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Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan

Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan

by Frank L. Holt

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The so-called first war of the twenty-first century actually began more than 2,300 years ago when Alexander the Great led his army into what is now a sprawling ruin in northern Afghanistan. Frank L. Holt vividly recounts Alexander's invasion of ancient Bactria, situating in a broader historical perspective America's war in Afghanistan.


The so-called first war of the twenty-first century actually began more than 2,300 years ago when Alexander the Great led his army into what is now a sprawling ruin in northern Afghanistan. Frank L. Holt vividly recounts Alexander's invasion of ancient Bactria, situating in a broader historical perspective America's war in Afghanistan.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Frank Holt...narrates [Alexander's] struggle in clear prose that makes this ancient campaign come alive and gives greater appreciation for the challenges that confront all counterinsurgents in Afghanistan--including the U.S. troops still fighting there more than a decade after 9/11."--Wall Street Journal
Wall Street Journal

“Frank Holt...narrates [Alexander's] struggle in clear prose that makes this ancient campaign come alive and gives greater appreciation for the challenges that confront all counterinsurgents in Afghanistan—including the U.S. troops still fighting there more than a decade after 9/11.”

Product Details

University of California Press
Publication date:
Hellenistic Culture and Society Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.75(d)

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The University of California Press

ISBN: 0-520-24553-9

Chapter One


I've only to pick up a newspaper and I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines.

Henrik Ibsen


Afghanistan, the world's inexhaustible wellspring of warlords and terrorists, cannot escape the crosshairs of history. In each of the last three centuries, superpowers have trained their sights on this tragic land, determined to impose upon it a new world order successively British, Soviet, and American. Such endeavors usually begin with confidence and end with catastrophe. First, with exuberant expectations, the British Empire gathered in 1838 a grand army to quell the unruly Afghans. The goal was simply to replace one ruler (Dost Muhammed) with another (the exiled Shah Shuja) more amenable to British interests. "There have been few military campaigns in British history," writes Major General James Lunt, "which were more ineptly planned and more incompetently executed than the first Afghan War; and that is saying a good deal." These 15,200 soldiers took with them 38,000 servants, together with brass bands, bagpipes, polo ponies, packs of foxhounds, and thirty thousand camels burdened with supplies. The officers of oneregiment required two camels just to carry their cigars, and a single brigadier needed sixty beasts to haul his personal belongings. Even so, the expeditionary force soon ran short of provisions and had to pay premium prices for a flock of ten thousand sheep. The army ate everything, including the sheepskins fried in blood. The camels proved less helpful. They died in such numbers that one general pronounced them useless except for burial practice, an ominous remark indeed.

Under General Sir John Keane, the British celebrated some early successes at Kandahar and Ghazni, then reached Kabul in August 1839 (see Map 1). There they placed Shah Shuja on the throne. This foreign intervention, however, stirred growing resentment among the native peoples even as most of the British troops swaggered back to India. Tribal opposition mounted across Afghanistan, erupting disastrously when terrorists butchered a prominent British official named Alexander "Bukhara" Burnes. In January 1842, the empire's remaining 4,500 soldiers and their 12,000 camp followers retreated from Kabul in a long wintry death-march that only one European survived. 5 Shah Shuja fell to assassins on April 5, and the country disintegrated into feuding bands led by tribal warlords. Dost Muhammed reclaimed his throne, for what it was worth, and Afghanistan reverted to its original status. But for the making of 15,000 ghosts, nothing at all had changed.

Later in the same century, the British took another turn at taming Afghanistan. Never successful at unifying his nation, Dost Muhammed died in 1863. He had outlived his three favorite sons, so the two dozen remaining settled into a spirited civil war that alarmed both the neighboring British in India and the Russians in central Asia. These anxieties fueled the infamous Great Game, in which both parties competed for influence over Afghanistan using all manner of spies and covert operations. When it appeared to the British that their own position was weakening among the tribal factions in Afghanistan, military intervention again seemed necessary. The Second Afghan War (1878-1880) commenced with a swift invasion by 33,500 troops on three fronts that promised complete success. Revenge sweetened the air, but the atmosphere soon changed. Cholera swept through the ranks as daytime temperatures soared above one hundred degrees in the shade. Commanders were warned not to visit troop hospitals because they might not be able to bear the shock of what they would see. Fortunately, the war soon ended-or so everyone thought-in 1879. The British government, conducting two wars at once, was glad to declare its victory in Afghanistan. The cause had been just, the casualties from combat relatively low, and the naysayers happily hushed. But then, as in the previous war, a high British official was butchered in Kabul. Reprisals came swiftly as the angry occupiers rounded up rebels and hung them ten at a time.

The war caught fire again and burned brightly. At the battle of Maiwand (July 27, 1880), a British force of 2,500 men suffered a devastating defeat near Kandahar. Reinforcements under Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Roberts soon arrived, including a mobile city of 10,000 soldiers, over 7,000 camp followers, more than 4,700 horses and ponies, nearly 6,000 mules and donkeys, and over 13,000 other transport animals. The march of this army from Kabul and its triumph at Kandahar made Roberts ("flawless in faith and fame") a rare hero in the course of this raw and unromantic war; however, in the end, the general warned the West that Afghanistan should be left alone. He added prophetically: "It may not be very flattering to our amour propre, but I feel sure I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us the less they will dislike us. Should Russia in future years attempt to conquer Afghanistan, or invade India through it, we should have a better chance of attaching the Afghans to our interests if we avoid all interference with them in the meantime."

A century later, the Russians did indeed dispatch over 100,000 troops to install a puppet government in Afghanistan (1979-1989). The twentieth century naturally brought new weapons to bear on the tribal warlords, who still controlled the countryside. Land mines killed and crippled Afghan civilians in unbelievable numbers (and still do); Soviet jets, helicopters, and tanks pounded guerilla forces armed and led much as they had been against the British. As before, the invaders seemed certain at first of an easy victory: "It'll be over in three or four weeks," Leonid Brezhnev promised Anatoly Dobrynin. For years the Soviets had prepared for such an invasion, building useful roads and runways allegedly to help the Afghans, while the West pulled back and put its money into Pakistan. Taking up the cause once espoused by Lord Roberts, the United States finally seized upon this Soviet intervention as a winning endgame in the long cold war. Detente crumbled with President Jimmy Carter's recall of his ambassador to Russia, a boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games hosted by Moscow, a grain embargo, and a mounting U.S. military budget. On the day of the Soviet invasion, Carter's national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, advised the president, "We now have the opportunity of giving the USSR its Vietnam War." Under President Ronald Reagan, the CIA's operations in the region became its largest in the world as thousands of Soviets and millions of Afghans fell or fled. American money and munitions kept the mujahideen (jihadist) warlords trained and equipped for their bloody crusade.

In 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev delivered his famous speech likening Afghanistan to "a bleeding wound"; this pronouncement signaled Russia's weakening resolve to dominate Afghanistan. To hasten the outcome, the United States decided later in the same year to supply Stinger antiaircraft missiles to the mujahideen via Pakistan. Terrorists today still have access to aging stockpiles of these dangerous weapons, but at the time the gamble seemed worthwhile: Soviet air losses mounted rapidly to 118 jets and 333 helicopters. The quagmire deepened. Finally, on February 15, 1989, the last Russian soldier retreated across the Amu Darya, leaving behind more than 13,800 Soviet dead as another superpower abandoned its hopes to subdue Afghanistan.

For the next twelve years, victorious Afghan rebels struggled for control of the ravaged country. One warlord masquerading as prime minister callously bombarded the capital city on a daily basis, killing some 25,000 of his own people. Nations that had armed and trained these warlords to defeat the Soviets showed little interest in this dismal civil war. Chaos, crime, and corruption took hold and inflamed new resentments against the West. Helpless and hopeless, many Afghans welcomed a stern "law and order" movement touted by a militia of black-turbaned religious students called the Taliban (Seekers). Led by Mullah Muhammad Omar and financed in part by the billionaire Osama bin Laden, who had once assisted the CIA in its transfer of weapons to the mujahideen, the Taliban captured Kabul in September 1996. The fighting continued as thirteen other factions, including the Northern Alliance, stubbornly resisted the Taliban; but most of Afghanistan eventually fell under the authoritarian rule of these fundamentalists. Defying the outside world, these extremists blew up the gigantic Buddhas carved in the cliffs of Bamian, beat women senseless who failed to wear their burqas, and abetted the insidious growth of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization. Then dawned a deceptively fine day in September 2001 that defined a new era among nations. Out of crystalline autumn skies screamed four jetliners on paths of unspeakable destruction. Suddenly the sights of another superpower swung around to Afghanistan.

Intervention came quickly and with new weaponry. Within a month, a thick alphanumeric soup of sophisticated aircraft boiled above Afghanistan. Crews aboard B-1 and B-52 bombers spewed tons of munitions into the mountain hideouts of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Joining the fray were EA-6 Prowlers, F-14 Tomcats, F-15 Eagles, F-16 Falcons, F-18 Hornets, A-10 Thunderbolts, MC-130 Talons, KC-135 Stratotankers, UH-60 Black Hawks, HH-53 Jolly Green Giants, AC-130 Spectre gunships, and even RQ-1 A/B Predator drones flown by absentee pilots seated at computer screens in Riyadh. Stirring the pot were but a handful of Special Forces on the ground. Unlike the 100,000 Soviet invaders airlifted in the twentieth century, or the immense traveling cities dispatched by the British in the nineteenth, America and its coalition partners relied upon space-age technology to fight an asymmetrical war in and above Afghanistan. Rather than pack their cigars on camels, U.S. pilots could reach the battlefield at Mach 1 and return that same day for a smoke at their bases a thousand miles from central Asia. Even so, a few American personnel found themselves on Afghan ponies, fighting low and slow as if back in the regiments of Lord Roberts. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld proudly proclaimed the horseborne assault on Mazar-i-Sharif "the first U.S. cavalry attack of the twenty-first century." In the opinion of General Tommy Franks, the image of those horsemen seemed as iconic as the Marines raising Old Glory on Iwo Jima: "It was as if warriors from the future had been transported to an earlier century." The tactic worked, and brought the latest superpower its first victory in the war. The Taliban fled, al-Qaeda soon abandoned its main terrorist training camps, and foreign invaders sanctioned-once again-the regime of a friendly ruler in a rebellious land.

The complete history of this latest invasion has not, of course, been written. So far, one senior U.S. intelligence official (notably anonymous in his critique) claims that "the conduct of the Afghan war approaches perfection-in the sense of perfectly inept." For his part, the general in command of the war declared even its worst engagement (Operation Anaconda) to be "an unqualified and absolute success." Fresh battle lines are already being entrenched in books even as the real combat continues. What happens next none can say, although the past warns us that early triumphs in Afghanistan might yet end tragically. The fighting and humanitarian crises continue; many of the enemy's leaders and warlords remain at large or lurk in the shadows as momentary allies. Assassinations still occur with unsettling frequency in Kabul and other cities. Anarchy torments the countryside while NATO boasts but three working helicopters to perform its mission. Calls for more troops go unanswered. As early as the summer of 2003, Americans began openly to question whether U.S. forces were spread too thin, giving al-Qaeda and the Taliban too much hope that yet again the West might fail in the long run to make any lasting difference in Afghanistan. Nearly every day, the news from central Asia stirs up painful reminders. The hoofbeats of our anachronistic cavalry have awakened the spirits of another time and kicked the dust from their tombs. Here and there, at Kandahar and Kabul, Herat and Begram, the desolate posts of the British and Soviet dead have become datelines again in tragic stories of war and occupation.

Few people today realize just how long this has been going on. The invasions led by Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States stretch across centuries and carry us from an age of mules and muskets to one of helicopters and cruise missiles. Yet these modern struggles in Afghanistan are merely the latest phase of something far more ancient, a calamity thicker in ghosts than almost any other in history. Genghis Khan, "the atom bomb of his day," devastated the region when his Mongol hordes rode through in the thirteenth century C.E. Tamerlane followed in the fourteenth century, and Babur (founder of the Moghul dynasty) in the sixteenth. In what has been called "the great hiving-ground of world-disturbers," these medieval wars presaged the modern misfortunes of Afghanistan. One recent study, however, traces the problem back even further, to the fifth century C.E.: "The breakdown of law and order following the invasion of the White Huns perhaps initiated that self-reliant parochialism which is at the root of the fierce tribal and microgeographical independence and mutual hostility which characterizes the structure of Afghan society in recent centuries. Even the unifying influence of Islam [since the seventh century] has been unable to break down this attitude." This broad frame of reference across fifteen centuries says a lot about the continuity of certain conditions in Afghanistan, but it still falls short of the truth by at least eight hundred years. The long rhythms of Afghan history do show some periods of relative calm during which cities grew, trade routes pulsed, irrigated agriculture expanded, and the arts flourished, but between each renaissance we find an era of ruin brought on or exacerbated by the parochialism, tribalism, fierce independence, and mutual hostility mentioned above. These social conditions, not to mention the physical challenges of a harsh terrain and environment, stretch back as far as our earliest written sources will carry us. In these respects, the twenty-first century C.E. differs very little from the fifteenth or fifth C.E. or even the fourth B.C.E.


What George W. Bush has called "the first war of the twenty-first century" actually began on a different autumn day more than twenty-three hundred years ago, when Alexander the Great launched the initial invasion by a Western superpower to subdue Afghanistan and its warlords. Accounts of that campaign read eerily like news from our own day. Alexander, too, acted in the context of a larger Middle East crisis inherited from his father. King Philip II of Macedonia (reigned 359-336 B.C.E.) left his son an unresolved conflict against a major powerhouse based in what is now Iraq. For many years, the Greeks had felt threatened by a regime whose palaces, power, and propaganda seemed to embody everything that divided the peoples of Europe from Asia. Philip's nemesis was the Persian Empire of the Achaemenid kings. Often despised and demonized by the Greeks, Persia had gobbled up the great powers of the past (the Egyptians, Lydians, Chaldaeans) as well as many lesser principalities (those of the Hebrews, Arabs, Phoenicians). The rulers of Persia took the title "King of Kings" to announce their authority over a wide range of local princes, chiefs, and potentates. Back in the fifth century B.C.E., 120 years before the reign of Philip, Persian forces had even invaded Greece by marching through the domain of Macedonia to attack Athens and other city-states. Celebrated battles punctuated that epic struggle at Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea. Herodotus became the Father of History by recounting this epic showdown.

Macedonia and its related Greek neighbors often did not get along, but the specter of the Persian Empire overshadowed their differences and, in the fourth century, drove them together in a makeshift alliance led first by Alexander's father. Philip was a seasoned war veteran who took equal pride in his diplomatic expertise. He surrounded himself with an aggressive staff of generals and advisors who shared his vision of the world. Together they mapped out a bold plan to invade Persia using Macedonian troops backed by a coalition of Greek states (the so-called League of Corinth). In 336 B.C.E., Philip sent an expeditionary army into the western fringes of the Persian Empire; he intended to follow at the head of a much larger force. The objective seems to have been relatively straightforward: push back the frontiers of the Achaemenid Empire and cripple the Persian king's military power without necessarily crushing him.


Excerpted from INTO THE LAND OF BONES by FRANK L. HOLT Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Frank L. Holt, Professor of History at the University of Houston, is the author of Lost World of the Golden King, Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions, and Thundering Zeus, all published by UC Press.

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