The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan is neither Vietnam nor Iraq

Afghanistan is neither Vietnam nor Iraq

By William Tobey

As President Obama contemplates a new strategy in Afghanistan, Washington is obsessed with whether the best analogy to the conflict lies in Vietnam or Iraq, with attendant and obvious implications for policy. Of course, Afghanistan has little in common with either Vietnam or Iraq in terms of history, geography, culture, or politics. There is, however, a more apt analogy, and it involves the very area in dispute.

Driven by radical Islam, Pashtun nationalism, and armed opportunism, some of the clans in Waziristan — a pair of currently militant-ridden tribal regions in Pakistan and the site of the recent anti-Taliban Pakistani military offensive — rose against British rule in 1936. The rebels improvised roadside bombs, ambushed convoys, and launched hit and run attacks on isolated outposts to drive out alien forces. They kidnapped and beheaded British soldiers and civilians. In unprotected villages, they massacred civilians who did not support them. When troops chased the rebels, they crossed the border with Afghanistan to seek refuge. (Much of this is happening today on either side of Waziristan’s border with Afghanistan.)

Chasing down rebels, patrolling roads, and keeping supply lines open was — and remains — hazardous duty. Soldiers in Waziristan learned to vary their activities or paid with their lives. D. S. Richards in The Savage Frontier quotes a British soldier on “the cardinal Frontier principle of never doing the same thing in the same way twice running,” because “[s]omeone was always watching — someone with an inborn tactical sense, someone who missed nothing.”

In response to the uprising, Great Britain sent 40,000 British and Indian troops to Waziristan — almost ten soldiers per square mile (the same ratio of troops to territory for even a quarter of Afghanistan would require over 600,000 soldiers, both Western and Afghan, although today’s military is both more mobile and capable). In the 1936 campaign, combined British, Indian (India had not yet achieved independence), and local forces co-opted some Pashtun clans with bribes and attacked others, depending on their susceptibility to persuasion or resistance to the Raj. Notably, the British singled out and attacked the Mehsuds as implacable foes. Today, Mehsuds are among the fiercest of militants fighting Pakistan’s forces in South Waziristan, and a 2007 United Nations report blamed the late Baitullah Mehsud for more than three quarters of the suicide bombings in Afghanistan.

The British prosecuted the war with some of the earliest uses of airpower against irregular forces — to notable effect. They also struggled to balance the potency of this new weapon with restrictive rules of engagement to limit civilian casualties, but were not always successful. Moreover, Britain pursued policies that today are held as contrary to international law, although they continue to be used. For example, the military and government exacted collective punishment through fines against tribes when the guilty party in an assassination could not be identified and brought to justice, and if the tribe refused to pay the fines, British authorities destroyed tribal property.

The British also attempted, without much success, to improve civil society in the region. They built roads and schools, and organized courts and administered justice. Appreciated by some locals, these works were resented by others as efforts that would support military transport or spread Western values. Indeed, a trial finding in favor of a Hindu family against a Muslim defendant sparked the rebellion in the first place.

The combination of overwhelming force (British, Indian, and local troops likely outnumbered their total opposition at any given time by ten or even twenty to one and had superior weapons), shrewd and well-informed political moves dividing and sapping the morale of their opponents, and patience prevailed — for a time. Eventually, Waziristan was pacified to the extent that Richards reported that an old saw among British soldiers in the region after World War II went, “Were you in the War or did you stay up on the Frontier?”

The longer history of the region is also important. From Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union, in all of recorded history, Pashtuns have never consistently offered allegiance to an authority above the tribal level for an extended period of time. They have made accommodations when they were forced to do so, but eventually they have expelled all foreigners. The West’s war with al Qaeda must not somehow be transformed into a war with the nearly 40 million Pashtuns who live on both sides of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. We have neither the means nor the will to do what it would take to win such a war. More important, while most Taliban are Pashtun, most Pashtuns are not Taliban, and in fact because of their repressive brutality, the Taliban remain deeply unpopular in Afghanistan. Thus, we must not allow the Taliban to transform our war against them into broader conflict with Pashtuns. Pashtun independence does not doom us to fail against al Qaeda and its Taliban supporters; rather, it requires us to cultivate Pashtun allies if we are to prevail.

Historical analogy can be useful in weighing public policy options, but only if it is apt, and the analysis is honest. Starting with a conclusion and selecting the analogy that best supports it is persuasion, not analysis. The 1936 revolt in Waziristan is a relevant, but imperfect, analog to the conflict we face today in the Af-Pak theater, and we can learn from British successes and setbacks. The lessons from Waziristan do not neatly prescribe an obvious course of action, but they will help us to make better judgments about the costs, benefits, and means of success, and they deserve to be considered carefully. Most of all, they will remind us that Afghanistan is neither Vietnam nor Iraq — it is Afghanistan.

William Tobey is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center and previously served on the National Security Council staff under three presidents.