Best Defense
Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The British experience in Waziristan: Tons of lessons to be learned

Flying to Utah on Monday I finished reading Waging War in Waziristan: The British Struggle in the Land of Bin Laden, 1849-1947, by Andrew M. Roe, a British infantry officer.  Here’s my bottom line: Anyone trying to understand the war in Afghanistan, and especially anyone involved in waging it, should check this out. The British ...

By , a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy.
Flickr: Northampton Museum
Flickr: Northampton Museum
Flickr: Northampton Museum

Flying to Utah on Monday I finished reading Waging War in Waziristan: The British Struggle in the Land of Bin Laden, 1849-1947, by Andrew M. Roe, a British infantry officer. 

Flying to Utah on Monday I finished reading Waging War in Waziristan: The British Struggle in the Land of Bin Laden, 1849-1947, by Andrew M. Roe, a British infantry officer. 

Here’s my bottom line: Anyone trying to understand the war in Afghanistan, and especially anyone involved in waging it, should check this out. The British have faced all the same issues, and had many of the same internal arguments. We could save ourselves a lot of time and grief by looking at them.

Roe’s book differs from many other histories of the region I’ve read in that it focuses not on campaigns or personalities, but on structures and policies. This makes it most useful for seeing parallels to our current situation.

For example, the military establishment they maintained on the frontier was multi-layered. At the top were British regulars and the Army of India, which was an arm of the empire. Next in the pyramid were the frontier scouts and the frontier constabulary. Finally, there were local tribal militias. Of these groups, it is instructive that the British units often had the hardest time, especially units that had just arrived to serve one-year tours. "Due to tactical shortcomings, personnel rotations, and professional overconfidence, British regiments were often easy targets for the tribesman," Roe reports. 

The scouts, by contrast, were locals who had a smattering of British officers — who in turn were selected by their peers. The scouts were tough and fast-moving, frequently marching 20 or more miles a day through this mountainous desert, without any logistical support, "They were also proficient marksmen of a far higher standard than the regular army soldiers," in part because they had only the ammunition they could carry on their multi-day patrols.

More tomorrow. There is much to be mined here, on everything from the way to organize local forces to the role of airpower in small wars. But you might as well buy it now — Roe states that he is donating all the profits from the book to Help for Heroes.

Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1

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