Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

“…Are Doomed to Repeat It”

March 27th, 2009 · 8 Comments

nwfrontierAs we prepare to ramp up Operation Enduring Freedom, as well as focus more intently on the Taliban’s Pakistani havens, it’s worth looking back at the British experience in the Graveyard of Empires. Of specific interest is the classic 1898 account The Risings on the North-West Frontier, a detailed account of several expeditions carried out in the so-called tribal areas. Then, as now, the military campaigns were meant to pacify a people who threatened Western security interests. And then, as now, the Westerners found it nearly impossible to achieve total victory, despite their technological superiority. A telling quote from the book’s conclusion:

Our enemies, wherever encountered, have been punished, and their losses are stated on unimpeachable evidence to have been extremely severe. The towers and walls of almost every fortified village in the country have been levelled to the ground, and the winter supply of grain, fodder and fuel of both tribes has been consumed by the force. The Orakzai have been completely subdued and have complied with the terms prescribed for them; but the Afridis still hold out, although I have strong hopes that they may before long submit and thus save their country from a fresh invasion in the spring.

In other words, mission incomplete. And the Orakzai? They’ve hardly stayed subdued, judging by their recent machinations.

The whole book is worth a read, as is this illustrated laymen’s summary.

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8 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    From what I understand, we probably could have created a much better situation in Afghanistan if we had been willing to put the resources into it. A lot of Afghanis were willing to trust us right after the ejection of the Taliban and the creation of the new government. Because we took our eye off the ball, becoming distracted by Iraq, we let both security and governance lapse, leading many civilians to conclude that we weren’t helping to create a functional state. The rampant violence and corruption among the nominal Afghan government aren’t exactly inspiring confidence. Much of the current support for the Taliban is due to the fact that no matter how much they were hated, at least they had a functional government for over a decade. All these people want is safety and a government that isn’t full of corrupt stooges.

    I remember how pissed off I was in 2003 when the invasion of Iraq was announced because it was clear then that Bush didn’t give a rip about finishing what he had started in Afghanistan. For goodness sake, we never even captured the Al-Qaeda leadership! Wasn’t that the plan from the beginning?

    Ugh. I just hope we don’t make things even worse now. It’s hard to see how we can pick up the pieces at this point.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Jordan. I’ll actually be posting a bit more ’bout Af-Pak context in the coming days, so please keep an eye peeled.

  • Jordan

    There was a really great interview with Sarah Chayes on Fresh Air back in February that I found quite enlightening on the subject. She seems like someone who has both a good grasp of how to create sustainable economic development and the guts to help out in person.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Amazingly, I heard this interview, too. I was en route back from an assignment upstate. Indeed, a great interview–as was the follow-up segment, with a Norway-based correspondent who really seemed to understand Pakistani politics. Hmmmm, maybe I need to dig those up in the Fresh Air archives…

  • Yangshao

    yo microkhan,
    check these out:

    Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia (by Meyer and Brysac)

    The Great Game (by P. Hopkirk)

    not directly relevant, but good reading and historically insightful nevertheless…

  • The World’s Longest Hunger Strike

    [...] on last week’s post on the British experience on Pakistan’s North-West Frontier, Microkhan will soon be exploring [...]

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Thanks, Yangshao. Just added the Hopkirk book to my read-soon list. Also intrigued by his “Foreign Devils on the Silk Road”. Pls advise if you know that one, too.

  • Jordan

    Similar is “The Dust of Empire” by Karl Meyer. It looks at the attempts to control parts of Central Asia at various points throughout history. Definitely a text for a broad audience, but a good point at which to jump off into more in-depth analysis.

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