Sunday, August 16, 2009

Can we learn from Napoleon and John Master's to improve the situation in Afghanistan

US forces in Afghanistan should keep in mind John Masters' account of the British campaign against the Pashtuns. Here is a very provocative article by HDS Greenway - GlobalPost
Published: July 4, 2009 08:26 ET

BOSTON — Napoleon recommended that every private soldier carry a marshal’s baton in his knapsack, to inspire leadership qualities. U.S. Marines pouring into Afghanistan’s Helmand Province would be advised to carry a copy of a slim book called “Bugles and a Tiger,” the memoirs of a soldier-turned-author about campaigning against Pashtuns on the Northwest Frontier 70 years ago.

Before he turned his hand to writing novels, John Masters was a British officer fighting wily and resourceful tribesmen — the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of today’s Taliban. I have quoted Masters before in this space for his insights on the enemies America faces in those same barren hills.

The British had a partiality for martial races. “Their darlings were the pale, fierce Pathans,” as Pashtuns were then called, along with the “unbending Sikhs” of the Punjab, Masters wrote.

Then, as now, the Pashtuns were often given to religious fanaticism, and from time to time the “the magic word, Jihad” would convulse the hill country. Before Islam, Pashtuns had been resisting foreigners since Alexander of Macedon crossed the Kabul River in 327 B.C.

When they could, the British recruited Pashtuns to fight other Pashtuns. They could cover “enormous distances at high speed on foot,” Masters wrote. “Each man carried 30 or 40 rounds of ammunition, a water bottle, a bag of raisins, a few disks of unleavened bread, and a lump or two of course sugar … loping ceaselessly on at five miles an hour” for 20 or 35 miles at a time. Today’s Talibs may prefer to travel in pickup trucks or on motor bikes, but their endurance and speed on foot has not diminished, and they travel just as lightly, except that today they carry more ammunition.

“The core of our problem,” Masters wrote, “was to force battle on an elusive and mobile enemy.., (who) tried to avoid battle, and instead fight us with pinpricking hit-and-run tactics.” When the Pashtun “tried to defend something, whether a gun or a village, we trapped him and pulverized him. When he flitted and sniped, rushed and ran away, we felt as if we were using a crowbar to swat wasps.”

British troops were frustrated, “robbed of a soldier’s greatest weapon — aggression.” For they knew that “there would be no tranquility among these proud and fierce people, however quickly we forced them into mere surrender, if we fought our campaign on unnecessarily ruthless lines. In normal warfare armies bomb cities and destroy the enemy food supply without compunction, but we had to be careful not to harm women and children if we could help it, and we could not shoot on suspicion, only on certainty, and we could not damage fruit trees or destroy water channels.”

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