Call in the Cavalry!

A historical look at how Afghanistan can be won -- and lost.


As American troops in Afghanistan seek to rebuild a flagging campaign, they might do well to read up on the lessons of another troubled Afghan project, the Anglo-Afghan Wars — and specifically, the lessons of one Captain Charles Trower, a British cavalry officer who deployed to India in the 1830s. His 1845 memoir, Hints on Irregular Cavalry, says pretty much all there is to say about one of the most complicated problems in Afghanistan today: the training and oversight of local defense forces.

Last October, the Los Angeles Times reported that Pentagon leaders had authorized American commanders in Afghanistan to aggressively mobilize and mentor village-based self-defense forces. Made up largely of Pashtun tribesmen and recruited through tribal leaders, such units are expected to provide security in areas where Afghan government forces have failed to stem Taliban encroachment. This shift in strategy is not surprising given the success of similar initiatives in Iraq and the growth of the insurgency across southern Afghanistan. Results of the late 2008 decision are now seeping into the press: American reporters recently covered the graduation and deployment of 80 members of the Afghan Public Protection force, otherwise known as "Guardians." But the fielding of these units entails great risks: lack of government oversight and empowerment of warlords, just to state the obvious.   

The "Guardians" are the direct descendents of Trower’s "Native Horse," a contingent of British-commanded irregular cavalry. The units were exotic, to put it mildly, drawn from tribes throughout present day India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. "A Mahomedan, a Rajpoot, a Mahratta … a Seik" – as Trower put it  — all served under him.

Among Trower’s horsemen was a troop known as the "Khandahar Horse" — Pashtun recruits from modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, the direct ancestors of today’s "Guardians." Recruited in cooperation with tribal chiefs, the Native Horse were not loyal to any form of government outside their British minders. Trower writes extensively on how to properly manage and maintain the support of these units, the members of which he describes as "generally illiterate, haughty and turbulent: but they are gallant and true, hard-working and zealous." Of their martial skills, they were "first in excellence."

One hundred and fifty-five years later, the U.S. officer now charged with overseeing Afghan self-defense forces has more to learn from Trower than you might think. Trower’s treatise on advisory missions — the first of its kind — expounds on three main themes that are useful to this day.

1. Incentivize — Raising tribal forces is often confused with the purchase of mercenaries, part-time allies loyal only as long as the money lasts. Trower agreed: Simply lavishing gold on tribes was short-sighted. It was better to incentivize participation through a methodical, society-wide approach. This involved consultation with tribal leaders, targeted recruitment, the promotion of local elites, and a pay scale that rewarded good conduct and active participation. Thus, Trower’s indigenous unit became an attractive home for Pashtun males who enjoyed the military life but also fiercely guarded their independence. The outreach effort served a broader purpose as more Pashtun leaders were convinced to participate, slimming the population of renegades. Trower deemed the system a method "by which a considerable body of turbulent Patans [Pashtuns] can be converted from disaffected idlers with no occupation, into well-disposed servants of the state."

2. Live and let live — The relationship forged through the incentive system led some British officers to believe they could Westernize Pashtun fighters. To Trower, this was arrogance of the worst sort. Pashtuns were fiercely independent, and any effort to treat them as "property" would be disastrous. Trower’s colleagues were advised to ignore any impulse to "civilize" such units: "There is nothing as distasteful to the majority of natives as change of any kind, above all any change affecting their purse or prejudices." To drive his point home, Captain Trower tells the story of a Colonel Davis who had interfered with the "purse and prejudices" of his men. They later killed him. Play it safe and avoid non-military discussion, offers Trower: "Have nothing to say to their private and domestic affairs if you can avoid it."

Others advocated integrating indigenous units into official government formations. That would be a mistake, warns Trower. His irregulars were uncomfortable with external control: "There are very few situations under our government which their ancient prejudices and pride will suffer them to accept." Although there was a danger that indigenous forces would end up fighting official units, Trower felt such risks could be managed through close monitoring by British officers.

3. Go native — Educated by years of living in the tribal areas of Pakistan and India, Trower argues that British officers should make every effort to blend in with their native recruits. This recommendation will ring familiar to American military advisors, particularly U.S. Special Forces. Officers attached to irregular groups should have "very considerable knowledge" of the native culture, and should rapidly learn their languages. Trower expounds on the importance of treating native troopers with the utmost respect: "It is the treatment they receive which will make then either cheerful or zealous soldiers or useless rabble." Since Pashtuns were particularly sensitive to the opinion of their own "Khel or Zye (subtribes)," tribal leaders were to be treated as allies, not subjects. At all opportunities, Trower advises British officers to "enter into the amusements of your men" and "be prepared to receive their visits of ceremony."

Trower’s work is not entirely relevant, of course — at one point, the reader is reminded to avoid "useless glitter" when clothing irregular horsemen. Additionally, the cogent tribal structure that facilitated Trower’s recruitment activity is now a shadow of its former self, degradation that will complicate similar American efforts. Regardless, the seemingly archaic history of the British colonial experience has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts within the U.S. military: Marine generals read Gertrude Bell and Special Forces study Roger’s "Rules of Ranging," a pamphlet on irregular warfare written in 1757. It’s time to make room for Captain Trower.

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