Events in Afghanistan Were Foreseen, But We Failed to Learn From the Past

“Afghanistan — the graveyard of empires.” I thought of this unattributed claim last night hearing about the imminent fall of Kabul to the Taliban. But rather than watch the real-time misery, I thought of the historical context; and rather than read a book, I decided to watch the movie.

The Man Who Would Be King, directed by John Huston and starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine, tells the story of two British grifters in late 19th century India who decide to give up petty crime and create real wealth by conning the tribal people of a distant land in modern day Afghanistan. They convince a local war lord to let them train their men to be British-style soldiers and conquer their neighbors and steal their wealth.

The plan is absurd and far-fetched, but an unlikely event makes the plan work. The region, known as Kafiristan, had been conquered by Alexander the Great in the 3rd century B.C. After conquering the region, Alexander then left, but promised to send one of his sons someday — and the locals continued to wait for his return, and the guidance and blessings that only a god can provide.

During a battle, the Connery character is shot with an arrow that sticks in a belt and doesn’t harm him, so the locals assume he is the promised descendant of Alexander and is invincible, and they begin to worship him as the god figure they have been waiting for.

It’s a wonderful turn of events; but then something changes: the Connery charcter adopts the attitude of a benevolent leader and begins handing out justice and fairness in disputes. Then, rather than gather up the local wealth and flee as planned, he decides to wed a local woman, and spawn generations of benign dictators. He has no intention of leaving; he likes being a god and takes his duties seriously.

So much to learn here: Like the leaders of the British, the Russian, and most recently the American empires, he sees opportunities in the future before successfully securing the present. And he assumes that the locals will honor him for his actions, not his ancestry. It’s a fatal mistake, one that has been made over and over.

At the wedding, it all goes wrong and ends in violence when the scam is uncovered; the consequences are brutal and everyone loses. On the brink of becoming a great success, all is lost.

Does that sound at all familiar? After 20 years of fighting, building roads, training soldiers, educating women and girls, trying to drag this ancient culture into the modern age, the United States is leaving Afghanistan so the locals can revert back to their old ways. Like the Connery character, we thought that our mere presence would be enough to persuade this tightly-bound tribal society to become like us, surrender their traditions, stop the feuding and welcome modernization.

We could not have been more mistaken.

I remember when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to prevent the overthrow of a Marxist government that was allied with the Soviets. One of the justifications for the brutal invasion was: Women are subjugated and denied education. The Soviet system would bring schools, opportunities, and modern ways to everyone regardless of tribe, gender or social class. It seemed to make so much sense. But after 12 years of grinding violence, the Soviets pulled out and let Afghanistan revert to its old ways. A dozen years later, the U.S. stepped into the vacuum with the battle of Tora Bora to root out Al-Qaida, and the cycle started all over again.

And here we are, once again abandoning the task that seemed so likely to succeed, if we only could stay the course and keep focused on the end result.

What struck me about the movie is that it was filmed just 4 years before the Soviets invaded, and 25 years before the U.S. did the same. And yet despite the historical lessons that were there for all to see, the outcome remains the same.

What have we learned?

Note: The movie was based on a story by Rudyard Kipling published in 1888, some 122 years ago. Kiping grew up in India and understood the meaning of the story for the fate of the British Empire; and yet he’s mostly remembered for his books that praised the Empire. Once again, we see what we want to see and not what is before us.