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Machiavellian Strategems and Afgahnistan

September 26, 2010

When examining the thoughts and ideals of political philosophers, I often find it helpful to find some way to evaluate or apply their ideals to a contemporary situation.  Since the current war in Afghanistan is a problem that creates much discussion, and since much of Machiavelli’s advice deals with war, and the acquiring and maintenance of territory, a cross analysis of the situation under the Machiavellian microscope is in order.

Most of Machiavelli’s advice in The Prince operates under the assumption that the ruler in question seeks to implement a single-ruler state, whereas the United States and NATO seek to create a functioning democratic state that will eventually be able to stand on its own. While this would seem to rule out any advice Machiavelli’s essay gives, there is still much that would seem to be considered.  For instance, Machiavelli insists that when invading a new territory, it is best to “keep things as they were, respecting established tradition”(Wootton, 11). He also unfortunately states that “when you acquire territories in a region that has a different language, different customs, and different institutions, then you really have problems” (Wootton, 11). This is the essential challenge the U.S faces, not simply trying to administer a region with those drawbacks, but to completely overhaul their institutions, and change many of their customs as well. Machiavelli suggests having the ruler live in the conquered region, but this is not applicable nor conducive to the goal the U.S is trying to accomplish and neither is his suggestion to create colonies (Wootton, 11). Indeed, the last suggestion would cause irreparable harm to creation of a new and independent Afghani state. So at first glance, his suggestions for controlling new territory would seem to have little to do with what the United States is trying to achieve, but a deeper look would reveal some applicable truth.

Machiavelli strongly encourages that when conquering a new territory, one dispense of the previous ruling class (Wootton, 16). This is in fact what the US has tried to do with the Taliban, but their insurgency has proved surprisingly resilient to destruction. This is principally because they have the back of a notable portion of the populace, allowing them to blend in and strike, or slip away in battle. This is in part, I believe, because the U.S has not followed Machiavelli’s instruction to use native troops (Wootton, 30). While this is for different reasons than Machiavelli imagined, it is true nonetheless. An effective Afghani army would create less of an invader image, and would encourage docility amongst the populace. As it currently stands however, the U.S, despite their attempts to convince the population to the contrary, appears to the natives as an invader. Machiavelli would argue that this is because the U.S is following a policy that attempts to engender love (by going to great lengths to avoid civilian causalities through stringent non-engagement codes) instead of inspiring fire by unleashing the full power of the U.S arsenal on the insurgents. However, while this might be effective at defeating the insurgency, it would prove difficult to follow in regards to building up an Afghani republic, as well as to the U.S’s own self-interests because they would have engendered the hatred of the populace (which, to his credit, Machiavelli does warn about) (Wootton, 40).

In sum, it is hard to apply most of Machiavelli’s teachings in The Prince to the U.S’s problem in Afghanistan. His general philosophy of “it is better to be feared than to be loved” is difficult to fulfill in this age of mass communication, as any harsh actions are instantly transmitted across the globe. In addition, the U.S’s goal of creating a new, self-sufficient democracy is a unique situation for which Machiavelli had no advice on, as his essay mostly deals with acquiring power and NOT relinquishing it. In sum, while a part of Machiavelli’s The Prince can be followed by the U.S, as a whole it is distinctly an unwise philosophy for this particular situation.


Wootton, David. Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett Pub, 1996. Print.

One Comment
  1. britneyrupley permalink
    September 27, 2010 11:18 AM

    I really liked your take on Machiavelli and how you analysed the reading by applying it to modern issues. I agree, it would be rather hard to implement Machiavelli techniques to Afgahnistan or any other modern conflict.

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