Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Arithmetic on the Frontier

A great and glorious thing it is
To learn, for seven years or so,
The Lord knows what of that and this,
Ere reckoned fit to face the foe —
The flying bullet down the Pass,
That whistles clear: “All flesh is grass.”

Three hundred pounds per annum spent
On making brain and body meeter
For all the murderous intent
Comprised in “villanous saltpetre !”
And after — ask the Yusufzaies
What comes of all our ’ologies.

A scrimmage in a Border Station —
A canter down some dark defile —
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail
The Crammer’s boast, the Squadron’s pride,
Shot like a rabbit in a ride !

No proposition Euclid wrote,
No formulae the text-books know,
Will turn the bullet from your coat,
Or ward the tulwar’s downward blow
Strike hard who cares — shoot straight who can—
The odds are on the cheaper man.

One sword-knot stolen from the camp
Will pay for all the school expenses
Of any Kurrum Valley scamp
Who knows no word of moods and tenses,
But, being blessed with perfect sight,
Picks off our messmates left and right.

With home-bred hordes the hillsides teem,
The troop-ships bring us one by one,
At vast expense of time and steam,
To slay Afridis where they run.
The “captives of our bow and spear”
Are cheap — alas ! as we are dear.

To quote :

I was never a fan of the project to democratise Afghanistan. The politics and culture of that fascinating nation are nearer to those of fourteenth-century England than to modern America. Imagine men from the Planet Zog arriving in 1350 to bring democracy to England.

Man from Zog : ‘Here you are, all registered, polling stations set up, we’ll check the count, carry on !’
1st Great Lord – ‘Super. Knights – you’ll all be voting for me‘
Knight – ‘Super. Squires – you’ll all vote for the Great Lord ‘
Squire – ‘Yeomen – put your cross by the Great Lord’s name if you want to keep that farm ’
Yeoman – ‘Serfs – I’ll show you where to put the thumbprint tomorrow’.
Serf – ‘Yes, Master’

I thought that the Taleban were as good a government as Afghanistan could reasonably expect, modern Puritans. Relatively incorrupt, they brought an end to the capricious violence of the warlords who ruled in the post-Soviet vacuum. They also reduced the amount of heroin being produced. Sure, their views on women and homosexuals wouldn’t go down well in Islington, but by their lights they were a pretty good bunch.

Unfortunately they chose to support Bin Laden and so had to be overthrown – not because of their reactionary views but because after September 11 it was impossible for America to leave Al Quaeda’s bases untouched. The world – including any other leaders who might have been thinking about supporting, or turning a blind eye to, anti-US terrorists, had to be made aware of what the price would be.

thinks we should be in Afghanistan so that little girls can go to school without being poisoned.

"As I read Christina Lamb’s extraordinary account in The Sunday Times of being ambushed in Helmand my thought was not 'too much', but 'not enough'. More helicopters, if they’re needed. More of everything, if that’s required. We should be doing it for Nooria, the 12-year-old girl interviewed by Newsweek in February. A dozen or so gunmen had entered her school, beaten the watchman and then burnt the place down. Then the written threats started."

For God's sake ! Aaronovitch, as an old leftie, will have spent most of his adult life dissing the armed forces and all their works. If the National Union of Students 1980 edition had had their way, the British Army would have been disbanded and our defence industry retooled to make wind turbines, bongs and yurts.

Damn right we need more soldiers, helicopters, aircraft. But we haven't got them. We haven't bloody got them. Who's been trying to get them all scrapped for the last 50 years ? If you've not noticed, Dave, we run the armed forces on a shoestring - on which they perform miracles, while elsewhere tax money pours into the bottomless welfare state oubliette.

(One other thing about Christina Lamb's despatch - she gave away far too much information about the army's tactics. People may die for her good story.)

If we had a huge army, flush with success in many theatres, full of highly-motivated officers, loads of the latest technical kit, a hugely supportive public at home, total self-belief among the political and administrative class, no worries on the diplomatic front or the 'court of world opinion' , should we go in so that Nooria can go to school ?

Well, in the latter half of the nineteenth century we had all these things in spades. We chose to keep out - to restrict our visits to the punitive 'butcher and bolt' expeditions - pretty much what the Yanks are doing now. Perhaps we had good reason. If Mr Aaronovitch is so concerned about girls getting a decent education, perhaps he could turn his attention to UK comprehensives, which Aaro found not quite good enough for his own daughter, sending her to a private school.

I published Winston Churchill's accounts of combat on the Afghan borders, taken from his book "My Early Life", as follows :

Churchill On The Frontier - Introduction
Sir Bindon Blood
Mamund Valley I
Mamund Valley II
Mamund Valley III

To my great delight I've found his much more detailed account, The Story Of The Malakand Field Force. Aaro really ought to take a look.

"In the cool of the evening, when the sun has sunk behind the mountains of Afghanistan, and the valleys are filled with a delicious twilight, the elders of the village lead the way to the chenar trees by the water's side, and there, while the men are cleaning their rifles, or smoking their hookahs, and the women are making rude ornaments from beads, and cloves, and nuts, the Mullah drones the evening prayer. Few white men have seen, and returned to tell the tale. But we may imagine the conversation passing from the prices of arms and cattle, the prospects of the harvest, or the village gossip, to the great Power, that lies to the southward, and comes nearer year by year. Perhaps some former Sepoy, of Beluchis or Pathans, will recount his adventures in the bazaars of Peshawar, or tell of the white officers he has followed and fought for in the past. He will speak of their careless bravery and their strange sports; of the far-reaching power of the Government, that never forgets to send his pension regularly as the months pass by; and he may even predict to the listening circle the day when their valleys will be involved in the comprehensive grasp of that great machine, and judges, collectors and commissioners shall ride to sessions at Ambeyla, or value the land tax on the soil of Nawagai. Then the Mullah will raise his voice and remind them of other days when the sons of the prophet drove the infidel from the plains of India, and ruled at Delhi, as wide an Empire as the Kafir holds to-day: when the true religion strode proudly through the earth and scorned to lie hidden and neglected among the hills: when mighty princes ruled in Baghdad, and all men knew that there was one God, and Mahomet was His prophet. And the young men hearing these things will grip their Martinis, and pray to Allah, that one day He will bring some Sahib - best prize of all - across their line of sight at seven hundred yards so that, at least, they may strike a blow for insulted and threatened Islam."

Let's stay on the Frontier a little longer. Dr Akbar S. Ahmed of Pakistan was a political agent on the Frontier, and has studied and written extensively on the frontier tribes. He tells here of the love affair of imperial Britain with the Frontier and its people.

"There was among the Pathans something that called to the Englishman or the Scotsman - partly that the people looked you straight in the eye, that there was no equivocation and that you couldn't browbeat them even if you wished to. When we crossed the bridge at Attock we felt we'd come home."

The romance continued after Pakistani independence.

On the Frontier today the romance engendered by the colonial en­counter is still preserved. It began from the moment of the Independence of Pakistan in 1947 when Sir George Cunningham, an ex-Governor of the North-west Frontier Province, was recalled from Glasgow by Mr Jinnah, the Governor-General of Pakistan, to become the first Governor of the Province. Memories of the colonial encounter remain untouched. The billiards room in the Miramshah, North Waziristan Scouts Mess is still dominated by the portrait of Captain G. Meynell of the Guides Frontier Force, and "killed in action Mohmand operations; 29 September 1935". Lt-Colonel Harman (immortalized by Howell's account of him) stares from a painting in the dining room of the Wana Mess in South Waziristan. A note in T. E. Lawrence's hand thanking the South Waziristan Scouts for their hospitality is enshrined in a glass box in the Wana Mess Library. On the Shabkadar tower that dominates the entire area the plaques commemorating fallen soldiers are still clear. The graveyard, too, is undisturbed and the head-stones tell their tale clearly. Both a testimony to the Mohmand encounters between 1897 and 1915. The new "Gate of Khyber" at Jamrud, the mouth of the Pass, quotes Kipling's lines from "Arithmetic on the Frontier" on a marble slab.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for pointing to The Story of the Malakand Field Force. I notice they have also made available The River War (in which an empire attempts to thwart a deeply embedded slave trade). Hmmm. Syllabus material anyone? Especially relevant these days.

AntiCitizenOne said...

No we didn't, we fought to end slavery.

Anonymous said...

I thought that it what I just said. To thwart - to hinder or (preferably) prevent. And relevant given the events in Darfur.