The man who would be king

By John Frary | Dec 15, 2009

You don't have to search very long, or hard, to find a person right here in Farmington, Maine who has never read a book, or even a page, of the country's history who will confidently inform you that Afghanistan has never been conquered.

Some years ago I co-authored an article entitled "Afghanistan's Military and Strategic Significance" for The International Military Encyclopedia. My two collaborators and I identified a few exceptions to this rule.

Cyrus the Great conquered it (and may have died there in battle in 530 B.C. — they were a tough crowd, even then), and it remained under the rule of the Achaemenid Persian Empire until Alexander the Great conquered it on his way to the Punjab. While it is true that its subjugation proved to be his most prolonged and difficult operation, he brought it to heel and established a number of Greek colonies in its territories.

After his death control passed to the dynasty founded by Seleucus, one of his generals. In the third century B.C. a Seleucid satrap (governor) established an independent Greco-Bactrian kingdom which gained control over all of Afghanistan around the years 190-167 B.C.

During the years 141-128 B.C. the Iranian Sakas conquered the Bactrian kingdom and ruled Afghanistan for a century before they were conquered in turn by the Parthians.

The Parthians were driven out in turn by newcomers known to the Chinese as the Yueh-chi. They established what the Romans knew as the Kushan Empire, which included all of Afghanistan.

By 379 the revived, Sassanian, Persian Empire had conquered the country yet again. Then the Chonites conquered it. Then the Sassanians took it back.

After the Moslem Arabs destroyed the Sassanian empire in the seventh century control reverted completely to local chieftains and Arab historians described much of the population as "idolators" as late as the ninth century.

The Moslem Samanid dynasty of Persia sent a Turkish slave general to reassert control. He overran the country, rebelled against the Samanids, and established his own Ghaznavid dynasty which ruled Afghanistan and neighboring territories.

After the Ghaznavid dynasty fell apart the region lapsed back into the control of local chieftains until Genghiz Khan's armies conquered it yet again in the 13th century, and added it to the great Mongol Empire. When this empire fell apart the Tadjik Karts conquered and held it over for most of a century.

At the end of the 14th century Tamerlane, the Tatar conqueror who claimed Genghiz's heritage, crushed the Karts and added most of Afghanistan to his empire. When his Timurid empire fell apart in the 15th century, Afghanistan reverted again to control of local chieftains.

In 1738 Nadir Shah of Persia conquered Afghanistan and invaded Moghul India. After his assassination in 1747, Ahmed Khan, head of the Durrani Pashtuns, made himself king of Afghanistan.

And the country has remained "unconquerable" ever since.

Anybody remember Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King"? I think the movie version stared Sean Connery.

A petty crook with the gift of gab gets lost in Afganistan, is mistakenly hailed as the messiah, but has to beat a hasty retreat when it turns out he is not "divine."

Let's hope this isn't the script Obama is working from.

Professor John Frary of Farmington is a former U.S. Congress candidate and retired history professor, a board member of Maine Taxpayers United and an associate editor of the International Military Encyclopedia. He can be reached at

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