The Afghan Frontier

Much has been said by pundits regarding the ongoing war in Afghanistan and what would constitute a feasible pull-out of troops. The British fought three major wars against the Afghans between 1839 and and 1919, to establish influence in the sphere of Central Asia during “the Great Game”.

A couple of passages written by Sir George Campbell, a Member of Parliament reflected a view that prolonged conflict in Afghanistan was an “unwinnable” one. These views, published in 1879 in The Afghan Frontier are particularly remarkable in light of current affairs in that part of the world:

Before this war I have often expressed my own views regarding the north-west frontier; they may be put in very brief compass. I have always thought and said that if the mountains of Afghanistan had been occupied by a people in any degree resembling those of the Himalayas,—if the Afghans had in any degree resembled in character the people of Cashmere or of the hill country of the Kangra, Simla, or Kumaon districts,, or even those of Nepaul—I should have thought it extremely desirable that we should in some shape occupy that country and so complete our defences; but we know by painful experience that the Afghans are a people of a totally different character—turbulent— bred from infancy to the use of arms—and with a passion for independence in which they are exceeded by no people in this world. This love of independence is such as to make them intolerant, not only of foreign rule, but almost of any national, tribal or family rule. They are a people among whom every man would be a law unto himself. Experience has shown, too, that these traits are not of a passing kind; the Afghans are not to be tamed by subjection and peace; nothing induces them to surrender that love of independence which seems to be the essence of their nature. That being the character of the people occupying so difficult and inaccessible a country, I have thought that the difficulties and expense of any attempt to (meddle with that country far outweigh the advantages…

…These difficulties, however, are trifling compared to those caused by the raids of the hill tribes upon our borders. These raids always have been from the beginning of time, and I am afraid always will be. We have had the most extreme difficulty in devising sufficient means of dealing with the tribes upon our borders. We have tried blocking them out from all traffic with our territory, but that has been only partially successful, and every now and again we are obliged to undertake expeditions into the outer hills. From the time of Sir Charles Napier and Sir Colin Campbell down to the present, these expeditions have always been of the same character, with the same results, or rather no results. We always, with much fuss, arrange expeditions, each of which is is to be the really effective and exemplary one, which is to settle the question finally. We always go up into the hills and generally encounter but little resistance in going. When we get into the petty settlements within our reach the hill people disappear with their flocks and herds and goods, and leave us their miserable huts, upon which we wreak our vengeance, as we do upon any petty crops they may have left, if it is the crop season. When that is done, nothing remains but to go back again. As soon as we turn, the hill tribes are down upon our rear; and thus having marched up the hill, we march down again in a somewhat humiliating way, howled at and fired upon by the Afghans as we go; so with more or less loss we get home again and write a dispatch, describing the whole affair as a most successful expedition, crowned by a glorious victory. That has been many times repeated. It must be admitted that this state of things is not very satisfactory, and in spite of our so-called victories the evil has not been cured. But upon the whole the raids and the expeditions are of late years somewhat less numerous than they were before. Some of the hill people we have induced to settle in the lower districts, upon land we have given them. And at any rate we know the worst —we have become accustomed to the situation. There is a limit to the exposed border; and after all it may be said, that these troublesome tribes are rather thorns in our side than a serious political danger. One thing is quite certain, that for offensive action against us, the Afghan tribes are wholly contemptible. No two tribes ever seem to be capable of uniting against us for offence, and if ever they did unite, they would still be entirely contemptible enemies down in the plains. There a single division would very easily dispose of them.

Now comes the question, “It is very easy to object to everything, but what would you do?” I am very clear as to what I would have done a little time ago, and that is—nothing.

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