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Gharanai View Drop Down
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    Posted: 24-Apr-2009 at 21:00
Graveyard of Empires
by: K. Gharanai
             Through history we get to know that whenever a person, region, nation or empire gets to its supreme, it starts acting as invulnerable and untouchable forgetting that he/she or they are also human/group of human and there is no one in the world to be immortal but the one Allah.

This status of supreme is when they start acting inappropriate and takes decisions that are only meant to destroy their cause, that’s where the fall of an empire or person starts.


If we speak about Empires first of all we would have to define what an empire means.

The word Empire is derived from the Latin word Imperium meaning “power and authority”, and politically an empire is a geographically extensive group of states, regions, nations and people united and ruled under one flag and one command.

Some of its examples could date back to years before Christ like the Macedonian Empire of Alexander, the Mauryan Empire, the Roman Empire, the Persian Empire and many more while the recent examples of empires could be the British Empire, the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Soviet Empire and the recent grown to supreme the American Empire of United States.


History also teaches us that the most common place on earth where empires go down and scatter into pieces and books of history is the region covering greater Afghanistan (Afghanistan, Pakistan and eastern Iran of today).

The region has been the center of violence, bloodshed and destruction for centuries and still while the surrounding areas have grown up to developed and modern nations, this region still lives in the dark ages, disunited, scattered, plundered and uneducated.

The only time that this region gets to the eyes of the world is when an Empire tries to test its extends and invades the region, that’s when all the disunity is set a side and people of the region stands shoulder to shoulder in the way of invaders.

And unfortunately that’s also the time that they get used by other powers opposed to the supreme Empire.


When Alexander invaded Persia soon after he conquered Persepolis (the capital of Persian Empire) and was in pursuit of Bessus, the self proclaimed king of Persia who killed Darius III and fled to empire’s easternmost province of Bactria- Sogdiana (Bactira is the Central-North Afghanistan of today while Sogdiana is mostly Uzbekistan of today) and wanted to raise a revolt.

During this pursuit Alexander had to cross the Arya (western Afghanistan of today), Drangiana (the Baluch land of today in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran) and Arachosia (South-Central Afghanistan of today), which was the longest campaigns of his entire rule as it took him only six months to conquer Persia but 3 years (from about 330 BC to 327 BC) to subdue the people of the region and still failed.

In a letter to his mother Alexander writes about his campaign as, “I am involved in the land of a 'Leonine' (lion-like) and brave people, where every foot of the ground is like a wall of steel, confronting my soldiers. You have brought only one son into the world, but everyone in this land can be called an Alexander.

In myths and old cultures it is said that in response to this letter of Alexander his mother asked him to send some soil of the so called land, and so did Alexander.

His mother arranged a meeting of the famous Philosophers, Astrologers, Magicians and Generals of the entire Hellenistic Empire to see what the soil had to say and predict the future of his son’s campaign.

After some time all the dignities were fighting each others’ opinions and that’s when Alexander’s mother came to realize what the soil was all about, and in a reply to his son she wrote; “This soil is the most unique one in the world, it will never allow a foreigner on it and will never develop itself as well, it will keep this identity (Graveyard of Foreigners) of itself throughout ages.

These words are mostly known as the curse of Alexander’s mother.

It was in Bactria where Alexander stopped his further aggressions; the expansion of his Empire was halted so was beating of his heart ending the establishment of one of the greatest and largest empires ever and the start of its decline.


After the campaigns of Alexander it was the Mauryan Empire of Ashoka who tried to conquer the sacred land, but saw as much bloodshed that his entire nature changed and from a blood thirsty worrier he changed to a priest.


The invaders and world powers kept coming to the land, invaded, plundered, scattered and looted but never controlled from the Mongols to the Safavids; none had a control over the land.


Arabs and Turks also invaded the land not geographically but culturally, where they peacefully introduced, spread and preached the words of Islam through out the land, the cordial way of preaching and the teachings of Islam (which reflected most of the customs of pre-Islamic code of conduct used in Afghanistan, the Pashtunwali) was welcomed and thus the only foreign Power that has succeeded staying in this land is the Power of Islam.


By the early 1700s, Afghanistan was controlled by several ruling groups: Uzbeks to the north, Safavids to the west and the remaining larger area by the Mughals (the descendants of the Mongols) or self-ruled by local tribes.

It was in 1747 when the modern name of Afghanistan came to existence when Ahmad Shah Durrani established an independent and sovereign country.

But the world Empires at their supreme didn’t stop struggling for their ultimate goal of controlling Afghanistan.


In the nineteenth century when two world powers the Russia Empire and the Great Britain Empire were fighting to become the only power, Afghanistan once again became the center point between two Empires.

            The Great Britain invaded Afghanistan three times where every time it had to deal with hostility and fierce resistance and had to pull back and prepare for another engagement.

  • The first Anglo-Afghan war took place in 1839 which lasted till 1842 and ended in a victory to Afghans and British withdrawal from Afghanistan.

It was the defeat which is mostly referred as the Massacre of Elphinstone's Army where only one person (the assistant surgeon William Brydon) survived and left the country alive while the rest of entire army was massacred.

  • The second Anglo-Afghan war took place in 1878 lasted till 1881 and ended in a strategic victory to Britain by taking control of Afghan Foreign Affairs and Relations, but Afghans were able to win tactical victories which caused the withdrawal of British forces leaving a small Mission of advisors in Afghanistan.

The most famous of the battles and skirmishes between the two forces was the Battle of Maiwand, where the young lady Malalai using her veil taunted and encouraged the faltering and losing Afghan forces by saying;


“Young love if you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand;

By God someone is saving you as a token of shame;”


These two lines changed the outcome of the battle where the only recognized survivor of the engagement was a canine (Bobbie), the regimental mascot.

The famous British author and poet Rudyard Kipling wrote this small yet dramatic poem about the action at Maiwand.


"There was thirty dead an' wounded on the ground we wouldn't keep -

No, there wasn't more than twenty when the front began to go;

But, Christ! along the line o' flight they cut us up like sheep,

An' that was all we gained by doing so.

I 'eard the knives be'ind me, but I dursn't face my man,

Nor I don't know where I went to, 'cause I didn't 'alt to see,

Till I 'eard a beggar squealin' out for quarter as 'e ran,

An' I thought I knew the voice an' - it was me!

We was 'idin' under bedsteads more than 'arf a march away;

We was lyin' up like rabbits all about the countryside;

An' the major cursed 'is Maker 'cause 'e lived to see that day'

An' the colonel broke 'is sword acrost, an' cried."


  • The third Anglo-Afghan war took place on 6th May 1919 and ended on 8th August 1919 with a total victory to the Afghans and an end to the British control of Afghan Foreign Affairs.


The third Anglo-Afghan war along with the WW1 and the Boer wars are regarded as the starting of the fall of the British Empire, where the supreme Empire of then was reducing in size day after day. It is also regarded as the base for the independence of India and Pakistan who after the 1919 defeat of Britain got encouraged and increased their struggle for independence till they got it in 1947.


            After September 2nd 1945 when World War II ended the world was once again divided into two blocs (The Soviet and the American) and a new phenomena Cold War replaced the old phenomena of Great Game.

And as usual the showdown between the two powers again came down to Afghanistan (which was then a Soviet bloc nation), where Soviet Union wanted to reach the oil rich hot waters of Middle East and in fear of greater Soviet control of the world, USA wanted to halt the aggression and ambitions of the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Thus, on 24th December 1979 the Soviet 40th Army crossed the border and invaded Afghanistan, during its ten years’ war in Afghanistan the well trained and equipped Soviet forces fighting the American and Arab backed guerilla fighters (Mujahideen) lost almost (15,000) fifteen thousand of its soldiers along with 118 aircrafts, 333 helicopters, 147 tanks, 1,314 armored vehicles, 11,369 trucks & tankers and 433 artillery guns and mortars.

The Soviets were made to leave the country by 15th February 1989, leaving Afghanistan in a chaos and itself scattered economically and politically.

This test of supreme rule and the ultimate extension of another Empire failed and so did the claim of its being called an Empire as the strategic victory of the Afghans set the path clear for the rest of the world, where on 9th November 1989 the quarter century long Iron Curtain between the two Powers, the Berlin Wall was brought down and Germany was once again united.

This did not end there, by the year 1991 the Soviet Union was divided into 15 new countries which are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.


            From 1989 till 1996 Afghanistan went through the worst times of her history as civil war broke through out the country and every inch of the country suffered, the population majority of whom were displaced either died and suffered in the war of factions or immigrated to the neighboring countries and the west.


In 1996 the people came to know a new group of warriors by the name of Taleban who straight away brought peace and stability to the war-torn nation, and were welcomed in most of the country.

That’s when the nation lived happily ever after; those are the words I would love to type but unfortunately the predictions and curse of Alexander’s mother never proved wrong as the people came to know that what used to be Afghan Taleban were replaced by some Arab extremists (Al-Qaida) who implemented extreme Islamic laws which were against the teachings of Islam as well as the traditions of Afghanistan.


            After the cruelty of September 11th 2001, the USA (who by now is the sole world supreme power) decided to once again repeat the history of trying to test the ultimate goal of invading and controlling Afghanistan.

Therefore, the US along with Britain (previously experienced with the hostile land, and for the 4th time) invaded Afghanistan on October 7th 2001 and soon after, there were armies of more than 40 countries testing their share of power and might.

Once again poor Afghan nation thought maybe some how the curse of Alexander’s mother is over and that the country will develop and be a stable place to live in and so was the scenario everything going on the right path, children getting back to schools, ordinary Afghans finding jobs as the development process had bloomed, every one was happy and most of the immigrants returned home and started to build a new life. But the sad luck continued and after one year of peace, prosperity and stability the war again started.

The foreign troops who used to be friends of bad times, started to become enemies of good times with their brutal aerial bombardments and execution of innocent civilians.

Where they had to win the hearts and minds, they started to scratch them and by doing so they just turned the Afghan public opinion against them. And it’s very well known that never in history a guerilla warfare can pose a threat until it does not have the support of the public and if it once gets that support then there is no power who can suppress a guerilla warfare, specially in a country which is counted as the most experienced country in this tactic and whose every single child knows how to use a weapon and how to defend his home from invaders.

The small group of Taleban who used to preach Islam and control a small and poor country Afghanistan has now become a regional power with its hold on most of the South-Eastern Afghan provinces along with the Pashtunkhwa (NWFP) province of Pakistan and now threatening to expand their rule in the region.


So the big question is that will this be an end point to the curse on Afghans or will it be another Empire breaking down to pieces?


A good or one can say the best strategy for the foreign troops (America and Allies) to tackle this harsh situation now would be to:

  • set a time limit of leaving the country
  • start talking instead of fighting
  • encourage the process of winning hearts and minds
  • stop the aerial bombardment of innocent people
  • instead of fighting extremists and terrorists  inside Afghanistan, start fighting and attacking them in their own backyard (go to offensive mode from defensive)
  • support and modernize the Afghan National Army and National Police
  • provide the Afghan government the authority to deal with its affairs itself
  • try the war criminals whose hands are colored with the blood of innocent Afghans


These could be some basic points that could break down the curse, otherwise the country will keep on suffering and destroying anyone in it whether it’s a foreign power or a local.


At the end I can just recall two quotations by two great people which very much matches the situation.


  1. “Who was the first that forged the deadly blade? Of rugged steel his savage soul was made.” Albius Tibullus
  2.  “You will kill 10 of our men, and we will kill 1 of yours, and in the end it will be you who get tired of it.” Ho Chi Minh


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Omar al Hashim View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Omar al Hashim Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 25-Apr-2009 at 01:34
Nice article
"O Byzantines! If success is your desire and if you seek right guidance and want your empire to remain then give the pledge to this Prophet"
~ Heraclius, Roman Emperor
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gcle2003 View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote gcle2003 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 25-Apr-2009 at 10:44
Yes. I couldn't agree more with the opening sentence that empires start to fall when they get smug (though I wouldn't tag on the religious comment).
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Panther Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 05-May-2009 at 02:44
 Yes, i saw this thread and read it a day or two ago, let it tumble around in my mind for a while and then i came across this link i am about too share, quite by accident. Sorry Gharanai, but i would have too disagree with your thread, though i do appreciate the point you are trying too prove!


How to Win in Afghanistan

Justin Kelly

Military activity is never directed against material force alone; it is always aimed simultaneously at the moral forces which give it life, and the two cannot be separated.

General Sir Gerald Templar’s admonition during the Malayan Emergency that “the answer [to the insurgency] lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and the minds of the people” has echoed through the ensuing half-century and has become the basic precept on which counter-insurgency campaigns are—or apparently should be—designed. Nowadays, hardly a day passes in which some journalist or general is not reminding us that there is no military solution to the war in Afghanistan.[1] Echoing this proposition, in January 2009, the Secretary General of NATO argued that good governance “would suck the oxygen out of the insurgency”.[2] Similar statements were made about the war in Iraq; to argue against Bush’s 2007 “surge” of troops and to emphasise that here lay a “quagmire”—dreaded by all in the US Congress and the New York Times—from which immediate withdrawal was the only solution.[3]

This essay argues that aspects of the above propositions may be true—but they are irrelevant. That, in reality, there is no military solution to any war; that “hearts and minds” might hold the solution but they are beyond our immediate reach; that good governance (and its corollaries of law and order and national infrastructure meeting the physical needs of the community) might suck the oxygen out of an insurgency but is at best a secondary factor unattainable for many years; and that we are, in our timeless way, attempting to fit square Malayan pegs into round Middle Eastern holes. The essay concludes that until there is security there be no real progress and, as a result, we should be doing more fighting and fewer good deeds.

It is not clear from where our present woolly thinking emerged. It is a characteristic trait of humans that we try to understand events and decide on actions by the application of metaphor: “this situation looks like the one last week, Action A worked then, I’ll try Action A again today”. In many situations this works perfectly well, in some it does not.[4] The present application of the “British Model” of counter-insurgency to quite different contexts may be an example of this approach to problem solving. Certainly, the media, the public and politicians find it easier to argue for the benefits of reconstruction, education, political reform—hearts and minds—than they do for the remorseless hunting down and destruction of insurgents.

Equally, perhaps, part of our problem may be that, because of some its specific attributes, the military has tended to conceptually separate counter-insurgency from the rest of its understanding of war, giving it a level of uniqueness which it does no warrant and perhaps clouding our understanding of it. Although in both Iraq and Afghanistan, on the balance of probabilities, we will eventually muddle through and bring the war to some kind of acceptable conclusion, it would be better if we understood what it was that we were about.

Why Fight? The Limits of “Hearts and Minds”

Originally law belonged to a people. It was a common possession which defined the group to which individuals “belonged” and which was marked by their subscription to the weight of custom, ritual and obligation entailed. In return, membership of the group regulated the interactions between individuals and families within the group and offered advantages in dealings with other groups. The law applied to members of the group regardless of their geographic location. The application of the precepts of religions, like Islam or Catholicism, is an example of this early idea of the law not geographically bounded and constantly requiring deconfliction with the laws shared by other groups. The idea that the law had a geographic extent, rather than a purely personal one, emerged quite late (around the seventh century) in the West beginning with the production of a common code of laws for both Roman and Gothic subjects of the Visigothic empire and spreading unevenly across Europe thereafter.[5]

From this germ evolved the idea of the modern state as a geographically bounded area within which “a law” prevailed. The extent of the state was marked by its ability to extend its coercive power to enforce internal peace—that is to enforce obedience to its laws. We obey the directions of young and spotty police constables not because of their personal authority or physical puissance but because they represent the coercive power of the state and because we accept that we gain more by surrendering to the state some aspects of personal sovereignty than we would by remaining aloof. Similarly, when we travel to foreign countries we abide by its laws because we accept that in their territory their laws prevail.

These two conceptions of law—as belonging either to a people or to a state—are irreconcilable and the conflict between them is being played out in domestic and international politics across the world. Insurgency and counter-insurgency is a competition to establish whose law will prevail in an area. The counter-insurgent force is attempting to establish its coercive authority in areas in which that authority is contested by insurgents. In Afghanistan, NATO forces are acting as proxies for the government of Afghanistan in the extension of its authority. The Taliban is resisting that attempt while also endeavouring to extend its authority over the remainder of the country.

Modern-day Afghanistan is largely a figment of the Western imagination. Its present boundaries emerged only during the nineteenth century as a result of imperial competition between Persia, Russia and Britain. It is the rump of a larger Pashtun empire (the term Afghan having its roots in the Persian for Pashtun) that had previously extended well into modern-day Pakistan and Iran. The northern boundary, only stabilised in the 1870s, was originally a zone through which Pashtun influence was in balance with that of the steppe-dwelling Uzbek, Tajiks and Turkmen, who remain ethnic minorities in northern Afghanistan today. Peshawar, in Pakistan, was until the early nineteenth century the winter capital and “pearl of the [Pashtun] Durani Empire”.[6]

The imposition of internationally recognised boundaries on Afghanistan failed to resolve the conflict between the two conceptions of law described above. Afghanistan’s recent history has been shaped by warlords in constant competition with other tribal and ethnic groups to extend their own influence or resist the extension of that of their neighbours. The Pashtuns, especially, find themselves as an ethnically and religiously homogenous confederation with traditional homelands split between Pakistan and Afghanistan and denied hegemony over the country which they founded. In its historical context, the insurgency in Afghanistan is an attempt to resist the extension of the coercive power of the ersatz Afghan state, created by international fiat in 2003, in order to re-establish traditional Pashtun rule. The Taliban is a political movement rooted in Pashtun culture and forming the spearhead for Pashtun ethnocentrism.

Azar Gat, in War in Human Civilization, describes in great detail the anthropological sources of ethnocentrism which he describes an “an innate disposition to divide the world sharply between the superior ethnic ‘us’ and all ‘others’”.[7] In his view the inter-relationship of kinship, social co-operation and culture enables groups to co-operate much more effectively because the benefits of belonging to the group encourage individuals to take personal risks in order to advance the welfare of the group as a whole. Altruistic behaviour of this sort is expressed both by adherence to “the law” but also by the suppression, at least temporarily and with qualification, of rivalry, feuds and other disruptive behaviour between subdivisions of the larger cultural group. On this basis, co-operation of Pashtun individuals or tribes with the Taliban need not rest on political alignment but is as likely to be the result of the web of custom, kinship, language and obligation that has sustained the Pashtun culture—the source of individual identity and genetic continuance—until today.

A hearts-and-minds approach is predicated on the proposition that we foreign, Western, culturally Christian, invaders can persuade a sizeable proportion of the Pashtun population to cut themselves off from their cultural roots; subject themselves to an equally foreign and incomprehensible form of government resting largely on the customs of the tribes of pre-Roman Germany; and abandon their cultural birthright of unrivalled hegemony over “Pashtunistan”. To do this we offer some new buildings, some cash and more reliable electricity—none of which have been important to them so far in their history.[8] Attendant on these “inducements” of course is the removal of their ability to generate cash by farming poppies and the destruction of cultural mores—the subjection of women and the application of traditional law for example—that define them as a cultural group.

Acceptance of Western largesse is practical cultural annihilation.[9] This seems to me to be a bargain which is unlikely to be taken up. In fact, in Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies, Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit argue at length that the kind of “modernisation” that we equate with “good governance” is, and is perceived as, “Westernisation” and is actually the root of the Islamo-fascism that underlies global Jihad. If they are right, our attempts to win hearts and minds may be stoking the fires of resistance rather than dousing them.

The evidence from Afghanistan today is that the bargain being offered is being rejected. Peace and prosperity are growing in those areas populated by ethnic minorities for whom the Afghan state provides a shield against Pashtun dominance but is being rejected in those areas in which Pashtuns are predominant. On this basis, “hearts and minds” is bad strategy because the willing acceptance by the Pashtuns, who are the soul of the insurgency, of the governance of a truly foreign state, parliamentary Afghanistan, is unattainable. Apart from it being highly unlikely to work it is also, however, bad strategy because it exposes rather than shields our critical vulnerabilities.

Annihilation and Exhaustion

Victory through battle is the most important moment in war. Victory alone will break the will of the enemy and will subordinate his will to ours. Neither the capture of terrain, fortress, nor severance of lines of communication will achieve this objective. To achieve decision, breaking the will of the enemy through the destruction of his forces, that is the operational objective. This operational aim will then serve the needs of strategy.


There is a need to define terms. Annihilation and exhaustion are used here to differentiate between two broad strategic approaches. Annihilation is focused on the destruction of the military capacity of the enemy in order to be able to dictate the terms of the peace. Exhaustion is focused on denying a more powerful enemy victory long enough to exhaust him physically, morally or politically. Admittedly these are, in practice, two extremes on a continuum, with both being in play in most wars, but it is important for our purposes to isolate them in terms of their intent. Annihilation is the customary Western approach to war. Its underlying mechanism is explained by Clausewitz in his enumeration of the three main goals of any war as: [11]

To defeat the enemy armed force and destroy it. That means to direct the main effort first and always against the opponent’s main army.

To take possession of the enemy’s non-military resources, that is occupation of the country or at least action against the capital and other important strong points [at least partially because the enemy army was most likely to be found in front of such important assets]; and

To win over public opinion [that is to convince the population of the enemy state that they were defeated]. This goal may be achieved by great victories or possession of the capital.

The last point is critical. Wars don’t end until one of the belligerents accepts that they are beaten. Annihilation attempts to crush the enemy’s will to resist by destroying his ability to resist—allowing the victor to dictate subsequent events. A strategy of exhaustion, on the other hand, tries to get to the third point more directly, by convincing the enemy that victory is either unachievable or, if achievable, that the fruits of victory are not worth the trouble being taken.

Exhaustion is the classic strategy of the insurgent. Governments facing domestic insurgencies are compelled to take actions that tend to damage social and economic progress and which undermine their legitimacy and popularity. They also attract international media and NGO attention and opprobrium, often leading to international political pressure. In the end this pressure can build to the extent that political accommodation is forced on them or the state becomes too weak to counter the growth of the insurgency and succumbs to it.

For expeditionary counter-insurgents (that’s us in Afghanistan), an enemy pursuing a strategy of exhaustion is manifest in a steady trickle of casualties, the absence of discernable progress perhaps underlined by an occasional headline event and, often, an international media offensive focusing on the impact on individuals of military action and the proselytising of the insurgent’s political justification. The purpose of the media offensive is to undermine the international consensus supporting continued counter-insurgency and to constrain the ability of the counter-insurgent to apply force. In recent times strategies of exhaustion have been applied by insurgents in, at least, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. The extent to which a strategy of exhaustion seems likely to succeed depends very much on the issues at stake and the extent to which political support for counter-insurgency can be kept engaged.

Hearts-and-minds is also a strategy of exhaustion but one in which the enemy’s will to resist is undermined by largesse. It is widely accepted that Western liberal democracies (the world’s principal counter-insurgents) are casualty-averse and have short attention spans. We are seen by many putative enemies as effete, lacking a long-term view, suffocated by deluded notions of a universal humanity and unlikely to endure the moral impacts of a protracted war among the people. There is some historical justification for this view. American failure through exhaustion in Vietnam (1975), Lebanon (1983) and Somalia (1992) would have been mirrored in Iraq if not for the obduracy of the President.[12] American resolve seems to remain strong in Afghanistan, however the willingness of America’s European allies to remain engaged is more problematic and the withdrawal of any contingent will work strongly in favour of the insurgent. As the 9/11 attacks fade in the popular (and political) memory however, and as al Qaeda continues to decline in effectiveness and relevance (as seems likely), the threat posed by Afghanistan as a potential refuge for them will similarly decline.

As Afghanistan returns to strategic irrelevance, as its importance is shaded by events elsewhere and as progress fails to meet the imperatives of Western impatience, the pressures for abandonment of the mission are likely to build. The Pashtun of course are in no rush. They have, literally, an eternity and are dealing with existential anthropological challenges and not with the loss of a couple of skyscrapers and a few thousand nameless people a decade ago. The problem with a hearts-and-minds approach is that, apart from it not working, even if it did work as intended it would take time—a long time—and this time works in favour of the insurgent’s attempts to exhaust us. Hearts-and-minds is bad strategy both because it can’t work and because it directs an enemy onto one of our principal vulnerabilities.

Annihilation and the Problem of Control

One man with a gun can control 100 without one.


In 1967 Admiral J.C. Wylie gave us two timeless pieces of wisdom when he wrote: “The aim of war is some measure of control over the enemy”;[13] and “The ultimate determinant in war is the man on the scene with the gun. This man is the ultimate power in war. He is control. He determines who wins.”[14]

It was mentioned earlier that the existence and boundaries of a state are marked by its ability to apply its coercive authority—to impose its law. In an insurgency the extension of that authority is resisted and countered by attempts to extend the coercive authority of the insurgents. The competition is therefore about who is in control. If we accept Wylie’s proposition that the man on the scene with the gun “is control” then to be in control that man needs to be ours and not the enemy’s.

This idea is worthy of some expansion. Whatever government is in power and whatever your political leanings, unless you are confident in the ability of your government to enforce its peace then the man with an gun at your door at midnight is your master. It doesn’t matter if you are happy with your electricity, content with your children’s educational arrangements and satisfied with the government’s agenda—you are in thrall to the threat posed to you and your family by that man with the gun. His removal resolves the competition for control and is the first step towards establishing the coercive authority of the state in that place.

This is so glaringly obvious that it appears banal, but even something so obvious is not always apparent. A number of examples from Iraq are pertinent. The Anbar Awakening which began the process of the creation of Sunni militias to oppose Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and to protect Sunni populations from Shia militias did not arise without help. Having initially gained a toehold in Iraq as an aspect of the Sunni resistance to US occupation and the rise of a Shia dominated government, AQI—essentially foreign, unacceptably extreme and uncomfortably fundamentalist for secular nationalist Bedouins—quickly marginalised itself. It sustained its position only through fierce internal discipline and the elimination of any opposition. Over a period of many months, relentless US Army, Marine and Special Force operations eroded the capability and capacity of AQI to such an extent that it was no longer able to maintain its control over the Sunni population. As a result, when the Awakening began in far western Anbar, AQI was unable to suppress it. This demonstration of weakness was sufficient encouragement for tribal leaders closer to Baghdad to reassert themselves and follow suit. There was a local desire to move away from AQI control but that desire could only be pursued when the local control of gunmen and terrorists was removed by the counter-insurgents.

At the same time, in Basra, the British were responsible for a city under the control of Jaysh Al Mahdi (JAM). By late 2006 the British belief in victory had been sufficiently weakened that their principal objectives seemed to be the reduction of casualties, the handover to Iraqi control, and withdrawal, in that order. Their basic proposition was plausible, that is, that JAM was waving a nationalist flag claiming to oppose the occupation of the British. British withdrawal, initially to the outskirts of Basra, would remove that justification and expose them for what they really were—gang leaders intent on building personal wealth and power in the absence of an effective governance.[15]

This proposition, however, left unanswered the question of who would contest control with JAM once the British withdrew, since the nascent Iraqi Army was clearly still unready and the police in Basra were so comprehensively suborned that they were, in practice, an arm of JAM authority. In the end, British withdrawal did surrender Basra to practically uncontested JAM control. This was not removed until a year later when the increasingly assertive Iraqi government at the reins of an Iraqi Army growing in capability and confidence, and with comprehensive US Army support, entered the city, and fought and defeated JAM.

Some commentators have noted that one of the reasons for the success of the US Surge was Moqtada Al Sadr’s decision to declare a ceasefire in early 2007. What is not usually recognised is that at this time Moqtada had fled to Iran in fear of his life and that the leadership of JAM had either similarly fled in the face of increasing US military pressure, or were in hiding in provinces that had been returned to Iraqi control, or had already been killed or captured. The crisis in leadership was sufficiently grave that individuals in JAM were refusing promotion to more senior positions lest they become the focus of US military prowess. The ceasefire declared by Moqtada was essentially an emergency measure to avoid the destruction of the military capacity of JAM in and around Baghdad in the face of the US Surge.

The successful Petraeus approach to counter-insurgency in Iraq has been characterised as Clear—Hold—Build. This involved the destruction of insurgent control of towns, villages or neighbourhoods, the prevention of insurgent return, the establishment of physical control of the population and then the gradual establishment of a degree of normalcy within the secured area. Although the economic and social activity associated with normalcy is important in the gradual advance of Iraq, it is sometimes forgotten, in our constant repetition of the mantra that there is no military solution to an insurgency, that there could be no solution without effective military action and that this action inevitably focused, in the first instance, on the annihilation of the enemy. Annihilation of the enemy is essential to the resolution of all insurgencies although in some, but not all, it is not of itself sufficient.

The NATO approach in Afghanistan is in stark contrast. In late August 2008 NATO forces in southern Afghanistan moved a new turbine to the Kajaki Dam.[16] Moving the 220-tonne turbine would have been a major undertaking in any circumstances but, in this case, the task was doubly difficult because NATO had to move the dam cross-country rather than down Highway 611 which was controlled by the Taliban and riddled with improvised explosive devices and mines. According to press reports, commanders “tried to persuade elders on one village near the dam, a known Taliban stronghold, to let them pass by offering them US$25,000, but local militants would not let them accept the money”. In summing up the operation at its conclusion one commander made the following comment: “It’s a very explicit demonstration on behalf of the Afghan citizens of Helmand that the international community means business here. I would sense that, in the sweep of the campaign, this marks the end of the beginning.”

It is worth pausing here to savour the full absurdity of that proposition. The Taliban denies NATO the use of the highway and forces them into the geographic space usually occupied by the insurgent: away from major roads and population centres. The Taliban has sufficient authority in a town near the dam to direct the actions of the elders. NATO is forced to mount an extensive deception operation to distract Taliban attention while it makes and uses a road to deliver reconstruction aid.

In the end, the turbine will not be commissioned for several years and so the “hearts and minds” benefits of the additional electricity (modest in the context of the associated perceived extinguishment of Pashtun culture and identity) will not be realised until much later. Any such benefits will, of course, accrue to whichever government is in power at the time that electricity begins to flow—a situation which this operation has done nothing to influence. At that time, if the Afghan government has survived and if the Taliban is undefeated, the problem of maintaining continuity of electricity supply switches to the protection of the transmission lines—long, linear, fragile tendrils of government influence that are enormously difficult to sustain intact.[17]

Surely, “in the sweep of the campaign”, this operation had a negative rather than a positive outcome. If it is accepted that the purpose of a counter-insurgency is to assert the coercive authority of the government, then in this case the NATO operation showed quite the opposite—that in this region at least, it is the Taliban that is able to assert its coercive authority and NATO that is forced to bend in the wind. Without security there can be no progress—good intentions and good deeds are not sufficient.

It is Not a “Chicken and Egg” Thing

Since war is armed politics, success in war, like success in politics, ultimately lies in winning the allegiance of sufficient of the population to make recidivists a law-and-order problem rather than one of military security. Success therefore ultimately lies in the minds of the target population. The counter-insurgent is trying to establish a government that meets sufficient of the needs and aspirations of the population to gain their willing subjection. Reconstruction (or construction) of infrastructure, the establishment of good governance and the rule of law and the nurturing of an economy that can support the population all have a role to play in the establishment of this willing subjection. The question is: “How do we get there from here?”

Good governance requires the presence not just of a political class able to arrive at some usable consensus, but also a bureaucracy covering all of the activities of government and combining educated bureaucrats with appropriate budgets, procedures and supporting legislation and enjoying an organisational culture that keeps corruption and other forms of malfeasance at levels that do not create unacceptable dysfunction.[18] Wherever this happens it is bound to take years rather than months to mature and, when starting from a very low base as in Afghanistan, might well take decades. Until then the ability of the nascent state to attract loyalty from its potential subjects necessarily rests on other inducements.

The Western view of law and order rests on sound laws, an impartial judiciary and a community policing approach in which police live in the community principally to protect it from itself. The problem with this model is that it assumes a general respect for the authority of the state, the willing surrender of aspects of personal sovereignty to it and an absence of organised resistance. In the absence of these conditions the establishment of a Western model of law and order is impractical. This impracticality rests mainly on the vulnerability of the judges (assuming suitably qualified individuals can be found) and the police, both of whom go home at night and have families. They are therefore subject to threats and intimidation from insurgents and liable to become vectors for subversion rather than agents of the authority of the state.

This was certainly the case in Iraq, where the attempt to create a police service from the ground up was severely undermined by the ability of JAM and other militias to compel obedience from individuals. This made the police service practically valueless in combating the insurgency. The same community policing model failed, for different reasons, in East Timor, and is failing in Afghanistan.[19] Establishment of effective community policing rests on the existence and acceptance of the coercive authority of the state, which in turn rests on the removal or reduction of the contending authority of the insurgents. Security allows law and order, it does not follow it.

Infrastructure projects, like the Kajaki Dam example above, take years to deliver improvements to the lives of the population and, at best, make a modest contribution to the reduction of discontent. No one places their life and the lives of their families at risk by rejecting Taliban authority merely because they have, or are promised, more electricity or cleaner water. In any event, genuine progress in reconstruction and economic development rests on adequate security. Contractors, the civilian economy and NGOs are the real engines of reconstruction but can’t operate unless roads are open and a degree of normalcy exists. Until then progress is restricted to already secured areas and to militarily delivered aid. In the former we are preaching to the converted and in the latter we are merely hoping for the best because the pace of improvement in the physical lives of the population is such that any tactical benefit can only be realised much later. The lives of Afghan citizens cannot be made materially better until security is established.

Even making citizens’ lives better, however, may not be a path to a stable state. The problem of reconstruction, economic stimulation and humanitarian aid is well known to pork-barrelling politicians around the world—when the pork stops: so does the loyalty. While barrels of pork might not be appropriate in Afghanistan, the injection of economic and infrastructure aid underpinning a hearts and minds approach does not buy the loyalty of the population—it only rents it. Unless people are forced to opt in to the counter-insurgency they remain at best passive observers. To make them stakeholders in the government they need to recognise themselves, and be recognised, as enemies of the Taliban. This is easy in those areas where the majority of the population consists of ethnic groups that would be threatened by Taliban rule—but they are not the problem. The question is: how can Pashtun populations be convinced to openly turn their backs on the ties of language, culture and kin?

Arguably they can”t be—at least not directly. Amin Saikal wrote in The Age that: “… the problem of Afghanistan is largely a political, not military, one. For as long as there is no effective Government under a widely acceptable leader, no amount of international military operations could prove to be fruitful”. [20]  This is mostly wrong. All wars are political problems and the one in Afghanistan is no different. In the absence of a unifying sense of Afghan nationalism there can be no “widely acceptable leader” and Karzai will remain a compromise leader forced to cut bargains in order to maintain a semblance of consensus. The inclusion of genuine Pashtun representation in this consensus is essential in the mid-term but any consensus that meets the core agenda of the Taliban is likely to be unacceptable to the other Afghan minorities and to the West.

To get to a reasonable outcome the Taliban’s bargaining power needs to be reduced. To do that its direct hold over the population and terrain of southern Afghanistan needs to be removed. To do that in turn requires, in the first instance, military action to destroy its ability to coerce the population, and subsequently the extension of Afghan government into the stabilized areas. Once this is done—coercively—the stage is set for an acceptable political accommodation. Inclusion of the Taliban that represented the present balance of power in Afghanistan would set the stage for western revulsion and withdrawal and the resumption of the warlord-ism that preceded the US invasion. The path forward needs to start with the practical removal of Taliban authority and this will necessarily rest on military action to destroy the insurgents.

It is important that we do not commit the error of applying inappropriate metaphors to the problem of Afghanistan. Iraq would here be such a metaphor. Iraq’s Sunnis saw themselves as Iraqis first and one of the weaknesses that eventually led to AQI’s defeat was its foreignness and the consequent affront it posed to Iraqi nationalism. Similarly “securing the people where they sleep” was appropriate in Iraq because Sunnis were being attacked by Shias and vice versa and protecting communities against outsiders made sense.

In Afghanistan the coercion is coming from within the community and so “defensive” protection is impractical. There is no obvious sense of Afghan nationalism around which all the cultural groups can coalesce and, in any event, it is hard to see a sense of Afghan nationalism outweighing Pashtun ethnocentrism in sufficient of the population to cause the political shift necessary for the establishment of a stable Afghan state. Therefore the same approach needs to be taken to rescue the Pashtun community from the Taliban that was taken to rescue the Shia community from JAM—direct military action to destroy the credibility of its claims of control. Once that is achieved the stage is set for the gradual extension of government authority and eventual political accommodation. Political inclusion of the Pashtun can only follow the establishment of security which can only follow from the effective destruction of Taliban military power.


The twin propositions that “there is no military solution” to insurgencies and that “hearts and minds” approaches are the only the way forward are based mostly on wishful thinking. Fighting is unattractive to liberal democracies while good deeds put a song in our hearts. All western countries would rather build a school than raze a village. Unfortunately, building schools is only marginally useful in creating an acceptable peace. The true worth of such actions is only realised after the war—in extending and solidifying a peace that can, invariably, only be achieved by the application of force.

A hearts and minds approach represents a strategy of exhaustion and typically engages one of the insurgent’s principal strengths—time. For the West, strategic exhaustion is a critical vulnerability: “if you”re not winning, you”re losing”. In any event a “heart’s and minds” approach cannot provide security in the first instance, and can’t be fully realised until there is security.

All wars are ultimately decided by the re-distribution of political power and that is decided by the bargaining power that each of the belligerents bring to the negotiating table. At the extreme, the side that finishes the war disarmed and helpless is compelled to accept the terms of the peace dictated to it. The application of military force is about reducing the bargaining power of the other belligerent. In countering an insurgency the reduction of this bargaining power involves the destruction of the insurgent’s ability to control a population and the establishment of countervailing government control. Different contexts require different approaches to achieving this and a careful choice of metaphors is needed. The approaches taken to countering insurgencies in Malaya, Vietnam, Northern Ireland and Iraq all contain some aspects that are transferable to Afghanistan but most are. The counter-insurgency in Afghanistan is more intractable than any of these others.[21]

In Afghanistan a strategy focusing on the annihilation of Taliban power is the only way to achieve broad political progress. Until that is done, Afghan institutions; political, bureaucratic, police and military, will be denied the time and space they need to achieve a robust maturity. There will be a time when reconstruction and other aid will begin to produce dividends and that time will be marked by the establishment of security which, in Afghanistan, requires the removal of the insurgent and the extension of the coercive authority of the Afghan state into Pashtun areas. Until then NATO must be prepared to act as the proxy for the Afghan state in establishing control over the Pashtun population.

Without security there is nothing.

Justin Kelly is a recently retired Australian army officer. He commanded the Peace Monitoring Group on Bougainville, was deputy commander of the peace keeping force in East Timor and was director of strategic operations in the US headquarters in Iraq from November 2006 until September 2007.

(My blunt thought: It nicely argues most of my opinions in their more proper context, then i have ever considered in trying too express here on this forum. It should say a lot, but is usually ignored by many, that it would take a soldier, any soldier who has been there or has discussed this with those that have, who has invested more of themselves in this and most importantly understand this issue the rest of the civvy population has not a clue about! Coincidentally... No offense intended to anyone here!)

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malizai_ View Drop Down

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote malizai_ Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 06-May-2009 at 19:35
The problem with winning wars is that it isn't over till ur enemy concedes and agrees that it is over. The problem with the pashtuns is that they dont mean it even when they concede, in fact they are even more driven by that concession. All it means is a change in the method of intrigue.
At the moment only minority of pashtun population is engaged in the war. Its not like the soviet engagement which was opposed by the whole of the Afghan country side. By further involving Pakistan the mess is expanding not contracting.
Afghans are not a fickle people driven by meaningless token gestures. If the alliance had practically adhered to their promise of rebuilding afghanistan, the outlook may have been different.
On the topic of graveyards it is often commented by foreigners to the astonishing size of the cemetries when compared to the adjacent settlements. It is certainly a country of graveyards.

Edited by malizai_ - 06-May-2009 at 19:38
"We didnt land on Israel, Israel landed on us!!"--Palestinian X
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Gharanai View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Gharanai Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 07-May-2009 at 10:39

@ Panther

First of all thanks alot for responding to the topic and I totally appreciate your point of view and the time you took to think about it.
My point by this thread wasn't to show that how warrior nature the Afghans have or how hard do they fight, it was just a look back to the history (which is the fact) and working out a solution for both sides (Allies and Afghans) to succeed in their missions.
As far as the 'Hearts and Minds' strategy is concerned, I know it's hard to implement it while you are fighting in such a rough situation and terrian, but for sure the bombardment of poor and innocent civilians are not going in anyones favor as well.
The recent bombardment (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/07/world/asia/07afghan.html?hp) for sure is going to rise the recruiting campaign of Taleban were dozen of people have lost their loved ones and family.
As dear malizai_ said it's just 20-40% of Pashtun population involved in the insurgence and the war looks this though just guese how will it be if the entire 100% gets up + (PLUS) the rest of ethnics (North and Central parts), same they did against the Soviets. I am sure all of us know that Soviets too looked invulnerable to the small scale Mujahideen attacks up till the States and his allies started giving the weapons to take down the birds.
The only thing right now that's in the way of a total victory over the Allies by the Taleban is the Allies' birds, the moment the resistance gets any kind of a tech for that purpose, the cause and outcome of the war would be totally different but still samilar to the Soviets, and I am sure that Russia would be keen in getting even with the States in that matter.
So what I am saying is why get to that point while it could still be fixed, I mean why would you drink a glass of poison and hope that doctors will save you while you still have the choice to avoid drinking it.

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Reginmund View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Reginmund Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 07-May-2009 at 12:07
An exhilerating and well-written article.

Throughout history one can observe great powers being brought to a halt when trying to conquer mountainous regions, which are easy to defend for an army that's intimately familiar with its terrain and proportionally difficult to pacify for an invader no matter how superior his numbers, technology or organization. A useful parallel could perhaps be the Swiss, who despite being a small and comparatively insignificant people have defended their independence successfully against several major European powers.
Hwæt! wē Gār-Dena in geār-dagum,
þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
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Omar al Hashim View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Omar al Hashim Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09-May-2009 at 03:39
Quote Amin Saikal wrote in The Age that: “… the problem of Afghanistan is largely a political, not military, one. For as long as there is no effective Government under a widely acceptable leader, no amount of international military operations could prove to be fruitful”.

Hey, I know Amin Smile. He is the most anti-Taliban and pro-Northern Alliance/Government guy around. His brother was even deputy foreign minister of Afghanistan for a while until he became disillusioned with the Afghan Government.
For him to say that "there is no effective Government under a widely acceptable leader" is a pretty big curse to the Afghan Government.
"O Byzantines! If success is your desire and if you seek right guidance and want your empire to remain then give the pledge to this Prophet"
~ Heraclius, Roman Emperor
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