If the west really wants to fix Afghanistan, it should learn from an ancient, brutal empireby Edward Luttwak / January 27, 2010 / Leave a comment
The Byzantine art of war and diplomacy would prove useful in today’s Afghanistan
Even by the shortest reckoning, the Byzantine empire survived for eight centuries (from the fourth to the twelfth)—longer than any other in history. Although the Byzantines were supremely tenacious in combat, their strategy—invented in response to the unprecedented threat of Attila’s Huns in the 5th century—relied on diplomacy, evolving into a body of rules and techniques that is still relevant today.
Unlike the Romans, the Byzantines wrote official guidebooks on statecraft, foreign relations and espionage: writings I find especially fascinating, as I once helped compose the main field manual of the US army. These ancient techniques centred on a single, paradoxical principle: do everything possible to raise, equip and train the best possible army and navy; then do everything possible to use them as little as possible.
With Afghanistan, the west faces a simple strategic calculus: too costly to stay in, too risky to leave. A Byzantine response would be, first to withdraw the west’s scarce, expensive troops, and arm local proxies instead. This was the standard remedy for turbulent, worthless lands where no taxes could be collected, but which were to be denied to enemies: an improvement over the Romans’ fondness for battles of attrition and annihilation.
In Afghanistan, a banal case of divide and rule is impossible. There is no unitary nation to divide. This is well suited to a Byzantine strategy, which would aim not to rule Afghanistan, but to stop the Taliban from doing so. Little persuasion would be needed to co-opt allies. The Shia Hazara distrust the Taliban, who view them as heretics deserving death, while the country’s Tajiks and Uzbeks, who can be as extreme in religion as the Taliban, would not want to be ruled by them either.
The Byzantines would use diplomacy to deal with Afghanistan’s diverse neighbours. They once even persuaded a rival empire to split the cost of guarding strategic border passes, so both could keep invaders out. Today Uzbekistan, which is just across the river from Afghanistan, and its patron Russia, which is just beyond, have every reason to keep the Taliban at bay, given their internal struggles against armed Islamists. Accordingly, the Byzantines would demand from Russia and Uzbekistan the weapons and ammunition that were needed to arm the Tajiks, Hazara and Uzbeks in Afghanistan.
Most Pakistanis, too, have had their fill of Islamists—during the last election, in 2008, in the supposedly most Islamic northwest, the major Islamist party won just 3 per cent of the vote. Pakistan is more liberal than we think: one of its most popular television talk shows has major political guests, despite being hosted by a transvestite (with a not unpleasant singing voice). But when it comes to meddling in Afghanistan, the ideologically Islamic Pakistani officer caste is firmly in charge, ignoring the preferences of the country’s voters. So Pakistan will continue to do everything in its power to sabotage any possible Byzantine solutions and strengthen the Taliban. The Taliban’s weapons all come through Pakistani territory—Shia Iran only supplies the Shia-killing Taliban every now and then, when the urge to embarrass the US prevails over the much stronger long-term interest in containing the ultra-Sunni Taliban.
The Byzantines would employ a standard technique to neutralise the inevitable Pakistani counter-move. In their day the arrival of a new class of enemy—mounted archers, for instance, or new empires attacking their eastern flank—prompted long-range diplomatic expeditions, deep into their foes’ backyard, to find other powers that might be induced to come and take them on. In one case, an envoy perilously travelled 3,000 miles into what is now China, and persuaded a previously unknown monarch to send forces to attack their rival empire of Persia.
Today, distant journeys would not be needed to find our ally, India, which already provides economic, political and intelligence support to the Afghans. India would furiously protest the remedy of leaving Afghanistan to the locals. But if America goes Byzantine, and withdraws, India will have no choice but to increase its own efforts to resist the Taliban. US-Indian relations in the aftermath? Some passing unpleasantness, no doubt, with aggrieved complaints heard politely and cheerfully ignored. But the solid force of common interests—and, of course, Beijing’s curious revival of the major territorial dispute over the new Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh—would force the Indian hand.
An abandoned Afghanistan, even with a low equilibrium of violence, would not be a pretty spectacle. Then again, it is far from a being one now, in spite of a very costly intervention. Strategy, Byzantine or otherwise, is not a sentimental trade.