By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 7, 2009
One of my favorite writers, Patrick Devenny, wrote an article recently for Foreign Policy that’s not only fascinating and fun, but also has much to teach us about, in Mr. Devenny’s words, “one of the most complicated problems in Afghanistan today: the training and oversight of local defense forces.”
The article, “Call In The Cavalry,” is about a British mounted officer, Capt. Charles Trower, who served in India in the 1830s, and wrote a book about his experiences, titled Hints on Irregular Cavalry. In the article, Devenny writes:
Among Trower’s horsemen was a troop known as the “Khandahar Horse—Pashtun recruits from modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. . . . Trower writes extensively on how to properly manage and maintain the support of these units, the members of which he describes as “generally illiterate, haughty and turbulent: but they are gallant and true, hard-working and zealous.” Of their martial skills, they were “first in excellence.”
Alexander did it–and so did our Marines in Iraq
I love this stuff, not just because it’s romantic and swashbuckling (I know, I know, that doesn’t count), but because I believe history has real lessons to teach us. Alexander did the same thing Capt. Trower did—hiring and organizing tribes to fight on his side and not on the enemy’s—as did our Marines in Ramadi and the Sunni tribal belt. It worked.
Can the same trick be pulled off in Afghanistan? Is it possible to duplicate the success of the Anbar Awakening in Iraq? Can tribal self-defense forces like the Afghan Public Protection force, just now being organized by U.S. commanders, serve as a realistic adjunct to NATO forces? Can such units even, on their own on their home turf, achieve the COIN aim of “protecting the people?”
Let Tribes be Tribes
Capt. Trower had some interesting advice for foreigners attempting to manage native tribal units. First, don’t try to change them.
Trower’s colleagues were advised to ignore any impulse to “civilize” such units. “There is nothing as distasteful to the majority of the natives as change of any kind, above all any change affecting their purse or prejudices.” Trower tells the story of Colonel Davis who had interfered with the “purse and prejudices” of his men. They later killed him.
Work With Tribalism, Not Against It
Educated by years of living in the tribal areas of Pakistan and India, Trower argues that British officers should make every effort to blend in with their native recruits. This recommendation will ring familiar to American military advisors, particularly U.S. Special Forces. . . . [Native troopers should be treated] with the utmost respect: “It is the treatment they receive which will make them either cheerful or zealous soldiers or useless rabble.” . . . [and] tribal leaders were to be treated as allies, not subjects.
Thanks, Patrick Devenny, for blowing the dust off Capt. Trower’s book. As you yourself caution, historical precedents and parallels must always be taken with a grain of salt. But the past contains gold too.
Protect the People
In Afghanistan today, the aim of organizing tribal self-defense forces is simply to keep the Taliban and al Qaeda out of the local tribal areas. The role of the foreigner, i.e. us, is not to reinvent the wheel, but to assist and empower the existing social structure—the tribes on their home turf—to do what Afghan tribes have done brilliantly for at least three millennia: protect their own people.