The Best Defense

Waziristan: Insights into the nature of the formidable Pashtun foe

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 11, 2010.

The British learned early on the price of underestimating their foe, who rarely allowed a tactical error to go unpunished, writes Andrew Roe in his very useful book, Waging War in Waziristan.

In one major triumph, in 1901, tribesman took over a British outpost. "The success of this attack," Roe states, "was in part due to a number of tribesmen disguised as shepherds who for a number of weeks prior to the attack observed carefully the habits and weaknesses of the garrison."

Think that IEDs are new somehow? In April 1938, "50 home-made bombs were laid on roads and railway lines," and even on military parade grounds.   

Another interesting fact: Historically, Waziri villages have been located near cave complexes, in part because in winter the caves are warmer than their houses. (Tom: I remember being in a cave in Germany Valley, West Virginia, where American Indian tribes had done the same -- 55 degrees inside with a fire for light and warmth sure beat zero and windy in the mountains outside.) I also didn't know that the area was far more forested in the 19th century, but that a lot of trees were cut down, leading to erosion, loss of topsoil, and a drier climate -- not unlike today's Haiti. 

I was also intrigued by an observation Roe mined about the personality difference between the two major tribes in Waziristan: "The Wazirs had been compared to a leopard, a loner, cunning and dangerous; the Mahsud to a wolf, most to be feared in a pack, with a pack mentality, single-mindedness, and persistence." (One of the benefits of this book is that he quotes memoirs and studies liberally.)

The best way to reach out to the tribes was through medical aid, especially to reach the fencesitters in the middle. When one tribe requested a female doctor, they remarked that she didn't need to bring instruments or drugs, as they still had the ones they had stolen in 1919. 

But generally I found the book more illuminating about the British than about the tribes. 

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

The Best Defense

Waziristan: It can even tell us a bit about our current COIN debate

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 15, 2010.

To my surprise, Roe in his book on Waziristan notes that the British in the 1930s had their own debate, similar to the one inside our military now, about whether they were too focused on small wars. As one officer wrote in 1932,

Surely no one wants an army trained on North-West Frontier lines only... Any tendency towards specialization for mountain warfare operations on the North-West Frontier must be resisted. These are a very small part of the Army's possible commitments, and specialization means a waste of part of our already very small army.

That officer was right, of course. On the other hand, in support of those who say that counterinsurgency is more difficult than conventional warfare is the testimony of an officer who fought in Gallipoli and France during World War I and then against Pashtuns in Waziristan: "I soon came to the conclusion that commanding a Company in Waziristan was far more difficult than commanding a Battalion in France."

As for the need for adaptive forces, emphasized so often lately, how pertinent is this observation? "How good or bad these regiments were on the frontier depended on one thing, and that was how ready they were to learn."

Roe also concludes that the best policy is a hands-off one, with military forces held in reserve, and the tribes essentially left to themselves, as long as they don't cause trouble. "The majority of tribal territory was left largely untouched."

Northampton Museum/flickr