Afghanistan: Graveyard of empires bar one!


By Gurnam Singh | Opinion 

In a recent televised address justifying the US withdrawal resulting in the capitulation of the puppet regime and a Taliban takeover, President Biden described Afghanistan as a ‘graveyard of empires’. In doing so I can only imagine he was referring to the British, then Soviet, and then US incursions into what is universally known as a lawless land run by warlords with a medieval mindset.

This is all true, except for one important historic fact, namely not all empires have failed! One that succeeded to create a degree of stability and order over a sustained period was the Sikh Empire. Below I have referenced an excellent piece from Ahmad Abubakr who provides a clear and non-partial account of the nature and scale of the Sikh victories in Afghanistan. If you are unaware of this aspect of the history of the region, Why did the Afghans lose war against the Sikhs? (Quora, Ahmad Abubakr).

It may also help us to understand why it would be a grave error to see the Taliban as a benevolent force. The truth is that from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, through to the subsequent civil war culminating in their withdrawal and the first Taliban takeover in 1996, the effects on the Sikhs, who had previously been the largest minority and had lived there from the times of Guru Nanak in the 15th Century, were devastating. From an estimated population of 500,000, the number of Sikhs is now in the 1000’s with most living in hiding and/or confined to the Gurdwara precincts.

Abubakar argues that to “properly analyse the Afghan-Sikh Wars, we should divide them into three phases”.

First Phase – Prior to the Third Battle of Panipat (1751 – 1761) was in favor of the Afghans. This was during the invasions of Ahmad Shah Abdali. They defeated the Sikh forces on multiple occasions and many massacres were committed as well.

Second Phase – After the Third Battle of Panipat (1761 – 1799) was in favor of the Sikh. The Third Battle of Panipat, despite the Afghan victory, had caused great loss for the Afghan forces. The ones to gain the most from the battle were actually the Sikhs, not the Maratha or the Afghans.The Afghans began to suffer defeats at the hands of the Sikh armies and were forced to fall back.

Third Phase – Era of the Sikh Empire (1799 – 1837) was after Maharaja Ranjit Singh united the Sikh Misl to form the Sikh Empire. The third phase resulted in a decisive Sikh victory. All of Punjab was taken by the Sikh Empire, Kashmir was taken from the Afghans and KPK was also mostly taken by the Sikh Empire. Following the Battle of Nowshera in 1823, the Peshawar Valley and Khyber Pass also came under Sikh control. The Afghans would try to take back Peshawar and capture the Jamrud Ford in 1837 during the Battle of Jamrud but were unable to do so. In this battle, the Sikhs suffered great losses but were able to hold onto the Jamrud Fort. This was the last major conflict between the Sikh and the Afghans.

He goes onto set out some of the factors behind the Sikh’s defeat of the Afghans and identifies leadership being the most important. “Note that the greatest gains made by the Sikh were during the third phase of the war. This was during the time the Sikh Empire was being ruled by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. At this time, the Afghans had no real strong leader to unite them; the Sikhs, on the other hand, had Ranjit Singh, arguably of the greatest leaders of his time, if not world history.

You can see the same effect in the Afghans earlier on when Ahmad Shah Abdali was ruling the Durrani Empire. He managed to unite the Afghans under his banner. After his death in 1772, the Durrani Empire quickly declined. By the time of the Sikh Empire, the Durrani kings were weak and incompetent.

While the Durrani Empire was weak and led by weak rulers, the Sikh Empire had Ranjit Singh. He managed to unite the Sikh Misl into a Sikh Empire. It is hard to describe just how essential he was to the Sikh victories. Let’s also not forget the other leaders and generals of the Sikh during this time. Such as Hari Singh Nalwa for example. After the death of Ranjit Singh, the Sikh just like the Afghans would fall into internal conflicts.”

Another related factor was the respective armies. As the capitulation of the US-backed Afgan National Army demonstrated, it is not just about numbers and weaponry alone, but resolve, organisation, and a commitment to fight. Indeed, in his Presidential Address, Joe Biden identified the lack of a will to fight on the side of the Afghan Army to fight as being a key factor in his decision to withdraw.
Abubakr argues that though initially the Afghans probably had the upper hand over the Sikhs, their ability to quickly adapt and learn was critical. He suggests the key difference was that the Sikhs fought as one unified force, whereas the Afghans tended to be configured around tribal allegiances – not a new story, this is still the case today. He notes that the ‘Sikh armies at the time were noted by the British to be one of the most well-trained military forces in South Asia. They were usually trained by Europeans in the most modern ways of war. The Afghans were not. This is evident from when Dost Muhammad Khan tried to seek an alliance with the British against the Sikh Empire. The British did not agree, as they saw the Sikh as the more powerful of the two.”

Along with professional organization and effective leadership, having a fighting spirit is also critical. In his regard, Abubakr argues that the mindset of the ‘Sikh during the late Mughal period and what followed can be compared to the religious zeal found within the Muslim armies during the early expansion under the Rashidun Caliphate.’ He goes onto suggest that the Sikhs were ‘not just fighting for land, riches or power; they were fighting for a ‘noble cause worth dying for.’

Interestingly, the massacres that were committed by the Afghans in what is historically known and the Vadda Ghalūghārā – a dramatic and bloody massacre during the campaign of Afghanistan’s (Durrani Empire) provincial government based at Lahore to wipe out the Sikhs, leading to the deaths of 20/30,000 – he argus helped strengthen the resolve of the Sikhs.

Another factor that led to the Sikh’s victories was the alienation of the local Muslims, unity amongst the Sikh’s Missals, and growing prosperity and wealth under the Sikh Empire.

Though the Sikhs defeated the Afghans and stemmed their incursions through the establishment of forts and networks of cooperation with local power brokers, as Subaig Singh Kandola notes, they didn’t actually invade Afghanistan, though they did defeat them. He goes on to suggest that on the plains of the Panjab, ‘the undisciplined Afghan forces would have been no match for a modern, professional Sikh Army that has been trained by French Generals who has fought for Napoleon Bonaparte. But a Sikh invasion into rugged mountains of Afghanistan would have resulted in failure, just like the Russians, Americans and the British.’

As to how things might unfold under the new Taliban rule, one can only hope that they have changed, that with the greater scrutiny of social media and a realisation that they cannot achieve much without international support, they may just realised, if not the normal, the political imperative to respect basic human rights. But only time will tell, and as for the plight of the Sikhs, tragically, the era of great leaders like Hari Singh Nalua (pictured below) are long gone, and I think the only sensible strategy is to save as many lives and livelihoods as we can. That means those remaining should be given all the assistance possible, up to and including facilitating safe passage to countries where they may want to resettle.

Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at

* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.


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