“My dear boy, as long as you don’t invade Afghanistan,” prime minister Harold Macmillan told his successor, “you’ll be absolutely fine.” His words came back to me as I watched the disaster unfold this summer, astounded by the US and UK governments’ seeming lack of foresight and any kind of historical perspective.
It was 25 years ago – can it really be that long? It seems like only yesterday – that I was in Afghanistan following the route of Alexander the Great when our track took us from Peshawar, Pakistan to Kabul. The Taliban were besieging the Afghan capital for the first time; at nightfall tracers arched across the sky and the crackle of gunfire could be heard to the south.
Our plan was to follow Alexander northwards on foot over the Hindu Kush. Before we left Kabul we went to the National Museum, which had been wrecked in the civil war. Cases in the galleries were smashed and in the cellars thousands of carefully recorded artefacts were spilled out of cupboards, with Buddha heads littering the floor. By the front door, the famous headless statue of the Kushan emperor Kanishka stood proud, soon to be vandalised by the Taliban. Evidence of Afghanistan as a unique meeting place of cultures had been looted and destroyed. In war, one casualty is always history itself.
Listen: A panel of expert historians discuss how history can help make sense of current events in Afghanistan, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
Our cameraman Peter was ex-army, one of the many westerners hanging out in Kabul, so captivated by the country that he couldn’t leave it behind. After a few days, his contacts told us we could go, so we borrowed a patched-up Land Rover and headed for the mountains. There are many pleasures in that kind of travel: the lightest camera gear, sleeping out, living in the moment. Breakfast was coarse flat bread and sweet black tea, the evening meal a bowl of rice and vegetables.
Around 40 miles north of Kabul, not far from the site of Alexander’s “Alexandria in the Caucasus”, the road branches into the Panjshir valley, where the sparkling ice-blue river runs between great brown ridges. The route was littered with Russian gear, tanks and armoured personnel carriers. It’s been a thoroughfare throughout history: Genghis Khan and Tamburlaine came this way too.
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Afghanistan didn’t exist in the ancient or medieval worlds, of course. Its different zones were different worlds. The northern plain of Balkh (“the mother of all cities”) was part of Bactria, which stretched across the Oxus river to the province of Sogdiana, whose cities like Samarkand and Bukhara were famous for their merchants – the middle men between China and the Mediterranean. To the west, Khorasan was tied to Iran; far to the south were the deserts of Farah and Helmand. And to the east, the Kabul plain led to the Khyber Pass and north-western India, the fertile and populous first home of Vedic culture and later of the fabulous hybrid Indo-Greek civilisation of Gandhara. These regions each had their own culture and languages, and still pulled in different directions when the country of Afghanistan, within something like its present borders, emerged in the 19th century.
It was beyond the river now known as Syr Darya that Alexander halted, stopped not by Afghanistan – its reputation as a graveyard of conquerors came only in the 19th century – but by the enormous distances of central Asia. But Greeks still settled in central Asia: the historian and geographer Strabo mentions 80 towns in Sogdiana. Between the first and third centuries, the region thrived when the Kushan empire extended across Afghanistan into India. It was the same under the Moghul empire, whose founder, Babur, conqueror of north India, chose to be buried on a hillside above his beloved Kabul.
So Afghanistan’s history has been as a dynamic transformer between the worlds of central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. And that’s the prize today. As the US withdraws, China is waiting. President Xi’s “Belt and Road” initiative is already investing vast sums on infrastructure in central Asian states. A new world is emerging, reviving older connections through the Taklamakan Desert to Xi’an. Already huge sums are promised. In 2015, a Chinese billionaire created a 175ft hologram of the Bamiyan Buddhas, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Could this be a sign of things to come? Despite the Taliban’s return, I wouldn’t bet against it.
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine