Afghanistan: 15 facts on an obstinate, proud and fascinating country which has become the graveyard of yet another empire

Defeated, Britain again pulls out of Afghanistan, as it has done three times before, leaving behind blood and military treasure and many of those who supported the endeavour, which started as a mission to root out al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden and morphed into a failed attempt at nation building, to a Western template.

It began after the carnage of 9/11, put together by George W Bush and Tony Blair, it ended in the chaos, the frenzy and the blood and bodies at Kabul airport. It wasn’t like the humiliating last exit from Vietnam, this was Saigon on steroids.

Bush and Blair learned nothing and forgot everything about the country and its history.

Here are just a few little-known facts about an obstinate, proud and fascinating country which has become the graveyard of yet another empire.

1) As in other countries our ancestors conquered, exploited and divvied up, the Durand Line, the border running for more than 1600 miles from China in the east to Iran in the west, is the source of centuries of conflict, dividing Afghanistan from what is now Pakistan.

It was originally established in 1893 as the dividing line between British India and Afghanistan to mark the edges of their spheres of influence, but in practice an effective buffer zone between Russian and British interests in the ‘Great Game’. It was decided by

British civil servant Mortimer Durand and the Afghan emperor Abdur Rahman Khan.

Unfortunately for subsequent history it ignored what we now call facts on the ground. The border created divides ethnic Pashtun tribes (the majority Afghan population) who live on either side of the border and refuse to recognise it. As does the last Afghangovernment, and presumably the new one. In 2017 the then-president Hamid Kharzai, now an apparent Taliban influencer, declared that his country would never recognise the Durand Line. Expect more border conflict.

2) Helmand is the longest river in the country, stretching for over 700 miles. Its name translates as ‘dammed’, not damned, as it probably is by the British soldiers who served in the province and where the majority of the 454 deaths were. We pulled out in 2014 and left it to the Yanks to sort out. They didn’t.

3) Millions of Afghans celebrate their birthdays on January 1 and not because it’s the new year (that is celebrated on March 21). During the 1980s and 90s when the country was embroiled in war births were not registered and no records were kept. So young people born without a proper record of their birth adopted the first day of our new year, probably because social media requires a date of birth and the idea caught on.

4) Afghanistan was one of the first countries to recognise the Soviet government, signing a treaty of friendship with the new Bolshevik regime in 1919. They were probably a bit miffed with the Brits having been invaded three times in less than 100 years, having their rulers replaced, civilians killed and economy disrupted. And while the British were initially successful in all three forays they had to pull out humiliatingly, in the face of fierce resistance. The lesson we should have learned from the first excursion in 1839 is that the Afghans won’t tolerate foreign occupation, or kings and emirs foisted on them. The USSR, having invaded in 1979, had to pull in February 1989. But at least they had an exit plan. We chucked it in 2014 and, as the last two weeks has shown, neither we nor the USA had an exit plan.

5) Buzkashi is Afghanistan’s national sport and, no, it doesn’t involve AK47s and RPGs. Think polo, but with a headless, limbless dead goat instead of a ball, and no royalty around. Two teams on horseback compete – the rules are for sissies – to capture the carcass of the dead animal and drop it on a marked circle. Thousands of fans turn up and games used to go on for days, nowadays they’re in 45-minute halves. The successful sportsmen – always men – are feted heroes and, in that new term, social influencers. They, and their teams, have sponsors, from airlines to mobile phone companies.

The Afghans unsuccessfully appealed for it to be included as an Olympic Games, and let’s face it it would be a lot more interesting than dressage. Oh, and they roast the goat afterwards.

6) Mobile phone coverage is available in more than 90% of the country, which is probably as good as we manage, but the iPhone is a real status symbol. Electricity is technically available to almost the whole country but, even where it is, it’s too expensive for people on one of the poorest countries on earth, and where 70% of the energy is imported. The country’s electric plants have long been past able to meet growing demand. The destruction of infrastructure in the wars has added to the problem.

7) Heroin made from opium grown in Afghanistan makes up 95% of the market in Europe, but just 1% of the US supply. While it increased when the Taliban took power in 1996 they banned it in 2000 and a year later the UN reported a near-total success in eliminating poppy production. Last year, on our watch, it increased by almost 40%.

8) Although it has a wealth of natural resources including oil, gold and minerals, it is one of the poorest countries on the planet. Over 40% of the Afghan population are below the poverty line with a further 20% hovering on the edge. The poverty line is 70 Afghanis a day, or just $1. More than half the population live on less than a dollar a day.

9) The world’s first oil paintings were made, not in Renaissance Europe, but in the caves round Bamiyan in about 650 BC. The world’s largest Buddhas, two of them, the taller over 170 feet high, were carved out of the rock, again at Bamiyan. They dated from the 6th century, more than 100 years before the birth of Islam. The Taliban blew them up in 2001.

10) Traditional Afghan rugs are woven on small family looms. Many of the patterns are inherited but contemporary “war rugs” show patterns that include AK47s, tanks, planes, helicopters and RPGs. There are around 57 different types of Afghan rug and rugs from different areas use identifying colours.

11) There is – or perhaps was – just the one Jewish person living in Afghanistan, Zablon Simintov, a restaurateur and carpet trader.

12) Afghanistan is reckoned to be the birthplace of one of the world’s oldest religions, Zoroastrianism, which believes in the ultimate triumph of good over evil. No wonder it’s dying out with only about 100,000 disciples around the world, around the same number as Gaelic speakers. It is also monotheistic, believes in heaven and hell, judgment after death as well as free will. Several later religions, like Christianity, may have plagiarised a few of these beliefs.

13) The first, and so far only Afghan in space, is Abdul Ahad Momand, who travelled on a Russian Soyuz craft in 1988 and spent nine days aboard the Mir space station. He was also the first man to speak Pashto in space, in a video conference with his mother who, like many other parents, didn’t know the exact date of his birth. So it’s given as January 1 of course.

14) The population of the country is 40 million. Of these, last month, 3.5 million were refugees inside the country, most in and around the major cities like Kabul and Kandahar. The UNHCR has logged 2.5 million more globally, the vast majority, more than two million, in Pakistan. Britain has agreed to take 20,000 refugees over five years.

15) Afghanistan is nicknamed “the graveyard of empires”, for obvious reasons. The United States has spent more there – upwards of $2 trillion – than it did on the Marshall Plan, $13. billion in aid to Western Europe following the devastation of World War 11.

There is no McDonald’s in Afghanistan.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992