Ancient Bactria was located in what is now modern Afghanistan. The terrain of Bactria consisted of tall rugged mountains with flat plains running from the north and southwest. Bactria also contained a large portion of the Hindu Kush, which contains some of the highest mountain peaks in the world. When Bactria was ruled by the Persian Empire, the Persian satrap of Bactria maintained minimal control over the region. The region was among multiple warlords, who controlled a vast, multi-ethnic population.
The Pursuit of Bessus:
In 329 BCE, Alexander the Great first entered Bactria with his army in pursuit of the Persian cavalry commander, Bessus, who had murdered the Persian king Darius III. Bessus fled to Bactria with the hope of rallying local support, and proclaimed the title, Artixerxes V. After crushing local insurrections in the region, Alexander surrounded Bessus, which convinced his supporters to seize him, and hand him over to Alexander. While pursuing Bessus, Alexander established new settlements and fortresses that still exist, like the modern city of Kandahar. Alexander permanently garrisoned soldiers, workers, and artisans in order to protect his supply lines and maintain a permanent presence in the region. Despite losses to his army due to the harsh terrain, Alexander defeated Bessus fairly easily.
Local Insurrection against Alexander:
As Alexander continued to secure and fortify Bactria, he decided to build another fortress on the northeastern border on the Scythian border. Alexander unknowingly cuts off an ancient trade route in the region, which incites a large local revolt. Alexander’s army soon faces a style of guerrilla warfare they have never seen before. As soon as the enemy attacks his army, they disappear before they can be engaged. Macedonian foragers are also tricked by tribesman who act like they are going to surrender, then surround and kill the foragers. Alexander is forced to retreat back to Bactra in order to consolidate his forces.
Reinforcements and Counterinsurgency:
As Alexander returns to Bactra, he is greeted by 20,000 Greek and Macedonian reinforcements. He splits his forces to do a number of tasks, and to cover ground as quickly as possible. One attachment’s task was to patrol the Bactrian countryside, another was to secure key strategic strongholds for the winter, and the third was under direct control of Alexander. Due to increased pressure from Alexander’s new tactics, many of the warlords turn to infighting, and execute the powerful warlord Spitamenes. With the death of Spitamenes in 327 BCE, Alexander declares victory in Bactria. Despite this claim, Alexander leaves behind 30,000 troops to garrison the region, and marries Roxane, who was the daughter of a powerful Bactrian warlord.
Alexander’s campaign in Bactria is evidence for ancient guerrilla warfare in the region. For the first time in his career, Alexander did not achieve a decisive victory, and had to maintain a large military presence in Bactria in order to secure it. Modern nations such as Great Britain (1838-1839), the Soviet Union (1979-1989), and the United States (2001-present) entered the region, and faced a similar style of warfare. In 250 BCE, the permanent settlers Alexander left in Bactria would create their own kingdom, and establish a new Greco-Bactrian culture that little is known about today. The Greco-Bactrians would be as disunified as their pre-Alexander ancestors, and would spend just as much time fighting each other as they would outsiders.