Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Back to Bactria

Just days ago, NATO took over responsibility for the entire inernational security operation in Afghanistan.

It will be a far greater test of the stabilisation capabilities of the organisation than the previous less demanding Balkan missions.

Summer is also reading time, and I have just finished a fascinagting account of Alexander the Great’s struggles to control the province that was then called Bactria.

It encompassed much of present Afghanistan and stretched into the Central Asian countries.

During his short decades, Alexander crushed the armies of the Persian Empire, but never really managed to subdue Bactria. At the end, it was the campaigns and challenges at Bactria that broke the back of his armies.

In his book ”Into the Land of Bones” author Frank Holt – renowned scholar in the area - dwells also somewhat on the experiences of the Macedonian, British and Soviet armies in this region over the centuries.

He finds disturbing similarities in the challenges they faced – and eventually were overcome by.

For example, all these invasions of Afghanistan went well at first, but so far no superpower has found a workable alternative to what might be called the recipe for ruin in Afghanistan:

1. Estimate the time and resources necessary to conquer and control the region. 2. Double all estimates. 3. Repeat as needed.

This is certainly not an argument for not trying. Handing Afghanistan back to tribal turmoil and terrorist temptation can certainly not be a policy alternative.

But it’s an argument against complacency when discussing the challenges, and against underestimating the time and resources that will be needed.

It’s also an argument in favour of reading a good book.