The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Monday, September 20, 2021

Why did the Taliban Win? Lessons From Ancient History


How did the Taliban manage to defeat the most powerful army in the world? One word: corruption. It is not new, it has already happened in many other cases in history. Here, I propose a comparison of the recent Taliban campaign with the case of the Numidian wars at the time of the Roman Republic.  (above: these fighters are probably Tajiki, not Taliban, but that does not affect the substance of my interpretation) 

During the 2nd century BC, the Roman Republic attempted to defeat the Numidians, a tribal population inhabiting a desertic area of North-Western Africa. Surely, the Numidian fighters were no match for the mighty Roman armies, yet the Numidian kings held on their own for decades. It was only in 105 BC that their last king, Jugurtha, was definitively defeated by the Romans.

The ups and downs of the Numidian wars left the Romans perplexed. How could it be that those unrefined Barbarians could keep at bay the Romans for so long? The opinion of the historian Sallustius was that the Numidians had used corruption to buy the Roman commanders. Sallustius reports that Jugurtha himself said about Rome, "Venal city! You would sell yourself if a buyer were to appear!".

Sallustius' interpretation is believable, even though it is not substantiated by historical data. Corruption is an unavoidable side effect of money and Rome was the most monetarized society of antiquity. The Romans had built their prosperity on the precious metal mines of Northern Spain and used their wealth to pay the large armies that they used to dominate the Mediterranean Region. But money is a double-edged weapon: it can be used to pay soldiers to fight, but also not to fight, or to fight someone they were not supposed to fight. 

Once corruption has infiltrated society, money becomes everything, and the rule of the game, at all levels, becomes enriching oneself. But what role did corruption play in the war, exactly? Sallustius diplomatically faults King Jugurtha, but the Numidian economy was small, the Numidians were mostly poor shepherds. Where would Jugurtha find the money needed to buy the rich Roman leaders? 

More likely, the Roman Army bought itself off. Setting up a military expedition implies a lot of money being spent at various levels for supplies, weapons, salaries, transportation, etc. And, at all levels, there are chances for bribery. Once the mechanism started, nobody in Rome really wanted Jugurtha defeated. As long as he was alive and fighting, there was money to be made. That's the likely reason why the war dragged for so long. 

On their side, the Numidians were not so badly affected by corruption simply because they were a tribal society. In this kind of society, interpersonal relations are governed by honor, revenge, fealty, and the like -- NOT by money. Trying to corrupt a tribal warlord is not easy: for one thing, where could he spend the money? Besides, a corrupt leader is always at risk of revenge from his own followers. The end result was that the Numidian fighters were fewer in number not as efficient as the Roman legionnaires, but more trustworthy and surely cheaper. 

The Roman surely realized what the problem was. But fighting corruption is always a difficult task, if nothing else because those who are supposed to fight it can be corrupted as well. So, how to solve the problem? There was an interesting trick that could be played. Powerful warlords were among the most corrupt of the corrupted, but with a twist. Whereas petty leaders profited from an ongoing war, rather than from a victory, the top commanders needed victories to gain prestige and money. So, they were efficient war leaders. The solution, then, was to give all the power to a warlord. 

That was already happening at the time of Gaius Marius, with the Roman Republic in a "pre-imperial" condition. In about one century, Rome would be turned into a full-fledged imperial state, ruled by a single, all-powerful emperor. Of course, the emperor could not be corrupted: he already had everything. 

Emperors could keep the empire together, at least as long as there were the resources for doing so. Then, with the exhaustion of the precious metal mines, the Roman state ceased to be a monetarized society. No more money, no more corruption. No corruption, no need for an emperor. And not even for a state. That's how history moves. 

Fast forward to our times, and we can compare the US campaign in Afghanistan with the Roman campaign in Numidia. With all their might, the Romans and the Americans were hampered by the enormous costs of their military apparatuses, in both cases amplified by corruption at all levels. In comparison, the Numidians and the Taliban fighters were much less expensive. 

It is true that the Romans did better than the Americans and eventually succeeded at subduing the Numidians. But think of just one thing: nowadays the descendants of the Berbers who fought the Romans in Numidia are still there, and still call themselves "Berbers." (more exactly ⵉⵎⴰⵣⵉⵖⵏ, ⵎⵣⵗⵏImaziɣen) And where has the Roman Empire gone? Alas...

Note also that to estimate the degree of corruption of the Roman society we need to rely on qualitative reports. But for the degree of corruption of our society, we have more data, even though uncertain: look at this image (source).

That correlates the perceived corruption with the Gini index, a measure of wealth inequality (note that a high corruption index means LOW corruption and vice versa). The US is not in this diagram, but it is more or less in the middle. 

Note the correlation between corruption and inequality: the higher the inequality, the higher the degree of corruption. The least corrupt states (e.g. Denmark) are also the most egalitarian. The opposite holds for corrupt states, say, the Dominican Republic. 

It makes a lot of sense that inequality and corruption are correlated, even though we can't say that one of the two causes the other. More likely, they go in parallel. Of course, in order to corrupt someone, you need to have much more money than they have. Could you corrupt Bill Gates? Of course not, but Bill Gates can corrupt anyone if he wants to. Conversely, in an egalitarian society, it is hard to corrupt a person, especially if you are linked to him or her by bonds involving honor and respect. 

I don't claim to be an expert in Pashtunwali, the code of honor of the Pashtun Afghans, but it looks close enough to societies that I know, such as that of the Italian peasants. It is a section of the Italian society that has mostly disappeared, but it still existed not long ago, so that we can still figure out how that world worked. If you understand that, then it is not difficult to understand how a tribal society can sometimes defeat an empire. It is a question of persistence. It has happened, it will happen again. 

Finally note that, if corruption is linked to inequality, the fact that most Western societies have become more unequal during the past decades means that also corruption has been on the increase -- and that seems to correspond to the general perception. It means that the West is less and less able to win wars, although it may well keep fighting them for the sake of those who profit from them. 

Again, this observation seems to correspond to the events of the past 2-3 decades. Despite its immense military power, the West hasn't been able to gain a definitive victory even against much weaker opponents. Does that mean we need an incorruptible Emperor? 

Ave, Gates Caesar!


  1. A really good post! I am glad you talk about the Berbers. A friend of mine spent some time in the desert and learnt from them a lot of things. It's really fascinating. It seems the world has forgotten what they still know.
    Interesting to see that after a previous post about the Garamantes you talk now about the Numidians.

    1. Thanks. I am fascinated by the Sahara desert. It is because I have a plan to turn it green!!!

    2. You have much more in common with my friend that I imagined! Hope you can talk about your plan some day?

    3. Do you know Walter Jehne? That looks interesting :

    4. If you wait 10 or 20 thousand years, it may turn green again, like it was before, when it had rivers running through lush areas. (I think about 10,000 BC or so)

  2. Many of the writers in the peak oil/climate change community say that we should “go local”. We need to develop small communities of people that know one another, trust one another and work together. It’s an ideal, and, like all ideals, subject to human frailties. But, as I was reading this post, I was also thinking a church meeting I will be attending tonight.

    We are planning on building an outdoor pavilion. The funds come from our local network, not from some central bank computer that is printing Monopoly money. The financials for the project are open for all to see. Two of the people on the committee are highly experienced in the construction trade and have been members at our church for many years. We know them very well and will follow their leadership. I don’t know how egalitarian we are, but there are no “bosses” — activities such as this are community events.

    It seems to me that projects such as this are mostly non-corrupt. Could Bill Gates corrupt our little community? I suppose so, but it would be harder than corrupting a large military contractor supplying weapons to the Afghan army.

    No society is perfect, of course. There is no shortage of scandals to do with church finances. But “going local” does seem to encourage honesty and commitment.

  3. All the Taliban had to do was making the "war" too long and too expensive (in precious American lives) and sure as the Russians and the British before them, the invader eventually tires out and goes home. It worked for the Vietnamese in their victory over the US, and actually in the US's victory over the much more powerful British.

    In all fairness it probably didn't hurt in the American revolution that there was the underlying temptation that any Brits who could get away from Britain could come to the US and have a 2nd go at success.

    And in the Taliban's case it sure helped them that the US found the most corrupt, evil warlords they could, and buddied up to them. For the average Afghan, life might be better under the Taliban and probably not worse.

  4. The Romans were hampered by the enormous back-breaking Energy cost of their military apparatuses.
    Our Western Civilisation is hampered by the enormous Energy cost of pretending it has solved the Energy problem - and its relentless campaign, since Einstein and Huxley, of making 8 billion humans to believe the wishful thinking claim

    To date, the British media has never associated the mass shutdown of coal mines during Thatcher's years to the fact that there was little left of British coal in the ground to mine - not even after 40 years.

    Today, International brands are pulling out of China blaming 'Corruption' but never explaining how China has mined 3+ billion tonnes of its own coal a year for the last decades - and the reserve didn't dwindle down to exhaustion yet.

    In Iraq, when the harsh summer arrives and power from the grid proves again again a non existent, year after year - a miracle happens:

    Terrorist groups take down power lines, so the government blames the groups but never any media tells the public that Iraq actually requires many folds more generation capacity, even if no line is taken down, to stay in the industrial age;

    And that is another 80+ power stations of 1 GW a piece - which will never happen - having the fossil fuels age is coming to an end.

    When the best of our brains analyse current affairs, they attribute the root cause to Musk and Gates... - never ever to depleting Energy resources...

    Taliban, then the US, then Taliban... - is nothing different from Democrats then Republicans then Democrats..., say - a two-horse race game...

    As fossil fuels deplete, our Western Civilisation resorts to recycling old names, having invested fossil fuels in creating them inside minds - arms and legs.

    New names would need even more Energy invested, from scratch, which is no longer a case.

    If not Musk then Gates, and if not Gates then Corruption, and if not Taliban then the US - but never ever the depleting Energy wells...

    The Corruption talked about everywhere today is Civilisation-Scale, originated from the very claim that all Energy constraints by Physics have long been made tweaked and gone away.

    Whenever Musk, Gates, Taliban, Pharma, Orwell, Huxley, Lockdowns, Corruption, Collapse, street protests, China, Iraq... are mentioned - one needs to understand it is no other than the image of the very same false Energy claim.