Graeme Wood

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Alexander’s Nemesis

The Weekly Standard, 21 November 2005

Review of:

Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan
by Frank L. Holt
California, 241 pp., $24.95

Now that Afghan civil aviation is up and running, anyone with fifty bucks for a plane ticket can view Afghanistan from 10,000 feet up. At ground level, bustling conurbations like Kabul and Herat easily fool a visitor into thinking he is (despite the stranglingly bad air, laden with car exhaust and airborne donkey feces) within a hundred years of the present day. But to see from the window of a decrepit Kam Air Antonov is to be disabused: blue lakes and bleak crags roll across the window, punctuated infrequently by hamlets of astonishing archaism. The villages’ crooked pastures and mangers of mangy beasts could have existed in identical form in the ages of Brezhnev, Kipling, Babur, or Alexander the Great. Many villages appear to have no roads connecting them to each other, or to the relative outposts of progress at Kabul, Herat, or Mazar-e-Sharif.

With such a view, it is not a matter of imagining Afghanistan as it was during the age of Alexander, but of realizing that most of the country has never left that age, and that time is an illusion to which only the small population of Afghan city-dwellers has succumbed.

Frank Holt’s excellent account of Alexander the Great’s campaigns in Afghanistan relies on this premise to construct a cautionary narrative about American visions of empire in Central Asia. The premise is mostly correct: Even after four years of aid–and with the exception of Kabul and a few other spots–Afghanistan remains only marginally better off than it was in ancient times, and the difficulties of terror and subjugation then hold lessons for war and development today.

After his father Philip of Macedon’s death in 336 b.c., Alexander led his army on the longest and bloodiest military tour ever, cutting a swath of terror through ancient Iraq and Iran. In old Persian sources, he is known as “the Cursed” for torching Babylon (in modern Hilla, Iraq) and Persepolis (near Shiraz, Iran) and deposing Darius, Shah of Shahs. From Persepolis, Alexander would have continued east anyway, but the hubris of Bessus, a satrap who challenged Alexander’s suzerainty, provided a convenient pretext to cross swiftly into the land not yet known as the grave of empires.

Holt’s most vivid passages describe what happened next. Bessus hid in Bactria, in the city now known as Balkh, and remained defiant. (Balkh today bears every mark of having been reduced to rubble repeatedly; there is almost nothing to hint at its former glory.) Alexander’s armies moved in, dismantled resistance along the way, and took Bessus captive without much difficulty. As punishment Bessus was, Holt writes, “literally defaced,” his noble features snipped, ripped, or smeared from the front of his skull.

Things then got ugly: Alexander’s men bristled at their leader’s growing pretensions of divinity; they hated his eagerness to take on Persian customs and dress. He wed a Bactrian, known to history as Roshanak or Roxane, and demanded that his generals find Persian mates of their own. (Tales of Alexander persist in the region: The Chitralis of northern Pakistan attribute their green eyes and fair hair to Alexander’s men. The claim is spurious, though it has more cachet than tracing one’s lineage to centuries of Russian rapists and anonymous mustachioed British colonial officers.)

Fierce locals murdered Alexander’s deputies and ran to the hills to hide from reprisals. With time, the Macedonians wondered why they had spent so much time and blood to subdue a barbarous backwater. Worse still, those wounded or too old to proceed faced garrison duty in Afghanistan and a virtual guarantee that they would never see the sea again. Eventually, dissension became so general that Alexander had to suspend his depredations in the Punjab and return to Persia. He died in Babylon at 32, his Afghan territories in disarray.

Holt draws parallels both broad and specific between the campaigns of Alexander and the later conquests of Afghanistan by the British, the Soviets, and the United States. Like the latter-day conquerors, Alexander’s men saw the locals as backward, even wicked, and in Alexander’s case they viewed the indigenous rituals as reason enough to put the Bactrians to the sword. (One Macedonian officer remarked that the Bactrians looked so horrible that they should be fought only at night.) All invaders faced a highly mobile local enemy with almost no logistical needs whatsoever. Alexander’s army needed 160,000 gallons of water per day; the British had two support soldiers for every one on the frontline; and the American logistical train today is much, much longer than either.

Most unsettling is the recurring trope of premature victory. All invasions of Afghanistan have started off well, with the main population centers falling rapidly. The conquerors declared triumph, and immediately began a slow and bloody unraveling that ended with retreat and varying degrees of whimpering and ignominy. Under Holt’s comparison, International Security Assistance Force has gotten as far as the premature victory declaration, and now it must stay wary of the unraveling. Into the Land of Bones was completed in 2004; but even by then, it was clear that Taliban sympathizers still operated with impunity on the Pakistan frontier, as they do today, and that the final phase might be underway.

Holt’s book is among the best accounts of the Afghan wars, and his warnings for us are sound and smart. When he writes that the United States in Afghanistan “does not have history on its side,” he is stating fact, not opinion. But the good news is that many of the historical weaknesses of armies occupying Afghanistan are being corrected. For example, unlike its forerunners, the U.S. military–particularly its Special Forces–has shown itself capable of outmaneuvering local fighters on their own ground. The military as a whole lumbers and needs its logistical nourishment on a regular basis. But in small numbers, the United States proved incredibly spry. In its immensely successful December 2001 campaign in northern Afghanistan, Special Forces rode Afghan horses the size of adolescent burros and outmaneuvered the Taliban decisively. Pathans in Jalalabad told me last year that they had encountered U.S. soldiers south of the city, near restive Paktia, and were spooked to find that military translators’ Pashto skills and local knowledge were indistinguishable from a native’s.

Alexander and the Soviets also had different goals from the United States, as well as less sensitivity to human rights and civilian affairs. Alexander razed whole towns of fellow Greeks, to say nothing of Bactrians. He used collective punishment techniques familiar to modern Afghans from the Soviet occupation. The total body count in Alexander’s campaigns ran to 120,000–a figure of genocidal proportions given the population at the time. The rebels holed up in the hills during Alexander’s time were caught and crucified. In modern times, rather than pursue Taliban into the tribal areas, U.S. forces let them slip away. The Alexandrian option would be to pulverize indiscriminately the villages that harbored them.

Where Alexander appears to have had hopes of subjecting Afghans en masse to complete domination, the United States aims primarily to annihilate terrorists. It has protected the formerly cosmopolitan character of Kabul and Herat, but it has also let unruly backwoods villages keep their medieval and reactionary interpretations of Islam. The unpacified interior, and the rough edges in the east and south, will remain rough and unpacified, so long as their inhabitants don’t try to kill anyone. For an occupying army, this counts as forbearance.

And last, never before in Afghanistan’s history has military technology so greatly favored the invaders. The British, an experienced colonial army, famously had their entire Kabul garrison massacred–down to the last man–on the road to Jalalabad in 1841. Such an event today is inconceivable. Ornery tribesmen in the Khyber Pass have upgraded only slightly from the ten-rupee jezails of yore, whereas in this age of computerized warfare, Americans have screensavers more lethal than the deadliest weapon in the Taliban arsenal.

Holt’s use of classical sources is unexceptionable, although his knowledge of modern Afghanistan relies on journalistic accounts and general texts, and not always the best ones. (A citation from Robin Moore’s silly The Hunt for Bin Laden is a low point.) Holt refers to a Persian council as a “loya jirga,” a Pashto phrase meaning “big meeting” that is deployed gratuitously here. The comparison of Bactrian insurgents and the Afghan mujahadeen (a category expansive enough to include Mullah Omar and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, but also Hamid Karzai and Abdul Haq) is too loose even to be wrong. These botched forays into contemporary affairs are unfortunate but by no means unforgivable in a book as eloquent and serious as this.

Its most puzzling aspect is that Holt is so willing to compare Alexander’s failure in Afghanistan to the perils of the present situation, and yet he is persistently coy about the far more disturbing comparison: Iraq. Alexander’s armies effortlessly sacked Iraq’s Babylon and Gaugamela (Hilla and Erbil), then became hopelessly mired in Afghanistan. The United States, Holt implies, has done the reverse.

The sacking of Persepolis unseated a real enemy, but the hunt for Bessus had no purpose but to satisfy Alexander’s unwillingness to let another rule, save at his dispensation. When the Bactrian campaign stretched into a years-long attempt to rule a patently unrulable wasteland, the Macedonians lost their nerve and, in time, the war. Holt makes the analogues clear: Alexander’s father Philip II (a consensus builder who brought together warring city-states to fight the Persians) is George H.W. Bush, Bactria is Iraq, Bessus is Saddam Hussein, and the League of Corinth–to which Alexander appealed unsuccessfully for support in the liberation of Bactria–is the United Nations. Alexander is our sitting president.

The greatest disappointment in this otherwise satisfying book is that Holt, who teaches history at the University of Houston, stage-whispers these comparisons rather than lodging them outright. It is not fair for Holt to write of Alexander’s call for “regime change” in Persia (and ultimate decision to “go it alone”) without completing the argument and directly comparing Hellenistic decapitation strikes against Bessus to the more recent ones against Saddam Hussein. There is a virtue in subtlety; but here, one senses a case left unmade not out of art but timidity. On the other hand, in a scholar, there are vices worse than self-restraint.

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