The Comanche and the Taliban

One of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in the past year was S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches. It’s a terrific, gripping story, and I learned a great deal about aspects of U.S. history of which I was only partly aware. In ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

One of the most enjoyable books I've read in the past year was S. C. Gwynne's Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches. It's a terrific, gripping story, and I learned a great deal about aspects of U.S. history of which I was only partly aware.

In brief, the book tells the story of the U.S. effort to subdue the Comanche, the most powerful Native American tribe on the Great Plains. It was a bloody and fascinating struggle, in part because the Comanche proved so hard for the far more numerous and technologically superior Anglos to defeat. If you grew up with a John Ford/John Wayne/Randolph Scott view of the Old West, this book will be something of a revelation. And the saga of Quanah Parker himself, a Comanche war chief whose mother was a white woman kidnapped in 1836 at the age of nine, and "rescued" many years later (when her son Quanah was twelve years old), is itself a heart-rending tale of cultural conflict and personal tragedy.

As much as I enjoyed the book, I couldn't help but read it with the current war in Afghanistan in mind. In both cases, a numerically superior, wealthier, and more technologically advanced United States confronts a tribal adversary fighting on its home ground. And in both cases, the U.S. government faces an adversary that is cunning, ruthless, and by our standards even backward or barbaric.

One of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in the past year was S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches. It’s a terrific, gripping story, and I learned a great deal about aspects of U.S. history of which I was only partly aware.

In brief, the book tells the story of the U.S. effort to subdue the Comanche, the most powerful Native American tribe on the Great Plains. It was a bloody and fascinating struggle, in part because the Comanche proved so hard for the far more numerous and technologically superior Anglos to defeat. If you grew up with a John Ford/John Wayne/Randolph Scott view of the Old West, this book will be something of a revelation. And the saga of Quanah Parker himself, a Comanche war chief whose mother was a white woman kidnapped in 1836 at the age of nine, and "rescued" many years later (when her son Quanah was twelve years old), is itself a heart-rending tale of cultural conflict and personal tragedy.

As much as I enjoyed the book, I couldn’t help but read it with the current war in Afghanistan in mind. In both cases, a numerically superior, wealthier, and more technologically advanced United States confronts a tribal adversary fighting on its home ground. And in both cases, the U.S. government faces an adversary that is cunning, ruthless, and by our standards even backward or barbaric.

But as my late colleague Ernest May used to warn, when you make a historical analogy, it is a good idea to make a list of the ways the two situations differ, instead of just invoking the similarities. So lest you think that the ultimate victory of the U.S. government over the Comanche heralds a similar victory over the Taliban, consider the following differences between the two situations.

First, in the war against the Comanche, total victory was a vital interest for the United States. As the American republic expanded across North America, the United States was hardly going to allow an independent and hostile tribe of semi-nomadic natives to control a large swath of the territory that Americans believed was theirs by virtue of "Manifest Destiny." I am not defending this policy on the grounds of fairness or justice, by the way; just stating an obvious fact. By contrast, Afghanistan is thousands of miles from the U.S. homeland, and what happens there ultimately matters much more to the Afghans than it does to us. All Afghans know that sooner or later the United States and its allies are going to go home, but that was obviously not the case for the European settlers who had created the United States and were now pushing rapidly across the continent.

Second, the white settlers in North America enjoyed overwhelming numerical superiority. The Comanche numbered no more than 30-40,000 people, whereas the expanding white population had already exceeded twenty-three million by 1850. Thus, even though the Comanche remained formidable warriors on their home ground, they were eventually overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers. In Afghanistan, however, some 100,000-plus U.S. and allied troops are trying to impose order on over 30 million Afghans, themselves divided into five major tribal groups. Active members of the Taliban may be only a small sub-set of that population, but the Pashtuns from which they draw their main strength comprise about 40 percent of the population. Bottom line: The United States and its allies have nowhere near the same raw numerical advantage.

Third, like other North American tribes, the Comanche proved susceptible to various European diseases. As Gwynne makes clear, smallpox, measles, and cholera all had a devastating impact on Comanche numbers, and ultimately made the task of subduing them far easier. No similar advantage exists in the war against the Taliban.

Fourth, Gwynne’s account highlights the willingness of Anglo settlers to run considerable risks in the course of westward expansion. It is true that the frontier sometimes retreated in the face of Comanche successes, as settlers moved back to safer locations, but in the end they kept coming despite the obvious risks involved. This willingness to seek one’s fortune in a demanding and hostile environment reflected a number of deeper social and economic forces, but the fact remains that many Americans were willing to push forward even when doing so was understood to be perilous. By contrast, few people believe winning in Afghanistan is worth large sacrifices, which may be why we now rely on drone strikes and other tactics that minimize the risk to U.S. soldiers. I’m not questioning the courage of our soldiers, by the way, just suggesting that we are more sensitive to the human costs of the war than we were in conquering North America.

Fifth, technology proved to be a decisive factor against the Comanche. The development of the Colt revolver, the repeating rifle, and the buffalo gun eliminated the Comanche’s tactical advantages, and made their defeat inevitable. The destruction of the great buffalo herds deprived the Comanche of a key source of food, and eventually gave them little choice but to surrender. 

Optimists continue to hope that some combination of sophisticated counterinsurgency tactics, advanced weaponry, and other innovations may eventually turn the tide against the Taliban, and one cannot rule out that possibility entirely. But as noted above, the Comanche’s central problem was a declining population, and the steady shrinking of their home territory. By contrast, the Taliban still seem readily able to melt away into the surrounding countryside or the existing society, or to flee across the permeable border with Pakistan, and trying to eliminate these sanctuaries could trigger a wider war and cause further frictions with Pakistan. No such problem existed in the campaign against the Comanche.

Finally, it is a sobering fact to realize that despite its clear interest in victory and its clear advantages in numbers, wealth, and technology, it took the United States nearly four decades to finally defeat the Comanche. If you are seeking a similarly decisive victory in Central Asia, therefore, you’d better be prepared to stay there in strength for a long, long time. As readers of this blog know, I don’t think that this is worth it, given the modest stakes involved and the other tasks that we ought to be focusing on. And compared to our war effort in Central Asia, fighting the Comanche was actually pretty cheap.

Again, historical analogies ought to be used with caution, and no doubt there are other dissimilarities between these two struggles that might yield different conclusions. Whatever the implication for our current situation, Gwynne’s book is still an entertaining and beautifully written book, and well worth your time.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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