The Graveyard of Empires

21 September 2009


Mullah Mohammad Omar

Mullah Mohammad Omar

An Eid-ul-Fitre Statement

There are only a handful of known photographs of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, none of them flattering. He seems to be as camera-shy as Thomas Pynchon, though presumably for different reasons. Although Mullah Omar is not well represented by photographs, he is quite well represented in public statements. It was widely reported in the western press today that Mullah Omar had issued another statement, and with a little bit of searching I found a website with translations of the statement into English, Arabic, Finnish, German, Spanish, Russian, French, Somali, Malay/Indonesian, Urdu, Pashto and Farsi. The online text does not specify the original source language.


An early example of attempted empire-building in what is now Afghanistan, and one to which Mullah Mohammed Omar referred in his recent statement.

The above-mentioned website gives the full title of this statement as “Message of Felicitation of the Esteemed Amir-ul-Momineen (Leader of the Believers) Mullah Mohammad Omar Mujahid (May Allah preserve him) on the Occasion of Eid-ul-Fitre” — a wonderfully eighteenth century title of the sort one expects to find on a minor pamphlet unearthed from the Enlightenment.

Flag used by the Taliban for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan

Flag used by the Taliban for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan

Mullah Omar, when he ruled Afghanistan, styled himself Commander of the Faithful from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. His current statement simply identifies him as “The Servant of Islam, Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” Though speaking as a humble servant, in keeping with the traditions of his faith, Omar is one of the most prominent leaders in the Taliban. As the man who engineered the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the wake of the Soviet retreat, temporarily imposing an Islamic state of the sort favored by militants, Omar has the ultimate “street cred” among radical Islamists. That a man of his stature (and similarly with the case of Osama bin Laden) has eluded capture for several years says something both about his cunning and about the landscape that he calls home.

Afghanistan map

This impressionistic map of Afghanistan from the 1920s gives a sense of the difficulty of the landscape.

The rough terrain of Afghanistan is legendary, and like the neighboring regions of Pakistan where the central government of the nation-state has had little power, the power structure that has emerged from this difficult land is essentially feudal in character. Institutions are local, and have only vague if any connections to any larger political structure or principle. Not only have these regions never been brought under the power of an invading or occupying force, these regions have never been brought under the effective control of a regional invading or occupying force. We could fairly say that Afghanistan and significant portions of Pakistan have never been assimilated to the nation-state paradigm.


The difficulty of centralized political rule in Afghanistan has both safeguarded the Afghan people from rule by a foreign empire and also made it nearly impossible for the Afghans themselves to organize into a coherent whole. Afghanistan is not a nation-state, it is what is left over in central Asia when all the portions amenable to exterior political rule have in fact been incorporated into some larger political entity.

Afghanistan ethnic map

In addition to the difficulty of the landscape, there is the complexity of the ethnic and tribal structures that overlay the landscape.

The difficult terrain of Afghanistan has produced the difficult history of Afghanistan, and this has earned in the poetic sobriquet of being The Graveyard of Empires. And we are not just talking about recent historical phenomena like the British Empire or the contemporary de facto American Empire. This region of the world has seen a succession of empires from earliest antiquity, and in fact Mullah Omar referenced the empire of Alexander the Great in his recently released remarks.

afghanistan raisins

Before the Soviet invasion and the civil war, Afghanistan was an exporter of raisins.

Perhaps as a consequence of their geography and history, the Afghan people have come into the reputation of being among those warrior peoples who come from the periphery of the civilized world and which throughout history have been recruited into the armed forces of more coherent and organized political entities. As a warlike people, the Afghans, in public pronouncements such as Mullah Omar’s, take pride in being the Graveyard of Empires. But it is a perverse pride, because the land that can be the graveyard of empires is also the graveyard of simpler ambitions like a stable civil society in which ordinary Afghans can make a life for themselves unmolested either by novel attempts at empire building or ancient tribal feuds.

Afghanistan apples

Afghanistan also produces apples for export. Industry remains on quite a small scale, but this is the future, if there is any future at all, for Afghanistan.

Mullah Omar’s recent statement invokes this pride of being the graveyard of empires, but it is also a pastiche of a great many diverse elements. There is, of course, Islamic rhetoric of the kind meant to appeal to the most conservative of believers, and there is as well much on colonialism, such as one would expect from a 1960s or 1970s leftist tract from Third World struggles for independence. But these twin influences have long been mutually at play in what Tamim Ansary has called the “Middle World.” The statement also has significant elements of contemporary political discourse — both popular and technical — that belies the common implication that the Taliban are political primitivists who want to return to the time of the Prophet. They may in fact self-identify their movement as being one of a return to pristine Islam, as many political movements have appealed to the pristine past, but the Taliban are, in fact, thoroughly modern ideologues.

opium poppies

This, unfortunately, is the more common image of Afghanistan. When the Taliban were in power they attempted to curtail opium production, but now that they are fighting an asymmetrical conflict they are taking a cut of the opium business and revealing themselves to he thoroughly modern ideologues like the narco-trafficking guerrillas of Latin America.

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