Friday, May 02, 2008

Arithmatic on the Frontier

I got a certain amount of cynical amusement at reading that Our Man in Kabul, Hamid Karzai (the "President" of Afghanistan) dodged his fourth assassination attempt last Tuesday during some sort of celebration of the resistance to the Soviet occupation of the Eighties.Not so much because the poor bastard was shot at, although that's part of the job description of being our U.S. sock puppet in Kabul. Or the fact that Kabul is still dicey enough that he could be shot at, although that's not entirely unexpected.

No, what makes me chuckle is the picture of "President" Karzai, the "Gucci guerilla", getting sniped during a celebration of the mujeheddin's anti-Soviet jihad. I'd bet a couple of afghanis that the boys who looked down the barrel of the Kalashnikovs at their purported Chief Executive last Tuesday were the ones who had been freezing their asses off in the Panshir Valley in 1981, dodging Hinds while Hamid Baby was dodging nothing more lethal that a misjudged ball of kibbi or an occasional sharp sliver of ice in his gin and tonic at the Raffles Club in Peshawer.

If that's not a perfect metaphor for our Afghanistan "policy" I can't think of a better one.

Much was made of the recent move of GEN Petraeus, the Savior-General of Iraq, to CENTCOM where he will presumably bring his water-walking brand of counterinsurgency to Afghanistan as well to ensure accomplishment of the mission there.

And...while we're at it...what IS the mission there?

Well, the ISAF website says that the purpose of the fighting there is "assisting the Afghan Government in extending and exercising its authority and influence across the country, creating the conditions for stabilisation and reconstruction."

"...the Afghan Government in extending and exercising its authority and influence across the country." Got it?

This is where it's hard to type for the laughter.

Sun Tzu says that a victorious army decides on the victory and then fights, while a defeated army fights and then tries to figure out the victory.

So what do you call an army fighting for a victory that is not only not possible, but one that has NEVER been possible, ever, in the history of the tribes-with-flags that is Afghanistan.

This week, as I was reading the usual bluster and posturing from the usual Western sources about the Karzai shooting I was also rereading Byron Farwell's "Queen Victoria's Little Wars", a delightful little book and an invaluable primer for those of us military history buffs in search of a little recreational wog-bashing to while away the idle hours watching other people building retaining walls.

For Victorian England was perhaps the most effective, most ruthless imperial power since the fall of Rome. Probably a full third of the less-pale inhabitants of the globe felt the British ammunition boot up their ass at some point between the late Seventeenth and middle Twentieth Centuries. I was curious about what Mr. Farwell had to say about how the Brits had done with the irascible tribesmen of the Hindu Kush. Shall we see?

1839 The First Afghan War was a bloody disaster for Victorian Britian - a single survivor of the expeditionary force of 4,500 troops staggered back to India in 1842. The British, never one to suffer insults back in those bloodyminded days, proceeded to whistle up an army and march back to burn Kabul, set up a puppet (who lasted through the afternoon the last sepoy marched off) and left.1842 Expedition against the Shinwaris
1844 Campaign against hill tribes in Sind
1849 Expeditions against the Baizai and Afridis
1850 Expedition against the Kohat Pass Afridis
1851 Operations against the Umarzai Waziris
1852 Expeditions against the Umarzai Waziris, Ranzanis and Afridis
1852-53 Expedition to punish Hasanzais
1853 Expeditions against Masranis, Shiranis and Jowaki Afridis
1855 Expeditions against Aka Khel Afridis, Miranzais, Rubia Khel Orakzais
1857 Expedition against villages on the Yusafzai border
1858 Expedition against the Khudu Khels
1859 Expedition against the Kabul Khel Waziris
1860 Expedition against the Mahsud Waziris
1864 Expedition against the Mohmands
1868 Expeditions against the Bizoti Orakzais and Black Mountain Hazaras
1869 Expedition against the Bizoti Orakzais
1872 Expedition against the Dawaris
1874 Expedition against the Daffla
1877 Expedition against the Jawaki Afridis
1878 Expedition against the Zahka Khel Afridis
1878-1880 Second Afghan War: after a bloody and indecisive first phase, General Roberts marches from Kabul to Kandahar and defeats the main Afghan leader, Ayub Khan. The British march back to India and within a year the political situation deteriorates again.
1881 Expedition against the Mahsud Waziris
1884 Expedition against the Zhob Valley
1888 Expedition against the Black Mountain Hazaras
1891 Expedition against the Hazaras
1892 Isazai expedition
1894 Punitive expedition to Waziristan
1895 Chitral campaign
1897 Punitive expedition to the Tochi Valley, Tirah campaign
1899 Bebejiya expedition

And that was that. Not because the Afghans stopped being a pain in the arse; it was because poor Victoria finally died, and the wars became Edwardian wars. Or Georgian Wars: there was a "Third Afghan War" in 19 freaking 19, for God's sake. All these people do is fight - foreigners for choice, each other if there's no other option.

During a discussion about this over at Phil Carter's new Intel Dump one of the commentors posted what I consider to be a "typical" justification for why we're still in Afghanistan six years on trying to make a nation where there has never been one. Here's his comment:

"Afghanistan is a case in point. It certainly could have been conducted as a punitive operation, as you suggest. However, that would not have accomplished anything, strategically speaking. It would have quickly regressed into a failed state and again become a sanctuary for terrorist organization to train and grow. More importantly, such a "punitive operation" would have provided fertilizer to a whole crop of young muslims who had once again been humiliated by the west and who would be hungry for a way to strike back. Once again, we would have gone into an area, caused a whole bunch of damage and chaos and left without any effort to clean up the mess. Not exactly a great strategy for winning friends, or at least avoiding making new enemies."

And here's my response.

"Not sure how you regress a failed state into a failed state. More to the point, how do you regress a failed state that never WAS a state other than in the fantasies of imperial cartographers. The British tried every option to change this collection of tribes with flags: war, peace, bribery, threats, subversion...it didn't work for them, and they were the best imperialists since the Romans. Why - in the name of God - WHY! - do we think we can do better?

Afghanistan will remain what it is until the Afghans, or AN Afghan, decide differently. To send our soldiers to fight and die for this impossible, fruitless chimera of a mission is to forget that a truly wise geopolitical policy realizes that there are some aims, however laudable, that are simply not achievable, or at least worth the blood and treasure needed to attain them."Or, as the Afghans themselves might sing: "There's a boy across the river with a bottom like a peach. But, alas, I cannot swim."

3 comments:

mike said...

Quite a list from Mr Farwell. Not suprising to see the Afridi and Waziri multiple times on that list. But I was suprised to see the Hazaras as the target of a Brit punitive expedition. Perhaps they were a bit fiercer before being massacred or sold into slavery by Abdur Rahman Khan in the 1890s.

Mr Farwell's book is only $5.95 at the City of Books. So I'll put that on my wishlist along with the bios of Lighthorse Harry Lee and Marshal Foch. Maybe I can even score a copy of the Baburnama.

FDChief said...

mike: Yeah, the Hazaras were bad-ass back in the mid-1800s, at least a PITA for the Brits next door. I've gotten the sense from several sources that their fellow Afghans didn't think they were all that - not in the same league as the real bad boys like the Waziris.

Another good one is Winston Churchill's account of a late-19th Century expedition, "Story of the Malakand Field Force". Not quite the same weight as his postwar "History of the English-speaking Peoples" stuff, but bright, observant and full of bounce.

mike said...

FDChief: You should start reviewing books on a regular basis. Didn't Phil get his start by helping to finance his blogging habit with an occasional book review?? If not for cash then maybe at least you could talk your local bookseller out of free copies.