Lessons from Waziristan (II): The central role of the political agent

Lessons from Waziristan (II): The central role of the political agent

While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on March 10, 2010

At the center of British operations in Waziristan was not the military commander but the political officer, writes Andrew Roe in his useful study Waging War in Waziristan. As best as I can make out, we really don’t have a parallel position — the "political advisors" that senior generals have in the Army are nothing like it.

The British political officer frequently was someone of military background, holding a rank, but not in the military chain of command, and with his own small forces to use on a daily basis. When things fell apart, he would call in the army, and the military commander would take over. But most of the time, says Roe, he was "the central player around whom the entire local administration revolved."

One agent, Capt. Jack "Lotus" Lewis, was not only fluent in Pushtu, he was fluent in its local tribal dialects, Mahsud and Wazir. This appears to have been more the rule than the exception. The Indian Political Service was a popular destination for young Britons seeking excitement, and it could pick and choose from applicants. Those going to the frontier had to pass the Higher Standard Pushtu examination, and "mastery of tribal dialects was a matter of pride." Military commanders came and went, but the political officers stayed for several years — and the tribes gave them their allegiance as individuals, Roe says.

Describing one successful political officer, Roe writes that he employed

steady and unfaltering conciliation, combined with personal interaction. It was reinforced with a range of tribal subsidies for undertaking militia duty.

There always was friction between political officers and military commanders, Roe notes, especially because the politicals would put limits on operations, or order them to stop altogether. Also, the better a political was at his job, the less he tended to be noticed. "[S]uccessful tribal management could consign the officer concerned to political oblivion," Roe notes. By contrast, combat operations led to medals and recognition.

His account of their role makes me wonder if we need to put political officers on multi-year tours in Afghanistan. I bet Capt. Matt Pottinger would volunteer.