“Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires,” the Afghan intellectual Mahmud Tarzi iscredited with saying. The story dates to 327 BC, when Afghans repulsed Alexander the Great. Britain’s defeat in the First Anglo-Afghan War 1839–42 is another historical case in point. Long after Tarzi’s time—he was Afghan foreign minister in the early twentieth century—it was the Soviet Union’s turn to suffer ignominy in Afghanistan; the USSR collapsed immediately afterwards.
America’s long military intervention in the country, finally winding down in 2014, is one of the many topics we explore in this issue’s Special Report: Afghanistan’s Fate. In “What Went Wrong,” Edward Girardet, a journalist who has reported on Afghanistan for nearly four decades now, judges Washington’s war to have been a failure. William Dalrymple, author of several books on the region, recounts lessons from the British debacle a century and a half earlier in his essay “Road to Gandamak.”
In our portrait of Afghans, Zahid Hussain, author of two books on Muslim militancy, reports on the resurgence of the Taliban. Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women, writes about her fear that significant progress in women’s rights will be in peril after American forces withdraw. Thomas Barfield, a leading scholar on Afghanistan, examines the political chaos behind the choice of Ashraf Ghani to succeed Hamid Karzai as the country’s new president. Writer Qais Akbar Omar pens an evocative memoir of the patriarch of his clan in Kabul. Photojournalist Robert Nickelsberg contributes a photo essay of his remarkable images spanning a quarter century of conflict in the country.
Will Afghanistan be the graveyard of the American Empire? Or will it be Iraq? Nabeel Khoury, a former American diplomat who served in Baghdad among other posts, writes on how the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003—less than two years after the Americans toppled the Taliban—has made Iraq another battleground for Islamic radicals. Lawrence Wilkerson, who was Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff in the George W. Bush administration, sees the twin military misadventures as signs of America’s diminishing power in the world. Speaking in The Cairo Review Interview, Wilkerson said: “I think we’re going to continue to muddle and muddle and muddle.”