Afghanistan: 1897

… a continual state of feud and strife prevails throughout the land. Tribe wars with tribe. The people of one valley fight with those of the next. To the quarrels of communities are added the combats of individuals. Khan assails khan, each supported by his retainers. Every tribesman has a blood feud with his neighbor. Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger.
Nor are these struggles conducted with the weapons which usually belong to the races of such development. To the ferocity of the Zulu are added the craft of the Redskin and the marksmanship of the Boer. The world is presented with that grim spectacle, “the strength of civilization without its mercy.” At a thousand yards the traveller falls wounded by the well-aimed bullet of a breech-loading rifle. His assailant, approaching, hacks him to death with the ferocity of a South-Sea Islander. The weapons of the nineteenth century are in the hands of the savages of the Stone Age.
Every influence, every motive, that provokes the spirit of murder among men, impels these mountaineers to deeds of treachery and violence. The strong aboriginal propensity to kill, inherent in all human beings, has in these valleys been preserved in unexampled strength and vigour. That religion, which above all others was founded and propagated by the sword — the tenets and principles of which are instinct with incentives to slaughter and which in three continents has produced fighting breeds of men — stimulates a wild and merciless fanaticism. The love of plunder,always a characteristic of hill tribes, is fostered by the spectacle of opulence and luxury which, to their eyes, the cities and plains of the south display. A code of honour not less punctilious than that of old Spain, is supported by vendettas as implacable as those of Corsica.

Winston Churchill, The Story of the Malakand Field Force: An Episode of Frontier War (1898)

7 thoughts on “Afghanistan: 1897”

  1. “I suspect every army officer in Afghanistan has read this book, just as most of the officers in Iraq read The River War. Both have been in print for over 100 years.”

    Hmm… maybe the senior officers have, but the LTs? I doubt it. Don’t get me wrong–they’re all sacrificing a lot and doing the best they can, but a lot of them are too busy with operations to sit back and read an old book during their downtime.

  2. “I suspect every army officer in Afghanistan has read this book, just as most of the officers in Iraq read The River War. Both have been in print for over 100 years.”

    Hmm… maybe the senior officers have, but the LTs? I doubt it. Don’t get me wrong–they’re all sacrificing a lot and doing the best they can, but a lot of them are too busy with operations to sit back and read an old book during their downtime.

  3. Good post.

    There is a timelessness to the Afghan troubles, their people are more accustomed to freedom than rule of a central force; which is a good thing in my estimation. What Lex quotes is the reality for those who are truly free of central gov’t and the brutal realities; which in turn provides a brutal response—good on them.

    It truly does not matter “who” in the Afghan army has read Churchill (who was a marvelous chronicler of his times), there is the matter of free people desiring to be free and using tools to that end. Central gov’t is not necessarily a good thing, and the Afghans are pushing back and we could learn something for truly, there is a tribal allegiance which defies nationalization or centralization—much as our Founders believed in the capabilities of States. Honor and freedom are tenets most pre-political correctness/gelded Americans would applaud/support. Taliban and Islamist extremist excluded, but the notion of imposing a central gov’t on a free people does not seem an advancement, but rather a retardation of the yearning of people to be free…so don’t be surprised when they attempt to push off the control with extreme means—even Medevil to quote a popular movie. Lovers of freedom will use the tools available to defeat tyranny; and central gov’t will mean tyranny—I suspect the Afghans understand, even if they cannot elucidate.

    As a lover of Liberty, I’m pulling for the tribes; our Several States could take a lesson from the fierce resistance to centralization. Karzi is a crook, and his “people know,” I applaud their resistance—it ain’t about American for these folks, it is about Liberty. American is more politically focused than on Liberty, and Honduras is a good example–the American gov’t opposed the rule of law (however clumsy) in Honduras and embraced nitwits (ostensibly) like Chavez of Venezuela…great track record, eh?

    I hope the tribes of Afghanistan keep up the heat, and maintain their Liberty. They don’t need a central government anymore than most Free Peoples.

  4. Churchill was a brilliant master of the English language. His description of the Pushtuns is Victorian but accurate from the perspective of, say, a British frontier agent. The Durand line was drawn at the extent where the tribes were sufficiently within the reach of British firepower that their customary raiding had to be directed north instead of south.

  5. Narratives of Afghan Border warfare from the 19th and 20th Centuries by Kipling, Churchill, General Slim, and John Masters all have much the same flavor and describe it in similar terms. Here is Kipling, from an 1892 story, “The Lost Legion”:

    The Afghans were always a secretive race, and vastly preferred doing something wicked to saying anything at all. They would for months be quiet and well-behaved, till one night, without word or warning, they would rush a police-post, cut the throats of a constable or two, dash through a village, carry away three or four women, and withdraw, in the red glare of burning thatch, driving the cattle and goats before them to their desolate hills. The [British] Indian Government would become almost tearful on these occasions. First it would say, “Please be good, and we’ll forgive you.” The tribe concerned in the latest depredation would collectively put its thumb to its nose and answer rudely. Then the Government would say, “Hadn’t you better pay up a little money for those few corpses you left behind you the other night?” Here the tribe would temporize, and lie and bully, and some of the younger men, merely to show contempt of authority, would raid another police-post and fire into some frontier mud fort, and if lucky kill a real English officer. Then the Government would say, “Observe; if you persist in this line of conduct, you will be hurt.” If the tribe knew exactly what was going on in India, it would apologize or be rude, according as it learned whether the Government was busy with other things or able to devote its full attention to their performances. Some of the tribes knew to one corpse how far to go. Others became excited, lost their heads, and told the Government to “come on.” With sorrow and tears, and one eye on the British taxpayer at home, who insisted on regarding these exercises as brutal wars of annexation, the Government would prepare an expensive little field-brigade and some guns, and send all up into the hills to chase the wicked tribe out of the valleys where the corn grew, into the hilltops where there was nothing to eat. The tribe would turn out in full strength and enjoy the campaign, for they knew that their women would never be touched, that their wounded would be nursed, not mutilated, and that as soon as each man’s bag of corn was spent they could surrender and palaver with the English General as though they had been a real enemy. Afterwards, years afterwards, they would pay the blood-money, driblet by driblet, to the Government, and tell their children how they had slain the redcoats by thousands. The only drawback to this kind of picnic-war was the weakness of the redcoats for solemnly blowing up with powder the Afghan fortified towers and keeps. This the tribes always considered mean.

    And the following is from Winston Churchill’s “My Early Life” (1930), describing the scene of the 1897 expedition he wrote about in “The Malakand Field Force”:

    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 currents foam under skies of brass. Amid these scenes of savage brilliancy there dwells a race whose qualities seem to harmonize 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 sun-baked clay, but with battlements, turrets, loopholes, flanking towers, drawbridges, etc., complete. Every village has its defense. 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 honor 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 labor 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 could 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 neighbor 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 civilization was vastly enhanced.

    The action of the British Government on the other hand was entirely unsatisfactory. The great organizing, 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 subsequent 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 whole of this 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 travelers along the road. It was too much to ask, and a whole series of quarrels took their origin from this source.

    The more recent accounts strike much the same note of good clean fun, tempered by the warning not to let them take you alive.

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