It is an old story and long part of
British military and literary memory. British
forces are again taking casualties in Afghan
scrubland while hunting a formidable adversary.
As Britain steadily increases its
commitment to counter-insurgency operations in the
southern Afghan province of Helmand, it is losing
soldiers. On June 11, 29-year-old Captain Jim
Philippson was killed saving a wounded colleague
outside the village of Sangeen. Several Taliban
insurgents were also killed.
reports suggested 21 Taliban fighters died in
clashes with Britain's elite Parachute Regiment at
Nauzad, 64 kilometers north of the British army's
main Helmand base, Camp Bastion.
April, isolated landmine explosions have injured
British soldiers, but up to
now US, Afghan National Army (ANA) and Canadian
troops have borne the brunt of regional attacks.
This is now changing. As Britain ramps up
its commitment to Afghanistan - extant since 2001
- a new chapter in the international "war on
terror" is unfolding. Not yet a major
international news story, it soon will be.
Mandated for trouble As the
security baton is passed from the US to an
8,000-strong North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO) force - with United Kingdom, Dutch and
Canadian forces prominent - a spearhead of about
3,300 British troops is making its own Afghan
"footprint", military parlance for aggressive
disruption of Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked forces.
In turn, Taliban insurgents and foreign
fighters have promised retribution on Her
Majesty's forces to rival anything experienced by
the US Army thus far. Last month, Mohammad Hanif
Sherzad, spokesman for Taliban leader Mullah Omar,
claimed, "We will turn Afghanistan into a river of
blood for the British." Other insurgent leaders
point to their ancestors' record of killing
British soldiers in the 19th and early 20th
centuries: a gift from God for their own
Britain's three-year, US$1
billion mandate centers on security provision for
Helmand's civil reconstruction in the face of
Taliban attacks. From Camp Bastion, a rough and
ready redoubt surrounded by razor wire and
concrete walls, British soldiers face formidable
Supported by Royal Air Force
(RAF) Harrier jets and US-built Apache helicopters
operating from the coalition air base at Kandahar
- an additional 130 British airfield defense and
logistics troops will arrive there in coming weeks
- British soldiers are experiencing the dangers of
all armies operating in Afghanistan.
summer heat of more than 50 degrees Celsius they
face a committed enemy using traditional Afghan
insurgent tactics. With Taliban fighters
descending from surrounding hills to resupply and
engage the coalition, the British are encountering
an enemy often indistinguishable from the local
A pattern is already forming.
The British deploy light armor to repel attacks
and clear villages. The insurgents retreat to the
hills, but return once the British have left.
Comparisons are now being made to the
British army of the Victorian age. Then the army
had to decide on so-called "butcher and bolt"
versus "forward policy" operations. The first
spoke for itself. The second was strategic, aiming
at British control of the Afghan/Pakistan border
regions to provide defense in depth.
second remit for the British, equally problematic,
is to win hearts and minds in the Afghan
population through reconstruction, while managing
prickly relations with local opium-poppy
producers. British military commanders and civil
officials are attempting to wean local producers
off poppy cultivation toward alternative crops: a
seemingly impossible and perilous task.
Powerful local vested interests control
the poppy industry. Drug profits of up to $1
billion per year directly support the local
economy and infuse the insurgency. About 20% of
global opium production takes place in Helmand and
50% of Afghanistan's total poppy production
originates in that province. Of the heroin sold in
Britain, 90% comes from Afghanistan.
in fact these challenges are nothing new in the
shared history of the United Kingdom, Afghanistan
and the regions bordering Pakistan. Britain has
left footprints in these areas before.
On the North-West
Frontier British involvement in Afghanistan
is a long and bloody story, both heroic and
disastrous. Embroiled in 19th-century imperial
commitments against local rulers and border
tribesman on the so-called North-West Frontier of
India, the British fought a series of vicious
conflicts. Their experience carries the same mix
of ambush, defeat and punitive retribution that
characterized the Roman Empire's engagement with
Germanic tribes on its northern borders.
Afghanistan's pivotal position emerged
with the 19th century's "Great Game" between the
British and Russian empires, with the jewel of
British India and warm-water ports in Turkey as
ultimate prizes. The British were rightly
concerned that India could be reached through
Afghanistan by Russian forces or their Afghan
By the 1830s, the Russians
were advancing rapidly through Central Asia.
British foreign and military policy was predicated
on defending the North-West Frontier and the
capital Kabul at all costs. With a hornets' nest
of tribal interests competing for Russian and
British interest - with Amir Dost Mohammed a key
figure - and unfavorable geography to say the
least, the omens were not good.
proved as, in a series of notorious
mid-19th-century Afghan wars, the British army
suffered appalling losses. In the First Afghan War
(1839-42) a retreating British and Indian army of
4,500 men was ambushed and wiped out in January
1842 by Afghan tribesmen some 50km from Jalalabad.
In response to the shambles, the British marched a
relief column through the Khyber Pass to Kabul to
gain victory. But a pattern of mutually
destructive asymmetric warfare had been set.
A Second Afghan War of 1878-81 was sparked
by Britain's attempt to forestall Russian
overtures to rival Afghan amirs, and the murder of
British diplomats (a common feature in Britain's
Afghan entanglements in the 19th century). In
London, the popular anti-Russian song blared out
from a thousand music halls: "We've fought the
bear before, and whilst we're Britons true, the
Russian bear shall not have Constantinople."
A British force of 35,000 men was led by
Major-General Frederick Roberts (known to his
soldiers simply as "Bobs"), whose exemplary
military record was tempered by his propensity to
hang insurgents and civilians alike by the
roadside. After a stunning Afghan victory by rival
Ayub Khan at Maiwand (1880) and Roberts' punitive
response, Britain eventually sought accommodation
with local tribes, endorsing Abdurrahman Khan as
amir of Kabul. The British then made a tactical
withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1881.
the following years the British took part in
several further campaigns in the North-West
Frontier provinces of Waziristan (now part of
Pakistan) in 1894-95, Chitral (1895) and Tirah
(1897-98). A young Winston Churchill served in the
Tirah campaign as a military correspondent,
recorded in his books My Early Life and
The Story of the Malakand Field Force. He
examined the British military strategic choices on
the frontier of "butcher and bolt" versus "forward
policy". He came down firmly on the side of
By 1893, Afghanistan and
British India were formally separated under the
Durand Line proposals and the British pursued a
policy of "pacification" (they paid off
troublesome tribal warlords). Like Roman legates
watching the forests of Germania, British
foreign-policy makers recognized the limits of
In 1919, a Third Afghan
War, launched after Amir Amanullah declared war on
British interests, was won by British forces after
their devastating military response. After three
months of aerial bombardment and a land campaign
through the Khyber Pass, the British concluded the
Treaty of Rawalpindi, recognizing Afghan
Britain's military actions
in Afghanistan and along the North-West Frontier
continued on into the 20th century. From 1919 to
1925, the RAF bombed Mahsud tribesmen in
Waziristan and flew air sorties over the
North-West Frontier regions from 1928-39.
The story is not over. This week,
Britain's casualties confirm tragically that its
21st-century commitment to Afghanistan and those
of its NATO allies will not be without new cost.
And the power of history to inform
persists in Afghanistan.
1886 poem "Arithmetic on the Frontier", seen by
some as a cliche from overuse, was nevertheless
given renewed power last week by the latest
A scrimmage in a
border station, A canter down some dark
defile, Two thousand pounds of education,
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail.
Granted the jezail - the Pashtu
musket of legend - has been replaced by Taliban
Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers, and the RAF
Bulldog and Gladiator biplanes of the 1920s and
1930s have been replaced by Harriers and Apaches.
Yet the historical resonances are inescapable as
the descendants of past conflicts re-engage each
Today, the choices - "butcher and
bolt" or "forward policy" - remain as relevant to
British military commanders today as they were
more than 100 years ago. Indeed, senior British
officers today have a feast of imperial literature
to choose from, ranging from Churchill's classics
and 1980s Soviet military reports to Report on
Waziristan and its Tribes (1901).
Ultimately, British success or failure in
Helmand will be constrained by resources,
particularly the number of troops available on the
ground. A deepening commitment is inevitable, as
3,000 troops do not go far in Afghanistan.
Strategic success in Afghanistan has often
been envisaged by outside powers - by British,
Soviet and now coalition forces - but rarely if
ever achieved. In 2006, the key lies in a truly
secure border with Pakistan.
That will not
happen any time soon. If NATO, led by the British
in Helmand, can succeed in the south, their
effective security commitment to northeastern
Afghanistan - in place of or in support of US
forces - will also be necessary for years to come.
And Pakistan's northwestern border areas will
remain a filter for insurgents - notably
Waziristan - world famous for Pashtu resistance to
occupying foreign forces, particularly the
The record of foreign powers
intervening in Afghanistan has always been one of
profound risk. Yet the alternative to intervention
is an Afghanistan declining further into a center
for international terrorism. For Britain's highly
professional modern army, with more experience
than most in counter-insurgency, matching the
lessons from Afghanistan's past and the
requirements of the present are now being tested.