Your RDA of Irony

How To Conquer Afghanistan

How can Barack Obama succeed where Sean Connery and Michael Caine failed?  Before his impending performance of “The Man Who Would Be President”, Mr. Obama should first consider the successful invasions of Afghanistan.

Yes, contrary to the media’s incessant references to “the graveyard of empires”, Afghanistan has been conquered a number of times.  The Russians certainly failed, but Afghanistan has succumbed to the Persians, the Greeks, the Mongols, even the British.  And do think the country became Moslem just through Arab charm?

History tells us that there are two different approaches to conquering Afghanistan.  The first may be summarized as “force and finesse.” This strategy concedes that Afghanistan is practically ungovernable, and the best you can do to tilt the anarchy in your favor.    Conquer Kabul–anyone can do that–and then start negotiating with the various tribes that actually rule the region.  In return for acknowledging your titular control, you will ally yourself with one tribe against another.  (Trying to pick the most grateful or least treacherous tribe can be the challenge.) 

This was the Persian approach and, after three years of fighting mountain to mountain,  Alexander adopted it too.  He even married the daughter of a tribal chieftain, that rare instance when politics makes straight bedfellows.  Alexander, however, thought that Bactria (as Afghanistan was then known) could use another tribe: a colony of Greeks.  He even built towns for these outposts of Hellenization:  the city of Kandahar originally was named Alexandria.  The Greek hold of Bactria lasted some two centuries, and their culture pervaded beyond those borders.  In Northern India, the statues of Buddha looked remarkably like Apollo.

The British Empire had no real interest in Afghanistan (as it has been known since the 18th century) but it was an unruly neighbor of India–which the British did dearly covet.  So the British thought that a show of force might induce some traquility among the warring Afghan tribes.  In 1839, a British army of 21,000 occupied the major cities of  Afghanistan and anointed a pet prince to be the region’s Emir.  There was so little resistance that nearly two thirds of the army returned to India.  However, the British optimism proved premature.  Of the 3600 men stationed in Kabul, one survived the ensuing massacre in 1842.  A British army invaded Afghanistan but only to safely rescue and evacuate the besieged British garrisons in other Afghan cities.  Afghanistan returned to a sovereign state of chaos; you can guess the fate of the British designated Emir.

Britain was resigned to Afghan anarchy and brigandage, but not an Emir who allied himself to the Russians.  In 1878, the prospect of Russian encrouchment on India led Britain into another Afghan war.  A British army of 40,000 invaded the country; the Emir conceded to London’s demands.  And, as the British forces were withdrawing, the British embassy staff at Kabul was massacred.  (Well, it is an Afghan tradition.)  Back came the British army and out went the Emir; he would spend the next 43 years in India as a “guest” of the British.  The British replaced him first with his brother and then with an even more compliant cousin.  He and his successors reached an understanding with the British; they could expect a generous allowance in Pounds Sterling, they were free to determine Afghanistan’s domestic policies–if any–but they need not bother with a foreign policy.  London would make those decisions.  This little arrangement lasted until 1919.

So President Obama has these precedents in “force and finesse.”  The real challenge in this strategy is picking the right stooge.

The second approach to Afghanistan can be expressed as “annihilation or else.”  This was how the Arabs marketed Islam.  In the seventh century, religious fanaticism and cavalry made Islam nearly irresistible.  Even the desolation of Afghanistan was little hindrance to an army accustomed to the deserts of Arabia.  The conquered pagans were presented with a compelling argument for Islam:  conversion or death.  Since the indigenous theological mix of Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism and animism had not proved much of a protection, the Afghans conceded the superiority of Allah. 

Genghis Khan also applied this approach, although he did not offer any theological solace.  For a 13th century barbarian, he was a pioneer in mass communication.  Genghis offered free samples of massacres and then let word-of-mouth do the rest.  The towns that did not comply with immediate and abject surrender would learn the Mongol hobby of collecting decapitated heads and building them into pyramids.  Such recreation perpetuated Mongol rule in Afghanistan for more than four centuries.  Over time, the Mongols did convert to Islam; jihads and harems had such a spiritual appeal.  Known by the more Arabic pronunciation of Mogul, they overran India and made Islam so very popular there.

“Annihilation or else” was most recently used by the Soviets in Afghanistan.  They had the prerequisite ruthlessness for the strategy but not the necessary budget.  War is more expensive than it used to be, and the Soviet Union was a fourth-rate economy trying to prop us a world empire.  Mohammed and the Koran might inspire threadbare soldiers to conquer.  Leonid Brezhnev and “Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism” did not incite the same level of heroics.   The Soviet soldiers probably were willing to trade their tanks for food.

So, “annihilation or else” can be effective when practiced by religious fanatics or sociopaths–but they lost the last election here.  Furthermore, the American public certainly would rather commit war crimes against Venezuela, Iran or France.

No, President Obama will choose some variation of “force and finesse.”  Bribes and half-measures are the American way.

  1. Kevin Otto says:

    I totally agree with your summation of the so-called current threat of Americans. After 8 years it has become a cold case, and there are different people running the show in Afghanistan, if there still is a show. Mr. Obama’s intent is not to conquer Afghanistan, but to crush the organization behind 9/11. As in WW1 and WW2, America is entering a war too late and is unwinnable. What will occur is a final show of American might for all the world to see and fear what will happen should any group decide to attack the great USA again. America spends more on it’s military than all nations of the world combined, and it has one of the smallest populations of countries in the world. A waste of money and manpower has neglected the quality of life for the taxpayer at home. America’s priority has been warfare and the selling of arms to many nations. What the current administration is doing, is just trying to save face by leaving Afghanistan after a blaze of firepower. All the effort and trillions of dollars spent since 9/11 has actually been directed at a handfull of militants, who have boldly escaped the most powerfull nation on earth on donkeys and foot. Hollywood should get their pens writing about these wily men who have shown that their story is one that should be told. But we will never hear or see their story in our lifetimes or the next. KO

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      I do think that World War I and II were winnable. Otherwise, I wouldn’t likely be here.


  2. Rothgar says:

    I see tonight’s announcement as mostly finesse. The President is basically setting up an “18 month” (really 11 month) show of force after which we declare victory and send in the fresh meat (Peace Corp Volunteers). My math shows we could pay off 800 working level taliban fighters for the cost of a single US trooper (1 million per year). I am guessing this is what point 2 was all about. I hope this is the course he is steering. Running away was Ronnie proved doesn’t work. These crazies can our sociopath our best (see George W. Bush) so a more clever approach was needed.

    BTW: We spend so much on our military because it is the only way the GOP can abide of stimulating our economy (middle class welfare). They privately recognize the need to be able to periodically stimulate the economy (tax cuts don’t work) and about the only type of spending they accept.

    Ask a right winger what is the difference between the New Deal public works spending and spending to win WWII and you’ll get an insight into their mindset. Economically there was no difference except that noone was busily trying to stop the WWII spending until V-J Day.

  3. Eugene Finerman says:


    The right-wingers at that time didn’t want us in the War–or wished that we were on the other side.


  4. Peg Pruitt says:

    Very interesting piece, Eugene, as always. I think the situation in Afghanistan is untenable because we are trying to bring democracy to a nation mired in the Middle Ages. While there are some “modern” Afghanis, most of the population seem to be very comfortable in their medieval lives – due to both culture and religion.

    Imagine if someone had tried to introduce a democratic type of government into Western Europe in the twelfth or thirteenth century. That person would have had a very short life expectancy. The populace would never have accepted this – the upper classes because of their power, and the lower classes because they were uneducated and were controlled by the upper classes. Eventually the West grew up and matured into various democratic countries. Unfortunately, the Arab/Muslim word had no such Enlightenment and are stuck in the Middle Ages. More American blood will be spilled with very little gain.

    • Leah says:

      “While there are some “modern” Afghanis, most of the population seem to be very comfortable in their medieval lives – due to both culture and religion.”

      I don’t think it can be most– after all, about half the population is female. One of the reforms the US in insisting upon is that rape actually be made a crime in the Afghan criminal code, which has apparently not been the case yet. And as for “very comfortable”– it’s pretty clear that there are many male Afghans who would like a life not continually at the mercy of warlords and the Taliban, even if their situation in life is better than that of women.

  5. Michael says:

    Eugene, I’ve been a little behind in reading my email, so, almost a week late, I’ve come across your excellent piece on Afghanistan. Every columnist who opines on Afghanastan seems to repeat the fiction that Afghanistan has never been conquered as if a couple of centuries is as impermanent as a weekend and I wince every time I read such nonsense.

    You should rework the piece slightly and get it into the op-ed section of a major newspaper. It would be refreshing to see something in a newspaper that didn’t show a complete ignorance of the historical record.

  6. Eugene Finerman says:


    Thank you. You know I did not even present a full list of Afghanistan’s conquerors. Otherwise, I would have included Parthia, Sassanid Persia and Tamerlane.

    But how do you suggest that I rework the article?


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