May 22, 2013

Finest Hour 147, Summer 2010

Page 22

Coalition with Primitives, 2010 / Afghanistan: The Churchill Experience

The former commander of NATO forces sought guidance from the British statesman who visited what is now the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area in 1897.

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By Ben Macintyre


General Stanley A. McChrystal, until June 2010 the commander in Afghanistan, found an unlikely adviser in the struggle against the Taliban. This new counsellor was British, a former journalist, soldier, writer, painter and politician. He was also dead, and the last time he was anywhere near Afghanistan was in 1897. Winston Churchill has come to the aid of the Allies.

McChrystal listened to the writings of Churchill on his iPod during his daily eight-mile jog. A recent visitor to NATO headquarters in Kabul found the American general immersed in Churchill’s first book, an account of the struggle to pacify the tribes of the North West Frontier at the end of the 19th century. Next on the general’s reading list, it was reported, was Churchill’s The River War, describing the reconquest of the Sudan that ended in the battle of Omdurman in 1898. Barack Obama, fresh from his first presidential visit to Afghanistan, is no admirer of Britain’s colonial past, and his own writings echo with anger at the iniquities of imperialism. Yet Britain’s last great imperial leader offered an extraordinary insight into the nature of warfare in the region, Islamic fundamentalism and the history and character of Afghan tribal society.

In 1897, at the age of 23, Churchill was attached as a soldier-journalist to the Malakand Field Force, the British expedition under the splendidly named Sir Bindon Blood (see “Bindon the Great,” FH 145: 45) sent to put down the rebellious Pathan tribesmen of the North West Frontier, on what is now the Afghan-Pakistan border. Churchill described his impressions of this land “where every man is a soldier” in a series of vivid newspaper reports, which were incorporated into The Story of the Malakand Field Force, published a year later. Churchill’s time among the border tribes was also recalled in his autobiography, My Early Life.

The young Winston was only on the North West Frontier for a few weeks, but like most journalists he swiftly considered himself an expert on the Afghans in general and the Pathans in particular. His prose is typically rich and colourful, his generalisations lofty and patronising. He shared the peculiar British reverence for the Pathans as a noble warrior race: “the ferocity of the Zulu are added to the craft of the Redskin and the marksmanship of the Boer.” He never set foot in Afghanistan itself.

Yet Churchill was a natural historian, and for all their imperial arrogance, his words carry unmistakable relevance to Afghanistan today. “Tribe wars with tribe. Every man’s hand is against the other and all are against the stranger the state of continual tumult has produced a habit of mind which holds life cheap and embarks on war with careless levity.”

Churchill was fascinated by the fabulously complex web of feud and counter-feud among the Taliban’s ancestors, the conglomeration of tribes and sub-tribes and the total absence of central authority. “Such a disposition, combined with an absolute lack of reverence for all forms of law and authority, is the cause of their frequent quarrels with the British power.” Churchill reserved a special disdain for Talibs, the religious students who would later form the core of the original Taliban. He called them “a host of wandering Talib-ul-ulms [who] live free at the expense of the people.”

Yet his attitude towards Islamic fundamentalism was far more nuanced than that of his contemporaries. Later in the Sudan he did not merely dismiss the Dervishes following the Mahdi as lunatics, but sought to understand the “mighty stimulus of fanaticism” that thrived, as it does today, in the “fearful fatalistic apathy” in much of the Muslim world.

Despite deploying the latest military technology, British imperial forces were at a severe disadvantage when faced by rebels armed with long-handled jezail muskets, enabling them to shoot and kill at a distance, and then to disappear. “The weapons of the 19th century,” wrote young Lieutenant Churchill, were “in the hands of the savages of the Stone Age.”

The IED, the remote-controlled improvised explosive device planted at roadsides in Afghanistan to such devastating effect, is the modern equivalent of the jezail; the Taliban’s “asymmetric tactics” are directly descended from the long-distance sniping of a century ago. Above all, Churchill realised that pacifying the rebel Pathans was a matter of culture, politics and persuasion—not compulsion. The more an outside army sought to impose order, the more ferocious the Afghan response.

For this society to develop and progress, Churchill predicted, any government would have to first tackle “the warlike nature of the people and their hatred of control.” Brute force of arms, he knew, was not only insufficient and probably ineffective, but also likely to foment greater antagonism. After experiencing the wild borderlands firsthand, Churchill laid out the options for dealing with a country like Afghanistan: imposing the rule of law at the barrel of a gun, pulling out and leaving the tribes to their stone age bloodletting or working through and with the tribal system. As McChrystal recently told Robert Kaplan of The Atlantic magazine, “the third choice—Churchill’s choice—is really the only one we have.”

One can see Churchill’s choice reflected in the allies’ changing policy in Afghanistan: in the determination to recruit and train Afghans for the army and police, in the greater willingness to talk to elements within the Taliban and the distribution of hard cash. On his brief visit to Bagram in March, Obama spoke of the progress made in “good governance, rule of law, anti-corruption efforts.”

David Miliband, too, has suggested that Britain’s past in Afghanistan might usefully be recruited to the present: “Imperial strategists sought and secured a saner and more sustainable objective: a self-governing, self-policing, but heavily subsidised Afghanistan where the tribes balanced each other and the Afghan state posed no threat to the safety of British India.”

That sounds like the sort of solution Churchill would have applauded, yet he also knew that any policy reliant on raw force would have its limitations in a land saturated by centuries of violence.

As a 23-year-old journalist, Churchill looked on as Blood’s British forces laid waste to the rebel villages “in punitive devastation,” and wondered whether peace would ever be possible here. Writing in his autobiography in 1930, Churchill expressed considerable cynicism over such raids:

“When however we had to attack the villages on the sides of the mountains they resisted fiercely, and we lost for every village two or three British officers and fifteen or twenty native soldiers. Whether it was worth it, I cannot tell. At any rate, at the end of a fortnight the valley was a desert, and honour was satisfied.”


Reprinted by kind permission of The Times, London, 30 March 2010.

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