Juan Cole describes A Century of Frenzy over the North-West Frontier

One great oddity of our wars is their architects lack of knowledge.  Not about war, or COIN.  But in the specifics of the conflict — the people and area, their history and beliefs.  Joshua Foust (writing at Registan) has often remarked about this, as have some posts on this website.  This gives a fantasy or game-like aspect to its planning and execution.  And diminishes our odds of success.  In this article Juan Cole provides some valuable background information.  It’s a must-read for anyone interested in our wars.

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

These days, it seems as though the United States is conducting its wars in places remarkably unfamiliar to most Americans. Its CIA-operated drone aircraft, for instance, have been regularly firing missiles into Waziristan, where, in one strike in June, an estimated 80 tribespeople were killed while at a funeral procession for the dead from a previous drone strike.

Waziristan? If you asked most Americans whether their safety depended on killing people in Waziristan, they might wonder what you were talking about. But not in Washington, where Waziristan, the Swat Valley, the Lower Dir district, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, also known as FATA, and the North-West Frontier Province, among other places you’d previously never heard of, are not only on the collective mind but evidently considered crucial to the well-being, and even existence, of the United States. Perhaps that’s simply the new norm. After all, we now live in a thoroughly ramped-up atmosphere in which “American national security” — defined to include just about anything unsettling that occurs anywhere on Earth — is the eternal preoccupation of a vast national security bureaucracy whose bread and butter increasingly seems to be worst-case scenarios.

The ongoing hysteria about lightly settled, mountainous Pashtun tribal lands in Pakistan on or near the ill-defined Afghan border might seem unique to our imperial moment. So imagine my surprise when Juan Cole told me it actually has a history more than a century old. And there’s nothing like a little history lesson, is there, to put the strange hysterias of our moment into perspective?

Cole has just written a whole book about America’s “Islam Anxiety,” Engaging the Muslim World, and his invaluable website Informed Comment is one of my first daily on-line stops — so who better to offer a little history lesson in imperial delusions of grandeur and peril? If you feel like a more extensive lesson in what to make of the gamut of issues where the U.S. and the Muslim world meet, or rather collide, don’t miss his book. It’s a continual eye-opener.

Armageddon at the Top of the World: Not!   A Century of Frenzy over the North-West Frontier“, Juan Cole, posted at TomDispatch, 27 July 2009 — Posted in full with permission.

WHAT, what, what,
What’s the news from Swat?
Sad news,
Bad news,
Comes by the cable led
Through the Indian Ocean’s bed,
Through the Persian Gulf, the Red
Sea and the Med-
Iterranean — he ‘s dead;
The Ahkoond is dead!
— opening stanza of “A Threnody“, by George Thomas Lanigan

Despite being among the poorest people in the world, the inhabitants of the craggy northwest of what is now Pakistan have managed to throw a series of frights into distant Western capitals for more than a century. That’s certainly one for the record books.

And it hasn’t ended yet. Not by a long shot. Not with the headlines in the U.S. papers about the depredations of the Pakistani Taliban, not with the CIA’s drone aircraft striking gatherings in Waziristan and elsewhere near the Afghan border. This spring, for instance, one counter-terrorism analyst stridently (and wholly implausibly) warned that “in one to six months” we could “see the collapse of the Pakistani state,” at the hands of the bloodthirsty Taliban, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the situation in Pakistan a “mortal danger” to global security.

What most observers don’t realize is that the doomsday rhetoric about this region at the top of the world is hardly new. It’s at least 100 years old. During their campaigns in the northwest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, British officers, journalists and editorialists sounded much like American strategists, analysts, and pundits of the present moment. They construed the Pashtun tribesmen who inhabited Waziristan as the new Normans, a dire menace to London that threatened to overturn the British Empire.

The young Winston S. Churchill even wrote a book in 1898, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, about a late-nineteenth-century British campaign in Pashtun territory, based on his earlier journalism there. At that time, London ruled British India, comprising all of what is now India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, but the British hold on the mountainous northwestern region abutting Afghanistan and the Himalayas was tenuous. In trying to puzzle out — like modern analysts — why the predecessors of the Pakistani Taliban posed such a huge challenge to empire, Churchill singled out two reasons for the martial prowess of those Pashtun tribesmen. One was Islam, of which he wrote, “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.”

Churchill actually revealed his prejudices here. In fact, for the most part, Islam spread peacefully in what is now Pakistan, by the preaching and poetry of mystical Sufi leaders, and most Muslims have not been more warlike in history than, for example, Anglo-Saxons.

For his second reason, he settled on the environment in which those tribesmen were supposed to thrive. “The inhabitants of these wild but wealthy valleys” are, he explained, in “a continual state of feud and strife.” In addition, he insisted, they were early adopters of military technology, so that their weapons were not as primitive as was common among other “races” at what he referred to as “their stage” of development. “To the ferocity of the Zulu are added the craft of the Redskin and the marksmanship of the Boer,” he warned.

In these tribesmen, he concluded, “the world is presented with that grim spectacle, ‘the strength of civilization without its mercy.'” The Pashtun were, he added, excellent marksmen, who could fell the unwary Westerner with a state-of-the-art 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.”

Ironically, given Churchill’s description of them, when four decades later the Pashtuns joined the freedom movement against British rule that led to the formation of independent Pakistan and India in 1947, politicized Pashtuns were notable not for savagery, but for joining Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign of non-violent non-cooperation.

Nevertheless, the Churchillian image of primitive, fanatical brutality armed with cutting edge technology, which singled Pashtuns out as an extraordinary peril to the West, survived the Victorian era and has now made it into the headlines of our own newspapers. Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst, was tasked by the Obama administration to evaluate security threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Arnaud de Borchgrave of the Washington Times reported breathlessly on July 17th that Riedel had concluded:

“A jihadist victory in Pakistan, meaning the takeover of the nation by a militant Sunni movement led by the Taliban… would create the greatest threat the United States has yet to face in its war on terror… [and] is now a real possibility in the foreseeable future.”

 The article, in true Churchillian fashion, is entitled “Armageddon Alarm Bell Rings.”

In fact, few intelligence predictions could have less chance of coming true. In the 2008 parliamentary election, the Pakistani public voted in centrist parties, some of them secular, virtually ignoring the Muslim fundamentalist parties. Today in Pakistan, there are about 24 million Pashtuns, a linguistic ethnic group that speaks Pashto. Another 13 million live across the British-drawn “Durand Line,” the border — mostly unacknowledged by Pashtuns — between Pakistan and southern Afghanistan. Most Taliban derive from this group, but the vast majority of Pashtuns are not Taliban and do not much care for the Muslim radicals.

The Taliban force that was handily defeated this spring by the Pakistani army in a swift campaign in the Swat Valley in the North-West Frontier Province, amounted to a mere 4,000 men. The Pakistani military is 550,000 strong and has a similar number of reservists. It has tanks, artillery, and fighter jets. The Taliban’s appeal is limited to that country’s Pashtun ethnic group, about 14% of the population and, from everything we can tell, it is a minority taste even among them. The Taliban can commit terrorism and destabilize, but they cannot take over the Pakistani government.

Some Western analysts worry that the Taliban could unite with disgruntled junior officers of the Pakistani Army, who could come to power in a putsch and so offer their Taliban allies access to sophisticated weaponry. Successful Pakistani coups, however, have been made by the chief of staff at the top, not by junior officers, since the military is quite disciplined. Far from coup-making to protect the Taliban, the military has actually spent the past year in hard slogging against them in the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Bajaur and more recently in Swat.

Today’s fantasy of a nuclear-armed Taliban is the modern equivalent of Churchill’s anxiety about those all-conquering, ultramodern Pashtun riflemen with the instincts of savages.

Frontier Ward and Watch

On a recent research trip to the India Office archives in London to plunge into British military memoirs of the Waziristan campaigns in the first half of the twentieth century, I was overcome by a vivid sense of déjà vu. The British in India fought three wars with Afghanistan, losing the first two decisively, and barely achieving a draw in the third in 1919. Among the Afghan king Amanullah’s demands during the third war were that the Pashtun tribes of the frontier be allowed to give him their fealty and that Britain permit Afghanistan to conduct a sovereign foreign policy. He lost on the first demand, but won on the second and soon signed a treaty of friendship with the newly established Soviet Union.

Disgruntled Pashtun tribes in Waziristan, a no-man’s land sandwiched between the Afghan border and the formal boundary of the British-ruled North-West Frontier Province, preferred Kabul’s rule to that of London, and launched their own attacks on the British, beginning in 1919. Putting down the rebellious Wazir and Mahsud tribes of this region would, in the end, cost imperial Britain’s treasury three times as much as had the Third Anglo-Afghan War itself.

On May 2, 1921, long after the Pashtun tribesmen should have been pacified, the Manchester Guardiancarried a panicky news release by the British Viceroy of India on a Mahsud attack. “Enemy activity continues throughout,” the alarmed message from Viceroy Rufus Isaacs, the Marquess of Reading, said, implying that a massive uprising on the subcontinent was underway. In fact, the action at that point was in only a small set of villages in one part of Waziristan, itself but one of several otherwise relatively quiet tribal areas.

On the 23rd of that month, a large band of Mahsud struck “convoys” near the village of Piazha. British losses included a British officer killed, four British and two Indian officers wounded, and seven Indian troops killed, with 26 wounded. On the 24th, “a picket [sentry outpost] near Suidgi was ambushed, and lost nine killed and seven wounded.” In nearby Zhob, the British received support from friendly Pashtun tribes engaged in a feud with what they called the “hostiles,” and — a modern touch — “aeroplanes” weighed in as well. They were, it was said, “cooperating,” though this too was an exaggeration. At the time, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was eager to prove its colonial worth on the imperial frontiers in ways that extended beyond simple reconnaissance, even though in 1921 it maintained but a single airplane at Peshawar, the nearest city, which had “a hole in its wing.” By 1925, the RAF had gotten its wish and would drop 150 tons of bombs on the Mahsud tribe.

On July 5, 1921, a newspaper report in the Allahabad Pioneergives a sense of the tactics the British deployed against the “hostiles.” One center of rebellion was the village of Makin, inhabited by that same Mahsud tribe, which apparently wanted its own irrigation system and freedom from British interference. The British Indian army held the nearby village of Ladka. “Makin was shelled from Ladka on the 20th June,” the report ran.

The tribal fighters responded by beginning to move their flocks, though their families remained. British archival sources report that a Muslim holy man, or faqir, attempted to give the people of Makin hope by laying a spell on the 6-inch howitzer shells and pledging that they would no longer explode in the valley. (Overblown imperial anxiety about such faqirs or akhonds, Pashtun religious leaders, inspired Victorian satirists such as Edward Lear, who began one poem, “Who, or why, or which, or what, Is the Akond of Swat?”)

The faqir’s spells were to no avail. The shelling, the Pioneerreported, continued over the next two days, “with good results.” Then on the 23rd, “another bombardment of Makin was carried out by our 6-inch howitzers at Ladka.” This shelling “had a great moral effect,” the newspaper intoned, and revealed with satisfaction that “the inhabitants are now evacuating their families.” The particular nature of the moral effect of bombarding a civilian village where women and children were known to be present was not explained. Two days later, however, thanks to air observation, the howitzers at Ladka and the guns at “Piazha camp” made a “direct hit” on another similarly obscure village.

Such accounts of small, vicious engagements in mountainous villages with (to British ears) outlandish names fit oddly with the strange conviction of the elite and the press that the fate of the Empire was somehow at stake — just as strangely as similar reports out of exactly the same area, often involving the very same tribes, do in our own time. On July 7, 2009, for instance, the Pakistani newspaper The Nation published a typical daily report on the Swat valley campaign which might have come right out of the early twentieth century. Keep in mind that this was a campaign into which the Obama administration forced the Pakistani government to save itself and the American position in the Greater Middle East, and which displaced some two million people, risking the actual destabilization of the whole northwestern region of Pakistan. It went in part:

“[T]he security forces during search operation at Banjut, Swat, recovered 50 mules loaded with arms and ammunition, medicines and ration and also apprehended a few terrorists. During search operation at Thana, an improvised explosive device (IED) went off causing injuries to a soldier. As a result of operation at Tahirabad, Mingora, the security forces recovered surgical equipment, nine hand grenades and office furniture from the house of a militant.”

The unfamiliar place names, the attention to confiscated mules, and the fear of tribal militancy differed little from the reports in the Pioneer from nearly a century before. Echoing Viceroy Rufus Isaacs, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on July 14th, “Our national security as well as the future of Afghanistan depends on a stable, democratic, and economically viable Pakistan. We applaud the new Pakistani determination to deal with the militants who threaten their democracy and our shared security.”

As in 1921, so in 2009, the skirmishes were ignored by the general public in the West despite the frenzied assertions of politicians that the fate of the world hung in the balance.

A Paranoid View of the Pashtuns, Then and Now

On July 21, 1921, a “correspondent” for the Allahabad Pioneer— as anonymous as he was vehement — explained how some firefights in Waziristan might indeed be consequential for Western civilization. He attacked “Irresponsible Criticism” of the military budget required to face down the Mahsud tribe. He asked, “What is India’s strategical position in the world today?” It was a leading question. “Along hundreds of miles of her border,” he then warned darkly in a mammoth run-on sentence, “are scores of thousands of hardy fighters trained to war and rapine from their very birth, never for an instant forgetful of the soft wealth of India’s plains, all of whom would descend to harry them tomorrow if they thought the venture safe, some of whom are determinedly at war with us even now.”

Note that he does not explain the challenge posed by the Pashtun tribes in terms of typical military considerations, which would require attention to the exact numbers, training, equipment, tactics and logistics of the fighters, and which would have revealed them as no significant threat to the Indian plains, however hard they were to control in their own territory. The “correspondent” instead ridicules urban “pen-pushers,” who little appreciate the “heavy task” of “frontier ward and watch.”

Not only were the tribes a danger in themselves, the hawkish correspondent intoned, but “beyond India’s border lies a great country [Afghanistan] with whom we are not even yet technically at peace.” Nor was that all. The recently-established Soviet Union, with which Afghanistan had concluded a treaty of friendship that February, loomed as the real threat behind the radical Pashtuns. “Beyond that again is a huge mad-dog nation that acknowledges no right save the sword, no creed save aggression, murder and loot, that will stay at nothing to gain its end, that covets avowedly a descent upon India above all other aims.”

That then-Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, who took an extremely dim view of colonialism and seriously considered freeing the Central Asian possessions of the old tsarist empire, was then contemplating the rape of India is among the least believable calumnies in imperial propaganda. The “correspondent” would have none of it. Those, he concludes, who dare criticize the military budget should try sweet-talking the Mahsud, the Wazir and the Bolsheviks.

In our own day as well, pundits configure the uncontrolled Pashtuns as merely the tip of a geostrategic iceberg, with the sinister icy menace of al-Qaeda stretching beneath, and beyond that greater challenges to the U.S. such as Iran (incredibly, sometimes charged by the U.S. military with supporting the hyper-Sunni, Shiite-hating Taliban in Afghanistan). Occasionally in this decade, attempts have even been made to tie the Russian bear once again to the Pashtun tribes.

In the case of the British Empire, whatever the imperial fears, the actual cost in lives and expenditure of campaigning in the Hindu Kush mountain range was enough to ensure that such engagements would be of relatively limited duration. On October 26, 1921, the Pioneer reported that the British government of India had determined to implement a new system in Waziristan, dependent on tribal mercenaries.

“This system, which was so successfully inaugurated in the Khyber district last year,” the article explained, “is really an adaptation of the methods in vogue 40 years ago.” The tribal commander provided his own weapons and equipment, and for a fee, protected imperial lines of communication and provided security on the roads. “Thus he has an interest in maintaining the tranquility of his territory, and gives support to the more stable elements among the tribes when the hotheads are apt to run amok.” The system would be adopted, the article says, to put an end to the ruinous costs of “punitive expeditions of merely ephemeral pacificatory value.”

Absent-minded empire keeps reinventing the local tribal levy, loyal to foreign capitals and paid by them, as a way of keeping the hostiles in check. The U.S. Council on Foreign Relations reported late last year that “U.S. military commanders are studying the feasibility of recruiting Afghan tribesmen… to target Taliban and al-Qaeda elements. Taking a page from the so-called ‘Sunni Awakening’ in Iraq, which turned Sunni tribesmen against militants first in Anbar Province and then beyond, the strategic about-face in Afghanistan would seek to extend power from Kabul to the country’s myriad tribal militias.” Likewise, the Pakistani government has attempted to deploy tribal fighters against the Taliban in the Federally Administered areas such as Bajaur. It remains to be seen whether this strategy can succeed.

Both in the era between the two world wars and again in the early twenty-first century, the Pashtun peoples have been objects of anxiety in world capitals out of all proportion to the security challenge they actually pose. As it turned out, the real threat to the British Isles in the twentieth century emanated from one of what Churchill called their “civilized” European neighbors. Nothing the British tried in the North-West Frontier and its hinterland actually worked. By the 1940s the British hold on the tribal agencies and frontier regions was shakier than ever before, and the tribes more assertive. After the British were forced out of the subcontinent in 1947, London’s anxieties about the Pashtuns and their world-changing potential abruptly evaporated.

Today, we are again hearing that the Waziris and the Mahsuds are dire threats to Western civilization. The tribal struggle for control of obscure villages in the foothills of the Himalayas is being depicted as a life-and-death matter for the North Atlantic world. Again, there is aerial surveillance, bombing, artillery fire, and — this time — displacement of civilians on a scale no British viceroy ever contemplated.

In 1921, vague threats to the British Empire from a small, weak principality of Afghanistan and a nascent, if still supine, Soviet Union underpinned a paranoid view of the Pashtuns. Today, the supposed entanglement with al-Qaeda of those Pashtuns termed “Taliban” by U.S. and NATO officials — or even with Iran or Russia — has focused Washington’s and Brussels’s military and intelligence efforts on the highland villagers once again.

Few of the Pashtuns in question, even the rebellious ones, are really Taliban in the sense of militant seminary students; few so-called Taliban are entwined with what little is left of al-Qaeda in the region; and Iran and Russia are not, of course, actually supporting the latter. There may be plausible reasons for which the U.S. and NATO wish to spend blood and treasure in an attempt to forcibly shape the politics of the 38 million Pashtuns on either side of the Durand Line in the twenty-first century. That they form a dire menace to the security of the North Atlantic world is not one of them.

Copyright 2009 Juan Cole

About the author

Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan. His most recent book, Engaging the Muslim World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), was published this spring. He has appeared widely on television, radio, and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at Salon.com. He has written, edited, or translated 15 books, and authored 65 journal articles and chapters. He is the proprietor of the Informed Comment weblog on current affairs.


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For more information about this topic

To see all posts about our new wars:

Some posts about the war in Afghanistan:

  1. Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
  2. Stratfor: “The Strategic Debate Over Afghanistan”, 13 May 2009
  3. Real experts review a presentation about the War (look here, if you’re looking for well-written analysis!), 21 June 2009
  4. The Big Lie at work in Afghanistan – an open discussion, 23 June 2009
  5. “War without end”, a great article by George Wilson, 27 June 2009
  6. “Strategic Calculus and the Afghan War” by George Friedman of Stratfor, 17 July 2009
  7. Powerful insights about our war in Afghanistan, part 1, 18 July 2009
  8. We are warned about Afghanistan, but choose not to listen (part 2), 19 July 2009
  9. Powerful insights about our war in Afghanistan, part 3, 20 July 2009
  10. You can end our war in Afghanistan, 20 August 2009

14 thoughts on “Juan Cole describes A Century of Frenzy over the North-West Frontier”

  1. FM: ““One great oddity of our wars is their architects lack of knowledge. Not about war… But in the specifics of the conflict — the people and area, their history and beliefs.”

    When has it been different? How many Americans knew the location of the Phillipines or the history of the Moros in 1899? How many Americans could point out Viet Nam on a map or identify its native language in 1959? How many Americans could specify the political parties involved in Nicaragua or El Salvador or explain the history of those countries in the 1980s? How many Americans knew where Grenada was on a map in 1987 or even knew what language was spoken there? How many Americans could explain the politics or major political figures in Panama in 1989?

    “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”
    — attributed to Defense Department consultant and National Security Consultant Michael Ledeen by Jonah Goldberg in the 2002 National Review column “Baghdad Delenda Est, Part Two.”, 23 April 2002.

    Fabius Maximus replies: Yep, that’s what I said. Great quote (alledged)!

  2. Does this mean that we really do need a good foreign intel service? Or is it that in the age of privatization we must do everything for ourselves? :P

  3. I expect much better from Cole. Certainly this does not meet his usually high standards. Let us take this sentence as an example-

    “Nevertheless, the Churchillian image of primitive, fanatical brutality armed with cutting edge technology, which singled Pashtuns out as an extraordinary peril to the West, survived the Victorian era and has now made it into the headlines of our own newspapers.”

    What now? Can you show me a newspaper that is characterizing Pashtuns as “the strength of civilization without its mercy”? Of course not – no one can pretend that the Taliban is near as sophisticated or as technologically advanced as NATO forces. When Kipling spoke of “ten-pound jazails” ripping through the British ranks, the British themselves were only using thirty pound breech loading rifles. Afghan IEDs cannot be compared so favorably to Hellfire missile strikes.

    This is but one example of the central conceit of this piece — that our experience was anything like that of the British. British authors spoke of warriors that British veterans could not conquer; American analysts speak of warriors ready to topple governments and cause nuclear war. These arguments are not the same, no matter how much we wish them to be.

    I can sympathize with those who wish to look back at the British experience and learn lessons, with those who seek to find moral platitudes in two tales of imperial adventurism. However, the two experiences are not the same. History does not repeat — and in this case, it does not even rhyme. Those who oppose COIN operations in Afghanistan should not waist time trying to construct a spurious historical metanarrative, but should attack the COIN operations themselves. Juan Cole can do this well enough, as can FM. Posts like this are unnecessary.
    Fabius Maximus replies: You dispute what Cole never said. Look at this thesis sentence:

    “Despite being among the poorest people in the world, the inhabitants of the craggy northwest of what is now Pakistan have managed to throw a series of frights into distant Western capitals for more than a century. That’s certainly one for the record books.”

    The history Cole presents strongly supports this theory. Nowhere does Cole say or imply that “the two experiences are the same.” Merely that there is a strong overall pattern, with some points of similarity in how this develops each time.

    “History does not repeat”

    I strongly disagree. Understanding the history of our wars, and the specific regions in which we fight, provides valuable insights. History often repeats, although never exactly. The parallels between Vietnam and our present wars are stunning. Much of the writing about COIN assumes (correctly) the audience’s ignorance of our history; otherwise they would recognize its largely an old shoe — nicely polished, being sold as new.

  4. T. Greer beat me to it and was much more kind to Juan Cole than I was going to be.
    Fabius Maximus replies: See my reply to comment #3.

  5. T. Greer: I must disagree. They are two different ways of saying the same thing, “this is an implaccable enemy that somehow threatens our existance as a nation” in roughly the same rhetorical style. The details may differ, but the theme is the same.

    History may not repeat, but like a symphony, the themes recur again and again. And the themes are shockingly similar. The racism is hidden, the words may be different, but the basic message: “These savages are threatening our way of life, we must conquer them…”

  6. Are Pashtuns the same as Patans ? as in Kipling’s wily Patan ? As in my dad’s long-ago Patan truck drivers -mountain men , wear blankets ,carry long curved knives , whatever you do never ever get on the wrong side of one ?

  7. U.S.: Fears of Blame for Defeat Shadow Afghan War Meetings“, Analysis by Gareth Porter, Inter-Press Service, 28 September 2009:

    In a remarkable parallel with a similar turning point in the Vietnam War 44 years ago, President Barack Obama will preside over a series of meetings in the coming weeks that will determine whether the United States will proceed with an escalation of the Afghanistan War or adjust the strategy to reduce the U.S. military commitment there.

    Fabius Maximus replies: For more about these parallels, see Seeing today through the eyes of a future historian (25 September 2009).

  8. From 1920 to December of 1941 the world was under the impression that America did not mean business. FDR “I will not send your boys to war.” For the most part we learned our lesson. Thus American bases ringing the world and the occasional “we are not a paper tiger” dust up. Cynical? Yes. Ugly? Yes? Works? For the most part.

    Our latest head man is tired of cynical and ugly. The results will probably not be what was hoped for.

    And don’t forget the aftermath of ‘Nam. A blood bath. Plus 250,000 drowned at sea. We did get a nice boost in our Vietnamese population from those who didn’t drown.


    I seem to remember Iraq being the “unwinable war” around here 2006/2007/early 2008. Could a commander in chief with the will turn Afghanistan around? Probably.

    Now what happens if the Paki ISI puts a nuke or three in the hands of “The Base”? You know Osama or those of his ilk. You recall what started the dust up in 2001?

    The left used to have folks who understood war. Where are they now? Lost in the current wave of pacificism. And the last time such a wave swept the world – “We will not fight for King and Country” – well it ended badly. There is always the possibility “this time it will be different”. Want to give me odds?
    Fabius Maximus replies: About WWII, whatever. If you believe we must occupy the world until we go bankrupt, well — that’s an interesting if odd recommendation. Profitable for the defense industry, of course.

    (1) “I seem to remember Iraq being the “unwinable war” around here 2006/2007/early 2008″

    And I remember lots of folks “around here” (what does that mean on the Internet?) saying that it would be a cakewalk, and that we fought only “bandits and dead-enders.” What’s your point? My forecasts were accurate, from those in late 2003 warning that a powerful insurgency had emerged (example) — to the series starting in March 2007 saying that the insurgency had ended and that Iraq would collases into 2 or 3 States.

    (2) “Now what happens if the Paki ISI puts a nuke or three in the hands of “The Base”?”

    Do we plan based on wild and weird nightmares? Why would they do such a thing? Why would the miltiary, who has control of the nukes, allow it?

    (3) “And don’t forget the aftermath of ‘Nam.”

    Please read the Pentagon Papers and then report back to us — whose fault was the long national disaster of Vietnam, the effects of which still echo?

  9. BTW. We won Vietnam in ’73. Got a peace treaty. Brought the troops home. So who lost Vietnam? The Democrat Congress in 1975. You can look it up.
    Fabius Maximus replies: It’s the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics again! All defeats result from lack of willpower, and willpower is the essential element of victory. If only we had continued the war for another decade or so, victory was certain! Every war should be fought forever, despite the costs in blood or damage to the economy, no matter how irrelevant to the national security of the USA!

    At some point, all that can be said is “whateve, dude.”

  10. Of course the equally stupid “they are not savages and do not threaten our way of life, they are just misunderstood, they have legitimate grievances, all they want is justice” is not unknown.

    So which is correct? I say we let things fester for a while and see what turns up. So who was right 1930 to 1939? The peacemongers or that warmonger Churchill and his acolytes? Are we in such an age again? Time will tell.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The analogy between the Af-Pak war and NAZI Germany seems far-fetched, IMO. Bizarre, even. Like so many other ethnic groups deliberately sundered by the Brit’s divide and conquer policy, the Pashtun tribes seek unification. Their own homeland, rather than being minorities in two States. While the resulting wars can be condemned, they have nothing in common with Hitler’s mad dreams of expansion.

    Also, Simon trots out the NAZI analogy in today’s post about Iran (here). Equally daft. Is every opponent of the US like NAZI Germany? Is every leader opposed to the US like Hitler?

  11. M. Simon… this isn’t about facts/context (something juan cole disdains)… it’s about propaganda.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Yes, Simon understands that. Which is why he provides nothing but propaganda. Far-fetched analogies with NAZI Germany and Vietnam. Nightmares with little or no factual basis about Afghanistan. Nothing of substance.

    You provide no explanation of your distain for Cole. Most of what he gives in this article he is well-documented history.

  12. “Despite being among the poorest people in the world, the inhabitants of the craggy northwest of what is now Pakistan have managed to throw a series of frights into distant Western capitals for more than a century. That’s certainly one for the record books.”

    FM, this statement is nothing more than false equivalence. While technically true (both the Edwardians and modern analysts have exaggerated the power of Afghan tribes), the implication of this statement (that these exaggerations are similar in nature) is not true at all. Churchill’s misgivings about well armed “savages” are simply not comparable to Biddle’s fear that Afghans shall trigger the next nuclear war.

    My statement concerning cyclic history alluded to a quote commonly attributed to Samuel Clemens:

    “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

    I too think that we can learn much from history — I devoted my college career to the study of other subject, after all. So too do I believe that important parallels can be drawn between the American experience in Vietnam and Afghanistan. However, I do not think the parallels Cole draws in this piece serve any useful purpose. His article brings more heat than light into this debate.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Why are Churchill’s misgivings and today’s fears about Afghanistan not “equivalent”? Perhaps structurally similar is a more precise expression. Biddle’s Senate testimony was IMO filled with exaggerated reasons to wage war of a sort that Churchill would have been proud to write.

    Off topic, note Clemen’s other quote about history (with his usual cynicism):

    “It is not worth while to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man’s character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible.”
    Mark Twain in Eruption: Hitherto Unpublished Pages About Men and Events (1940), ed. Bernard DeVoto.

  13. FM.. its his opinion of well documented history. that’s the difference.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Everybody has an opinion. Your point? Or an example?

  14. FM: “Biddle’s Senate testimony was IMO filled with exaggerated reasons to wage war of a sort that Churchill would have been proud to write.”

    I would disagree. The claims of Biddle far outstrip anything Churchill was writing. Biddle is predicting nuclear war and the end of the American hegemony. This power to destroy worlds was not something Churchill would ever claim the Pashtuns could possess. As I said before, the comparison is spurious – it is built on the desire to throw America in with imperialist powers of yore, little more.

    I thank you for pointing me towards this second quote of Clemen’s. Worth bookmarking, I believe.
    Fabius Maximus replies: To what are you referring? I don’t recall Biddle saying anything like this in his Senate testimony. Among the scenarios he described was a very hedged possibility of al Qaeda getting a (or small number) of a-bombs. Note his conclusion:

    This danger is real, but it is not unlimited and should not be exaggerated. For a U.S. withdrawal to result in a nuclear al Qaeda would require a chain of multiple intervening events: a Taliban restoration in Kabul, collapse of secular government in Islamabad, and loss of control over the Pakistani nuclear arsenal (or deliberate transfer of weapons by sympathetic Pakistanis). None of these events are certainties, and the compound probability is inherently lower than the odds of any one step taken alone. Though these odds are hard to estimate, analysts such as John Mueller make a persuasive case that terrorists are more likely to fail in their efforts to obtain nuclear weapons than they are to succeed, and the series of setbacks needed for a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan to yield a useable al Qaeda nuclear capability probably implies a compound likelihood that is low in absolute terms.

    As I have so often said, our world has many possible shockwaves — low probability, high impact scenarios. Characteristic of these is that each can be “fought” — reduce the odds or the effects — but only at great cost. Each has people for whom one nightmare appears so real that they call for mobilization to fight it, while being blind to other shockwave scenarios. We can go broke by fighting them all – and slighting the high probability – high impact dangers — such as our rapidly rising government debt and looming age wave of retirements.

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