China's Tang Dynasty and Afghanistan, the Graveyard of Empires
The rise and fall of the Tang Dynasty points to the crucial strategic significance of the region today known as Afghanistan.
As a country located in the heart of Asia, Afghanistan is linked to China and East Asia in the east, the ex-Soviet Union controlled region in the north, South Asia in the south, and the oil-producing Middle Eastern region in the west. In modern history, the world’s major powers have understood the extremely important strategic position of Afghanistan, in terms of its geographic significance and resources. For this reason, Afghanistan was frequently invaded. The British for instance, attempted three invasions. In 1989, the Soviet Army withdrew from Afghanistan, and two years later the Soviet Union dissolved. Today, we are seeing the denouement of the tragic Afghan war, after the United States spent 20 years in the country, at the cost of over 2,300 American lives and more than $2 trillion.
Less well known in the West is that China, too, has its own historical experiences with the crucial strategic importance of Afghanistan.
From a global perspective, the era of the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907) was China’s most crucial period. While other periods like the Yuan (1271 to 1368) and Qing (1644 to 1912) eras possessed larger territories, these areas of territorial control had less strategic value. The Tang period, by contrast, possessed territorial range of great strategic significance. During its peak in the 7th century, almost all major Central Asian oases were controlled by the Tang, and its territories extended from Ha Tinh of today’s Vietnam in the south, the Angara River region of Russia in the north, Bukhara of Uzbekistan in the west, and Tonghua of China’s Jilin province in the east.
The Tang Dynasty was one of the most powerful dynasties of China, and one with global vision. Hence, modern Afghanistan’s strategic position in the Silk Road was extremely crucial to China. To the north of Afghanistan were nomadic pastoral people like the Turks; to the south were Indian polities; to the west were roads leading toward Persia and Arabia. After the Tang conquered the Western Turks in 659, the Turkic king of Tokharistan became its vassal. As a result, the land of modern-day Afghanistan became part of the territory of Tang China.
To achieve effective rule and management of the Afghan region, the Tang adopted various governance measures and established seven administrative units known as duhufu, or frontier commands. These duhufu were located in the north, the south, the northwest, the central Bamiyan region, the northeast (toward the Vakhsh river region of modern Tajikistan), as well as the area north of today’s Kabul, in addition to one located at the east of Persia and within Afghan territory.
The Tang Dynasty paid great attention to the western part of China outside the core area. The establishment of military bases in that region, with Anxi Duhufu (literally, “Frontier Command of the Pacified West”) as its network center, was meant to maintain the security of the Silk Road. This was also to ensure that China’s influence could be projected to the valuable strategic regions and achieve effective control.
However, the Tang Dynasty lost control of the Afghan region after its defeat in the Battle of Talas against the Abbasid Caliphate in 751. The loss of Afghanistan meant that Tang China lost its dominant influence, which led to the encroachment and invasion of external forces. Afterwards, the An Lushan Rebellion broke out in the middle of the 8th century, and the Tang Dynasty was never able to restore its control of the Afghan region. With the Abbasid Caliphate expanding its influence in Central Asia, the region gradually became Islamized.
The Battle of Talas is extremely significant in the history of West Asia and China. If Tang China had won the battle, it could have become a major power that had profound influence on Europe, like the Ottoman Empire. Its territory may have grown include today’s India and the Arabian Peninsula. Of course, there are no “ifs” in history. The Tang Dynasty, one of China’s greatest dynasties, was able to effectively rule this region of Afghanistan for nearly a hundred years. The global impact of both Tang China’s success and eventual defeat in the region are a historical phenomenon worth further studying.
This example from China’s history helps us understand the crux of the Afghanistan issue. What attracts the attention of world powers to Afghanistan is not its minerals, gems, or opium, nor its diverse tribes and sects, although these factors provide the superficial surface of Afghanistan’s problems. We can see the real significance of Afghanistan to the world’s major powers in the fate of China’s Tang Dynasty. After losing Afghanistan, China was left in a weak and struggling state for more than a thousand years afterward, reducing it from a great global empire to a country that was constantly seeking to protect itself from encroachment.
In fact, after the Tang Dynasty, several dynasties that ruled over China attempted to expand to the north after being blocked from expanding westward into Afghanistan. For example, the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) briefly controlled the desert region to the north, while the Qing Dynasty made efforts to expand into the Arctic Ocean and the Sea of Japan. However, the overall territory of China was gradually shrinking compared to its Tang Dynasty heights.
Although the territory of the Yuan Dynasty was vast, most of it was Yuan-held only in name and could not be effectively governed. The core territory of the Yuan Dynasty was still the region north of the Great Wall. The Yuan Dynasty likewise attests to the importance of Afghanistan and Central Asia to the world’s continental island. Chinggis Khan, the great strategist, paid great attention to the strategic position of Central Asia in the initial stage of his world conquest, and his dynasty started from the occupation of Central Asia.
Looking at the rise and fall of China’s dynasties, we can see that Afghanistan has played an incomparable strategic role in the expansion and influence of great powers throughout history.
Moving to today, China’s vision for reviving the ancient Silk Road – i.e. the Belt and Road Initiative – also hinges on Afghanistan. Early research at the BRI’s formation stage suggested that the heart of the world’s continental island is Afghanistan, not the surrounding powers such as Russia, China, or India. This means that whoever controls Afghanistan will have the dominant influence in the world’s continental island. China, historically a traditional land power, would pay a significant price as well as a high cost if it rashly commits to participate in the world competition for sea power. If China wishes instead to pursue dominance via the land, history teaches that Beijing will need to secure its influence in Afghanistan.
Applying a historical realist lens to today’s world, we can see why Afghanistan has become the main battlefield of the modern world powers. Afghanistan has always been a place where wars are waged, and a place where the rise and fall of world powers are determined. In that sense, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan today, like the withdrawal of Tang China in the 8th century, signifies not just the end of an old era, but the beginning of a new one.