Alexander and Afghanistan

In General by Barry Strauss8 Comments

We fight wars with men – and with ghosts. When it comes to haunted battlefields, Afghanistan is second to none. The specters stretch backwards from the Soviets, who failed in Afghanistan in the 1970s, to the British who suffered there in the nineteenth century, and all the way to Alexander the Great, who conquered Afghanistan long ago but at a terrible cost. Fine books by Steven Pressfield and Frank Holt have recently examined Alexander’s Afghan War – a conflict, as some say, that was the original quagmire. And Alexander was one of the greatest generals in human history. Who are we to surge 30,000 more troops into the graveyard of the great?

Well, so the argument goes, but I beg to differ. Alexander’s history offers a much more positive lesson. In fact, it suggests that the U.S. and NATO can win in Afghanistan.

It would be pedantic to point out that most of Alexander’s “Afghan” campaign took place outside today’s Afghanistan; most of the fighting took place in the nearby states of what are today Tadjikistan and Uzbekistan. Nonetheless, the war spilled over into Afghanistan, which served Alexander as a base. And the war did not go well.

It was lengthy and exhausting. Alexander lost almost as many men in one bloody day as he had in the four years it took him to conquer all the lands between the Mediterranean Sea and eastern Iran. Alexander found himself driven to massacre civilians in the tens of thousands and to destroy their towns. Exposure to cold, wind, and snow raised his men’s casualty toll. Bandits and warlords proved challenging to an army used to fighting conventional warfare.

It took a toll on Alexander’s wonderful army, and to what end? Greek rulers survived for 150 years in Afghanistan, and Greek settlements lasted centuries more. For example, Kandahar – today a center of the American war effort – was once known by the magical name of Alexandria . . . Alexandria-in-Arachosia. But the Afghan war was not worth the price Alexander paid for it. He would have been better off staying in Iran and consolidating the huge empire that his army had already won, an empire that stretched from Egypt and Greece eastward.

Some things haven’t changed. Afghanistan still represents tough terrain for soldiers. It still is a paradise for brigands and bandits, but there the similarity ends.

Western soldiers today enjoy protection from the elements that Alexander’s Macedonians could hardly have imagined. The ancients had no thermal polypropylene and no snow tires.

More important, the kind of war that the surge in Afghanistan represents could not be more different than the war that Alexander fought in the region. The surge aims to protect civilians, not kill them. Allied plans aim at defeating warlords through policing, reconstruction, and diplomacy, not by wiping out cities.

Most important of all, the Afghan War is sound strategy. It demonstrates our determination that once a country is liberated from Islamist tyranny, it will stay liberated. (The sins of Karzai’s government cannot compare with those of the Taliban.) It guards the flank of Pakistan, a country with a strategic location, the world’s third largest Muslim population (175 million, of whom 95 per cent are Muslim), and, last but not least, nuclear weapons. Afghanistan was peripheral to Alexander but it is central to American interests.

Our soldiers in Afghanistan will suffer, unfortunately, as soldiers always do. They deserve our sympathy and support. General McChrystal’s counter-insurgency strategy has a real chance of succeeding. All it will take is the will to win. I hope the American government has that will. I know the American public does.

Barry StraussAlexander and Afghanistan


  1. Marcia

    Excellent and thoughtful piece. This is a war that we should not, and cannot, lose.

  2. Lindsay Powell

    A very interesting blog, especially as I also follow Steven Pressfield’s blogs. I see strong parallels between Alexander’s Afghan War and Ancient Rome’s war to subjugate Germania Magna under Drusus the Elder (the subject of my forthcoming book) where terrain, tribal rivalries and unforeseen eventualites hampered final victory. The Romans kept trying but Germania, like Afghanistan to the Macedonian king, seemed always to elude them. Can we succeed today? I’m not sure.

  3. admin

    @Lindsay Powell
    Fascinating parallel to the Romans in Germany. I look forward to your book. We’ll know soon enough whether we can succeed in Afghanistan.

  4. Charles the Lesser

    Regarding any ‘attempt’ to draw a parallel between AlextheGreat and current events immediately bogs one down in an ‘interpretation’ and ‘adaptation’ that essntially voids the underpinning integrity of the historical ‘presentation’.

    There is little ‘direct’ historical evidence on AlextheGreat. The best historian I read, a retired classicist whose name I cannot remember but one who wrote more than one boook and AtheG (is he an ‘aplogist’?) specifcally footnotes competing narratives of AtheGreat to give you the bias & context of those writing about AtheGr way after the fact.

    If what I recall, this historian was way more positive about what AtheGr did in Afghanistan than Mr Holt seems to suggest from what I have gleaned from Amazon reviews/comments (Have not read the book).

    Without being critical or dismissive of Holt, ultimately all he can do is ‘interpret’ what happened since there is so little source documentation. Therefore this is more ‘one-person’s-opinion’ really than it is ‘history’.

    Let’s be honest about all this before we try to ‘draw conclusions’ from what is a limited data set and subject to huge dollops of interpretation.

    Are we so easily subject to tenuous extrapolated interpretations as to believe it has a relevant bearing on the present? The Soviets are one thing (what was their strategy & objectives versus NATO’s now?) and the British and all the other predecessors?

    This seems to ‘neat’ and ‘easy’ (simplistic to be blunt) for my taste to be of any relevance – just because AlextheGreat happened to have to stay in Bactria.

    And even without any direct sources, we can conclude from what we know that AlextheGr was successful otherwise how could he even consider, let alone execute brilliantly, a huge campaign into outer India? He had to secure his tenuous supply & communication line through a rugged terrain and back through a semi-hostile evasive Persia.

    I suggest that Holt is teasing topical relevance out of thin data sets that begs any vaild base of relevance or objective conclusion apart from his interpretation.

    I may read it (Holt) eventually but to throw Alexander the Great into the same pot as the Soviets 2,000 years later (who we helped defeat by proxy) is a stretch I am sceptical about at first impression.

  5. admin

    @Charles the Lesser
    It’s good to be cautious about the past, especially when some facts are debated. Overall, though, our narrative of Alexander is secure. There’s enough information for good historians like Holt to interpret the evidence and to suggest analogies. Readers, in turn, can draw their own conclusions and accept those analogies or not.

  6. shamim

    As an Afghan i believe that US will lose this war because Afghanistan is the land of Afghans and nobody ever become successful to conquer it. US should know that Russian, British as well as Alexander have already lost the war there.

    Long live Afghanistan and brave Afghans.

  7. Jeff

    Nicely said. I’m not as optimistic about continued public support for the war as you appear to be, but I do believe the war, if our military is given the time and resources, can be be won. As a side note, the continued reference to Afghanistan as “The graveyard of empires” is inaccurate. That’s a line from the Sovient lament over their failure. Far from it, Afganistan has be conquered over and over by invaders over the centuries. As I wrote on my blog:

    “As for ancient empires and conquerors: Darius and the Persians, Alexander and the Macedonians, the Parthians, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, Babur and Nadir Shah, all subdued Afghanistan or major parts of it. I’m sure I’ve missed a conquest or two of Afghanistan somewhere in history, but the point is, I think, the “graveyard of history” label is really just a form of Soviet lament over their failure and has little to do with real history.”

    “In reality, history demonstrates Afghanistan not as a “graveyard of empires,” but more so a mass graveyard for Afghani tribesmen killed in the long, continual conquest of their coutry.”

    Link to post:

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