Machiavelli’s advice about Afghanistan

I’m reading David Loyn’s ‘In Afghanistan‘ which is history of British, Russian and American military intervention in that country.  It’s quite a good read although there isn’t much here to make you think our current efforts will turn out much better.  Loyn’s description of British and Russian attempts to impose some sort of order bare a creepy similarity to our own current efforts, particularly when discussing the assumptions about Afghans and what is needed to ‘get them on board.’

I came across this passage (page 89) however and it struck me as worthwhile for bringing up here:

The Afghans in 1879 leaned n the one set-piece confrontation on the Charasiab ridge that they would not defeat the British army in open warfare.  So they avoided it.  They were quarrelsome and confrontational with each other-weaknesses in conventional war, but qualities that gave them flexibility and unbeatable power in an insurgency.  Their disunity generated centrifugal forces that made the country ungovernable and gave them a sinuous strength when they came together.

As I read that, I couldn’t help thinking about chapter 4 in The Prince:

I answer that the principalities of which one has record are found to be governed in two different ways: either by a prince, with a body of servants, who assist him to govern the kingdom as ministers by his favour and permission; or by a prince and barons, who hold that dignity by antiquity of blood and not by the grace of the prince…

…in kingdoms governed like that of France, because one can easily enter there by gaining over some baron of the kingdom, for one always finds malcontents and such as desire a change. Such men, for the reasons given, can open the way into the state and render the victory easy; but if you wish to hold it afterwards, you meet with infinite difficulties, both from those who have assisted you and from those you have crushed. Nor is it enough for you to have exterminated the family of the prince, because the lords that remain make themselves the heads of fresh movements against you, and as you are unable either to satisfy or exterminate them, that state is lost whenever time brings the opportunity.

So how does Machiavelli say we can ‘win’ in Afghanistan?  Well, it doesn’t look like he’d look too favorable on any plan that has us withdrawing forces in 2, 5, or 10 years:

Hence arose those frequent rebellions against the Romans in Spain, France, and Greece, owing to the many principalities there were in these states, of which, as long as the memory of them endured, the Romans always held an insecure possession; but with the power and long continuance of the empire the memory of them passed away, and the Romans then became secure possessors. And when fighting afterwards amongst themselves, each one was able to attach to himself his own parts of the country, according to the authority he had assumed there; and the family of the former lord being exterminated, none other than the Romans were acknowledged.

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3 responses to “Machiavelli’s advice about Afghanistan

  1. Hi, not sure if you’ll ever get this but I have a question about your response. I don’t really understand why Machiavelli would be hesitant on removing our troops within 2, 5, or 10 years. perhaps you can talk briefly in your own words on this subject? I appreciate your help..

  2. Sure…although with two provisos: 1) I’m not a Machiavelli expert (as much as I enjoy his work) and 2) see #1.

    But, my thinking is that if we asked Machiavelli for his advice about how to best ‘conquer’ Afghanistan (a separate question from the wisdom of such a decision) he’d conclude that since the country doesn’t governors or satraps who derive their power from a central government they’re unlikely to easily switch their allegiance to an invader like the Persians did for Alexander.

    He does present three options for those who conquer a nation (chap 5 of the Prince): ruin the country, demand tribute or reside there in person. I think most people would agree that Afghanistan is pretty much ‘ruined’ already. Demanding tribute really wouldn’t accomplish our security goals and is out which only leaves residing in the nation. Since our political leadership won’t do that sort of thing (could you imagine the U.S. government temporarily relocating to Kabul as a demonstration of their resolve to see this thing through to the end?) we’d have to substitute a military presence. In Chapter 3 of the Prince he argues that you can hold that territory by establishing colonies of veterans or “keep there a great number of cavalry and infantry” in the country. I suspect it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be handing out land grants to veterans (although that would be an interesting idea) so we’re really only left with an extended military presence.

    I think he would argue that a military presence would have to be extended (much more than 2 or 5 years) because the only way to ‘hold’ a conquered nation used to living under their own laws is to get them used (at a very fundamental level) to living under someone else’s.

    I’m pretty sure he’d caution that history wouldn’t be on the side of the conqueror in this regard but if we were determined to try we wouldn’t have many other options than a lot of troops there for a lot of time.

  3. super blog you gots here, thanks alot for sharing it!

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