The commander of US and NATO forces has been seeking guidance from the British statesman, who visited the Afghan-Pakistan border in 1897
Ben Macintyre at the Times Online
General Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has found an unlikely adviser in the continuing struggle against the Taleban. This new counsellor is British, a former journalist, soldier, writer, painter and politician. He is also dead, and the last time he was anywhere near Afghanistan was in 1897.
Winston Churchill has come to the aid of the Allies.
McChrystal is said to listen to the writings of Churchill on his iPod during his daily eight-mile jog. A recent visitor to NATO headquarters in Kabul found the American general immersed in Churchill’s first book, his account of the struggle to pacify the tribes of the North West Frontier at the end of the 19th century.
Next on the general’s reading list, it was reported, is Churchill’s The River War, describing the reconquest of the Sudan that ended in the battle of Omdurman in 1898.
Barack Obama, fresh from his first presidential visit to Afghanistan, is no admirer of Britain’s colonial past, and his own writings echo with anger at the iniquities of imperialism. Yet Britain’s last great imperial leader offered an extraordinary insight into the nature of warfare in the region, Islamic fundamentalism and the history and character of Afghan tribal society.
In 1897, at the age of 23, Churchill was attached as a soldier-journalist to the Malakand Field Force, the British expedition under the splendidly named Sir Bindon Blood, dispatched to put down the rebellious Pathan tribesmen of the North West Frontier, on what is now the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Churchill described his impressions of this land “where every man is a soldier” in a series of vivid newspaper reports, which were incorporated into The Story of the Malakand Field Force, published a year later. Churchill’s time among the border tribes was also recalled in his autobiography, My Early Life.
The Young Winston was only on the North West Frontier for a few weeks, but like most journalists he swiftly considered himself an expert on the Afghans in general, and the Pathans in particular. His prose is typically rich and colourful, his generalisations lofty and patronising. He shared the peculiar British reverence for the Pathans as a noble warrior race: “the ferocity of the Zulu are added to the craft of the Redskin and the marksmanship of the Boer”. He never set foot in Afghanistan itself.
Yet Churchill was a natural historian, and for all their imperial arrogance, his words carry unmistakable relevance to Afghanistan today. “Tribe wars with tribe. Every man’s hand is against the other and all are against the stranger … the state of continual tumult has produced a habit of mind which holds life cheap and embarks on war with careless levity.”
Churchill was fascinated by the fabulously complex web of feud and counter-feud among the Taleban’s ancestors, the conglomeration of tribes and sub-tribes and the total absence of central authority. “Such a disposition, combined with an absolute lack of reverence for all forms of law and authority, is the cause of their frequent quarrels with the British power.”
Churchill reserved a special disdain for Talibs, the religious students who would later form the core of the original Taleban. He called them “a host of wandering Talib-ul-ulms [who] live free at the expense of the people”.
Yet his attitude towards Islamic fundamentalism was far more nuanced than that of his contemporaries. Later in the Sudan he did not merely dismiss the Dervishes following the Mahdi as lunatics, but sought to understand the “mighty stimulus of fanaticism” that thrived, as it does today, in the “fearful fatalistic apathy” in much of the Muslim world.
Despite deploying the latest military technology, British imperial Forces were at a severe disadvantage when faced by rebels armed with long-handled jezail muskets, able to shoot and kill at a distance, and then disappear. “The weapons of the 19th century,” wrote Churchill, “in the hands of the savages of the Stone Age.”