Written by Adrian Hill
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This article was first published in Briefings for Brexit. We republish it with their kind permission.
The young Winston Churchill, aged 23 years, wrote a book about the fighting along the Durand Line a century back when the Raj decided to adopt a ‘ Forward Policy ‘ and moved into the tribal region between India and Afghanistan. The original plan was to control the passes such as the Khyber from a new line running from Kandahar through Jalalabad northwards on the Afghan side of the Hindu Kush Range. Opening moves were made by political officers who knew the tribes well and understood the personalities and politics. After two years, trade in the Swat Valley doubled. The losers, observed young Churchill, were the mullahs who saw their authority eroding over savage tribesmen engaged in permanent blood feuds, daily murdering each other and whose main asset was their women, by custom sold to the highest bidder. The Amir of Afghanistan also played political great games, seeking to strengthen his own position, if possible increase the Dane geld he pocketed from Delhi. The mullahs stirred up a great jihad against the infidels promising everything from the best celestial virgins to immunity from artillery shells. Thousands of tribesmen rallied to their banners. British outposts in the Swat valley were besieged. General Sir Bindon Blood and the Malakand Field Force hurried to their relief.
The old Indian Army formed brigades by building them around a single British battalion – adding three Indian battalions, cavalry, guns, supply and medical troops. In fact most local soldiers were about ten years older than their counterparts from the British Isles and thus far more experienced. Sir Bindon Blood first raised the siege of Fort Malakand, driving off large numbers of Pathans, then set about destroying their fortified villages and crops until the mullahs and local khans sued for peace. Churchill heard about the Malakand Campaign at Goodwood Race Course and set off at once – 7,000 miles by ship, train and horse – joining the force in time for its advance into the most hostile valley near the Afghan border. ( Dare I suggest steam power and the telegraph were almost greater revolutions than the jet aircraft and the world wide web. ) In those days it was not uncommon for officers to double as war correspondents and Churchill reported for the Daily Telegraph. Afterwards he turned his letters for the paper about his own combat experience, blended with all the accounts he heard, plus shrewd observations about the locals that stand the test of time, into a splendid book – which General David Petraeus kept handy on his bedside table.
As a young diplomat in my early twenties I was savvy enough to read the book and learn its lessons. One simple lesson was always drop by for a coffee with the CO of the Khyber Rifles when driving through the Khyber Pass and make clear you were going to see the Wali of Swat when approaching the Malakand Pass and that part of the North West Frontier Agency. There was a handy garage just beyond the turning off the Grand Trunk Road. Word travels fast among those mountains. While my left hand steered the car, my right kept busy returning friendly salutes from the local tribesmen.
US Special Forces have been quietly recruiting local militias. The only caveat I have is that such programmes should demand a commitment to keep Special Forces teams embedded with these militias for many years. Walk away too soon and you leave behind yet another group of bandits for hire by the highest bidder – Afghanistan recently had a president who accepted bags of cash from Iran’s envoys. Long haul involvement allows you time for weeding out the rotten apples, because there will be plenty. Talk about vetting Afghans is all very well. Until you’ve tried to establish the facts on the NW Frontier where most people cannot write their own names, birth certificates either don’t exist or are forged, where fake documents are a thriving industry, you have no idea how monumental a task any truth seeker faces. According to press reports this Special Forces programme was backed by a hefty $ 800 million budget and therefore the blessing of the Defence Secretary and the White House.
Why Strategic Intervention Forces Are so Important
Allied operations such as D Day and the huge wartime effort to create airborne forces and combined operations show the price paid when history goes wrong and tyrants rule on the planet. Far too much of the planet’s precious raw materials and energy are vulnerable to corrupt one party, one clique, and one person regimes. For the first time in two-hundred years the largest economy on the planet may not be a democracy.
While our democracies are engaged in a struggle for personal liberty until disregard for human rights at least becomes rare. Strong forces are not a favour to others but our own self-interest. Oppressed peoples cannot gain their human rights when the only help on offer is weasel words from lawyers turned politicians. We will not always find a compromise with our rivals. We have to manage conflicts. Sea power and air power are required and with sufficient strength and sustained political will, if necessary for years. Far better we maintain strong nuclear and conventional deterrence – look at the cost of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – than the alternatives of germ or nuclear warfare until mutual extinction.
The EU wants to set up an alternative to NATO. Let them, but make clear that a country cannot belong to both command structures. My hunch is that we are not going to fight tank and infantry battles on the Continent for the foreseeable future. My hunch is that Germany – or should I narrow that down to Angela Merkel and friends – want to create an EU command structure for European forces – with the ultimate aim of neutrality. Germany, effectively, has disarmed, so that France defends the EU with the Swedes in the Baltic and the Ukrainians on the Black Sea plus maybe the Turks although I wouldn’t count on them.
What would I do? Forget Tony Blair and winging liberals. Let’s deal with threats from the Continent on our terms, not keep an army in Germany for another forty-four years. Instead bring forward new technology weapons – rail guns and hypersonic flight, infra-red waves and lasers. Let’s hit any trouble causers, bully countries, from Britain and the sea with new technology strikes that deliver a modern version of Falaise Gap.
Why Is a National Effort on Defence so Important?
Britain enjoys a wonderful tradition of invention. Movies, radar, ASDIC, Spitfire, Merlin and jet engines, Mulberry Harbours, Pluto pipeline, the Fairy Delta first to beat a 1000 miles an hour, jump-jets, Concorde, Campbell’s speed boats, television, Tomo scanners, the world wide web and the Oxford vaccine only last year. Many inventions on this list only happened because we have a world class research base linked to our defence industries. The new fighter project, Tempest, will take our aircraft industry into the coming era when manned fighters may go into battle each with their own drone squadron as wingmen.
Britain suffers from a phenomenon whereby a visitor from Mars or Venus could be forgiven for presuming that large numbers of stupid people appear drawn towards a career in national or local politics. Other countries suffer from the same problem but somehow manage to create very efficient forms of damage control. Switzerland, where local government raises and spends most taxes, cleverly ensures that the ordinary people stay in local and national politics by giving the people authority over local and national decisions. There are too many lawyers but plenty of good businessmen enter politics. We don’t enjoy that luxury in the UK. Somehow we have to get that back – because wherever democracy flourishes, usually so do peace and prosperity.
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The author is a former soldier and diplomat