It has frequently been noted that a very large dog has not barked during the 2012 presidential campaign—the war in Afghanistan. Neither President Obama nor his challenger, Mitt Romney, have said much about this decade-long conflict, the first military front opened by the United States in what was once known as the war on terror. Approximately 2,000 American (and an additional 1,000 coalition) soldiers have died to date in and around Afghanistan, and that total mounts. Whatever the cause of this silence—electoral politics or geopolitical calculation—it is clear that both political parties, and the American public, want the war to be done away with, whether by unilateral withdrawal or negotiation or handing security off to the locals.

History suggests, however, that in the long run we will not be done with Afghanistan, whether we depart militarily in honor or not. The situation on the ground will not be stable, whoever claims to rule in Kabul. Muslim fanatics will continue to try to establish themselves in power, at least locally. We will have to decide whether their activities against the Afghan population (women, aid workers, and the like) merit intervention on humanitarian grounds. We will have to judge whether they again constitute a 9/11-type threat to the United States and its allies and, if so, how we should respond this time to preempt attacks.

We might comfort ourselves with the mature, cold-blooded calculation that Afghanistan—the so-called graveyard of empires—is a far-away mess that is essentially ungovernable, certainly by outside forces; and that we should get over our obsession with what was a one-off terrorist threat. A few well-placed drone strikes or special-forces raids can deal with radical havens (which havens, after all, are much more prevalent in Pakistan than Afghanistan); Vice President Biden is one who favors this “butcher and bolt” approach. In the end, we might assume there is nothing intrinsically important about Afghanistan that should compel our attention any longer.

* * *

Other parties, however, feel differently about the matter, and therein lies the rub. Pakistan and India, both nuclear powers, one of them highly unstable politically, will compete, or fight, for influence there. Russia remains sensitive about how developments in Afghanistan affect its security—and nascent ambitions—in Central Asia, particularly its intention to dominate the means of regional energy transportation. Chinese leaders seek to balance India and to assure China’s lines of communication to the Middle East, and they debate whether this must be done cooperatively or competitively with Russia. Afghanistan is a place where such ambitions and fears tend to play themselves out, by proxy if not by direct action.

Perhaps the United States can simply let things play themselves out, in the expectation that the difficult geopolitical and ethnographic terrain in Afghanistan will frustrate the outside protagonists without leaving a space for radical Islam to dominate. But at the very least we cannot be indifferent to the possibility that the proxy conflicts in Afghanistan will spill over into more dangerous locations. Perhaps that danger too can be managed remotely, without wading back into the lands beyond the Khyber Pass. Nevertheless, we should not ignore the experience of those who have gone before us as we contemplate the uncertain future. This includes the famous, or infamous, Great Game between Britain and Russia in the 19th century. Two relatively recent books nicely summarize this geopolitical contest: Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (1992); and Karl E. Meyer’s and Shareen Blair Brysac’s Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia (1999). One should also consult Rudyard Kipling’s Kim—and the work of one of Kipling’s contemporaries.

* * *

“Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” Thus wrote Lt. Winston Churchill, age 22, as he reflected on his experience as a member of the Malakand Field Force, dispatched in the summer of 1897 to deal with unrest on the Northwest Frontier of British India (now part of Pakistan). The British-Indian expedition confronted a force of Pashtun (Pathan) tribesmen and their allies whose lands fell astride the Durand Line, the border between Afghanistan and British India. The line had been established in 1893 as part of the Great Game with Russia for control and influence in Central Asia. The British Raj had long sought to provide security against raids by hostile tribes living in Afghanistan (which nominally served as a buffer between Russia and India) and to prevent Russia from establishing itself in Afghanistan as a prelude to invasion of India proper. The Russians, in turn, claimed that the British aim was to annex Afghanistan in order to undermine Russia’s control over Central Asia. Both great powers were suspicious of the intentions of Abdur Rahman Khan, the Emir (Amir) of Afghanistan.

The division of the Pashtun lands by Russia and Britain had created considerable local resistance. A Pashtun fakir, Saidullah, known to the British as the “Mad Mullah,” led an army of perhaps 10,000 against the British garrisons at Malakand. Malakand held open the line of communication with the key frontier fort of Chitral, which commanded the principal routes of invasion to and from Afghanistan. The siege was lifted when a relief column, led by Major General Sir Bindon Blood, was dispatched from British positions to the south. The British-Indian expedition also punished the tribes by destroying crops, driving off cattle, and burning villages.

Churchill was on leave in England from his assignment with the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars in Bangalore when he learned of the revolt. He rushed back to India to seek an assignment on the personal staff of General Blood. When that proved impossible, he arranged to accompany the expedition as a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. Due to casualties in the officer ranks, he was soon attached to the active force. His performance under fire was noted in despatches. His accounts of the campaign were published in the Daily Telegraph and quickly collected into a volume, The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898). Churchill’s later writings on the wars in the Sudan (The River War, 1899) and South Africa (London to Ladysmith via Pretoria, and Ian Hamilton’s March, both published in 1900) are better known, but this collection offers a precocious—and of course, controversial—perspective of the conflicts in Afghanistan and the tribal regions, as well as of the imperial policies of the British home government and the Raj.

* * *

Churchill’s account of the expedition makes for great reading simply as a war story—exciting, colorful, yet sobering. He also offers his prescriptions for fighting in parts of the world caught up with Islamic fanatics who felt themselves impinged upon by non-believers—and who welcomed the joys of fighting and the hope of plunder. “The forces of progress clash with those of reaction. The religion of blood and war is face to face with that of peace. Luckily the religion of peace is usually the better armed.” He records the difficulties in negotiating with the tribes, whose delegations (jirgas) did not necessarily have authority to settle matters. What was agreed to one day was often reversed the next. He describes the critical importance and complexity of transportation and logistics over difficult terrain, and observes that, “while it is usually easy to advance against an Asiatic, all retirements are matters of danger.” He notes the difficulties of fighting guerrillas in the mountains. He recommends that strategically-placed garrisons patrol the main valleys and stop agriculture, forcing hostile tribes into accommodation or fighting on British terms. He holds that slow and steady would win the race, although admittedly not the palm of honor:

The general who avoids all ‘dash,’ who never starts in the morning looking for a fight and without any definite intention, who does not attempt heroic achievements, and who keeps his eye on his watch, will have few casualties and little glory. For the enemy do not become formidable until a mistake has been made.


Churchill wrote this passage approvingly, if reluctantly, about the realities of high command in the mountains.

The Malakand campaign itself soon went beyond the relief of the garrison, as the British sought to pacify tribes not immediately engaged in the revolt but which resisted the incursion. Churchill believed that the operational logic of empire demanded no less, although he was fully aware of the paradoxes and difficult cost-benefit calculations of imperial rule. In one case, a tribe had captured some rifles from dead British soldiers and refused to give them up.

[I]t was obvious that the British Raj could not afford to be defied in this matter. We had insisted on the rifles being surrendered, and that expensive factor, Imperial prestige, demanded that we should prosecute operations till we got them, no matter what the cost might be. The rifles were worth little. The men and officers we lost were worth a great deal. It was unsound economics, but Imperialism and economics clash as often as honesty and self-interest. We were therefore committed to the policy of throwing good money after bad in order to keep up our credit; as a man who cannot pay his tradesmen, sends them fresh orders in lieu of settlement.


* * *

Churchill also stepped back to look at the larger questions of Empire and the proper strategy for its health and maintenance. He contrasts the three main options for the defense of India. First, stay on the Indian side of the line of the mountains and respond to the inevitable tribal raids by fighting them off in place. Second, engage in a policy of punitive raids without becoming deeply involved in the tribal politics of the frontier and Afghanistan—”butcher and bolt.” Third, adopt a “Forward Policy” of holding the line of the mountains by securing the passes and controlling the frontier directly—Gilgit, Chitral, Jelalabad, Kandahar. Britain, Churchill notes, had been drawn into the last course principally by the danger of Russian control of Afghanistan, and by the emergence of a strong Emir, able to stir up trouble with the Muslims along both sides of the frontier in order to blackmail the Raj:

In pursuance of that policy we have been led to build many frontier forts, to construct roads, to annex territories, and to enter upon more intimate relations with the border tribes. The most marked incident in that policy has been the retention of Chitral. This act was regarded by the tribesmen as a menace to their independence, and by the priesthood as the prelude to a general annexation. Nor were they wrong, for such is the avowed aim of the “Forward Policy.” The result of the retention of Chitral has been, as I have already described, that the priesthood, knowing that their authority would be weakened by civilization, have used their religious influence on the people to foment a general rising…. So far then we have advanced and have been resisted. The “Forward Policy” has brought an increase of territory, a nearer approach to what is presumably a better frontier line and—war. All this was to have been expected.


* * *

Churchill did not embrace this course in his own name but argues that, having thrown their hat over the wall, the British had no choice but to follow it:

We have crossed the Rubicon. In the opinion of all those who know most about the case, the forward movement is now beyond recall. Indeed, when the intense hostility of the Border tribes, the uncertain attitude of the Amir, the possibilities of further Russian aggression and the state of feeling in India are considered, it is difficult to dispute this judgment. Successive Indian Administrations have urged, successive English Cabinets have admitted, the necessity of finding a definite and a defensible frontier. The old line has been left, and between that line and an advanced line continuous with Afghan territory, and south of which all shall be reduced to law and order, there does not appear to be any prospect of a peaceful and permanent settlement.


From a purely military standpoint, Churchill had no doubt of the best course:

Mobilize…a nice field force, and operate at leisure in the frontier valleys, until they are as safe and civilized as Hyde Park. Nor need this course necessarily involve the extermination of the inhabitants. Military rule is the rule best suited to the character and comprehension of the tribesmen. They will soon recognize the futility of resistance, and will gradually welcome the increase of wealth and comfort that will follow a stable government. Besides this, we shall obtain a definite frontier almost immediately.


Unfortunately, the Empire lacked the troops and funds to carry out such a “full speed ahead” strategy:

The inevitable alternative is the present system, a system which the war has interrupted, but to which we must return at its close; a system of gradual advance, of political intrigue among the tribes, of subsidies and small expeditions.


Though this policy is slow, painful and somewhat undignified, there is no reason that it should not be sure and strong. But it must be consistently pursued. Dynamite in the hands of a child is not more dangerous than a strong policy weakly carried out.

Many small reforms can add up to a major improvement. For instance:

[f]rom a general survey of the people and the country, it would seem that silver makes a better weapon than steel. A system of subsidies must tend to improve our relations with the tribes, enlist their interests on the side of law and order, and by increasing their wealth, lessen their barbarism.


He concludes:

We are at present in a transition stage, nor is the manner nor occasion of the end in sight. Still this is no time to despair. I have often noticed in these Afghan valleys, that they seem to be entirely surrounded by the hills, and to have no exit. But as the column has advanced, a gap gradually becomes visible and a pass appears. Sometimes it is steep and difficult, sometimes it is held by the enemy and must be forced, but I have never seen a valley that had not a way out. That way we shall ultimately find, if we march with the firm but prudent step of men who know the dangers; but, conscious of their skill and discipline, do not doubt their ability to deal with them as they shall arise.