The British Experience of Tribal Militias, For Idiots

by Joshua Foust on 7/1/2009 · 5 comments

Foreign Policy strikes again, this time with an essay written by some DOD guy named Patrick Devenny who basically summarizes a memoir he found on Google Books.

As American troops in Afghanistan seek to rebuild a flagging campaign, they might do well to read up on the lessons of another troubled Afghan project, the Anglo-Afghan Wars — and specifically, the lessons of one Captain Charles Trower, a British cavalry officer who deployed to India in the 1830s. His 1845 memoir, Hints on Irregular Cavalry, says pretty much all there is to say about one of the most complicated problems in Afghanistan today: the training and oversight of local defense forces.

Well, okay, so that’s really only one of the three, and since when does Trower constitute an authoritative voice on the use of auxilliaries, local militias, or defense issues? I tell you this: he does not. In fact, there is a rich literature examining the British experience with Pashtun militias beyond a Captain’s diary, which makes me question if it really “says pretty much all there is to say” about our policies in Afghanistan ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY-FIVE YEARS LATER when we already have an established history of trying (and failing) to create “tribal militias” in Afghanistan in the previous seven years of war.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: the First Anglo-Afghan War, as it has come to be known, is one of many European interventions in Afghanistan’s history. Why it above the second or third receives all the attention escapes me; it must be why Alexander’s campaign gets all the attention but the dozen or so empires in the 20 centuries separating his crusade and the British Empire’s first trip into Afghanistan are ignored: it’s sexy, famous, and Euro-centric.

Now, let’s address Devenney’s serious problems with framing:

Last October, the Los Angeles Times reported that Pentagon leaders had authorized American commanders in Afghanistan to aggressively mobilize and mentor village-based self-defense forces. Made up largely of Pashtun tribesmen and recruited through tribal leaders, such units are expected to provide security in areas where Afghan government forces have failed to stem Taliban encroachment. This shift in strategy is not surprising given the success of similar initiatives in Iraq and the growth of the insurgency across southern Afghanistan. Results of the late 2008 decision are now seeping into the press: American reporters recently covered the graduation and deployment of 80 members of the Afghan Public Protection force, otherwise known as “Guardians.” But the fielding of these units entails great risks: lack of government oversight and empowerment of warlords, just to state the obvious.

Well, okay, so Wardak is in the East. And the AP3 project, as it is now known, is but the latest of many failed attempts to do something similar. Will this work? We will see—we certainly won’t know until either we can definitively say it has contributed to a security improvement in Wardak (which is not easy) or it ends in stupendous failure like the other attempts. And let’s forget that Trower was mostly describing Indian groups, and not Pathans, in his diary: they are but one small aspect of it; the rest of what he writes is standard FID-type doctrine any SF guy from the 1960s would recognize.

The “Guardians” are the direct descendents of Trower’s “Native Horse,” a contingent of British-commanded irregular cavalry. The units were exotic, to put it mildly, drawn from tribes throughout present day India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. “A Mahomedan, a Rajpoot, a Mahratta … a Seik” – as Trower put it — all served under him.

No, not even close and Devenny should know better. Let’s just say there probably aren’t many Sikhs or “Rajpoots” working for the local tribes in Wardak. Then there is this:

Among Trower’s horsemen was a troop known as the “Khandahar Horse” — Pashtun recruits from modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, the direct ancestors of today’s “Guardians.” Recruited in cooperation with tribal chiefs, the Native Horse were not loyal to any form of government outside their British minders. 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.”

Okay. So the AP3 in Wardak are designed specifically to be beholden to the government of Afghanistan. While they are mentored by special forces (who are not analogous to Trower’s irregulars), the relationship is not top-down, as it was under Trower. The management Trower describes is how to build your own small scale private army, not how to train a local defense force. I’m really surprised everyone from Devenny to the editors of Foreign Policy are unable to tell the substantial differences in situation, concept, and implementation.

The basic three points are all well and good—and if Trower wasn’t writing his memoirs in the aftermath of the British Empire’s worst defeat in history in the very land of the irregulars he was raising, they’d probably feel more relevant. But look at that title:

A historical look at how Afghanistan can be won — and lost.

Devenny doesn’t actually discuss why the lessons of an early 19th century British imperialist are wholly inappropriate for today’s mission in Afghanistan, or for how they can inform the creation of a force that isn’t analogous to what that early 19th century British Imperialist wanted to do, or that in the course of implementing that early 19th Century British Imperialist agenda they suffered an agonizing, humiliating defeat at the hands of, in their own words, “savages.”

Having an employee of the Department of Defense advocate importing lessons from the British Empire to “train” the Afghans is probably not a good message to send, either.

In reality, using history to inform our current understanding of Afghanistan is a wonderful idea but only if it is done properly. Devenny notes Trower thought Europeans running these groups should have “very considerable knowledge” of them; well, so should those using his diary. A proper, gauged look at the history of “irregulars” would have also addressed their failures. But let’s just list a few of the many British attempts to build up Pashtun “tribal irregulars” (since those are, you know, relevant, and not really how the Brits managed to co-opt the Sikhs):

  • The “horses,” which were not really relevant to Afghanistan except for a brief period during the First Anglo-Afghan War;
  • The Queen’s Own Corps of Guides, formed in 1846, several of whom famously died defending Cavignari in the second Anglo-Afghan War in 1879;
  • The Frontier Scouts, now repurposed and renamed the Frontier Corps;
  • The many smaller lashkars raised to hunt down the Fakir of Ipi (Geoffrey Moore has his own excellent account of a regular army unit dealing with them);
  • In Afghanistan, there are the many failed attempts to co-opt the arbakai into official government institutions;
  • The tanzims functioned as irregular militias during the Afghan-Soviet war;

Right, so that’s a quick history-for-dummies of the big irregular forces that have operated in Afghanistan since Britain tried “civilising” the place under Trower. However, it is not just the successes to watch out for, but the failures—something Devenny does not at all explain very well, since it’s all geared to a “sub-altern in 1850’s Lahore” audience. The successes were few and far between: early successes for the Queen’s Own Corps of Guides, especially during the sacking of the British mission in 1879, and many of the lashkars used during the Waziristan War of the 1930s.

The failures, however, are far more legion, and constitute the bulk of the European experience with these forces. The British, for example, ensured compliance with British demands not only by incentives, as Trower advocates and Devenny highlights, but egregious penalties for non-compliance, to include the leveling of entire villagers for the crime of a single trouble-maker. The British never found the right balance of rewards—at the end of the day, an escalating salary, as Trower advocates and Devenny highlights, hits a ceiling and the moment you can’t escalate any more is the moment that irregular force turns on you. The British seized vast tracts of land in the FATA and doled out parcels of it as a reward—something no one can do today.

Then there is the periodic rise of messianic eschatological demagogues, whether Churchill’s Mad Mullah or the Fakir of Ipi (or the many smaller ones inciting violence on much more local scales). More recently, the Pakistan government has used irregular militias infiltrate and destabilize Kashmir; these groups, however, have also organized into domestic Pakistani resistance groups, many of which are now in the so-called Pakistani Taliban.

In Afghanistan, it’s safe to say the tanzim have been an unmitigated disaster for the Post-Soviet period. Similarly, the arbakai are of such limited use—really, good luck ever using them outside of Loya Paktia—that they’re really not worthy of consideration for national use (and what of the many non-Pashtuns who must participate in mixed areas?).

Indeed, in the end of things, Devenny’s essay is quippy, lazy, and pretty ahistorical… despite being billed as a clever exploration of Afghanistan’s history. It is nothing of the sort, just more thinly-veiled Imperialism masquerading as informed analysis. I know for a fact the DOD has reports that explore this topic with more detail and honesty—I’ve read them. Why couldn’t Devenny, or Foreign Policy, go with one of those? Why this terrible excuse for scholarship in what used to be a respectable magazine?

Who cares, I guess, since Small Wars Journal has joyfully linked to it. Sigh. And it remains a mystery why the war there is going so poorly.

Beginner’s Pashtun Militia Bibliography:

Dupree, Louis (1970). Afghanistan. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hopkirk, Peter (1990). The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Asia. New York:Kodansha.

Meyer, Karl E., and Shareen Blair Brysac (1999). Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia. Berkeley:Counterpoint.

Moore, Geoffrey (1978). ”Just As Good As the Rest”: A British Battalion in the FAQIR of IPI’s WAR. Bedford: Jaycopy.

Nawaz, Mohammad (1994). The Guardians of the Northwest Frontier. Peshawar: Frontier Corps, North West Frontier Province.

Nichols, Robert (Ed.) (2005). Colonial Reports on Pakistan’s Frontier Tribal Areas. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pettigrew, H.R.C. (1965). Frontier Scouts. Sussex: Selsey Press Limited

Roy, Olivier (1990). Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shahrani, Nazif (2002). “War, Factionalism, and the State in Afghanistan,” American Anthropologist, Vol 104, No. 3.

Trench, Charles Chenevix (1985). The Frontier Scouts. London: Jonathan Cape.

Warburton, Sir Robert (1900). Eighteen Years in the Khyber. London:John Murray, Albemarle Street.

Younghusband, G.J. (1908). The Story of the Guides. London:Macmillan and Co., Limited.

And what the hell: go ahead and read the brief essay I wrote for Pragati on this very topic, or just search for any of this on Registan.net.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 5 comments }

Patrick Devenny July 1, 2009 at 7:09 pm

Hi Josh, I wanted to make a few points per your response. I’ll start with the third paragraph and work my way down.

“Well, okay, so that’s really only one of the three..”

I never state that Trower’s book is “authoritative” on the subject of Pashtun irregulars — the phrase “says pretty much all there is” may, in retrospect, be a little confusing but I still don’t think you can charge me with saying he’s authoritative, i.e don’t bother reading anything else.

Regardless of the semantics, I agree with you on that point, but I honestly didn’t mean to suggest it was authoritative, for what it’s worth. Additionally, no where do I deny that there is a rich literature on the subject, stating only that the US military should “learn the lessons of the conflict” and “specifically” take a look at the Trower book. You agree with that, don’t you?

Another point, you state that I ignore failed attempts to create Pashtun militias. Note in my original article I never use the word “militia” — Trower does not write about “militias,” he writes about a cavalry unit that was recruited/maintained outside of regular channels, but was “full-time” so to speak. I think I discuss what the difference is in the “incentive” paragraph, and it’s a difference that the US should be mindful of. Trower never uses the word militia, and even criticized massive payments to tribes for that purpose, as I point out.

Trower didn’t run a militia, and neither should we — that’s the point I’m trying to get across.

“Well, okay, so Wardak is in the East.”

Thanks for the reminder.

“And let’s forget that Trower was mostly describing Indian groups, and not Pathans, in his diary”

I was careful to pull directly from Trower’s commentary on Pathans — I never took a comment he made specifically concerning Indian troops and rendered it as if he was speaking of Pashtuns. I think I’m pretty up front about that in the article.

“No, not even close and Devenny should know better. Let’s just say there probably aren’t many Sikhs or “Rajpoots” working for the local tribes in Wardak”

Come on Josh, I’m writing for FP here, not USA Today. I guess I just assumed that the readership would know that the Rajpoots aren’t in Wardak. The “direct descendant” line ties right into the next paragraph where I talk about the Khandahar Horse. I feel that you’re nitpicking there, and you should have alluded to the fact that maybe, just maybe, the “descendants” the author meant to refer to are in the next sentence. That’s a cheap shot.

“Okay. So the AP3 in Wardak are designed specifically to be beholden to the government of Afghanistan.”

I actually disagree with this paragraph — I think today’s Special Forces are directly analogous to Trower’s group of advisors. Maybe you misunderstood (or perhaps the article isn’t clear enough), as I was comparing SOF to Trower and his British officers, not to the irregular unit as a whole. Small team of outsiders, living with their native units, charged with managing and commanding them — sounds a lot like SOF to me!

On your other point, I disagree that Trower is discussing how to build your own “private army” — again, I’ll refer to the incentive paragraph. Is he specifically talking about how to build a “local defense force?” Of course not, but the lessons he espouses are useful in building such units regardless of what name we give them.

“Devenny doesn’t actually discuss why the lessons of an early 19th century ”

Did I state somewhere in the article that I would attempt to do this? What’s the topic, last sentence in the first paragraph: “the training and oversight of local defense forces.”

“Having an employee of the Department of Defense advocate importing lessons from the British Empire to “train” the Afghans”

Pretty sure DOD’s use of colonial-era material for lessons on indigenous force interaction is out of the bag by now, what with the ~156,000 articles on US officers reading Bell, Galula, Kitsen…even tragic history has some lessons to offer.

“In reality, using history to inform our current understanding of Afghanistan is a wonderful idea but only if it is done properly.”

Couldn’t agree more. Again, I’m not going to hold the reader’s hand so all “misinterpretation” can be avoided.

“The “horses,” which were not really relevant to Afghanistan except for a brief”

This is irrelevant, I never stated that they were. I feel that Trower’s interaction with them is interesting, but I never write that the units played a key role in the history of the subcontinent.

“Right, so that’s a quick history-for-dummies of the big irregular forces that have operated in Afghanistan since Britain tried “civilising” the place under Trower. However, it is not just the successes to watch out for, but the failures..”

I don’t know, I think I did a pretty good job — using Trower’s own words — of warning of the dangers of trying to “civilize” such units. Again, what is the point of the article — Trower DID enjoy some success in commanding his unit for a certain amount of time using a specific range of tactics. He couldn’t stay forever and, as he himself admits, his was a minority opinion on how to deal with the irregular troop.

“Indeed, in the end of things, Devenny’s essay is quippy, lazy, and pretty ahistorical… despite being billed as a clever exploration of Afghanistan’s history. It is nothing of the sort, just more thinly-veiled Imperialism masquerading as informed analysis. I know for a fact the DOD has reports that explore this topic with more detail and honesty—I’ve read them. Why couldn’t Devenny, or Foreign Policy, go with one of those? Why this terrible excuse for scholarship in what used to be a respectable magazine?”

Josh — another strawman. “Exploration of Afghanistan’s history” — when did I aspire to this task? Be specific — where in the article do I make common cause with imperialism and suggest it — as in the political domination of a foreign country — has something to teach us? Just because I’m a fan of Galula doesn’t mean I’m a fan of the French colonization of Algeria, etc.

In summation, the article analyzes the words of a British officer who used “live and let live” and “Go native” to organize a small troop of irregulars and bind them successfully to a cause bigger than their own individual tribal interest for a finite period of time. The failure of this arrangement was, as you state, the result of forces far beyond a British captain’s control.

“I know for a fact the DOD has reports that explore this topic with more detail and honesty—I’ve read them. Why couldn’t Devenny, or Foreign Policy, go with one of those?”

What are you suggesting, that FP just provide links to these articles? I’m going to wager none of them mention Trower though, do they? That’s the point of the piece, bring something new to the argument.

You make a lot of good points on your discussion of area history but I felt like you were fighting another article/author and using my narrow piece as a convenient prop. Just my read.

-Pat

dr H.Z.Khan July 2, 2009 at 3:18 am

I enjoyed reading the historical references regarding the guides cavalry and the frontier scouts. my family served in the guides cavalry since its raising in1846.and my great grand uncle after winning the IOM was killed with Sir Louis Cavagnari in kabul.His body was brought down by raft in the Kabul river .He is buried in the ancestral graveyard in Mardan. My father served as a Lt: in the famous TOCHI SCOUTS 1940–1946.After many battles and an exhilirating and adventerous tour of duty left as a Lt:Colonel in 1946 and an MBE to boot!

Joshua Foust July 2, 2009 at 6:04 am

Patrick: ouch!

But okay, so I think now we probably just quibble at the margins. I blame FP for making everyone conform to some weird cutesy style. Nick Schmidle did it too, and I really like his work and don’t think he’s wrong either. There are others—smart people, well informed—who try to write something short for FP and it just doesn’t work. Anyway…

Much of my complaints come down to phrasing, which you acknowledge, but it’s kind of important when you’re writing. One of the reasons I try to avoid 900-word thought pieces when I can is you simply cannot reliably communicate complex ideas in that much space—nor are you meant to. I’ve been caught out before, too, trying to explain something and skipping over details and it has resulted in me getting slammed for writing a confusing mess.

That being said, there are probably some definitions to take into consideration. “Militia” in a general sense is any military force composed of non-soldiers meant to provide defense, law-enforcement, or paramilitary activity. What Trower calls “Irregulars” we would call “militias,” or perhaps more appropriately “Irregular militias.” But we are actually talking about the same thing—he raised his Khandahar Horses for the same reason the British Empire tried to repeat his experiment for the next hundred years: it seemed like a good idea (and his lessons were repeated and often cited by later British Army officers assigned the task of managing these militias).

By a pretty basic definition of a militia—right down to the previous commander in Afghanistan using that exact word—we are indeed running a small militia in Wardak. Which we’ve also done elsewhere, it’s not a new thing in that sense.

About referring only to Pathans: I didn’t get that from your piece, I’m sorry.

About applying the lessons of the 19th century: that is at least the explicitly stated purpose of the essay according to the title and subtitle. Again, I feel comfortable blaming FP for making the URL title say, “How an 1845 British Calvary Memoir Explains Afghanistan” and the subtitle saying “A historical look at how Afghanistan can be won — and lost.” But even so: it’s there, and if you disagree with those titles (as it seems you do), then you need to take it up with the FP editorial staff.

It’s probably worth noting that the vast majority of the Security Force Assistance (as they now call FID) in Afghanistan is being done by regular Army and Marine units, and not SOF. SOF is training the AP3, but they don’t want to and they’re trying to push it off onto a regular unit.

I think the DOD openly taking ideas from colonial texts to frame and discuss its activities is more of a problem than it is willing to admit.

“I never write that the units played a key role in the history of the subcontinent.”

This marginalizes your entire point. If you’re going to write an essay about how this Captain Trower has all these lessons that inform what we’re doing right now, then say that you never meant that he was important, and that it was insigificant… well, I’m wondering why write it? Did other Brits ignore his advice? Implement it? On a scale beyond the one Afghan unit he had for (at most) a year or two, were his principles workable? That’s what I’m getting at with my response—one case does not a phenomenon make. Especially a case a century and a half old.

“Trower DID enjoy some success in commanding his unit for a certain amount of time using a specific range of tactics. He couldn’t stay forever…”

This applies to everyone and is exactly my point. I’m saying let’s limit our expectations when looking at this stuff. Your essay seemed to imply the opposite; I’m glad you don’t think so. But again: the essay itself is about using history to inform policy—a very good thing, but it ignores all of the context that makes history relevant.

Which is really the point I’m trying to make. An explicit, “hey, here is an interesting case” would have been actually quite enjoyable to read; all of the other stuff—that again, comes down I guess to language and phrasing about it being “everything you need to know” and “how it will teach us to win”—that’s what irked me.

BruceR July 2, 2009 at 3:14 pm

Josh, absolutely agree. Your response in comments is if anything, overly respectful.

Look, 2 big problems here. The piece overpromises: “pretty much all there is to say?” So when you get into it, all it says is “incentivize,” go native” and “live and let live…” Really? That’s all there is to say? That doesn’t even scratch the surface of the current challenge. No one who is working in a mentoring role doesn’t figure that out on Day One, all without Devenny’s or Trower’s assistance.

But what really poleaxed me was Devenny’s reply to you:

“I think today’s Special Forces are directly analogous to Trower’s group of advisors… Small team of outsiders, living with their native units, charged with managing and commanding them — sounds a lot like SOF to me!”

There isn’t a mentor in Afghanistan today who believes he’s “charged with managing or commanding” anything Afghan. If you do not get that crucial fact, you do not get what we’re doing there. We do not command. We advise. We suggest. We have no control over Afghan operational plans, pay, personnel selection, discipline or (except in the broadest sense) logistics, out of respect for the sovereign national government. We have access to none of the levers over indigenous forces that have been used to keep them in line since the Romans’ day. That makes our job in Afghanistan distinctly and entirely different, except in the area of cultural niceties, from anything that Trower might have been involved with. The reply makes it clearer than anything you could have written: Devenny has no clue about the current mission and yet thinks he can advise on how it should be done, based on a dated and largely irrelevant reference.

I would actually say Trower, and all the other memoirs by British soldier-adventurers from Clive through to Lawrence should probably be on the list of “to be avoided” by anyone who knows they’ll be working with Afghans in a military mentoring role… because it’ll sure F*** you up if you think your real thing is going to be anything like it was for them.

More here: http://www.snappingturtle.net/flit/archives/2009_07_02.html

Fabius Maximus July 2, 2009 at 7:08 pm

While I agree with you 100%, there is a big picture being slighted here. The post-WWII history of counterinsurgency warfare — esp by the US — consists largely (not exlcusively) of …

(1) some form of popular front militia,
(2) firepower on civilian targets,
(3) sweep and destroy missions.

These are disguised under a thousand names, but the essence remains the same. Each time, each war, it requires journalists years to sort thru the chaff to see the underlying truth.

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