Afghanistan Has Been Invaded But Never Truly Conquered

Afghanistan Has Been Invaded But Never Truly Conquered

Not even Genghis Khan could do it. 


This week, the Central Asian "graveyard of empires" added the United States of America to the list of powers that attempted to occupy and control Afghanistan. Throughout history there have been nations have that disappeared from the map – some temporarily like Poland, which was subjugated for more than a century before finally re-obtaining its independence; while other lands, like the Byzantine Empire, were wiped off the map forever.

In the case of Afghanistan, it was never truly conquered. It may have been invaded, but even suggesting that it was "occupied" would be a stretch as the remoteness of the land made it hard for an outsider to control. Located on the mainland route between what is today Iran, Central Asia, and India, it has been invaded countless times and then settled by a plethora of tribes and peoples who are mutually hostile to one and another as well as outsiders.


Because of the frequent invasions, as well as lawlessness, every town and village has been known to resemble a fortress. Add to that its rugged frontier, and it has become a place few armies would want to invade.

For those reasons, since antiquity, no nation that marched an army onto the Afghan soil could ever even claim it truly controlled the whole of the landlocked country. However, many of the invaders still left their mark before they left for good.

Enter the Persians and Greeks

It is often stated that since Alexander the Great, king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon, no power has successfully invaded Afghanistan. However, Alexander wasn't even the first to try. Two centuries earlier, parts of the land that is today Afghanistan fell to the Achaemenid Empire during Darius I of Persia's conquests in the early fourth century BCE.

Largely overlooked today, this may have been one of the more successful attempts to control the Central Asian land, and it was also the longest that a foreign invader was able to maintain that control. For more than two centuries the land remained at peace. That changed in 330 BCE when Alexander the Great then led an invasion during his war against Persia.

In truth, Alexander's army didn't meet much resistance and the land was easily occupied, but the remoteness was a serious problem.

Alexander the Great set about founding or renaming more than seventy cities in the region to leave his mark. Most notable of those was Alexandropolis, also known as Alexandria in Arachosia. The city's name evolved to Iskandahar, and today is known as Kandahar–the second largest city in the country.

The Greek influence in the region actually remained for centuries after Alexander's death until it was slowly overcome by the Kushan, an Indo-European nomadic people, who conquered the land in the first century CE. In time the western parts fell again to Persian control, under the Sassanid Empire–the longest-lived of the Persian dynasties.

Muslim to Mongol Conquests

The most lasting impact of foreign invasions of Afghanistan came between the seventh and ninth centuries when the Rashidun Caliphate began an Islamic conquest from the west that converted most of the population to Islam. During the Umayyad Caliphate, which extended nearly from the borders of China to the Iberian Peninsula, Afghanistan was nearly under full control of an outside power. This was the point it was under as much control as it would ever be.

The next conquest came in the early thirteenth century, when Genghis Khan led the Mongol invasion from the northeast, during which his armies laid waste to the ancient cities. While there was a short-lived rebellion, it was quickly put down. Just as Alexander the Great had left his mark by building or renaming cities, so too were many regions of the nation named after Mongol and Turkic leaders.

A century after the Mongol invasion, Timur–the Turco-Mongol conqueror who founded the Timurid Empire–led an invasion that extended throughout Central Asia. Its eventual decline then led to the founding of the Mughal Empire, which eventually controlled much of India.

At the Crossroads of Asia

The Mughal Empire wasn't to be the final conqueror of course–In more recent times the British, Soviets, and most recently the United States and its allies have all made attempts as well. In the case of the British, its three invasions were never really about conquering Afghanistan as much quelling raids from the border while seeking to install a pro-British leader.

The Soviets also invaded three times, first in 1929 and again in 1930 but its 1979 invasion, which led to the Soviet-Afghan War that is most remembered today. That wasn't so much a conquest either, but was meant to support the pro-Democratic Republic of Afghanistan–and just as the United States had become embroiled in what was a civil war in Vietnam, so too did the Soviets end up engaged in a local conflict fought by local factions.

There is much foreign blood in the sand of Afghanistan, and for nearly 2,500 years it has earned the moniker of "the graveyard of empires." Sadly, the United States and its allies have become its latest participants. Perhaps the Chinese will have better luck than those who came before.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on

Image: Reuters