Finest Hour 147, Summer 2010
Coalition with Primitives, 1897 / The Riddle of the Frontier
By Winston S. Churchill
Excerpted from Winston S. Churchill, The Story of the Malakand Field Force 1897 (London: Leo Cooper, 1991, first published 1898), Chapter 18. Reprinted by kind permission of Randolph S. Churchill.
I must revert to a period when the British power, having conquered the plains of India and subdued its sovereigns, paused at the foot of the Himalayas and turned its tireless energy to internal progress and development. The “line of the mountains” formed a frontier as plain and intelligible as that which defines the limits of the sea. But this was found to be an inadequate deterrent, and the purely defensive principle had to be modified in favour of that system of punitive expeditions which has been derided as the policy of “Butcher and Bolt.”
Gradually, as the circumstances altered, the methods of dealing with them changed. The punitive expeditions had awakened an intense hostility among the tribesmen. Today we see the evils that have resulted from that change. The dangers that inspired it have been modified.
For some years the opinion in favour of an advance grew steadily. The avowed object was ultimately to secure the effectual command of the passes of the Hindu Kush. No declaration of policy or intention could have been more explicit. The words “to extend and consolidate our influence” can, when applied to barbarous peoples, have no other meaning than ultimate annexation. Thus the scheme of an advance from the plains of India into the mountain region, which had long been maturing in men’s minds and which was shaped and outlined by many small emergencies and expedients, was clearly proclaimed.
The spirit of reaction led to the final abandonment of the venerable policy of non-intervention. Instead of the “line of the mountains,” it was now maintained that the passes through them must be held. This is the so-called “Forward Policy.” It is a policy which aims at obtaining the frontier—Gilgit, Chitral, Jelalabad, Kandahar.
In pursuance of that policy we have been led to build many frontier forts, to construct roads, to annex territories, and to enter upon more intimate relations with the border tribes. The most marked incident in that policy has been the retention of Chitral. This act was regarded by the tribesmen as a menace to their independence, and by the priesthood as the prelude to a general annexation. Nor were they wrong, for such is the avowed aim of the “Forward Policy.” The result of the retention of Chitral has been, as I have already described, that the priesthood, knowing that their authority would be weakened by civilisation, have used their religious influence on the people to foment a general rising.
The “Forward Policy” has brought an increase of territory, a nearer approach to what is presumably a better frontier line and—war. All this was to have been expected. It may be said of the present system that it precludes the possibility of peace. Isolated posts have been formed in the midst of races, notoriously passionate, reckless and warlike. When they are assailed by the tribesmen, relieving and punitive expeditions become necessary. All this is the outcome of a recognised policy, and was doubtless foreseen by those who initiated it. The rest of the situation has been deliberately created. The possibility of a great combination among the border tribes was indeed not contemplated. Separated by distance, and divided by faction, it was anticipated they could be dealt with in detail. On this point we have been undeceived.
That period of war and disturbance which was the inevitable first consequence of the “Forward Policy” must in any case have been disturbed and expensive. Regarded from an economic standpoint, the trade of the frontier valleys will never pay a shilling in the pound on the military expenditure necessary to preserve order. Morally, it is unfortunate for the tribesmen that our spheres of influence clash with their spheres of existence. Even on the military question, a purely technical question, as to whether an advanced frontier line is desirable or not, opinion is divided.
There is no lack of arguments against the “Forward Policy.” There were many who opposed its initiation. There are many who oppose it now. But it is futile to engage in the controversies of the past. There are sufficient in the present, and it is with the present we are concerned. We have crossed the Rubicon. The old line has been left, and between that line and an advanced line, conterminous with Afghan territory, and south of which all shall be reduced to law and order, there does not appear to be any prospect of a peaceful and permanent settlement.
The responsibility of placing us in this position rests with those who first forsook the old frontier policy of holding the “line of the mountains.” Those who decided have accepted the responsibility, and have defended their action. But I am inclined to think that the rulers of India, ten years ago or a hundred years ago, were as much the sport of circumstances as their successors are today.
Let us return to the present and our own affairs. We have embarked on stormy and perilous waters. The strong current of events forbids return. The sooner the farther shore is reached, the sooner will the dangers and discomforts of the voyage be over. All are anxious to make the land. The suggestions as to the course are numerous. There are some, bad and nervous sailors perhaps, who insist upon returning, although they are told it is impossible, and who would sink the ship sooner than go on, were they not outnumbered by their shipmates. While they are delaying, the current bears us towards more disturbed waters and more rocky landing places. There are others who call out for “Full steam ahead,” and would accomplish the passage at once, whatever the risks. But, alas! the ship is run out of coal and can only spread its sails to the varying breezes, take advantage of favourable tides, and must needs lie to when the waves are high.
But the sensible passenger may with reason and justice insist that, whatever the delays which the storms or accidents may cause, the head of the vessel shall be consistently pointed towards the distant port, and that come what will she shall not be allowed to drift aimlessly hither and thither on the chance of fetching up somewhere some day.
The “Full steam ahead” method would be undoubtedly the most desirable. This is the military view. Mobilise, it is urged, a nice field force, and operate at leisure in the frontier valleys, until they are as safe and civilised as Hyde Park. Nor need this course necessarily involve the extermination of the inhabitants. Military rule is the rule best suited to the character and comprehension of the tribesmen. They will soon recognise the futility of resistance, and will gradually welcome the increase of wealth and comfort that will follow a stable government. Besides this, we shall obtain a definite frontier almost immediately. Only one real objection has been advanced against this plan. But it is a crushing one, and it constitutes the most serious argument against the whole “Forward Policy.” It is this: we have neither the troops nor the money to carry it out.
The inevitable alternative is the present system, a system which the war has interrupted, but to which we must return at its close; a system of gradual advance, of political intrigue among the tribes, of subsidies and small expeditions.
Though this policy is slow, painful and somewhat undignified, there is no reason that it should not be sure and strong. But it must be consistently pursued. Dynamite in the hands of a child is not more dangerous than a strong policy weakly carried out.
Our leaders know they cannot turn back. They fully intend to go on. Yet they fear to admit the situation, to frankly lay their case before the country, and trust to the good sense and courage of an ancient democracy. The result is that they tie their hands by ridiculous and unnecessary proclamations.
The political officers who watch the frontier tribes are expected to obtain authority by force of personal character, yet strictly according to regulations, and to combine individuality with uniformity. And sometimes this timidity leads to such dismal acts of folly as the desertion of the Khyber forts. But in spite of all obstacles and errors there is a steady advance, which may be accelerated, and made easier, by many small reforms. It is suggested among other things that wider powers should be given to the political officers, in their ordinary duties of peace. Others advocate occasional demonstrations of troops, to impress the tribesmen with the fact that those they see are not the full strength. Bolder minds have hinted at transplanting young Pathans, and educating them in India after the custom of the Romans. But this last appears to be suitable to a classic rather than a Christian age.
From a general survey of the people and the country, it would seem, that silver makes a better weapon than steel. A system of subsidies must tend to improve our relations with the tribes, enlist their interests on the side of law and order, and by increasing their wealth, lessen their barbarism. In the matter of the supply of arms the Government would find it cheaper to enter the market as a purchaser, and have agents to outbid the tribesmen, rather than to employ soldiers. As water finds its own level, so the laws of economics will infallibly bring commodities to the highest bidder. Doubtless there are many other lessons which the present war will have taught. These may lighten a task which, though long and heavy, is not beyond the powers or pluck of the British people. We are at present in a transition stage, nor is the manner nor occasion of the end in sight. Still this is no time to despair.
I have often noticed in these Afghan valleys that they seem to be entirely surrounded by the hills and to have no exit. But as the column has advanced, a gap gradually becomes visible and a pass appears.
Looking on the story of the great frontier war; at all that has been told, and all that others may tell, there must be many who today will only deplore the losses of brave soldiers and hard-earned money. But those, who from some future age shall, by the steady light of history, dispassionately review the whole situation, its causes, results and occasion, may find other reflections, as serious perhaps, but less mournful. The year 1897, in the annals of the British people, was marked by a declaration to the whole world of their faith in the higher destinies of their race. If a strong man, when the wine sparkles at the feast and the lights are bright, boasts of his prowess, it is well he should have an opportunity of showing in the cold and grey of the morning that he is no idle braggart. And unborn arbiters, with a wider knowledge, and more developed brains, may trace in recent events the influence of that mysterious Power which, directing the progress of our species, and regulating the rise and fall of Empires, has afforded that opportunity to a people, of whom at least it may be said that they have added to the happiness, the learning and the liberties of mankind.
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