A Word From Winston on the Afghan Campaign

The awful news of a U.S. soldier perpetrating a massacre of innocent civilians in Afghanistan is likely to reignite the fury of many Afghans against the American presence, and retard whatever progress is being made to stabilize the country and draw down American troops.  A situation already difficult and expensive has been rendered more so.

John has already offered his opinion here that we should get out.  He can find support for this view from an impressive witness: Winston Churchill.  In his very first book in 1897, The Story of the Malakand Field Force: An Episode of Frontier War, Churchill reflects on the exact difficulties we are facing in exactly the same place.  Despite all the advances in American firepower in the century since Churchill wrote, there is very little fundamentally different now—especially the forbidding geography of the country and the unremitting barbarism of the tribes that inhabit the rocky valleys; people rushing “headlong into the ninth century,” as Bing West put it here last week.  Churchill was a skeptic that it was wise to pursue a policy of attempting to subdue the region through military means.

Churchill’s concluding chapter, “The Riddle of the Frontier,” ought to be assigned reading in our war colleges, not to mention the Pentagon and State Department.  See whether some of these excerpts don’t sound entirely fitting to our present condition:

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. . .

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. . .

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. . .

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 a Hyde Park.  Nor need this course necessarily involve the extermination of the inhabitants.  Military rule is the best rule suited to the character and comprehension of the tribesmen.  They will soon recognize the futility of resistance, and will gradually welcome the increase of wealth and comfort that will follow a stable government. . .  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.

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