Af-Pak, the Prequel
Churchill’s First War: Young Winston at War with the Afghans
By Con Coughlin
Thomas Dunne Books, 320 pages
Winston Churchill spent a lifetime fascinated by and deeply involved in warfare, so it’s very helpful to know what experiences molded his earliest view of it. The first time he led men into battle was on the northwest frontier of British India, where he served in 1897, and he did so in three major skirmishes, with bullets whizzing within a foot of his head on no fewer than 10 occasions. Many of the assumptions he made about war stemmed from the searing incidents in those months fighting in what was called the Malakand Field Force. “I rarely detect genuine emotion in myself,’” Churchill wrote to his mother after his great friend, Lieutenant William Browne-Clayton, was killed close to him on one expedition. “I must rank it as a rare instance the fact that I cried when I saw poor Browne-Clayton literally cut to pieces on a stretcher.”
We read of this trial by fire in Con Coughlin’s book, Churchill’s First War. Yet what gives Coughlin’s very well-researched and well-written book its added power and contemporary importance is that the fighting in 1897 was taking place in precisely the same valleys and villages the U.S.-led coalition is contesting today against the Taliban—the great-great-grandsons of the tribesmen who hacked Browne-Clayton to death. Indeed the very valley where that officer died was the same one in which a U.S. air strike tragically killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November 2011. The rocky badlands of Waziristan and other parts of what is today euphemistically called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)—which are in fact not really administered by anyone at all—provide the backdrop for a book that is part biography of the young Churchill as warrior, part travelogue of Coughlin’s own experiences in the FATA as a reporter, and a history of the Af-Pak border region.
The resonances of Churchill’s time around Malakand have been very well employed by the modern U.S. Army as it contests the same battlegrounds against the same Pashtun tribes. General Stanley McChrystal listened to Churchill’s book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, on his iPod during his eight-mile jogs around the Kabul army base, and David Petraeus—who was interviewed extensively by Coughlin—says he drew on Churchill’s work for his famous 2006 U.S. Army field manual. Whereas the Malakand Field Force would burn down the villages of any hostile tribesmen, today NATO uses drones to punish them. Beyond that obvious and massive difference, there are many similarities in the combat taking place 117 years later.
One is in the nature of the enemy, whom Churchill discussed in terms very far from the culturally sensitive ones that any modern American politician could use, at least in public. Churchill called the Talibs, the extremist religious students from whom the Taliban derive their name, “as degraded a race as any on the fringe of humanity; fierce as a tiger but less cleanly; as dangerous, not as graceful.” He believed their insistence on fundamentalist Islam kept the Afghan people in “the grip of miserable superstition.” Of Islam itself he said: “That religion, which above all others was founded and propagated by the sword…stimulates a wild and merciless fanaticism.” And of the Afghans he wrote: “Every influence, every motive, that provokes the spirit of murder among men, impels these mountaineers to deeds of treachery and violence.”
Churchill supported the burning of enemy villages with the argument that “of course it is cruel and barbarous, as is everything else in war, but it is only an unphilosophic mind that will hold it legitimate to take a man’s life and illegitimate to destroy his property.” And yet he was by no means the jingoist warmonger presented by his detractors. “Whether it was worth it I cannot tell,” he later wrote in his autobiography, My Early Life.
Yet he certainly wouldn’t have supported the Declare-Victory-and Quit policy that the Obama administration plans to adopt later this year. When the British (under the splendidly named General Sir Bindon Blood) were ordered to retreat back to Malakand by a pacific government in London, Churchill reported how the news “spread like wildfire along the frontier and revived the spirits of the tribes. They fancied they detected a sign of weakness. Nor were they altogether wrong. But the weakness was moral rather than physical.” (And they didn’t have the opportunity to read Robert Gates’s memoirs, either.)
Coughlin, now the executive foreign editor of the Telegraph—the paper for whose predecessor, the Morning Post, Churchill used to write—has trodden in Churchill’s footsteps in the most dangerous part of the world today. He visited the room Churchill used as an office in the Malakand Fort—which had survived a devastating siege by tribesmen only two years before Churchill arrived there—as well as Chitral and many other areas as perilous to a Westerner’s health today as in 1897. Those travels made it possible for Coughlin to bring alive the key players of the Great Game, as the struggle was fought in places like the Swat Valley in the days of Lord Curzon, Colonel John Brabazon, and “The Mad Mullah.”
The conclusions Coughlin draws about whether it was all worth it—then as now—are not unlike Churchill’s. “I have spent many years as a foreign correspondent covering wars,” he writes. “And looking down at the forbidding, snow-capped mountain peaks as I prepared to take my leave of Malakand, it seemed to me that Churchill’s riddle of the frontier was as far from being solved as it ever has been, and that the cemeteries of the North-West Frontier will continue to be filled with its victims for many years to come.” Coughlin certainly doesn’t oppose NATO’s mission in the FATA; he merely approaches it in a sane and sobering way.
“I am more ambitious for a reputation for physical courage than for anything else in the world,” Churchill wrote in December 1897, and he certainly showed it on the North-West Frontier, being mentioned in dispatches for his bravery. At one point the tribesmen got so close to him that they threw rocks and stones when they ran out of ammunition. To be captured meant to be tortured. He would therefore have appreciated Con Coughlin’s courage in venturing to places that most other writers wouldn’t have went to research this excellent book.