Afghanistan: graveyard of armies

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A huge, mountainous, landlocked Central Asian state, Afghanistan has defied invaders for 2,500 years. Jules Stewart takes a look at the country’s military longue durée.



Taken in historical context, the 13-year presence of NATO combat troops in Afghanistan amounted to scarcely a footnote to centuries of foreign military intervention in the country.

From the Achaemenid imperial army in the 6th century BC to the combined might of 48 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) nations that deployed in 2003, Afghanistan has endured more than two millennia of invasions of its territory.

There is a common misconception that runs like this: Afghanistan is a country that cannot be conquered, and every foreign power that has attempted to hold it has come to grief. The first assertion is false, the second is true.


Alexander the Great, thanks in no small measure to Oliver Stone’s 2004 Hollywood epic, is popularly accepted as the leader of the first great foreign military expedition in Afghanistan.

The Greek historian Herodotus, however, speaks of Cyrus the Great subjecting large swathes of this territory well before that, in fact fully two centuries before the Macedonian king crossed the Hellespont, today’s Dardanelles, to embark on his path of Asian conquest.

As Classical scholar Bijan Omrani points out in his history of Afghanistan, ‘It is with the Persian Empire that the lands of Afghanistan first enter the annals of recorded history.’

A relief sculpture of a Persian archer and spearman.

This is substantiated by a rock inscription discovered in western Iran, he adds, according to which the founder of the Achaemenid Empire had captured the districts today known as Herat, the Kabul Valley, Kandahar, and Balkh.

No sooner had Cyrus triumphed over the Near Eastern kingdom of Assyria than he took his army further east across Persia to engage the Massagetae, a confederation of tribes inhabiting Afghanistan and the region to the north.

This is where Cyrus’s 30-year rule came to an abrupt end, and in most improbable circumstances for a land that in modern times would come to be ruled by the Taliban.

The king met his nemesis at the hands of a female warrior, Queen Tomyris, a veritable force of Nature: once the dust had settled on the battlefield at the banks of the Syr Darya, which Herodotus called ‘more violent than any other fought between foreign nations’, Tomyris had Cyrus decapitated and his head pushed into a goatskin that she had herself filled with human blood.

The Persian Empire of the 6th and 5th centuries BC. The map shows Persian control over today’s Afghanistan (Bactria), as well as today’s Tajikistan, western Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan (Sogdiana). But Cyrus, the great conqueror who created this empire, perished here, and the Persian surge was halted.



Tomyris could be taken as a predecessor of the fanatical Pashtun women depicted in Kipling’s poem ‘The Young British Soldier’, who more than 2,000 years later would rush out after battle to mutilate dead and wounded British soldiers:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,

And the women come out to cut up what remains,

Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains,

An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

From the earliest days of its recorded history, Afghanistan has sat squarely in the sights of a succession of imperial invaders. All stumbled at the pitfalls awaiting aspiring conquerors of this forbidding, almost impenetrable land.

First, there is the geography that forms the country’s natural defences. The Hindu Kush, which runs from the north-east to the south-west, and the Oxus River on the northern boundary, present formidable logistical barriers for any invading army.

The mountain ranges are blanketed by snow from November to March. Peaks above 18,000 feet are almost all enveloped in permanent whiteness.

The snow-melt starting in March turns streams into raging torrents: Alexander’s army was more than once caught in flash floods.

But it is not just a question of pushing troops and equipment over frozen passes or formidable waterways: the challenge is to keep supply-lines open, and this requires fortifying and holding established settlements in a hostile environment.


Once an army had breached these barriers, it would come up against one of the most savage warrior races known to history. The Afghans could not allow themselves to be displaced from their mountain habitats, for the simple reason that they had nowhere else to go.

Lack of social mobility and a rigid tribal structure meant that people were tied to their immediate environment. They would not be accepted by other clans, even of their own ethnicity, much less by different tribal groups. The land is too poor to admit domestic refugees.

Depiction by a contemporary artist of 19th-century Pashtun hill-tribesmen.

The men were, and to a large extent still are, mainly farmers and herders who would not find wives outside their own tightly knit communities.

In other words, throughout history, Afghans have not been fighting to defend a nation-state or even a tribal grouping, but their very existence at a village level.

The same holds true today, in the recent conflict with the Western powers, when most Taliban fighters waged war within a few miles of their homes.

From earliest antiquity, the tribes of Afghanistan honed their warrior skills fighting among themselves, for what little their harsh land had to offer.

This struggle for survival was waged in inter-tribal battles between Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Turkmen north of the Hindu Kush, the Hazaras in the central mountains, and, in opposition to everyone else, the all-powerful Pashtuns from their historic strongholds in the south and east; the Pashtuns’ domain extended to what is now the north-west tribal belt of Pakistan.


Prehistoric evidence places the origin of the tribes some 25 centuries ago. The first visible participants in the cycle of nomadic invasions were the Aryan tribes, who crossed the River Oxus southwards into Afghanistan during the 3rd millennium BC.

These tribes encountered a native population that showed signs of wealth and great cultural sophistication, thanks in no small measure to international trade.

These early inhabitants, with important administrative and religious centres at Dashly near Balkh and Mundigak in the Kandahar district, oversaw the export of tin and lapis lazuli to as far afield as Egypt and modern-day Iraq.

Some of the Pashtun tribes are quick to assure you that they are descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Shinwari, for instance, comes from Simeon, Yusufzai translates as Sons of Joseph, and Afridi is a derivative of Ephraim.

A more plausible, albeit less picturesque, version places their ancestry in a swarm of Iranian-speaking nomads who occupied the Helmand River basin and the Punjab in the 7th century BC.

One of these tribes, Herodotus writes, bore the name Pactyes, the precursors of the Pakhtuns, or Pashtuns as we know them today.

The Pashtuns are a fearsome adversary, whose tribesmen make up more than 95% of the Taliban’s ranks.

They were described in 1932 by veteran frontiersman General Sir Andrew Skeen as ‘the world’s most for- midable fighters’, who come running down hillsides ‘like falling boulders, not running but bounding… These men are hard as nails; they live on little and carry nothing but a rifle and a few cartridges.’

Early Afghanistan’s internecine warfare was only interrupted when the tribes made common cause against a foreign invader – as the next great conqueror after Cyrus was to find out with a great deal of pain.

A coin portrait of Alexander of Macedon.


After subduing Persia, Alexander moved on Afghanistan between 330 and 326 BC. He first made a triumphant entry into Herat, taking the least difficult route from eastern Persia.

The following year, he followed the Helmand River basin south-east to Kandahar, and then moved northwards to Kabul in the spring.

Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus, writing three centuries after the event, says that on his march Alexander had to deal with ‘a backward tribe, extremely uncivilised even for barbarians’. These ‘barbarians’ belonged to the same warrior tribes who would dig in their heels against every successive invader of Afghanistan.

Like Napoleon at Moscow, Alexander faced punishing storms that left the Macedonians cut off, lacking provisions, and facing every imaginable hardship of cold and fatigue.

Those who made it to the comparative warmth and comfort of the Kabul Valley soon came up against the Hindu Kush mountains and found themselves lost in uncharted territory. Suffering greatly, Alexander’s columns crossed the mountains to Bactria and the city of Balkh.

By now, the Macedonian king had spent many months fighting the elements and an enemy who refused to give up. The conquest of Afghanistan was never achieved, and, after his invasion of India, Alexander retreated via a southern route that took him across Baluchistan, where he lost three quarters of his army to heat, dehydration, and exhaustion.

Alexander himself made it back to Babylon, but there he died in 323 BC, at the age of 33, his work of world conquest unfinished.

Alexander’s campaigns in Bactria and Sogdiana were the most difficult of his military career, and his army retreated to India and then back to Mesopotamia with the region untamed. The map shows Alexander’s campaigns and conquests.


Afghanistan’s landscape stood as a bulwark against invasion, but its geographical location also made its conquest too tempting a morsel for foreign armies not to attempt to breach its ramparts.

Here was the connecting point between the great empires of Central Asia and the warm, fertile valleys of the Indian Subcontinent.

Standing at the heart of the Silk Road, it was inevitable that Afghanistan should be the stage for a continual clash of civilisations.

Plunder and imperial expansion were the drivers of land invasion for many centuries, until 16th-century voyages of discovery and 17th-century programmes of mercantile trade opened the sea-lanes to world commerce and gradually diminished the importance of the Silk Road.

Some who followed the path of conquest spread carnage and devastation across Afghanistan. The Mauryan Empire, founded around 300 BC, crossed the frontier from India to strike a deal with remnants of Alexander’s administration.

In exchange for 500 elephants, the Indian invaders were given most of Afghanistan’s southern regions, where the intractable Pashtuns were, in any case, making life impossible for the Greeks.

In a spiritual awakening, the greatest of the Mauryan kings, Ashoka, introduced Buddhism to Afghanistan. The Buddhist faith thrived until the near-complete conversion of the country to Islam in the 10th century.

The country barely had time to catch its breath in a period of relative peace before confronting the lethal sweep of the Mongol hordes of the 13th century.

The historian Louis Dupree says, ‘The fact that today Afghanistan is considered a rough rather than a fragile country – inured to warfare rather than prone to passive resistance – stems largely from the wholesale destruction of its sedentary element at this time.’


Dupree’s analysis is persuasive: Genghis Khan’s hordes laid waste to towns, villages, and irrigation systems in their path. These acts of vandalism forced the people to retreat to mountain strongholds, where they developed and refined the guerrilla skills that confounded later invaders of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Mongols at least realised that Afghanistan was ungovernable. So the next best thing was to destroy it, a task they carried out with breathtaking efficiency.

In doing so, they unwittingly laid down a precept that holds true today: nobody wants Afghanistan – they simply want to deny it to others.

Mongol invasions did not end with Genghis Khan’s death.

In 1583, his descendant Tamerlane followed the classic southern route from Herat, stopping to destroy Helmand’s rebuilt irrigation system, before undertaking the mass slaughter of all who stood in his path.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries – with the exception of a Persian incursion to take Kandahar, which was robustly crushed by the Pashtuns – Afghanistan enjoyed a life of relative calm.

The Mogul Emperor Babur, who endeared himself to his Afghan subjects, left a written account of the difficulties of trying to rule the tribes. One could argue that it should have been read by NATO commanders before deploying to Afghanistan.

In 1747, the country embarked on an imperial adventure of its own under the Pashtun king Ahmad Shah Durrani, who extended his rule west and east across large swathes of Persia and India, and is today regarded as the man who defined the modern state of Afghanistan.


Once the great Russian and British empires of the 19th century had converged almost to the borders of Afghanistan, armed intervention became all but inevitable…



This is an extract from an extended feature in issue 92 of Military History Monthly

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Jules Stewart is a journalist and author of six historical works on Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier. His latest book, The Kaiser’s Mission to Kabul (I B Tauris, 2014) tells the story of a secret German expedition to Afghanistan during the First World War, to attempt to persuade the amir to invade British India.


  1. Once again history serves as an invaluable tool, reminding future armies of inevitable, future failures.

  2. Tamerlane died in 1405. His incursion into Afghanistan may have been 1383.
    I hate nit-picking like this; but proof-reading is really a necessity.

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