The South Asia Channel

Churchill's First War

A review of Con Coughlin's Churchill's First War (London: MacMillan, 2013).

To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war. -- Winston Churchill

This book, by the defence editor of the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph, has a double significance. It gives an insight into the early life and career of one of the twentieth century's most famous statesmen, Winston Churchill. It also assesses Western strategy in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan today in the light of Churchill's experiences there almost 120 years ago.

By 1897, the British - stung by two costly wars in Afghanistan - had long since abandoned the idea of controlling that country directly. They were practising instead the marvellously named policy of "masterly inactivity" - watching developments from afar, controlling events within Afghanistan through judiciously applied bribes, and holding their massive destructive power in reserve. Their iron fist, as they had found, could punch deep into Afghanistan and do immense damage there, but was hard to pull out again afterwards.

The British remained keen, however, to assert their dominance over the peoples on their side of the newly-drawn and much-resented southern border of Afghanistan, which divided that country from the British-controlled territory that is now Pakistan. Most of those peoples were Pashtuns, the same ethnic group as today's Taliban (and, for that matter, Afghan President Hamid Karzai.) And they, in turn, were afraid that their prized autonomy was under threat. A brutal conflict resulted: Pashtuns with bright banners, well-aimed rifles and superior numbers against British and Indian soldiers with machine-guns.

Both sides were ruthless. The British suffered twenty per cent casualties, while unnumbered thousands of Pashtuns were killed. "There is no doubt that we are a very cruel people," one of the British participants wrote. The same man added, "I have not soiled my hands with any dirty work," but since he had no compunction in destroying the homes of rebellious Pashtun villagers, the unnamed "dirty work" was apparently something darker.

The writer was Winston Churchill, at an early stage of his career. He covered the conflict - writing, like Coughlin, for the Telegraph. He also took part in it, as a cavalry officer. Strange as it may seem today, he was reporting on battles in which he himself had taken part. Using British soldiers as war reporters was patriotic; it was also cheap, as Coughlin wryly notes.

In examining history, Coughlin always has the present day in view, and draws frequent comparisons between past British experiences and those of NATO in Afghanistan now.

Despite a few minor inaccuracies (he is not quite right to say that the Popalzai are not an Afghan royal tribe, or that the Taliban vandalised the British cemetery in Kabul, or that the "ghazis" who fought the British in the nineteenth century were salafis; the Pakistani mullah Fazlullah is spelled here "Fazullah"), it makes for an engaging and thought-provoking read. Darting into Churchill's own life story, Coughlin drags up some fun facts to enliven his narrative. I had never known that the New York Times was once the proud owner of a couple of machine guns (bought to protect it against rioters); or that Churchill picked up his fondness for whisky in what is now Pakistan; or that his mother, an American heiress, had quite so many lovers.

In Britain at present there is a controversy over the fact that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, once belonged to an Oxford club whose members sometimes trashed restaurants. Churchill and his fellow cavalry-officers went some way further than this: they brought a pony into their living-room and made it jump sofas, once allegedly fixed a horse race, and equipped their dining room with furniture made ready to smash.

But the core of this book is a grimmer story. Churchill's articles for the Daily Telegraph were brutal and devoid of compassion: they make for unpleasant reading. He described the Pashtuns as "pernicious vermin," whose clearance from their valleys would be a boon to humanity. Their religion was "the most miserable fanaticism." Twenty-three years old, with no prior experience of war, he was seeing the Pashtuns only through the barrel of a gun. "The religion of blood and war," he wrote sententiously in one of his columns, after hearing of the warlike behaviour of certain Pashtun clerics, "is face to face with that of peace. Luckily the religion of peace is usually the better armed." One would think that the Pashtuns had invaded British territory, rather than the other way around.

In mitigation, the book points out that Churchill had seen his friends killed around him, and had come close to death himself. Also, despite his brutal rhetoric, Churchill privately drew sombre conclusions about the value of the fighting in which he was taking part. "Financially it is ruinous. Morally it is wicked. Militarily it is an open question, and politically it is a blunder." But then he concludes: "But we can't pull up now." Honour was now at stake, he felt. He always resented the political officers who wanted to talk to the enemy rather than fighting them.

Fighting is sometimes better than talking: proving that in the fight against Nazism would later be Churchill's greatest achievement. This earlier time, he was wrong. It proved entirely possible to "pull up." After the brief and bloody conflict in which Churchill fought - a "violent campaign to impose order on a part of the world that has never tolerated outside interference," as Coughlin terms it - the British adopted a similar arm's-length approach to the Pashtuns south of the Afghan border as they had done towards Afghanistan itself. This time, the result was decades of relative peace.

"Masterly inactivity" is not the same as negotiating with the enemy, though it may involve doing so. It is a careful and bloodless application of sustained diplomacy. Coughlin - no peacenik, and often a robust defender of Britain's military - seems to hint in this book that after years of war and drone strikes in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, masterly inactivity might once again be worth a try.

Gerard Russell was head of the British Embassy's political team in Afghanistan in 2007-8, and a political officer at the United Nations in Kabul in 2009.

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