an opponent on or near their turf, they can maintain a higher proportion of their combat forces in the fight.
Russia, in early 2021, deployed a force similar in size to the one the US used to invade Iraq in 2003 to the borders of its neighbor Ukraine. They could have been used in a major operation and the US would have been able to do nothing.
Where the United States, to invade Iraq, had to spend more than 6 months building up the forces necessary to invade successfully, Russia deployed its forces to Ukraine’s borders in a matter of days.
That’s why Biden went to meet Putin. To head off a conflict — and likely, to take Russia some kind of geopolitical offer that might have involved a swift exit from Afghanistan in exchange for allowing Nord Stream 2 to proceed.
There is no shortage of American politicians and talking heads out there right now who will insist the United States is ready to defend Ukraine against Russia or Taiwan against China.
They say America is still the sole superpower, indispensable, the only beacon for freedom in the world.
What they absolutely refuse to admit is that the United States isn’t a superpower at all. The term itself is bogus, self-serving, a way for American foreign policy experts to feel big and tough even when they make one critical tragic mistake after another.
It’s similar to how they refused to admit that the entire war against the Taliban in Afghanistan was a gigantic house of cards —brutally proven so when the Afghan government collapsed in a matter of days after losing the first of its cities.
But Afghanistan was always just a shape on a map. Americans — westerners in general — are positively obsessed with looking at maps and imagining the pretty borders are real and meaningful.
They are in some places, in others they’re... less so. Central Asia is one of the regions of Earth where borders are close to meaningless — arbitrary lines on a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional surface that are always a little bit wrong and only made real when someone puts up a fence.
Otherwise people do as they’ve done for thousands of years — in all parts of the world.
They move around.
By and large people don’t give a damn about borders unless they have a reason to. Countries respect each other’s borders out of mutual interest or mutual fear and commit to enforcing them despite the desires of the people living near them.
But Americans are educated by their social science teachers in high school and university professors later on to believe borders have intrinsic meaning. They get very, very confused when placed in an environment where others don’t have the same taught belief.
Which is of course why the American and NATO occupation of Afghanistan was bound to turn into a debacle.
To survive in this world, people make bets on friendships, business relationships, political affiliations, and every other manner of social bond imaginable.
We in so-called “Western Civilization” are trained to place everyone into neat categories where everyone is assigned a race, gender, and income level and these categories are seen as intrinsically meaningful. Our Christianized culture is also trained to love binary, oppositional categories — Red-Blue, White-Nonwhite, Christian-Atheist, Barbarian-Civilized, Democracy-Autocracy.
That way there’s always a good side (us, naturally) and a bad side, which can never be shown quarter or understanding.
This is a lazy intellectual habit typically justified by citing the weird ideas of some dead Greek to give it an air of authority. The Thucydides Trap nonsense stems from this.
White male professors with tenure rely on it to pursue personal agendas, knowing they face few to no consequences for passing off self-serving myth as science so long as national taboos aren’t questioned.
And this habit also makes it completely impossible to understand a complex tribal society — especially our own.
Yes, Virginia, We “enlightened” westerners are just as tribal as any other group in any part of the world. There are no “primitive” or “undeveloped” cultures, just ones that put on airs.
Why else would having a rich or famous parent be an automatic leg up for aspiring artists, politicians, or professors? Nepotism, favoritism, outright corruption — all are equally as present in “Western” society as in Afghanistan.
We just don’t like to admit it, so our scholars and thinkers are able to quietly pass off as science a fake hard binary division between peoples like Us and those like Them.
Empires — whether American, British, French, Japanese, Russian, German, Spanish, Portuguese Dutch, or Belgian — all rely on this same false distinction in order to justify their heinous actions. Empire is the greatest evil of humankind, a social force responsible for the murder and misery of millions.
And that is why they always plant the seeds of their own doom.
Because eventually, as an empire’s reach expands, it sends its military forces into a place where distance and culture catastrophically collide.
It is easy to invade a place and destroy it.
Far more difficult is invading a place and convincing the people to join your side.
No matter how much hard military force an empire applies to a place, every effort must ultimately be about convincing the people there to tolerate its presence. In the best case local people don’t actively resist the distant power center and may even identify with it.
In the neutral case, they simply tolerate it, resisting in silent, invisible ways — tax and service evasion, voting for anti-government political parties, and so on. Push too many too far, and they fight back.
Successful military deployments are more about math than military leaders like to admit — just like successful business operations are less made by the CEO’s antics, far more by the internal metabolism of the workplace.
You have to have sufficient resources, including people on the ground with the ability to work productively with local peoples. You have to be able to protect your own people and those you claim to be there to help.
They are always, on some level, ultimately about negotiation — even when violence is involved. Having a big army only makes it costly to openly fight you. But there is plenty of damage that can be done to it without firing a shot.
War and politics are the same process — what defines their intensity, the level of violence is the relative standing of all the major players and what they hope to achieve with whatever power they can muster.
Empires fail because they always overreach. Once a society makes the choice to look outward for troubles to respond to, some leaders will inevitably tie their personal prestige to success abroad, setting their achievements against their predecessors and colleagues.
Inevitably, no matter how powerful or professional their forces, a point will be reached where the ability and will of locals to resist external invasion will exceed the empire’s own ability to sustain combat operations.
This has so often happened in Afghanistan simply because of geography. At many points in its past the region has been part of a relatively peaceful regional order. But these have always been fairly decentralized, with local districts mostly left to their own devices.
Foreign empires walk in, at the every end of their supply lines, more concerned with prestige than stability and blind to the fact that politics are as complex and intense anywhere you might conquer as they are at home. So from Alexander of Macedon to Biden of America they have found their goals frustrated by the simple fact the locals know the outsiders won’t stay forever, and make their bets accordingly.
The collapse of the Ghani government in Afghanistan took place over the course of several months where America’s rush to withdraw sent the ancient signal to every community in Afghanistan: the foreign power is leaving.
This made it clear to every village in every district that the foreign power’s puppet, the corrupt and ineffective Kabul government, was doomed.
The elite Afghan commandos, possibly because they knew they were doomed, fought hard and apparently to the last man in many places. The regular Afghan Army, less well trained, watched them get ground down in Kandahar, Lashkar Gah, and Herat while American airstrikes were scattered and the Afghan Air Force ran out of weapons.
Once major cities started to fall, they all saw the writing on the wall. They felt abandoned, so they abandoned their posts, their commanders doing deals with the Taliban to avoid bloodshed.
This is pretty much how most wars end when one side totally collapses, by the way. Abandoned by their higher-ups, local commanders will always do what they can to protect themselves and their families.
You and I would do the same.
America failed in Afghanistan because its leaders were never forced to come to grips with the reality of the place. Its complexity, and its distance.
The brutal twin realities of geography and groupthink are why Afghanistan is historically a Graveyard of Empires.
But it is important to understand that it isn’t in fact the defeat itself in Afghanistan that brings down the empire that wanders in.
The essence of military power is a hypothetical opponent’s fear of what that power might be able to achieve.
This is why sending ships to disputed waters or flying bombers near a country are provocative. They’re implied threats — a way of credibly showing hey we could really mess you up if we had to.
Defeat in Afghanistan doesn’t materially break empires.
What it does do is show the world that an empire isn’t as powerful as it pretends to be. The Soviets, when forced to retreat, were proven far less powerful than the Politburo in Moscow tried to pretend.
In its turn, America has been shown the hard limits of hard power.
But because America’s foreign policy experts and scholars are, sadly, afflicted by racist, sexist, and white supremacist thinking, America’s defeat in Afghanistan has serious real-world ramifications that in the 2020s could well lead to a major military conflict nobody wants and the world can’t afford.
The United States wants the world to believe that leaving Afghanistan makes it stronger, able to swiftly turn and confront the new big-bad, the Russia-China alliance.
This plan might have worked had the final withdrawal been conducted with an iota of competence.
But now? The emperor stands naked in front of the entire world.
And it has come at an extremely bad time, because strange geopolitics are afoot.
Russia has not only threatened to destroy Ukraine, but Vladimir Putin recently implied in his essay on the topic that were America and NATO to intervene in Ukraine, that would be tantamount to using weapons of mass destruction.
Given that both America and Russia are busy building smaller, more usable nuclear warheads, this is extremely dangerous.
China is constantly sending aircraft into Taiwanese airspace, promising that the autonomous island — where a huge amount of the world’s semiconductor chip manufacturing takes place, in other words, the foundation of the entire economy — will be brought under Beijing’s control by 2049… with force if necessary.
At the same time the United States under Joe Biden is busy insisting “America is Back” and pushing new defensive alliances in Europe and Asia to try and build a credible deterrence.
But this effort is now almost certain to end in total disaster if either Russia or China chooses to call America’s bluff at any point in the next 5–10 years.
Make no mistake — the past twenty years of War on Terror has left the United States military incredibly hollow.
Russia, China, Iran, even Hamas have been building arsenals of weapons specifically designed to neutralize or evade American and allied high tech gear. Meanwhile the United States military has been churning out Cold War style kit like giant supercarriers that remain glitchy and equally wonky fighter jets designed 20 years ago.
Many American leaders want to binge on the Pentagon to confront and contain China, but this will be a disastrous mistake.
America no longer has any credibility abroad. No one can trust that either party will commit to supporting allies except maybe “global Britain” which after Brexit appears intent on becoming the 51st state.
Yet there are no shortage of “expert” voices insisting that the United States needs to deploy troops to Ukraine and uninhabited islands off the coast of Taiwan to be able to attack Russian or Chinese missile launchers on their home territory.
A recipe for more dead Americans in the near future, that — but the experts won’t be the ones under the bombardment or sending their kids to die, so for them it’s all academic.
Afghanistan has proven to the world the America isn’t what it has claimed to be for so long. Pretending and acting otherwise will only waste American tax dollars and must us all less safe.