“A Deadly Denouement for Foreign Troops in Afghanistan”
Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2012
Remember Tamerlane, or Timur, depending on what part of the world you come from? In case you’ve gotten a little shaky on your fourteenth century Middle Eastern history, Tamerlane was a nomadic Turkic Islamic conqueror born in what is now Uzbekistan. He was notable for a variety of reasons, some very good, but primarily, to quote the very first sentence of his entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica, “…for the barbarity of his conquests…” He created an empire that ran (roughly) from the Balkans and Mediterranean to Kashmir, and from central India to the northern edge of the Caspian Sea. He did this through a combination of intelligence, military genius, and unbridled ferocity, ferocity of a kind that even in a ferocious time made him feared by mighty rulers as far away as Africa and Europe. The bloodiest man of a bloody age, he is said to have been responsible for the deaths of five percent of the world’s population at his time, a number roughly equivalent to three-hundred and fifty million people today. If any city resisted him, he simply obliterated it. He then had his soldiers build graceful towers in the smoldering ruins, towers made of the human skulls of the erstwhile inhabitants, thereby proving his PR sense was as keenly developed as his aesthetic sense. An energetic and enterprising fellow with a singular sense of humor.
The reason I remind you of him is because he is the only person who ever conquered and retained control of Afghanistan for any appreciable length of time. Just to remind you, here is a very brief, Pat-the-Bunny-See-Spot-Run history of Afghanistan. Darius I of Persia was one of the first to take the place for a while, but he didn’t hang his hat there. Alexander the Great marched in, and after brawling with the Afghans he remarked that Afghanistan was easy to march into, but hard to march out of, something he proceeded to do with alacrity. We can only wish our modern elected officials had read his comment and taken it to heart. After Alexander, for about a thousand years nothing much happened. Various nomadic tribes and cultures passed through without leaving much of a footprint, until Genghis Khan and his Mongols took the place, largely by slaughtering everyone they could find who wasn’t a Mongol. But it wasn’t until Tamerlane—or Timur—that anyone imposed their vision on the place for any length of time, and for a little over a hundred years there was a certain amount of peace and prosperity in Afghanistan. After the Timurid dynasty died out, Afghanistan reverted to its basic tribal structure; other countries claimed to own it from time to time, but they wisely made their claims from far enough away that they couldn’t be heard. In more modern times the British and the Russians have both attempted to stake a claim of one kind or another, and we know how well that worked for them.
And now America is there. Apart from any question of precisely why we are there, you have to ask yourself if any American—any president, senator, general, CIA chief, anyone—bothered to read his history before he packed his bags. As Americans, we lack Tamerlane’s stomach, as well as his penchant for unusual architecture, so if we can learn anything from history, it’s that the Afghans will either drive us out or wait us out, but they will prevail one way or the other, and then they will continue doing and being whatever it is they wish to do and be. And I don’t think that includes KFC, Disneyland, the Southern Baptist Church, the Super Bowl, or anything else American.