Napoleon and the Taliban

Inevitably, journalists, commentators and partisan politicians have compared the recent helicopter convoys conveying Americans from the former American embassy in Kabul to the helicopters which lifted Americans off the roof of the American embassy in Saigon in 1975 — a far from perfect comparison, since the evacuation from Saigon occurred after the hoped-for and partially face-saving “decent interval” of two years following the withdrawal of American military forces from the country.

In the context of avoiding similar catastrophes in the future, a more relevant comparison to this month’s events in Afghanistan may be to events in France in March 1815, when Emperor Napoleon returned from the island of Elba for a brief, final one hundred days as the dominant personality of Europe.

Having unexpectedly landed on the Mediterranean coast with only a few hundred faithful but lighly armed supporters, Napoleon’s 20-day march toward Paris proved to be bloodless as an army of hundreds of thousands ordered to stop his progress melted before him and frequently joined his ranks. Louis XVIII and many others associated with the Bourbon regime which had been restored by foreign powers fled into exile. France had made its choice.

While no one would suggest any equivalence between Napoleon and the Taliban, one similarity between the Emperor’s bloodless 20-day march from the Mediterranean coast to Paris and the Taliban’s almost bloodless 10-day march from all corners of Afghanistan to Kabul two centuries later is striking and worthy of careful consideration.

What matters is not the number of soldiers (real or imagined) on one’s payroll, the quantity and sophistication of their weaponry or the quality of their training but, rather, the numbers of them who believe sufficiently strongly in a cause or in a foreign-installed regime to be willing to fight and die for it.

Both in March 1815 and in August 2021, the number of soldiers who believed sufficiently strongly in a foreign-installed regime to fight and die for it was negligible.

These two events do not represent a mere coincidence. They reflect a fundamental rule of human nature and behavior, one which those contemplating future invasions, occupations and regime-change operations should keep firmly in mind before forging forward to launch new wars of choice.

Of course, the foreign powers which had regime-changed France’s First Empire, all “legitmate” hereditary monarchies, could not tolerate the return of the upstart “usurper” and rapidly regrouped militarily to defeat him at Waterloo and send him into permanent exile on St. Helena.

The next chapter of Afghanistan’s history remains to be written. However, one significant difference between 1815 and 2021 is that, while Napoleon’s return to power offered the near-certainty of renewed war, the Taliban’s return to power offers the possibility of peace … if today’s relevant foreign powers are willing to tolerate it.

John V. Whitbeck is a Paris-based international lawyer.