Richard North, 01/09/2021  

I've just finished reading Andrew (now Major General) Roe's "Waging War in Waziristan", and mighty fine reading it has been. It is full of good sense from a practical soldier, who has hands-on experience in the region and an obvious passion for his subject.

His underlying thesis is that many of the hard-learned lessons by the British during the Raj could (at the time he wrote the book in 2010) be applied to the campaign in Afghanistan. Yet, for all his good sense and vast experience, his advice was largely ignored – none of his core recommendations were ever fully implemented. And now, of course, it is too late.

For all his experience, therefore, it was not enough, but then he offers a sharp aphorism in his book: fools learn from their experience; wise men learn from the experience of others.

Major General Roe cannot be criticised for failing to learn from others' experiences – after all, he reaches back in time to look at how others handled the situation in Waziristan and made some astute observations.

If he has a weakness, it is perhaps that he relied too much on his evaluation of the situation in Waziristan, a very limited and special area of what was once the Northwest frontier, seeking to apply his findings to the whole of Afghanistan, of which the Northwest frontier zone wasn't even part.

Yesterday, though, we had the benefit of somebody who has the benefit of the wider perspective, although he relies on his own experience. This is Baktash Ahadi, formerly a combat interpreter in Afghanistan, writing in the Washington Post, where he complains of the "cultural illiteracy" of the Americans which, he asserts, led to the US failure.

His first "beef" is that almost all representatives of Western governments - military and civilian - were required to stay "inside the wire", meaning they were confined at all times to Kabul's fortified Green Zone and well-guarded military bases across the country. Had they circulated in the public areas, he says, they might have developed a much better feel for the country, its people and its culture.

But his main beef was that virtually the only contact most Afghans had with the West came via heavily armed and armoured combat troops. Americans thus mistook the Afghan countryside for a mere theatre of war, rather than as a place where people actually lived.

When US forces turned villages into battlegrounds, pulverising mud homes and destroying livelihoods, he says, "one could almost hear the Taliban laughing as any sympathy for the West evaporated in bursts of gunfire".

Front-line troops, he adds, were given zero training in cultural literacy. The Marines he worked with were shocked, for example, to hear him exchanging favourite Koran verses with his fellow Afghans, mistaking this for extremism rather than shared piety.

When talking to Afghan villagers, the Marines would not remove their sunglasses - a clear indication of untrustworthiness in a country that values eye contact. In some cases, Ahadi says, they would approach and directly address village women, violating one of rural Afghanistan's strictest cultural norms.

Faux pas such as these, he asserts, sound almost comically basic, and they are. But multiplied over millions of interactions throughout the United States two decades of wheel-spinning in Afghanistan, they cost us dearly in terms of local support.

From the point of view of many Afghans, Americans might as well have been extra-terrestrials, descending out of the black sky every few weeks, looking and acting alien, and always bringing disruption, if not outright ruin. "We failed to understand what made sense for Afghans time and time again", Ahadi says. "No wonder the Taliban maintained such sway over the past 20 years".

If we now return to Andrew Roe, we find that he too observes that regular British troops lacked what is now called "cultural sensitivity". Most – including many of their officers – knew little of the people and their cultures, and rarely bothered to find out, largely keeping behind their own version of the "wire" except when on active operations.

While less than optimal, though, if I understand Roe correctly, it didn't really matter. The system which evolved in the Raj, which was applied with a considerable degree of success, relied on a locally recruited frontier corps, led by specially selected British officers drawn from the Indian Army, long-term appointees who became expert in tribal affairs.

The first line of control, though, came from the tribal leaders who were required to police their own areas, for which purpose they were paid an allowance by the Raj, and financed to raise irregular troops from the tribes themselves. Known as kassadars, they were trained and equipped by the tribes and carried out routine security, each unit acting on behalf of the tribe.

They came under the jurisdiction of locally employed political agents who in turn were directly responsible to British political officers, men of great experience of local customs, proficient in the languages and dialects of the tribe. Separate from the Army, they lived amongst the tribes and relied only on the tribesmen for day-to-day protection.

The system then worked on a carrot and stick basis. The payments to the tribal chiefs, and to the kassadars provided much-valued boosts to the local economies. But, if the tribes failed to discharge their duties, payments could be withheld. Cash fines could also be imposed, supplemented by material fines, usually in the form of the tribes being required to had over a large number of rifles (many of which had been stolen from the British anyway).

If these sanctions were not enough, the political officers had at their disposal frontier corps troops. And, if the situation developed beyond their capabilities, it was then that the regular army was called in to mount punitive expeditions – in later times assisted by RAF bombers – withdrawing as soon as their objectives had been achieved, the so-called "butcher and bolt" policy.

By and large, as Roe observes, using the Army (and RAF) as the "big stick" worked for the Raj, not least because the tribes considered the system generally fair – and highly remunerative - accepting collective punishment as part of their cultural norms in return for a high degree of autonomy.

But that does not mean the system would necessarily have worked in modern Afghanistan, least of all in Helmand province where demographic tinkering by the Americans in the 60s, in their Helmand Valley project, had reduced the reach and authority of the tribes. Furthermore, the growing of opium provided an alternative income, and financed a shadow government, beyond the reach of Kabul or the coalition.

But, as Roe himself says, the system adopted by the Raj, after much trial and error, was taken over almost intact by the Pakistani government when it assumed responsibility for the area, after independence. If nothing else, the British approach offered "a number of insights and practical measures worthy of consideration".

And yet there is, to my mind, one great weakness in the Roe thesis. Despite the "great game" aspects of the Raj dominion, the British were the main players in Waziristan. In the current political environment (before the Taliban takeover), Afghanistan was a much bigger canvas, at its most basic becoming a four-cornered game.

It was dominated by the interplay between the American-led coalition, and the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, all confronted by the Taliban who, to some measure, were variously funded by all the four parties, including the coalition, plus generous subsidies from external sources.

Under the circumstances, it would have taken a very different approach by the Americans to have had any serious impact on the evolving situation and, if the lessons of the Raj held any sway, they were probably lessons which, politically, the Americans could not adopt – being ill-disposed to assuming the direct role of a colonial government.

Despite this, in the weeks and months to come, we will see many articles of the type written by Baktash Ahadi. One or more newspapers may even discover General Roe, and he might be induced to write an article for one of them (although I suspect not).

Whatever is written, very few of their authors will be completely wrong. But, by the same token, none will be completely right. And in that gap between right and wrong lie the roots of failure. Afghanistan was too complex a problem to be resolved by any western power. The great tragedy is that none of them realised it.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

comments powered by Disqus

Log in

Sign THA

The Many, Not the Few