The Best Defense

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

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.

Northampton Museum/flickr

The Best Defense

‘Salvatore Guiliano’: ‘The Godfather’ as done by the maker of ‘Battle of Algiers’

On a whim I watched Salvatore Guiliano the other night. I wish I had seen it before visiting Sicily. This is a terrific film, especially if you know the island, because it rings true.

It begins in the late 1940s, which is actually when Michael Corleone would have been there. But it portrays a far more complex world, where the Mafia is siding with the carbienere against the Communists and the aristocratic independents, and so on.

It struck me as what the Sicily scenes in The Godfather would be like if they had been done by the director of The Battle of Algiers. Like the latter, a lot of the scenes in this movie were filmed using the actual places where they occurred, with some of the original participants. When I went to GoogleEarth to locate the massacre at Portella di Ginestra, it offered a photo of the rocky hill in the background -- which I recognized from the film. 

This isn't a terrorism film. It is more one about how most insurgencies end, and I am not sure there is a category for that. The only movies I can think of that fit that are this one and "The Wind that Shakes the Barley."

Note: Michael Cimino apparently made a movie called The Sicilian which is based on Mario Godfather Puzo's novel about Guiliano. Haven't seen it.