NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Bury The Graveyard

August 31, 2010

Several stereotypes continue to inform our understanding of Afghanistan.  One of those myths, for example, is that Afghanistan is inherently unconquerable thanks to the fierceness of its inhabitants and the formidable nature of its terrain.  But this isn't at all borne out by the history, says Christian Caryl, a contributing editor for Foreign Policy. 

According to Thomas Barfield, an anthropologist at Boston University: "Until 1840, Afghanistan was better known as a 'highway of conquest' rather than the 'graveyard of empires.'"  For 2,500 years it was always part of somebody's empire, beginning with the Persian Empire in the fifth century B.C. 

Reasons for the misconceptions about Afghanistan: 

  • Popular views of the place today are shaped by the past 30 years of seemingly unceasing warfare rather than substantive knowledge of the country's history.
  • Anti-war activists routinely blame the post-2001 Western military presence in the country for the destruction of national infrastructure and the widespread cultivation of opium poppies -- both of which actually date back to the Soviet invasion and the civil war that followed.
  • Others play up the notion of Afghanistan as inherently immune to civilization. 

Barfield contends that the Afghans have long understood the tendency of foreigners to view them as untamable savages and have been happy to leverage the stereotype to their advantage. The Afghans use hyperbole of history to exaggerate their strengths in order to deter invaders, he says. 

Source: Christian Caryl, "Bury the Graveyard," Foreign Policy Magazine, July 26, 2010. 

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