Saturday, November 06, 2004

BBC on the Frontier

In liberal mythology it's conservatives and reactionaries who take the simplistic view. Progressives acknowledge complexities - they are 'more nuanced'.

Not really. Liberals like the simplistic view too, but about different subjects.

A favourite is the doughty peasant fighter, a sort of Noble Savage for guilty anti-imperialists.

Liberals never tire of repeating that the US, following French precedent, were forced from Vietnam by a peasant army. The truth is perhaps a little more complex - maybe even 'nuanced'.

Before US and British troops went to Afghanistan, much was heard of the way the Afghans had defeated the Empires of Britain (19th century) and the Soviets (20th century).

Here's the BBC's Owen Bennett-Jones in todays From Our Own Correspondent.

In 1842, a 17,000-strong British force was marching through the snow from Kabul to the Khyber Pass when the tribesmen struck. Legend has it that only one Briton, a doctor called William Brydon, got out alive.

More recently, when the tribesmen fought in Afghanistan, they humbled the mighty Soviet Union for years, using little more than Kalashnikovs against helicopter gun ships.

All good stuff - even though he's in Pakistan and he's talking about battles in Afghanistan. But he really should point out that

a) the "17,000-strong British force" consisted of about 5,000 soldiers, British and Indian, and around 12,000 of the camp-followers without which no army moved before the twentieth century. There were many women and children among the dead (I'm still trying to find a link to the Times story that two babies survived the massacre, and as elderly Afghan women presented themselves to the British ambassador in Kabul around 1920). Nor were they going to the Khyber pass, but to Jalalabad, which, along with the Kandahar garrison, remained unconquered. In passing he could have mentioned that the Brits were back in Kabul within six months, sacking the city and putting every male over 14 to the sword with an "Army of Retribution" which might conceivably have attracted the ire of Fisk and Pilger today.

b) the Kalashnikovs fared ill against Soviet helicopters, until the arrival of Stinger missiles provided by the Great Satan.

The secret of Afghan resistance was not winning, but making life so uncomfortable for invaders that they wouldn't think it worthwhile. It certainly worked with the Brits, who left the Afghans (mostly) to themselves for the next hundred years.

Here's a view of the Pashtun, or 'Pathan' country, as seen by a young Winston Churchill in the late nineteenth century. Compare with the BBC report - not much has changed.

Campaigning on the Indian frontier is an experience by itself. Neither the landscape nor the people find their counterparts in any other portion of the globe. Valley walls rise steeply five or six thousand feet on every side. The columns crawl through a maze of giant corridors down which fierce snow-fed torrents foam under skies of brass. Amid these scenes of savage brilliancy there dwells a race whose qualities seem to harmonise with their environment. Except at harvest-time, when self-preservation enjoins a temporary truce, the Pathan tribes are always engaged in private or public war. Every man is a warrior, a politician and a theologian. Every large house is a real feudal fortress made, it is true, only of sunbaked clay, but with battlements, turrets, loopholes, flanking towers, drawbridges, etc., complete. Every village has its defence. Every family cultivates its vendetta; every clan, its feud. The numerous tribes and combinations of tribes all have their accounts to settle with one another. Nothing is ever forgotten, and very few debts are left unpaid. For the purposes of social life, in addition to the convention about harvest-time, a most elaborate code of honour has been established and is on the whole faithfully observed. A man who knew it and observed it faultlessly might pass unarmed from one end of the frontier to another. The slightest technical slip would, however, be fatal. The life of the Pathan is thus full of interest; and his valleys, nourished alike by endless sunshine and abundant water, are fertile enough to yield with little labour the modest material requirements of a sparse population. Into this happy world the nineteenth century brought two new facts: the breech-loading rifle and the British Government.

The first was an enormous luxury and blessing; the second, an unmitigated nuisance. The convenience of the breech-loading, and still more of the magazine rifle, was nowhere more appreciated than in the Indian highlands. A weapon which would kill with accuracy at fifteen hundred yards opened a whole new vista of delights to every family or clan which could acquire it. One could actually remain in one's own house and fire at one's neighbour nearly a mile away. One could lie in wait on some high crag, and at hitherto unheard-of ranges hit a horseman far below. Even villages could fire at each other without the trouble of going far from home. Fabulous prices were therefore offered for these glorious products of science. Rifle-thieves scoured all India to reinforce the efforts of the honest smuggler. A steady flow of the coveted weapons spread its genial influence throughout the frontier, and the respect which the Pathan tribesmen entertained for Christian civilisation was vastly enhanced. The action of the British Government on the other hand was entirely unsatisfactory. The great organising, advancing, absorbing power to the southward seemed to be little better than a monstrous spoil-sport. If the Pathans made forays into the plains, not only were they driven back (which after all was no more than fair), but a whole series of interferences took place, followed at intervals by expeditions which toiled laboriously through the valleys, scolding the tribesmen and exacting fines for any damage which they had done. No one would have minded these expeditions if they had simply come, had a fight and then gone away again. In many cases this was their practice under what was called the "butcher and bolt policy" to which the Government of India long adhered. But towards the end of the nineteenth century these intruders began to make roads through many of the valleys, and in particular the great road to Chitral. They sought to ensure the safety of these roads by threats, by forts and by subsidies. There was no objection to the last method so far as it went. But the tendency to road-making was regarded by the Pathans with profound distaste. All along the road people were expected to keep quiet, not to shoot one another, and, above all not to shoot at travellers along the road. It was too much to ask, and a whole series of quarrels took their origin from this source.

Over the next week I'll post Churchill's account of combat in the Mamund Valley, NW Pakistan.

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