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Graveyard of empires

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Remnants of an Army, depicting the British retreat from Kabul, presents imagery commonly associated with the sobriquet.[1]

The graveyard of empires is a sobriquet often associated with Afghanistan. It originates from the several historical examples of foreign powers having been unable to achieve military victory in Afghanistan in the modern period, including the Soviet Union and, most recently, the United States.[2][3]

Historical background[edit]

Historically, great powers have invaded Afghanistan without having been able to maintain stable long-term rule. Modern examples include the British Empire during the First, Second, and Third Anglo-Afghan Wars (1839–1842, 1878–1880, 1919); the Soviet Union in the Soviet–Afghan War (1979–1989); and the United States in the War in Afghanistan (2001–2021).[2][3][4] The difficulty of conquering Afghanistan has been attributed to the problems that invaders face when confronting its hazardous mountainous terrain, desert conditions, severe winters, guerilla warfare, fortress-like qalats,[5] enduring clan loyalties,[6] empires often being in conflict with each other while simultaneously attempting to subdue Afghanistan, and complications caused by interactions with Afghanistan's neighboring countries—such as coordinating relations with Pakistan, where fighters in Afghanistan have sometimes located their sanctuaries.[7]


The phrase, in reference to Afghanistan, does not seem to predate a 2001 article by Milton Bearden in the magazine Foreign Affairs.[8][9] Alternatively, the term has been applied to Mesopotamia.[10] Elsewhere, a very similar phrase, "the graveyard of nations and empires," has been used in a figurative sense to describe the Old Testament's Book of Isaiah.[11]

The anthropologist Thomas Barfield has noted that the narrative of Afghanistan as an unconquerable nation has been used by Afghanistan itself to deter invaders.[12] In October 2001, during the United States invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban founder and leader Mohammed Omar Mujahid threatened the United States with the same fate as the British Empire and the Soviet Union.[13] US President Joe Biden referred to the sobriquet while he delivered a public statement after the 2021 fall of Kabul as evidence that no further commitment of American military presence would consolidate the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan against the Taliban.[14]


The New York Times foreign correspondent Rod Nordland has stated that "in truth, no great empires perished solely because of Afghanistan."[15] Joint Services Command and Staff College lecturer Patrick Porter called the attribution "a false extrapolation from something that is true - that there is tactical and strategic difficulty."[6]

The British Empire was not destroyed after the Third Anglo-Afghan War,[16] and the collapse of the British Empire was more commonly attributed to World War II.[6] While the Soviet–Afghan War was a major factor in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the opposition in Afghanistan was only possible with foreign aid, primarily from the United States.[17][7] Furthermore, there is reason to believe that the Soviet Union would have collapsed regardless of the campaign.[16] Nonetheless, the narrative allowed for argument from analogy and the thesis of "history repeating itself", which proved accepted amongst authors and political experts.[16][17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dawson, Tyler (2021-08-19). "Is Afghanistan really a 'graveyard of empires'?". National Post. Retrieved 2021-08-24.
  2. ^ a b McCarthy, Niall (2021-07-26). "Infographic: Afghanistan: The Graveyard Of Empires". Statista Infographics. Archived from the original on 2021-07-28. Retrieved 2021-08-12.
  3. ^ a b Bearden, Milton (2001). "Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires". Foreign Affairs. Archived from the original on 2015-07-15. Retrieved 2021-08-12.
  4. ^ Innocent, Malou; Carpenter, Ted Galen (2009-09-14). "Escaping the "Graveyard of Empires": A Strategy to Exit Afghanistan". Cato Institute. Archived from the original on 2021-02-25. Retrieved 2021-08-12.
  5. ^ Pillalamarri, Akhilesh (2017-06-30). "Why Is Afghanistan the 'Graveyard of Empires'?". The Diplomat. Archived from the original on 2021-08-11. Retrieved 2021-08-12.
  6. ^ a b c Neild, Barry (2011-07-05). "Is Afghanistan really a 'graveyard of empires?'". CNN.com. Archived from the original on 2021-03-23. Retrieved 2021-08-12.
  7. ^ a b Coll, Steve (February 4, 2004). Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden. Penguin Press HC. ISBN 1-5942-0007-6.
  8. ^ Hainy-Khaleeli, Alexander (24 August 2021). "Why we need to stop calling Afghanistan "The Graveyard of Empires"". Ajam Media Collective.
  9. ^ Bearden, Milton. "Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires". Foreign Affairs (November/December 2001).
  10. ^ Burnham, Sarah Maria (1891). Struggles of the Nations; Or, The Principal Wars, Battles, Sieges, and Treaties of the World, Vol. 1. Lea and Shepard. p. 31. Retrieved 31 January 2022.
  11. ^ Gillett, Ezra Hall (1867). Ancient Cities and Empires: Their Prophetic Doom, Read in the Light of History and Modern Research. Presbyterian Publication Committee. p. 301. Retrieved 31 January 2022.
  12. ^ Barfield 2012, p. 347.
  13. ^ Barfield 2012, p. 269.
  14. ^ "Read the full transcript of President Biden's remarks on Afghanistan". The New York Times. 16 August 2021. Archived from the original on 2021-08-16.
  15. ^ Nordland, Rod (2017-08-29). "The Empire Stopper". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2017-08-29. Retrieved 2021-08-12.
  16. ^ a b c Kühn 2016, p. 155.
  17. ^ a b Caryl, Christian (2010-07-26). "Bury the Graveyard". Foreign Policy. Archived from the original on 2021-05-04. Retrieved 2021-08-12.