If the west really wants to fix Afghanistan, it should learn from an ancient, brutal empireby Edward Luttwak / January 27, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 o…