The Campaign against Al Qaeda and the Jewish War:

Some Parallels

by Jim Bloom
December 2001

At first sight it seems almost obscene to make comparisons between the American campaign in Afghanistan and the Roman-Jewish War as told by Josephus. Many Jews in Israel and abroad probably would cringe at any equation between the Islamic fundamentalist factions and the “freedom fighters” of 66-74 AD. On their part, the Taliban and it’s cheerleaders elsewhere in the Arab world might likewise take umbrage at being likened to Jewish patriots of yore inasmuch as their own spokespersons, however belatedly, have adopted the cause of the Palestinians fighting the current Jewish “occupiers” of sacred Moslem territory.  Certainly, Americans can’t relish being cast in the role of latter day Roman “peacekeepers”.

    That said, let’s take a look at what’s going on in Afghanistan and in the terrorist world at large. In both cases, cells of fanatical holy warriors ensconced themselves into the rather porous fabric of a theocratic ethnarchy and have committed heinous acts of terror against a Great Power and it’s allies. The Islamic extremists comprising the Taliban has a big problem with the corrupt, immoral “westernized” ruling classes in the Arab Middle east. In like manner, the Hellenized collaborationist priestly and wealthy mercantile elite that presumed to lead the vexatious, abstinent faithful scandalized the Zealot groups in Galilee and Judaea. The Great Revolt, as with the Maccabeean uprising 125 years before, was as much protest against the worldly backsliders among the indigenous chieftains as it was a demonstration against Roman meddling in religious affairs. The eschatology of the Islamic Jihad’s “Great Satan” is matched by some of the beastly imagery from the Book of Daniel or the Dead Sea Scrolls’ “Kittim” for the Roman archfiend.

In Josephus’ era the Sicarii faction roughly correlates with the Taliban.  Sicarii were an extremist offshoot of the rebellious Zealot movement, the latter a rather loose umbrella group likely embracing a more diverse mix than Josephus tells us. Like today’s Afghanistan, the Roman colonia of Judaea was an unstable confederation of religious factions and quasi-bandit wolfpacks headed by warlords who exercised command through a combination of charisma, bribery and strong-arm tactics. Certainly the vague Islamic orientation of the Northern Alliance can be equated to some of the non-clerical rural patrons running rampant in Roman Galilee, or even the disenfranchised lower “proletarian” orders of the Temple administration. On the other hand, the hardcore Taliban and it’s multinational stalwarts find their kindred spirits among Menachem’s marauders who holed up passively in Masada while Jerusalem was encircled and strangulated.  These were folks who were not above pillaging the meager food stockpiles of their countrymen and cruelly eviscerating anyone who failed to provide men and materiel for their somewhat self-indulgent cause. This sounds pretty much like the situation in Afghanistan two millennia later. Also you have a ‘no man’s land’ permeating the neat looking sector maps in the media (or in the Ancient Wars atlas) where pure and simple robber bands with no political or religious axe to grind prey on the wealthy opportunists from abroad (or latterly, journalists if you will). Even though Josephus appellation of “bandits” was used broadly to characterize all of the rebel groups, it has been widely recognized that there were numerous groups of common criminals who exploited the chaos accompanying the rebellion for their own pecuniary ends. They donned nationalistic or tribal colors as the opportunities came and went, keeping a wet finger up to the winds of fortune.

Let’s not forget how Josephus “tamed” the wild gangs whom he deigned to command: he paid them “insurance” much as the gangland bosses in 1920s Chicago and New York, brought “protection” from the very groups who would otherwise ravage them. This has been the Afghani method of doing business since the Russian Bear and the English Bulldog first wrangled over their mountain fastness in the early 1800s.

    Judaea’s self-appointed broker with Rome, King Agrippa II, at home among the cosmopolitan hoi polloi, might be equated to the exiled Afghan king who, though somewhat out of touch with the currents of opinion among his would-be subjects, yet wears the cloak of an idealized “Afghan” national ethos. For the Judaeans, this ideal was closer to being realized in the term of Agrippa I.  The third generation Herodian’s influence over his Jewish “subjects” was more imagined than real. If Lion Feuchtwanger’s Josephus trilogy is accurate, then perhaps Berenike better epitomized the benevolent sovereign.

    The US and its local surrogates (similarly to how the Romans also utilized auxiliary forces, more suited to the indigenous combat methods and terrain) have had relative ease in wiping out the pockets of Taliban influence in the north while gradually “tightening the noose”, that is blocking access and escape routes, on the real spiritual center of enemy strength in the south: the Kandahar mountain redoubt and fortress Jerusalem.  Similarly, Vespasian and Titus had no trouble in dispelling the warrior bands of Josephus, John of Gish Halav , Justus of Tiberias, Jesus Sapitas, Shimon bar Gioras, from the open areas to coop themselves up in the citadels where the formidable Roman siege techniques and fortress-busting technology (the ancient equivalent of  US precision guided munitions, daisy cutters, helicopter gunships etc.) could decimate them piecemeal. In most cases, the fleeing rebels took their retinues to gather for a final battle in “impregnable” Jerusalem./ Kandahar. There is the same Armageddon psychology fueling the delusive “last stands” in Judaea and Afghanistan alike.

    It appears that the rival gangs in areas wrested from Taliban control resume their pre-war turf battles, as the various Afghani ethnic groupings squabble over the spoils (loot and power) in the liberated sectors.  The feuds among the Afghani tribes recall Josephus’ description of the turf battles while he tried to be top dog in Galilee in the early part of 67 as well as the factional fighting within Jerusalem as Titus’ legions prepared to besiege Jerusalem in 70.  The proud and defiant Jewish power structure was as ungovernable from abroad as is turbulent, fiercely independent Afghanistan, witness the over-reaching British and Russian examples from the past two centuries. The British, unlike the Soviets in the 1980s, had learned that you don’t “occupy” Afghanistan but merely strike temporary deals with the top dog warlords to guarantee one’s own safe passage.  Rome similarly looked for Judaean leaders who could bring the common  folk around but as Martin Goodman has pointed out in his “Ruling Class of Judaea”, the Romans were pursuing a chimera - the High Priesthood and it’s various retainers and allied gangs had lost the confidence of the “man in the street” --- the “am Ha-aretz”. The internecine feuds plaguing today’s Afghan tribes even during the heat of fighting a common foe is suggestive of the factionalism hampering the Judaean fighters in fortress Jerusalem when the Roman siege operations were suspended in 69 CE because of the imperial succession struggle in Rome.
    One might also make parallels between the American-Taliban Conflict and the situation just before and during the Israeli War of Independence, what with the Stern gang, Irgun, the Palestinian Arab patron families with their village warrior sheikhs, etc. but that leads us far from the Josephus analogy.

Perhaps this all seems a bit farfetched, the kind of thing an armchair general or amateur historian might concoct for fun but it does add a bit of historical relevance to the grim and sometimes frustrating imagery and reportage repeatedly blitzing our TV screens. One might even come to empathize with Josephus’ plight, trapped in his self-appointed role as the principal peacemaker (and beneficiary thereof) between Rome and Jerusalem, encountering both Roman distrust and Jewish factionalism in the process.

Jim Bloom

See also on this web site: G. J. Goldberg, Remarks on Josephus in the Light of Current Events: 2001

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