Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Wild Tribal Areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan

I think there is a failure of many Americans to even conceptualize what type of dynamic we are dealing with in Afghanistan. The Arab jihadis are one thing, but the Pashtun fighters are an entirely different people. They are fighters and Islamic, yes. But they are not oil rich like the Arabs. They are not of the desert. They are mountain fighters. They have lived by the gun for a long time now. And they are not afraid of stiring up trouble in the neighborhood, before and after we showed up. Naturally, our President and press have never really tried to understand any of this, or the realities and motivations of life in the Hindu Kush.

Here's how a young Winston Churchill found the land in 1898 as a reporter covering the ends of the British Empire (compared with Bush, who never really left the country before becoming President and at the same phase in his life was just carousing in New Orleans with the 'Bama National Guard):

The inhabitants of these wild but wealthy valleys are of many tribes, but of similar character and condition. The abundant crops which a warm sun and copious rains raise from a fertile soil, support a numerous population in a state of warlike leisure. Except at the times of sowing and of harvest, a continual state of feud and strife prevails throughout the land. Tribe wars with tribe. The people of one valley fight with those of the next. To the quarrels of communities are added the combats of individuals. Khan assails khan, each supported by his retainers. Every tribesman has a blood feud with his neighbor. Every man's hand is against the other, and all against the stranger.

Nor are these struggles conducted with the weapons which usually belong to the races of such development. To the ferocity of the Zulu are added the craft of the Redskin and the marksmanship of the Boer. The world is presented with that grim spectacle, "the strength of civilisation without its mercy." At a thousand yards the traveller falls wounded by the well-aimed bullet of a breech-loading rifle. His assailant, approaching, hacks him to death with the ferocity of a South-Sea Islander. The weapons of the nineteenth century are in the hands of the savages of the Stone Age.

Every influence, every motive, that provokes the spirit of murder among men, impels these mountaineers to deeds of treachery and violence. The strong aboriginal propensity to kill, inherit in all human beings, has in these valleys been preserved in unexampled strength and vigour. That religion, which above all others was founded and propagated by the sword -- the tenets and principles of which are instinct with incentives to slaughter and which in three continents has produced fighting breeds of men -- stimulates a wild and merciless fanaticism. The love of plunder, always a characteristic of hill tribes, is fostered by the spectacle of opulence and luxury which, to their eyes, the cities and plains of the south display. A code of honour not less punctilious than that of old Spain, is supported by vendettas as implacable as those of Corsica.

In such a state of society, all property is held directly by main force. Every man is a soldier. Either he is the retainer of some khan -- the man-at-arms of some feudal baron as it were -- or he is a unit in the armed force of his village -- the burgher of mediaeval history.
The Story of the Malakand Field Force: An Episode of Frontier War, (Churchill's first book)

Basically, like the Hatfields and McCoys (and the revenuers). You know, Bush has a bust of Churchill in his office. It is apparent that his speechwriters certainly favor the man. But does he have any understanding of the things Churchill saw in his formative years as a young man? Has he read "An Episode of Frontier War?" Somehow I don't think that was on his reading list in his little contest this summer. Good to know he did "read" Camus, though.

Their views about violence and attacks (and compare it to the current empty pundits advocating the need for more "will")

This state of continual tumult has produced a habit of mind which [reckons] little of injuries, holds life cheap and embarks on war with careless levity, and the tribesmen of the Afghan border afford the spectacle of a people, who fight without passion, and kill one another without loss of temper. Such a disposition, combined with an absolute lack of reverence for all forms of law and authority, and a complete assurance of equality, is the cause of their frequent quarrels with the British power. A trifle rouses their animosity. They make a sudden attack on some frontier post. They are repulsed. From their point of view the incident is closed. There has been a fair fight in which they have had the worst fortune. What puzzles them is that "the Sirkar" should regard so small an affair in a serious light. Thus the Mohmands cross the frontier and the action of Shabkadr is fought. They are surprised and aggrieved that the Government are not content with the victory, but must needs invade their territories, and impose punishment. Or again, the Mamunds, because a village has been burnt, assail the camp of the Second Brigade by night. It is a drawn game. They are astounded that the troops do not take it in good part.

They, when they fight among themselves, bear little malice, and the combatants not infrequently make friends over the corpses of their comrades or suspend operations for a festival or a horse race. At the end of the contest cordial relations are at once re-established. And yet so full of contradictions is their character, that all this is without prejudice to what has been written of their family vendettas and private blood feuds. Their system of ethics, which regards treachery and violence as virtues rather than vices, has produced a code of honour so strange and inconsistent, that it is incomprehensible to a logical mind. I have been told that if a white man could grasp it fully, and were to understand their mental impulses -- if he knew, when it was their honour to stand by him, and when it was their honour to betray him; when they were bound to protect and when to kill him--he might, by judging his times and opportunities, pass safely from one end of the mountains to the other. But a civilised European is as little able to accomplish this, as to appreciate the feelings of those strange creatures, which, when a drop of water is examined under a microscope, are revealed amiably gobbling each other up, and being themselves complacently devoured.

You cannot out "will" these people. Your presence is an invatation to fight. They don't understand why America isn't playing along. If we could just have a good firefight, then perhaps a truce party (which we will all break later, but nothing says we can't have some fun now), everything would be better.

Even some of the religious issues were the same back then (as with some preachers today, no matter what God):

Their superstition exposes them to the rapacity and tyranny of a numerous priesthood -- "Mullahs," "Sahibzadas," "Akhundzadas," "Fakirs," -- and a host of wandering Talib-ul-ilms, who correspond with the theological students in Turkey, and live free at the expense of the people.

Now its the Saudis, and the Taliban, but the underlying culture is the same. Prophetically, Churchill imagines this scenario, of a local tribesman who once fought with the British as a young man, telling tales around the fire in his village:

He will speak of their careless bravery and their strange sports; of the far-reaching power of the Government, that never forgets to send his pension regularly as the months pass by; and he may even predict to the listening circle the day when their valleys will be involved in the comprehensive grasp of that great machine, and judges, collectors and commissioners shall ride to sessions at Ambeyla, or value the land tax on the soil of Nawagai. Then the Mullah will raise his voice and remind them of other days when the sons of the prophet drove the infidel from the plains of India, and ruled at Delhi, as wide an Empire as the Kafir holds to-day: when the true religion strode proudly through the earth and scorned to lie hidden and neglected among the hills: when mighty princes ruled in Bagdad, and all men knew that there was one God, and Mahomet was His prophet. And the young men hearing these things will grip their Martinis, and pray to Allah, that one day He will bring some Sahib -- best prize of all -- across their line of sight at seven hundred yards so that, at least, they may strike a blow for insulted and threatened Islam. …
Their allegedly sudden "radicalism" is nothing more than the same stories told since the fall of the Mughal empire. Except now they load clips of blowing things up on the Jihadi YouTube.


Pashtun said...

As an American Pashtun I take great umbrage at your characterization of the Pashtun nation.
Let's compare who has a greater propensity towards killing.
Iraq II --- over 1/2 Million civilians killed by American forces.
Iraq I - 250,000 civilians killed by American forces.
Afghanistan - close to 500,000 civilians (women & children) killed in bombing raids, cluster bombs bunker buster bombs
Somalia - Unknown number Somali killed by Christian Americans
Serbia: Months of Bombing killed Women and children and aside from the Chinese Embassy totally destroyed a nation.
Nicargua: Untold numbers killed (exact number a state secret)
Grenada: 100 innocent people killed without provocation
Vietnam: I think you might have an idea about this one.
Cambodia: After Nixon bombed Cambodia, Prince Sihanouk fled, the Khmer Rouge took over, and the Killing fields began. The number of dead as a result of direct US bombing will therefore never be known, it is known that the bombing was indiscriminate.
Korea: This was Police action. Resulted in the partition of the north and south, the saga continues. Thousands dead at the hand the awesome American killing machine.

Who is the Agorabum? said...

Didn't mean to cause offense. I actually think that if we just played things in a bit more sporting manner (little attacks of infantry against a taliban fortification, have lots of little battles, celebrate phony truces together, fight little battles, etc.) then we would actually be getting on better.

It is the American propensity for applying an excess of violence which becomes a problem in this type of low grade warfare, of small scale skirmishing. And undoubtdly, the military that fought two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq I and II will have killed and destroyed more. An industrialized society that expereinced total national mobilization for war, and continues to field increadibly complex and expensive weapons will be able to kill and main more human beings, no doubt.

I wrote in part to critique American expectations. This sort of naive notion that we only have to kill some "bad guys" and then there will be some great flowering of democracy, even though that has never happened. As for Iraq, it has become one of the greatest foreign policy blunders in the history of America.

But mostly I just wanted to quote Churchill about the proud and tenacious peoples who live in that area of the world, and of the many that still maintain the attitude of the warrior. Of a place that has seen fighting from the days of the British Raj to today. I suggest you follow the link to the full excpert (it's at a Frontline site), and while there, watch their recent report on the Tribal areas.

But there are no peoples that can look back through the shadows of history and emerge without blood on their hands.

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Anonymous said...

I am highly doubtful of your numbers of civilian casuailties allegedly inflicted the US.Would you rather see Afghanistan ruled by a bunch of Islamic fundamentalists who would deny all freedoms??? The presence of the US is not as conquerors but rather as liberators. God Bless George W. Bush.

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