The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

World powers keep misunderstanding Afghanistan — leading to failed state-building

Afghanistan has a long history of nomadic encounters.

Taliban fighters patrol a market in Kabul's Old City, Afghanistan, on Sept. 14, 2021. Understanding the centuries-old history of Afghanistan helps explain how the Taliban regained control of the country 20 years after the United States-led NATO troops toppled their regime. (Bernat Armangue/AP)

After 20 years of war, the deaths of at least 66,000 Afghan police and military, 47,245 Afghan civilians, 2,443 U.S. soldiers and at least $1 trillion dollars spent, the United States has withdrawn from Afghanistan. The country is once again ruled by the Taliban — as it was before the U.S.-led NATO invasion in 2001.

While commentators, scholars and historians have framed this episode as the latest in a longer history of bloody, failed interventions, many have missed something critical about the country. If we look at the peoples who have moved through these lands, it becomes clear that Afghanistan has long since been a place where boundaries have intersected, where hubris has been exposed, mettle has been forged and varied peoples have found refuge.

Modern-day Afghanistan’s long history of sheltering nomadic peoples and cultures helps explain how two decades of U.S. occupation failed to develop national institutions and why the central government fell so quickly to the Taliban.

Afghanistan’s geography and the challenges of traversing its lands have critically shaped its history. The area that is now Afghanistan was one corridor of the great Eurasian Steppe, grasslands that extend from Central Europe to East Asia. The Hindu Kush and Pamir Mountain ranges, part of the Himalayas, occupy more than two-thirds of the country and divide it into three regions: the central highlands, northern plains and southwestern plateau. Most of Afghanistan is located between 2,000 and 10,000 feet above sea level within a steppe climate. This challenging geography concentrated people around river valleys to create important caravan cities, such as Kabul and Balkh.

The rise of urban civilization more than 7,500 years ago created a new rift in the human family between the pastoral nomadic peoples of the Eurasian Steppe and those of the cities. New urban lifestyles changed how people saw the world and their interests — not unlike the political divides that often exist between urban and country folk more generally.

As cities developed into new civilizations, nomadic peoples routinely raided and migrated into them. For example, in South Asia, the Indus Valley Civilization was linguistically overwritten by Indo-European nomads whose language was the precursor to North Indian languages, such as Sanskrit. This nomadic migration took place from 1800 to 1500 B.C. and brought with it the sacred Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, and horse-drawn chariot technology.

The region that is now Afghanistan, what was then parts of medieval Khorasan, sits at the meeting of two great river civilizations and the Eurasian Steppe. Indic civilization to the east began with the Indus Valley civilization from 3300 to 1300 B.C. Mesopotamian civilization to the west emerged between the Tigris and Euphrates around 4000 B.C. Above them both sits the Steppe. Interactions between these different societies over power and resources meant that the region was marked by frequent conquests, interconnectivity and trade.

Those encounters brought people from a wide range of identities and faiths, many of which live on today in modern Afghanistan. From the 1st century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D., Afghanistan enjoyed a spot along the Silk Road, a trading route connecting the Roman Empire and China. As silk and jade flowed westward, textiles and spices flowed eastward. The cities of Kabul and Balkh were important hubs of trade and exchange and in turn the development of different religions. Buddhism almost vanished in its Indian birthplace, but flourished in East Asia with its arrival into China in the 1st century. Balkh was home to Zoroaster (628 to 551 BC), the founder of Zoroastrianism, which became the official faith of the Persian empire. Manicheanism and Christianity also found homes in communities across these trading networks.

The distinct civilizations that intersected in those lands are very much a part of the varied languages and ethnicities that exist in Afghanistan today. The Hazaras, for example, are descendants of Chagataian Mongol troops who entered and permanently settled Afghanistan between 1229 and 1447 A.D. They adopted the Persian koine of the region and embraced forms of Shiite Islam, such as Ismailism. Similarly, the Kalash peoples of Afghanistan and Pakistan claim to be the Macedonian or Greek descendants of the army and colony of Alexander the Great’s eastern empire (325 B.C. to 10 A.D.), observing an ancient animistic faith.

Linguistic research conducted in the 18th and 19th centuries showed that the largest language group in the world, Indo-European, had been brought by nomadic steppe peoples who migrated into, invaded and settled into the Middle East, South Asia and Europe through Afghanistan.

These nomadic peoples had agility, technological innovation and singularity of purpose that come from the harsh terrain of the steppes. Over time the great imperial capitals of Rome, Baghdad and Chang’an were sacked by the nomadic steppe peoples — the Huns, Mongols and Xiongnu respectively.

If the Taliban is understood to be the most successful nomadic group in contemporary Afghanistan, then its conquest of the country is just another in the long history of the region.

Afghanistan’s nomadic past, however, seems to be at odds with the world’s dominant framework in which land masses are carved up into settled nation-states. After all, Afghanistan is neither one nation nor a state.

Nation-states are a relatively new concept in global history — just a few centuries old. The European Wars of Religion that were ignited by the Protestant Reformation ran from the 16th to the 18th centuries and killed between 7 million and 17 million people and concluded with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. That agreement established the principles of the modern nation-state.

The two world wars of the 20th century helped strengthen the development of nationalism and its process of determining who would be included or excluded from the borders erected to make European nations out of diverse peoples. The dominant framework of national sovereignty by the 20th century was indeed a bloody process, totaling more than 108 million deaths worldwide.

This violence belies the constructed nature of this particular form of political organization. We create greater ideas of belonging to cooperate, or what Benedict Anderson called “imagined communities” that bind us. While such communities appear natural, nationalism is taught.

In the 20th century, when new national myths replaced ancient traditions and ethnicities, most countries on the map today were created by colonial powers as they existed in Asia, Africa and the Americas. There was little indigenous or organic political development in the formation of these states. Abruptly, hard boundaries were imposed on fluid spaces.

That has produced lasting challenges for peoples for whom these boundaries do not fit — including those in Afghanistan.

The failure of nation-building in Afghanistan — efforts historically led by the British, Russians and Americans in succession from 1839 to 2021 — is that these powers misunderstood how diverse geography, languages, cultures, religions and history have come to shape the peoples of modern Afghanistan.

Historically, Afghanistan was a place at the confluence of multiple cultural spheres that have changed as empires rose and fell. Its peoples have retained at least remnants of the ancient nomadic impulse and tradition against settled centralization that is more amiable to temporary alliances than permanent cooperation and the creation of national identity.

The peoples of Afghanistan have the rich cultural, spiritual and intellectual resources with which to face their challenge with resilience. Understanding the region’s long history of nomadic traditions and pluralism — one that sees Afghanistan as a crossroads of civilizations — helps explain why the United States’ nation-building occupation only led to the return of the Taliban’s reign.