Tuesday 13 October 2009

We have been there before

With Pakistani forces poised to launch a major military offensive deep into the heartlands of the Waziristan tribal region – once more to tackle the growing threat of Taleban and al Qaeda fighters - it is fair to ask whether they will be any more successful than last time, and the time before that, and the time before that.

This is by no means the first time they have attempted to suppress the tribal regions of Waziristan. They have been there before and, before them, British armed forces have tried repeatedly to do the same thing, with absolutely no success. We need to learn from history and, in particular, from the little known campaign on the eve of and during the Second World War.

During that period, Waziri tribesmen, the ancestors of the group we currently call the Taleban, were mounting what amounts to exactly the same campaign against the British occupiers. And, in case anyone believes there is anything at all new about the current situation, they too were following a fundamentalist Muslim leader. The only difference is that he went by the name of the Faqir of Ipi.

The story is told in fascinating detail by historian Milan Hauner, originally published in the Journal of Contemporary History in January 1981 and since reproduced on Khyber.org.

During the period, the Faqir of Ipi (pictured) evaded upwards of 40,000 British and Indian Army troops, in a campaign which has eerie similarities with current events. So striking are the parallels that it should be compulsory reading for everyone engaged in the military campaign in Afghanistan, up to and including president Obama.

The Faqir writes Huaner, was the most determined, implacable single adversary the British had to face. As a guerrilla leader he was uncompromising, unyielding, obstinate and unscrupulous in the choice of combat methods against his opponents. These included traditional methods of tribal warfare such as ambush, kidnapping and mutilation.

The decision to attack was always his own; like the truces which he decided when his casualties had passed the accepted norm and it became necessary for him to retreat once again into the inaccessible hideouts of Waziristan. There he would wait for another opportunity to open hostilities, thus keeping the British army on the North-West Frontier fully mobilized.

At one point nearly 40,000 British and Indian troops were reported to be in the field trying to capture him, while he remained elusive as ever, always succeeding in evading the tight net put around him.

And yet, his own force of armed tribesmen probably never exceeded one thousand men, armed with rifles and a few machine-guns, and occasionally one or two pieces of antiquated cannon; he was always short of ammunition, had no radio communication, and relied for all his intelligence on the traditional network of informants and messengers. The British on the other hand had modern artillery, tanks and aircraft.

Huaner's account, written at the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in his own terms, "opens the back door to an amazing story of guerrilla activities against a major power" against the background of events from which the Second World War emerged – in which the agents of fascist Germany played a small part.

Yet, writes Hauner, from the Faqir's Islamic fundamentalist view of the world, terms like fascism and anti-fascism must have been utterly irrelevant. The Pathan tribesmen in Waziristan simply occupied "one of the few regions in the world whose inhabitants have cherished a strange anarchic independence from the constraints of 'civilized' governments."

These people, as is the case now, had never accepted a state authority above them. Nor were they anxious to form a government of their own. They were simply carrying on their centuries-old struggles for tribal independence, to keep their valleys free from foreign occupation. And, in pursuing their "rebellion" the Waziris accepted the Faqir as their supreme religious authority. Whether Hitler or Stalin were about to conquer the rest of the world, or the British about to quit India, did not concern them in the least.

The futility of British attempts are chillingly recounted by Hauner:

Even when the British succeeded in forcing their way through almost every tribal valley, they were never able to administer the tribes, let alone to disarm them. Although the British established many fortified outposts in the area, improved communications by bringing railways and roads closer to their cantonments, appointed political agents who were capable of conversing fluently in the local languages with the tribal maliks (chiefs) and mullahs (priests), this brought no permanent solution.
Earlier attempts by Lord Curzon, Foreign Secretary between 1919–24 to bring the Frontier under full control gradually had been implemented by means of he called his "Close Border Policy". Startlingly similar to General McChrystal's "take and hold" policy, followed by handing over the area to Afghan security forces, it consisted of replacing the permanent British military presence in the Tribal Territory by local militia, thereby leaving it as a sort of "marshland" to go its own way.

However, Hauner informs us, this policy was no more successful than the previous "Forward Policy" of conquest, as it did not prevent the tribesmen from raiding across the administered border.

Hauner cites Sir Kerr Fraser-Tytler, who served during this period as a young subaltern in a Frontier Cavalry Regiment, and later during the crucial years of 1935-1941 as British Minister in Kabul. He recalls his frustrating experience in fighting the tribes:

And always there were the raids, the sudden alarm, the long dust-choked ride through the stifling heat of a July night, clattering out on to the stony glacis of the frontier hills, and away forty miles before dawn only to find as often as not that the birds had flown, leaving a trail of death and destruction behind them.
The grievances of the border tribes were believed to be essentially economic - though from the tribesman's own point of view the motivation would be translated into their fundamental moral codes (Pukhtunwali), which imply retaliation and blood feud (Badal) in settling old disputes. And retaliate they did.

The Pathan hill tribes rightly complained that the British, by pushing their control closer and closer to their areas, cut them off from their traditional recourse to raiding in the fertile valleys running down to the river Indus in the administered districts, which were populated mostly by the people who spoke the same language - Pashto (Pukhtu).

Because the hills were too poor to maintain their inhabitants and, if there was no alternative source of income, their only choice was to carry out raids or to starve. Following the established practices of the Mughal and Afghan governments, the British first satisfied themselves by paying allowances in cash to the tribal maliks, which for instance for the year 1940 amounted to nearly one million Rupees for the whole Tribal Territory.

Theoretically, these were paid for services rendered, such as road and camp protection by the local tribal levies called khassadars. These were untrained men, many either young boys or old men in the last stages of decrepitude, selected by their local maliks.

They were used alongside with other irregular or auxiliary forces such as the Frontier Constabulary or the Scouts, before the military were called in. The khassadars, however, proved unreliable, "more often than not keeping out of the way of the raiding gangs they are supposed to deal with", complained a British intelligence officer.

In a passage that could be taken straight from contemporary accounts (substitute Afghan "security forces"), we find that they were distrusted by the military who almost invariably insisted on the withdrawal of all khassadars from any area in which military operations took place.

Then we learn that, as a result of their dealings with the authorities on both sides of the Indo-Afghan border, the Wazirs and other Pathan tribes had, rightly or wrongly, come to the conclusion that the shortest cut to lucrative allowances was not through loyal service, but by occasional demonstration of their nuisance value. In particular the Wazirs, in the barren and inaccessible country athwart the Durand Line, were in an admirable position to play this game.

That "game" is still being played out today, as a new generation of troops come to terms with the realities of the Frontier, the tribesmen no more amenable to their blandishments than were their forefathers.

Of that earlier period, Hauner writes that it is certainly no exaggeration to describe the Pathan tribes as the largest known potential reservoir of guerrilla fighters in the world.

At the time, the British statistics of fighting strength and armament among the trans-border tribes in the Frontier area, as of 1 April 1940, produced 414,000 fighting men armed with 233,562 breech-loading rifles or carbines. Thus, on paper there were more modern rifles among the tribes and certainly more fighting men than in the entire Indian Army of the period.

So protracted and routine became the fighting in the areas that Hauner observes that, between the two world wars the Frontier offered practically the only combat experience to young and adventure-seeking British officers facing the boredom of a monotonous service in India. It was the Frontier, he recalls, where the young Churchill had gained his first experience of direct fighting during the 1890s.

Sending troops on punitive expeditions against rebellious villages and bombing them from the air developed into something of a favourite sport, which received the full support of strong military commanders in India. And even then, the policy was criticised "for giving undue preference to the military over the civilian point of view."

Nothing much has changed and, as McChrystal calls for an extra 40,000 troops, aiming to cover the whole of Afghanistan with coalition forces which would then number no more than 150,000 it is as well to recall that, at the outbreak of the Second World War the Indian Army formed the largest segment of British imperial troops: 187,000, of which 140,000 were Indian.

And with 40,000 deployed just in the small area (by comparison) of the Frontier, little effect will be gained from the few Brigades he will be able to spare for that area.

Nor will US airpower come to his aid – when he allows it to be used. The campaign in the late 30s became the test bed for the use of aircraft, with troops routinely sent on "punitive" expeditions against rebellious villages, while they were bombed from the air.

Even after the Second World War, though, the "rebellion" continued, when high-performance Tempest fighter bombers were used by the RAF, right up until 1947 and partition, when the Royal Pakistani Air Force using similar equipment (pictured) took on the task. With the names changed and a few minor details added, accounts of the operations of that period could easily be mistaken for contemporary accounts.

Eventually, the Faqir "rebellion" petered out and by 1954 it was considered to be over, although the Waziris were undefeated and ungoverned, even after huge expenditure of blood and treasure spanning decades. Not thirty years later the tribesmen were again rebelling, this time against Soviet occupation – with similar results.

Compare and contrast an account of an action in June 1937 when the rebellion had spread to the whole of Waziristan. A British convoy of 200 heavy vehicles, escorted by six armoured cars was ambushed and wiped out in a narrow defile at Shahpur Tangi. As the Soviets later found, the tribal forces avoided pitched battle and would quickly disperse into the mountain shelters after an attack.

Now, more than 60 years after British troops were fighting their fruitless battles, the Waziris spanning the Afghan-Pakistan border are "rebelling" again, this time against US-led coalition forces. On the Afghan side, the Ghilzhai Pushtans are also mounting an insurrection, as they are wont to do from time-to-time, and have been doing since time immemorial.

Nothing changes – not even the outcome, which is all too predictable. In 1955, when the Faqir was still alive and fighting, the Afghan Prime Minister Prince Daud, who was known as a strong advocate of a united "Pushtunistan", received official backing for his policy from the visiting Soviet Premier Bulganin and Party Secretary Khrushchev. The Kremlin leaders then referred to Pushtunistan and overtly stated that the Soviet Union stood for a "just settlement of the problem".

In the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviets were in a position to put that "just settlement" into practice and there were claims that Frontier problem was closer to a solution than at any time in its history. However, Hauner then cautioned us not to forget Lord Curzon's dictum: "I do not prophesy about the future. No man who has read a page of Indian history will ever prophesy about the Frontier."

McChrystal, president Obama and the many other "actors" in the currently unfolding drama may think they are writing the pages of history. In fact, they are simply adding new names to an account that has been written many times before. As long as we are not prepared to re-visit the history of the region, we are doomed to do that again and again, leaving behind our blood and treasure, in exchange for the bones of our soldiers.

Montgomery's first rule of warfare was "never invade Russia". For contemporary generals, the rule should be "never invade Afghanistan". This is "one of the few regions in the world whose inhabitants have cherished a strange anarchic independence from the constraints of 'civilized' governments." Leave it alone.