Maccabean Lessons on Afghanistan

This year’s fall semester began just as U.S. Forces made their last withdrawal from Kabul. Freshman students ended their second day of classes on August 26, when a suicide bomber killed thirteen U.S. personnel at Kabul’s airport. The operation soon morphed into the morbid anticlimax of a conflict most Americans ignored, leaving behind both U.S. citizens and Afghans dreading the same fate. For a moment, the withdrawal left millions of Americans wondering how the world’s greatest power could bring twenty years of conflict to such an ignominious end, and what that end might portend for U.S. leadership in the future?

Those questions lingered in the background, as Hillsdale’s freshman course, Western Heritage, brought us to the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 B.C.E.) against the Seleucids under Antiochus IV Epiphanes. To a veteran, the story reads like a melancholy prophecy of U.S. challenges and errors in America’s longest war. The story of the Maccabees offers the beginnings of an explanation for the 9/11 generation’s collective dismay.

When Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C.E., his empire fractured into rival kingdoms administered by the heirs of his generals. Seleucus I Nicator took control of the region that includes modern Iran, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and parts of Afghanistan and Turkey. The Seleucids spread Greek language, political institutions, and military organization during what became known to historians as the Hellenistic era.

On the broad landscape of ancient history, the Seleucid Empire was typical and comparatively benign. The Seleucids mainly allowed local populations to preserve their ancestral customs, both civic and religious. Prior to 180 B.C.E., Jerusalem was a semi-autonomous region governed by a leading family (the Oniads), which held the high-priesthood at Jerusalem. Antiochus IV Epiphanes changed that policy in Judaea around 167 B.C.E. in a series of actions that the Jewish sources remember as a religious persecution. Antiochus’s “persecution” galvanized permanent opposition to his rule.

Scholarly debate about Antiochus’s actions and the ensuing revolt exposes the most enduring dilemma of any counterinsurgency effort, including U.S. actions since 9/11. The books of 1 and 2 Maccabees reflect a range of perceptions of Antiochus and of conflicts in Jerusalem, which were internal to the local population at the time. That variety of local perspectives continues to drive disagreement today. Some, like Robert Doran, argue that the Seleucid “persecution” of Jerusalem came only in response to a local revolt, while the ancient sources present the revolt as a response to the persecution. Others, such as Sylvie Honigman, think the issues were not religious, but that the revolt reacted to changes in Seleucid tax policy. Like the Seleucids, historians have struggled to unravel the web of local perceptions in order to understand what really happened and why. U.S. forces had the same problem. We could never pierce the cloud of kinship alliances and ancient rivalries to understand the “real” drivers of conflict or predict the effects of our actions.

Heliodorus: The Failure of Local Allies

Seleucid moves in Judaea were typical of the uncertainty that plagues any attempt to dominate a local population. In 2 Maccabees, trouble in Jerusalem begins as a rivalry among the ruling parties. The leading protagonist is the high priest, Onias III, a pious man struggling to stave off challengers, who seek to unseat him by manipulating the imperial power. First comes a tribal opponent: “Simon, of the tribe of Balgea, who had been made captain of the temple had a disagreement with [Onias III] about the administration of the city market” (2 Macc 3:4). To punish Onias, Simon informs Heliodorus, the Seleucid governor of Coele-Syria, of the great wealth deposited in the Jerusalem Temple.

Heliodorus then enacts a double miscalculation when he comes collecting elevated taxes from the Temple revenues. He thinks, presumably, that collecting taxes is an advantage to him, when in fact, it is laying the groundwork of rebellion. And he presumably sees himself as the agent of the Seleucid regime, when he has actually been mobilized as Simon’s tool in a local conflict. This was a common problem in Afghanistan. Although it was essential to have local allies, we could rarely be certain of the real motivations of our so-called partners. The village elder pleading appreciation for America, like the volunteer proclaiming his readiness to fight extremists, was well-tutored in the duplicities of tribal politics. And local relationships are serpentine. Knowing that ulterior motives abound does not mean you can sort through them. One friendship made can create three unknown enemies.

The Heliodorus incident sewed an even deeper unforeseen resentment. Onias opposed the new taxes by mobilizing the population against him. The Jerusalem population interpreted Heliodorus’s actions as a religious incursion: “There was no little distress throughout the whole city . . . because the holy place was about to be brought into dishonor. Women girded with sackcloth under their breasts thronged the streets. . . . Holding up their hands to heaven they all made supplication” (2 Macc. 3:15-18). The scene is reminiscent of riots that broke out in Kabul, in February 2012, after personnel at Bagram Air Field disposed of copies of the Quran that had been used by detainees. Their mistake caused massive riots, which saw two U.S. personnel killed.

Onias III’s role in the ancient riot is also instructive for the modern one. He stirred up popular opposition to Heliodorus’s new taxes by a dramatic show of his deep religious concern for the temple: “To see the appearance of the high priest was to be wounded in heart, for his face . . . disclosed the anguish of his soul” (2 Macc. 3:16). Onias understood the religious basis of his power and mobilized it. The local population, mainly unaware of Simon and Onias’s rivalry, was more than ready to understand the foreigner, Heliodorus, as attacking their traditions. We might surmise that religious leaders in Kabul were similarly instrumental in stirring up the riots, which shored up their power relative to the U.S. and Taliban. President Obama had to make a public apology to calm the population.

Jason: The Failure of Reforms

Misperception and miscalculation dogged Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ continuing attempts to manage Jerusalem. The plot thickens when Jason, Onias’s own brother, agrees to pay the higher taxes in exchange for Antiochus appointing him as high priest in place of his own brother. In return, according to Robert Doran, Jason requested “that Jerusalem’s status be upgraded to that of a polis. Elite Jews in Jerusalem, with Jason as their leader, wanted to have closer ties with the Seleucid government.” This led to the establishment of Greek institutions and the conferral of an official status upon at least a segment of the Jerusalem population (1 Macc. 1:30-54; 2 Macc. 4:11-30).

As if following the US Army and Marines Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, Antiochus IV Epiphanes would have been on good strategic footing, insofar as he had aligned himself with a prominent member of a well-established dynasty recognized as legitimate by the population. Counterinsurgency strategy emphasizes that the counterinsurgent needs to work “by, with, and through” local allies. The aim is to put the local population at the head of changes consistent with the counterinsurgent’s objectives. But the choice to depose Onias III in favor of Jason went entirely counter to Antiochus’s interests. The mistake, as Doran warned years ago, was that Antiochus “listened to members of the community who ha[d] already assimilated themselves to the larger power.”

Jason’s pro-Seleucid reforms were criticized broadly, though for different reasons. 2 Maccabees relates that “Jason obtained the priesthood by corruption” and censures him for “setting aside the existing humane royal concessions to the Judaeans.” He enacted “such an extreme of Hellenization . . . and allophylism” that even the priests became lax (2 Macc. 4:7-18). Though critical, the account still preserves a realistic criticism of political and cultural offenses resulting from local rivalries. By contrast, 1 Maccabees tells a simplified tale of religious oppression: “In those days out of Israel came sons, transgressors of the law, and persuaded many, saying, Let us go and make a covenant with the nations around us.” This latter account makes the Hellenizing party simply the agent of religious oppression. Even working through a prominent local ally, Antiochus was alienating an even more vehement opposition.  

It takes only a little imagination to see the newly-established Greek polis of Jerusalem as sharing all the problems of the central government in Kabul. It was an urban center guided by elites promising the regional hegemon that their policy represented more than the agenda of a faction. But Antiochus’s apparent success with Jason in Jerusalem was only a maneuver by one local powerbroker in a struggle with a tribal rival. And so it went: three years after Jason took office, Menelaus, one of Jason’s deputies, outbid him for the priesthood, in the same way that Jason had outbid Onias III (2 Macc. 4:23-29). (Menelaus was notably “the brother of the aforementioned Simon,” whose betrayal of Onias prompted the Heliodorus incident.)

Learning the lessons of the Maccabees would have required a strategy less optimistic, less democratic than the United States and its allies could accept.

When the now-deposed Jason received bad intelligence reporting that Antiochus had died in battle, Jason moved against Menelaus to retake Jerusalem (2 Maccabees 5:5-7). Jason began “relentlessly slaughtering” his opponents (2 Macc. 5:6). It is perhaps the most telling moment of the entire drama. The whole façade of Hellenizing loyalty collapsed into factional infighting at the first sign of Seleucid weakness.

Although the Maccabean story does not end here, Jason’s action casts a certain light on the rapid collapse of the Kabul government amid defections to the Taliban. One local Kandahar police officer commented that they were “drowning in corruption” to explain the government’s weakness. What he called “corruption” simply expressed the fact that the “Afghan government” was an alliance of rivals always in competition with each other. Hence, the U.S. departure imposed a collective “prisoners dilemma” on its own coalition of tribal leaders and local warlords. Jason’s misinformed actions revealed what he, Menelaus, and Onias III had never forgotten: local actors are always jockeying for superiority over one another, first and foremost. Doubtless, Jerusalem blamed Antiochus and his emissaries for the violence.

Antiochus: Mobilizing the Opposition

From this point forward, the story of Seleucid collapse in Judaea unfolds like a counterinsurgency train-wreck in slow motion. The story reenacts familiar moments from the Afghanistan War. First comes the Seleucids’ early domination. Tired of duplicity from the local elites, Antiochus decided to impose by force the Hellenistic reforms that Jason and Menelaus had promoted. Ignorant of local factors, he interprets the violence in Jerusalem as a general revolt. He assaults Jerusalem, seizes the unpaid revenues, and leaves his own emissaries in control of the city (2 Macc. 5:11-6:1). They consecrate the temple in Jerusalem to Zeus Olympos and establish a garrison in the central high place of the city. If the ancient sources are to be believed, Antiochus then made a kingdom-wide plea for unity around a policy of Hellenization (1 Macc. 1:41-44).

His plan backfired. By promoting Greek culture as a source of unity, Antiochus galvanized an opposition that had been, at least since the Heliodorus affair, ready to view his regime as a foreign religious persecutor. Despite early victories, the Seleucid regime quickly lost its ability to negotiate with local factions inspired by religious zeal (1 Macc. 2:14-29). A leading figure, Mattathias, refuses an offer to become a Seleucid ally. He declares rather that even “if all the nations obey [the king] . . . so as to apostasize . . . I and my sons and my brothers will walk in the covenant of our fathers” (1 Macc. 2:19-21).

A guerilla war ensues. Mattathias and his sons gather followers and retreat to the hill country (1 Macc. 2:27, 31). They later “secretly entered the villages and summoned their kindred and enlisted those who had continued in the Judean faith . . . about 6,000” (2 Macc. 8:1-3). They even trained to the sound of “Eleazaros, appointed to read aloud from the holy book,” like Talibs at a madrassa (2 Macc. 8:23). This force of zealots conducts night attacks on vulnerable villages and at strategic positions. Even ancient media helped their efforts: “the rumor of [their] valor spread everywhere” (2 Macc. 8:6).

From that point, all the apparatus of superior power served actually to reinforce popular opposition. The garrison itself became a public symbol of the guerrillas’ own cause: “They stationed a sinful nation there, lawless men, and they became strong in it. And they stored [a great stockpile of weapons] and became a great threat” we are told (1 Macc. 1:33-36). The Seleucid garrison could control the city and the day, but it could not quell the Maccabees’ influence among the population at night. The Maccabees would go on to restore the altar in Jerusalem and hold their grip on power until dynamics in geopolitics allowed them to establish an independent Jewish kingdom.


Perhaps Antiochus thought the Jerusalem population would appreciate him for bringing security to the city after Jason’s massacre. Certainly, that was the hope and theory of coalition efforts in Afghanistan—“fostering . . . effective governance . . . that can provide security” in order to gain local support. In reality, Antiochus’s policy of cultural unification transformed a conflict among local rivals into a fight between the Seleucids and the population. Greek institutions became an object of scorn as the Maccabees called for support in defense of ancient customs and tradition. Their call reveals perhaps the deepest miscalculation. Antiochus’s decision to transform local peoples into “one kingdom” made him the real insurgent against a more ancient and local order, which the Maccabees claimed to defend.

Counterinsurgency strategy likewise imagined the Kabul government as defending an order that the Taliban were aiming to overthrow. The reality was just the opposite. The Taliban could plausibly claim to represent a traditional order that, however brutal or backward, enjoyed deep roots in local custom, language, and history. Cast in the role of counterinsurgent, U.S. forces were always fighting some other side’s war.