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The Xenophile Historian

K. U. P.

(Kimball's Unauthorized Perversion)

The Myth of Afghan Invincibility

When it became clear that the United States would have to attack Afghanistan to get the terrorists behind the September 11 attack, an e-mail started circulating that declared Afghanistan unconquerable. It focussed on Alexander the Great's experience there, that of the British army in the mid-nineteenth century ("the Great Game"), and Russia's intervention in the 1970s and 80s. From that comes a declaration that no foreign army has ever successfully invaded Afghanistan.

Hold it there! That's an exaggeration at best. I can think of several ancient and medieval conquerors who marched through Afghanistan without much fuss. A better statement would be that no modern army has conquered the country. Here are the successful ones which come to mind:

1. Cyaxares (sometime between 625 and 590 B.C.). No documentation exists for the campaign which extended the Median kingdom's boundary east. We know it was successful, though, and Afghanistan became the base of operations for the prophet Zoroaster, after he was expelled from Ecbatana.

2. Cyrus II (545-540 B.C.). Again very few details, but if Cyrus hadn't succeeded here, Darius I would have had a hard time in India (518).

3. Alexander (330-327 B.C.). Yes, that Alexander. He may have had little to show for his wandering in Central Asia, but my maps of the Hellenistic world show Afghanistan under Greek rule for nearly two hundred years after him, first as part of the Seleucid Kingdom, and then as the Greek-speaking kingdom of Bactria. That looks like a successful pacification to me.

4. The Sakas and Tocharians (140-130 B.C.). Afghanistan would become the core of Kushan, the Tocharian kingdom.

5. The White Huns (440 A.D.).

6. The Western Turks (553-565).

7. Qutaiba (705), the Arab general who also brought Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan under Islamic rule.

8. The Samanids, a Sunni Persian dynasty (900).

9. The Seljuk Turks (1037-1040).

10. Genghis Khan (1221). The Mongols used Afghanistan as a base to raid India until 1327.

11. Timur (Tamerlane). His reign (1369-1405) was one of almost constant war, and like Genghis and Alexander, he never lost a battle. At least three times he marched into Afghanistan. In 1370 he killed a rival based there, Mir Husayn. In 1383 he put down a revolt at Herat, and built a tower by cementing 2,000 live captives together. In 1398 he passed through on the way to India. Afghanistan remained an important part of the Timurid Empire until the last of its rulers, Babur, moved to India and started the Mogul Empire (1526). For the next two hundred years Afghanistan, especially the city of Kandahar, was often in dispute between the Moguls and the rulers of Persia. Finally in 1747 the Afghans got a king of their own, Ahmad Shah Durrani.

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