Friday 23 October 2009

Village burning

At current rate of spending, General Sir David Richards has effectively committed us to an additional £20 billion in public expenditure – this being about the least we can get away with for the five more years he is expecting British troop numbers to remain at current levels in Afghanistan.

With the Labour administration expected to fall in the forthcoming general election, this of course is a sum that Mr Cameron's "modern" Conservatives are going to have to find, on top of the replacements they are going to have to fund as equipment wears out and is destroyed.

In a way, it is ironic that a political party which styles itself as "modern" – as against "new” Labour – is being committed to fighting a very old war. It is doubly so when the party is seeking a very old solution as well – that of progressively replacing expensive British soldiers with local troops and "levies", in order to reduce the costs.

Such issues were prominent in the late 1890s, when Winston Churchill found himself as a young subaltern of Horse, on the Northwest frontier, accompanying the Malakand Field Force into Waziristan to suppress the Pathan revolt – much as Pakistani forces are doing at present.

Writing in his book of the 1898 campaign, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, he then recorded that the great complaint was the expense of deploying extremely expensive cavalry regiments, although the overall parsimony of the Home Government was an object of much friction.

Having adopting what was then known as the "Forward Policy", 2nd Lt Churchill observed that "only one real objection" had been advanced against the plan – not without its similarities to the "take and hold" strategy currently proposed by Gen McChrystal. "But it is a crushing one," he wrote, "and it constitutes the most serious argument" against it: "It is this: we have neither the troops nor the money to carry it out".

At least in Churchill's day, the Government was spared the cost of the third of Gen McChrystal's components – the "build" stage where, after the troops have moved in to "protect the people", reconstruction and development is supposed to take place, better to demonstrate that the central government in Kabul cares for its citizens and is dedicated to furnishing them with a better life.

McChrystal's strategy is predicated on the assumption that the "insurgents" he is dealing with, labelled for convenience the "Taleban", are separate from the population and, as its oppressors, are the force which prevents the pacification of the areas. By providing security and then reconstruction (or, in many cases, construction ab initio) the theory is that the population "turns" from support of the Taleban, and sides with the government.

Interestingly, the forces ranged against the forefathers of the tribesmen currently causing havoc in the region adopted a slightly different approach. Having at great expense and some risk "taken" villages in contested areas, sappers were then employed to burn them to the ground – a process often hastened by the generous use of explosives – in a policy graphically and accurately described as "village burning".

With one MP "writing in the columns of his amusing weekly journal" of his concerns that such action was not only "barbarous" but "senseless", driving the displaced inhabitants into the arms of the enemy, 2nd Lt Churchill wrote that this reveals, perhaps, "the most remarkable misconception of the actual facts," thus noting:

The writer seemed to imagine that the tribesmen consisted of a regular army, who fought, and a peaceful, law-abiding population, who remained at their business, and perhaps protested against the excessive military expenditure from time to time. Whereas in reality, throughout these regions, every inhabitant is a soldier from the first day he is old enough to hurl a stone, till the last day he has strength to pull a trigger, after which he is probably murdered as an encumbrance to the community.
Thus, reasoned Churchill, when British troops were attacked and their assailants retired to the hills, "Thither it is impossible to follow them. They cannot be caught. They cannot be punished." Only one remedy remained - their property had to be destroyed. "Their villages are made hostages for their good behaviour. They are fully aware of this, and when they make an attack on a camp or convoy, they do it because they have considered the cost and think it worthwhile."

Of course, it is cruel and barbarous, as is everything else in war, Churchill added, "but it is only an unphilosophic mind that will hold it legitimate to take a man's life, and illegitimate to destroy his property."

None of such "philosophic" issues, however, need trouble Gen Richards, who is confident that, having spread peace and light throughout the land, to the applause of grateful villagers, British troop numbers will be able to fall significantly some time after 2014. However, he says, Afghan security forces will be much better able to take on Taleban insurgents within two or three years.

Through the period, he believes that the Army will see five years of declining violence "… and then we'll go into a supporting role." He adds: "If we get it right, our estimation is that by about 2011, 2012 you'll see an appreciable improvement. And by about 2014, we will ramp down our numbers as they ramp up and you'll start to reduce the overall risks of the operation."

It has to be said, though, that this time we aim to build rather than burn, but it remains to be seen whether that will make the difference.

The "build" strategy is based on the premise that the population and the "Taleban" are separate entities and the one can be detached from the other. A further assumption is that the population, on being treated kindly by the coalition forces will necessarily respond in kind. Yet, previous experience – albeit with the border tribes – does not support that assumption. And nor can it be assured that, after a period of peace and stability – should that happy situation ever arise – that it will be in any way permanent.

Churchill, for instance, noted that for two years after British troops had brought peace to the Swat Valley, trade had nearly doubled. "As the sun of civilisation rose above the hills, the fair flowers of commerce unfolded, and the streams of supply and demand, hitherto congealed by the frost of barbarism, were thawed," he wrote, adding:

Most of the native population were content to bask in the genial warmth and enjoy the new-found riches and comforts. For two years reliefs had gone to and from Chitral without a shot being fired. Not a post-bag had been stolen, not a messenger murdered. The political officers riding about freely among the fierce hill men were invited to settle many disputes, which would formerly have been left to armed force.
Yet this was the very area which was the epicentre of the uprising of 1898 and which, earlier this year – for the umpteenth time since that date – has been the focus of armed insurrection.

In further observations that may have considerable relevance to the current period, and the Islamic fundamentalism of the "Taleban", Churchill then noted that "a single class had viewed with quick intelligence and intense hostility the approach of the British power." This was the "priesthood", the Mullahs, who recognised that "Contact with civilisation assails the ignorance, and credulity," on which they depend for their wealth and influence.

The very blessings that Gen Richards and his troops wish to bestow on the villagers of Helmand, therefore, are exactly those which will invite the greatest hostility in the most powerful and influential group in the land. And the better he succeeds, the more hostility he will invoke, as he confronts the hitherto unvanquished combination of tribalism and self-serving militant Islam.

Earlier this year, the general had been suggesting that Britain might have to support Afghanistan for another 40 years to deliver stability in the country, although he never specified the nature of that support.

Given that the British during the colonial period were attempting to subdue the tribes in the region for over hundred years, without success, he might have been closer to the mark with those 40 years, to which he could add another sixty – when we could still be no further forward. Perhaps Richards ought to think about a bit of village burning ... at least it would be cheaper.