Opinion: Lessons from empires past

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BOSTON — Napoleon recommended that every private soldier carry a marshal’s baton in his knapsack, to inspire leadership qualities. U.S. Marines pouring into Afghanistan’s Helmand Province would be advised to carry a copy of a slim book called “Bugles and a Tiger,” the memoirs of a soldier-turned-author about campaigning against Pashtuns on the Northwest Frontier 70 years ago.

Before he turned his hand to writing novels, John Masters was a British officer fighting wily and resourceful tribesmen — the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of today’s Taliban. I have quoted Masters before in this space for his insights on the enemies America faces in those same barren hills.

The British had a partiality for martial races. “Their darlings were the pale, fierce Pathans,” as Pashtuns were then called, along with the “unbending Sikhs” of the Punjab, Masters wrote.

Then, as now, the Pashtuns were often given to religious fanaticism, and from time to time the “the magic word, Jihad” would convulse the hill country. Before Islam, Pashtuns had been resisting foreigners since Alexander of Macedon crossed the Kabul River in 327 B.C.

When they could, the British recruited Pashtuns to fight other Pashtuns. They could cover “enormous distances at high speed on foot,” Masters wrote. “Each man carried 30 or 40 rounds of ammunition, a water bottle, a bag of raisins, a few disks of unleavened bread, and a lump or two of course sugar … loping ceaselessly on at five miles an hour” for 20 or 35 miles at a time. Today’s Talibs may prefer to travel in pickup trucks or on motor bikes, but their endurance and speed on foot has not diminished, and they travel just as lightly, except that today they carry more ammunition.

“The core of our problem,” Masters wrote, “was to force battle on an elusive and mobile enemy.., (who) tried to avoid battle, and instead fight us with pinpricking hit-and-run tactics.” When the Pashtun “tried to defend something, whether a gun or a village, we trapped him and pulverized him. When he flitted and sniped, rushed and ran away, we felt as if we were using a crowbar to swat wasps.”

British troops were frustrated, “robbed of a soldier’s greatest weapon — aggression.” For they knew that “there would be no tranquility among these proud and fierce people, however quickly we forced them into mere surrender, if we fought our campaign on unnecessarily ruthless lines. In normal warfare armies bomb cities and destroy the enemy food supply without compunction, but we had to be careful not to harm women and children if we could help it, and we could not shoot on suspicion, only on certainty, and we could not damage fruit trees or destroy water channels.”

After nearly eight years of war in Afghanistan, Americans are still wrestling with these problems — especially given our dependence on airpower, which is considerably more than it was in the 1930s.

Outside certain proscribed areas, the British troops were forbidden to “take any action at all until shot at. Inside it we might not fire at any band of less than ten men unless they were (a) armed and (b) off the path. These were dangerous conditions in a country where arms can be concealed close to flowing clothes, and where paths are tracks invisible from a hundred yards.”

Of course sometimes the rules were bent. One such bending, Masters recalled, involved a prisoner who the soldiers were sure had been sniping against them. But under the rules of engagement they could do nothing. They did bring him in for questioning before letting him go – but not before the British had bent the barrel of his rifle, ever so slightly so that it would not be noticed, before giving it back to him. The sniper left not knowing that he would lose his hand the next time he fired.

Then as now, the Pashtuns “mined and booby trapped the roads with dud shells and stolen grenades. ”

The Pashtuns have always been masters of terrain. I can remember, during the war against the Russians, tribesmen showing me how they could throw their blankets over themselves at a moment’s notice to appear invisible from helicopters overhead. They would clench their fists lest their fingernails reflect light and be noticed.

In both the British campaigns, and the Russian war, few prisoners were taken on either side. And British airpower, such as it was in those by-gone days, often brought havoc on villages below.

In the end, the Pashtuns, no matter on which side of the Afghan border they fought, have never really been subdued or pacified.

Today Americans are hoping to succeed where two great empires failed. The trouble, then as now, is how to apply force without creating such hostility that the force becomes counterproductive. The Edinburgh Review of 1844, upon the capture of the Sind in what is now Pakistan, said that the British wanted to secure an empire “more secure than Ceasar’s,” but that they had stored up so much hatred that the tribesmen would unite “just to get rid of us.”

As Piers Brendon wrote in his “Decline and Fall of the British Empire,” the “dialectical process often, though not invariably, repeated throughout imperial history” (was) that any setback at the hands of “natives” would cause a belligerent response “which in turn sowed the seeds of further discord and ultimate alienation.”

In America’s nearly eight years in Afghanistan that has too often been the case.

Read more from columnist HDS Greenway:

The fissures of Tehran

US should respond carefully to Iran crisis

Iran: Revolution, Tiananmen, or something else?

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