Deadly terror in ‘ungovernable’ Afghanistan

Easy targets: The bomb was detonated at 12:15, when the street was at its most crowded.© Getty

Will Afghanistan ever be peaceful? Over 100 people have died in a bombing in Kabul, the third deadly attack in the country in a week. Why is the “graveyard of empires” so hard to govern?

On Saturday the Taliban drove an ambulance packed with explosives into a crowded shopping street in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. The enormous blast killed over 100 people and maimed many more. “The area looked like a butcher’s shop,” said one witness.

Afghanistan is bleeding after a third major terrorist attack in a week. Nine days ago militants attacked the Kabul Inter-Continental Hotel, killing 40 people, including four Americans. Then on Tuesday ISIS gunmen attacked a Save The Children office in the city of Jalalabad, killing six.

Over the past year, about 10,000 of the country’s security forces have been killed and more than 16,000 others wounded. The Taliban losses are believed to be about the same. Ten civilians were killed every day in 2017.

The Taliban is the jihadist movement that ruled the country from 1996-2001 and was ousted after 9/11. But it seems indestructible. As Seth G. Jones writes in Foreign Affairs, it is “too weak for victory, too strong for defeat”. And so the slaughter continues.

But Afghanistan’s problems go much deeper. The story of this country, at the crossroads of the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and “the stans” of Central Asia, is one of invasion and bloodshed.

As David von Drehle writes in The Washington Post: “Twenty-five centuries of history suggest that Afghanistan is as close to ungovernable, untameable, as any land on Earth.”

Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and the USA. All have failed to tame this “graveyard of empires”.

Afghanistan is a complex patchwork of tribes and ethnicities. It is simultaneously too remote to become wealthy and too geopolitically central to ignore. Add to that the fact that it is the source of 80% of the global heroin trade, and the situation seems more impossible still.

Donald Trump has pledged to send an extra 3,900 troops to the country, adding to the 8,500 American soldiers already there. But such measures have failed before. Should we accept that there may not be an end to Afghanistan’s suffering?

Two steps back

Of course not, say optimists. The world must not give up on Afghanistan. It was international apathy that led to the Taliban gaining power. Think of Vietnam in the 1960s or Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Both situations seemed just as intractable as Afghanistan, but in both peace prevailed. We must keep trying.

Others respond that Afghanistan is fundamentally different. The Vietnam War was a product of a very specific time. Yugoslavia lay next door to stable, rich NATO members. Afghanistan has no such luxuries. Surrounded by instability, the country is a permanent victim of geography. Nothing can change that.

You Decide

  1. Will Afghanistan ever be peaceful?
  2. In general, does foreign intervention make things better or worse?


  1. In July parliamentary elections take place in Afghanistan. Imagine that you are standing. Write down three ways in which you would try to help bring about peace.
  2. Create a timeline of Afghan history, illustrating its role as the “graveyard of empires”.

Some People Say...

“I don't think the war in Afghanistan was ruthlessly enough waged.”

Christopher Hitchens

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
There have been three major terrorist attacks in Afghanistan in the last ten days. Most recently, the Taliban detonated an ambulance full of explosives in central Kabul, killing over 100 people. It was the deadliest attack in the country for months, overwhelming the city’s hospitals. Afghanistan has been at war since 2001, but its history before then is almost as bloody.
What do we not know?
Whether this war will ever end, and if it does, how it will end. A common criticism is that the USA and other intervening powers have no long-term strategy. Many experts believe that the Taliban is the key to solving the conflict, but people on both sides are reluctant to come to the negotiating table.

Word Watch

The Taliban seized power after the Afghan Civil War of 1992-1996 which arose after the departure of Soviet troops. In power, they imposed a brutal version of Sharia (Islamic law), such as public executions and amputations, and banned women from public life.
Save The Children
An international NGO that promotes children’s rights.
The suffix “-stan” means “land” in Persian. The five stans of Central Asia were all part of the USSR. They are Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Cyrus the Great
Living in the fifth century BC, Cyrus was the founder of the Persian Empire.
Lasting from 1955 until 1975, the Vietnam War was fought between the communist north of the country and the capitalist south. It became a proxy for the cold war, with the Soviet Union and China supporting North Vietnam, and the US military fighting on behalf of South Vietnam.
The break-up of Yugoslavia into seven different countries resulted in a series of conflicts, primarily affecting Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and parts of Croatia.


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