Afghanistan: The Last Frontier Post

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2nd Battalion 5th Gurkha Rifles at Ahnai Tangi in Waziristan, 14 January 1920 National Army Museum UK

by Mian Hameed 12 February 2020

In the case of Afghanistan, history has crystal clear lessons to learn from to help the invading powers craft an out of the box strategy as a testament of their nation’s wisdom. The United States did not do that, In fact, the U.S. applied more than two-hundred years old, a failed British colonial “punitive invasion” doctrine and expected different results.

There is a reason for the U.S. applying “punitive invasion” inputs. The U.S. foreign policy ambitions do not conform to sharing power and its use of preemptive measures to guard against the vital interest of the United States leaves the foreign policy toolbox with rigid choices. The use of force in the foreign policy toolbox suits the preemptive intent.

The preemptive strike usually supersedes diplomacy and robs the U.S. from evaluating her strategy in an analytical manner enfeebles her wisdom.  Obtaining results pinned to the United States vanity in her reckless use of force may not work in certain situations.

When it comes to the U.S. securing her objective, one may get a sense as one does by reading Michael Scheuer’s book, Imperial Hubris that the foreign policy plans are founded on “illusions on which policy makers have founded their foreign policies,” I do not see it that way when it comes to the U.S. achieving her global strategic objectives. I feel, since the U.S. foreign policy has imperialistic aspirations, they reach out to the known experts—the planners that serve the paradox norm.  In which case, what else can be applied from the U.S. foreign policy toolbox, but force?

The practitioner of policy management attempts to understand the policy makers’ use of ‘democratic process’ to influence policy, and they note, as Nancy Shulock has, the policy makers do not rely on societies “heavy investment in empirical studies.” They cannot because of the aforementioned reason and the result is quite telling.  The late Alice M. Rivlin, Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget and the founding Director of the Congressional Budget Office,” (source Wiki,) was invited at the 10th Anniversary of the Washington Public Affairs Center of the University of Southern California in 1984. The “Journal of Policy Analysis and Management” recorded her speaking engagement in an abstract. Rivlin added her own color to the paradox of the policy makers. Rivlin said the government rely on policy experts, but those areas “involving macroeconomic policy and aspects of foreign policy—have not yielded to solutions” in part from the inclination of many policy makers seeking “painless panaceas for complex problems” and suggested they should consider it their job not to escape difficult decisions.

Policy makers nicely escape difficult decisions within their system.  They have to comply with the ambitions of the U.S. foreign policy and in its support they lean on “professional credentials” of the “conformist subservience to those in power,” which are devices to “achieve narrowness in perspective,” making our intellectual climate the norm, is a thought taken from Professor Chomsky’s assessment of the system. Therefore, the policy makers inherit the license to sign off on the flawed principle of force to protect the U.S. interest. They know well of the lessons of history before us, but they mustn’t follow.

In spite those lessons, President Obama clarified the U.S. mission, to “Strengthen Afghanistan’s security forces and government,”which is a condition placed to help “Reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow Afghanistan’s government.” The British in the colonial days could not reverse the Afghan’s momentum with conditions they sought out to place.

The United States strategy in Afghanistan is not new to criticism. The flawed U.S. policy in Afghanistan brought further setback to the hopes of the policy makers when on December 09, 2019, Craig Whitlock in the Washington Post, revealed the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report. The report was based on four-hundred interviews that said the “American people have constantly been lied to,” indicating the war was lost in Afghanistan in pursuit of “achieving the unachievable.” The Washington Post did not identify the “unachievable,” for which the U.S. has spent approximately trillion dollars.

A failed strategy is the reason for not “achieving the unachievable.” In this essay, I identify the U.S application of the British Burn-and-Scuttle doctrine within COIN operations as a failed strategy of the past, was applied in Afghanistan to achieve mission. 

During the British colonial days, the Burn-and-Scuttle doctrine worked for the most part, but it failed in Waziristan, now in Pakistan.  Sandeman Policy that worked in an adjacent tribe a stone throw away was tried in Waziristan between 1888 and 1900, and it failed to bring Waziristan under the control of the British. It became evident that new policies were needed in lieu of the Sandeman Policy and the Burn-and-Scuttle doctrine for the frontier region, now incorporating Afghanistan and Pakistan, to bring them under the British central governance. To expect the use of old policies that failed to pan out today is a fallacy.

The British had to adapt to new policies. Maj. Gen. Hayaud Din HJ, MBE, MC, has recorded the British experience in a paper he wrote for the GHQ Pakistan Army in 1954, “The Frontier Problem.” Gen. Hayaud Din explained the British adapted policy, which was a combination of the “Forward” (the Burn-and-Scuttle policy) and the “Backward” Policy drawn from the British past experiences. The combination policy was in place till 1947 in the frontier region.

With the aforementioned preamble, it would be proper to address the composition of the Burn-and-Scuttle doctrine. In the Burn-and-Scuttle doctrine, the disorderly tribesmen are first provoked in the first phase with “punitive invasion of the country of the offending tribes.” In in the second phase they are administered a severe defeat followed by humanitarian gesture in the third phase to “to win over the support of the population.” In modern warfare, the Burn-and-Scuttle doctrine is used within the COIN operation model. Many of the COIN inputs (the “bad factors” per se are the punitive inputs of the doctrine.)

The effectiveness of the Burn-and-Scuttle doctrine depends on the effectiveness of methods—one being the patrols deployed to bring about the desired conditions. That is to have the population come under the central government. Regarding the effectiveness of these patrols, Lt. Gen. Bolger finds the iterative patrols as “deadly” and “pointless.” In a Book review of Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger, Why We Lost, A General’s Account of Two Wars, Carter Malkasian gives the full text of Lt. Gen. Bolger’s account of patrols, “The thoughtful, deliberate U.S. president [Obama] thoughtfully and deliberately condemned Americans in uniform to years of deadly, pointless counterinsurgency patrols.”

These provocations and patrols are pointless because of Pashtun’s unique philosophy that comes from their [Gharat], extreme intransigent behavior and the ferocious trait of un-forgiveness once a red line is crossed. We get a glimpse of such traits in the memoirs of Winston Churchill when he administered the Burn-and Scuttle punitive expedition in Malakund (now in Pakistan.) Goudsblom, Jones, and Mennell wrote about Malakund’s punitive expedition in their book, The Course of Human History: Economic Growth, Social Process, and Civilization,

“…With fire and sword in vengeance, we preceded systematically village by village and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, and burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation.”

As suggested, there is no lesson for the U.S. policy makers from the aforementioned episode in Malakund, which was “philosophical” to both Churchill and the Pashtuns, and it left a cold irony to learn from. Churchill thought bloodshed was necessary and for the philosophic mind of a Pashtun, he wrote, “Only an unphilosophic mind will hold it legitimate to take a man’s life, but illegitimate to destroy his property.” Destruction of property was a perfect “punitive invasion” to provoke the tribesmen and administer a severe defeat. In vengeance they rose again and again, and in their defiance I once read, Churchill witnessed Pashtun corpses six feet high near the barricade.

The use of force is used in phase one and two of the Burn-and-Scuttle; the actual war in phase one, for Lt. Gen Bolger saw “the brilliant opening rounds as models of lightning war,” but later the perfect insurgents turned into shock-troops and earned the Host Nation (HN)’s government negative score on the COIN scorecard. In a RAND study, COIN operations scored a “loss” for the government.

In Gen. Bolger’s perspective, the remaining Burn-and-Scuttle phases are not winnable. I have inferred it from Bolger’s assessment, “that the United States should have gotten out of Iraq and Afghanistan as quickly as possible, and never started down the road of nation-building and counterinsurgency [COIN].”

The U.S. strategy was pinned more so on the success of COIN operations over 30-40 years for insurgency to die out. There might be strengths in the RAND COIN model to work someplace else, but if the proponents of this method had paid heed to a critical behavioral aspect of the Pashtun Afghans; by applying this one “bad factor” or practice, i.e., “The COIN force used both collective punishment and escalating repression;” it was enough to collapse the whole structure of COIN theory by rendering a score in the range of negative (-15, accounting for all the bad factors in the RAND study.) Pashtuns may live in this world, but are from the outer world. No one gets this.

The COIN operations failed because Pashtun’s are the perfect insurgents. Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason wrote in their paper “No Sign Until the Burst of Fire;” in 1809, an elderly Pashtun tribesman told Mountstuart Elphinstone, a British official visiting Afghanistan, “We are content with discord, we are content with alarms, we are content with blood . . . we will never be content with a master.” Yet, the strength in this message cannot overcome the paradox norm that supports the U.S. foreign policy ambitions.

While RAND was funded to perform this insurgency study in which the United States scored +3.5, lower than +5 needed for the U.S. to win with confidence, it did not phase the three U.S. presidencies. They were marred by optimism or they had no choice, they used the same inputs “with fire and sword in vengeance” in support of their axioms that stood for their Afghanistan policy.

The axioms sounded different, but in characteristics were the same. These are the contemporary names or axioms for the Burn-and-Scuttle doctrine. The “nation building,”  “policy of patience,” and “a conditioned based diplomacy.”

The Bush and the Obama policy pledged to rebuild Afghanistan in hopes for conditions to prevail to defeat Taliban. The Newt Gingrich’s policy of patience was rebranded on August 22, 2017 by the former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as the “Condition based diplomacy in Afghanistan” and was sold to the American people as a new policy. This rebranding was in alignment with Trump’s flexibility on changing his mind on the war in Afghanistan. Subsequently, Mr. Tillerson got hold of the same old message of the Obama’s administration and asked Pakistan to “Do More.”

Now that the Burn-and-Scuttle doctrine has played out without bringing those conditions, the U.S. has broadened her AF-Pak inputs. The new input starts to make sense when we learnt from John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who was quoted in the Washington Post, “When Secretary [Jim] Mattis said this would be a South Asia strategy, that tells you a lot.”

Since it is a South Asia strategy, from Mattis’ perspective it would ring true to stitch Afghanistan and Pakistan back into the South Asia region, along with India and apply broader inputs. The new scope essentially means for India to “Do More.” Hence, the origin and intent of AF-Pak becomes obvious from President Obama’s statement, “Let’s start where our interests take us, which is really Pakistan, not Afghanistan…In fact, you can tell the Pakistani leaders, if you want to, that we-re not leaving” and Bob Woodward in his book Obama’s War, completes Obama’s sentence by suffixing it with ‘not leaving Afghanistan.’

Mian F. Hammed is a computer engineer by profession and is a student of the American foreign policy is South Asia. The views contained are taken from the manuscript of Mr. Hameed’s upcoming book on South Asia, in which he discusses the U.S. policy in Afghanistan and presents a narrative to understand the new dynamics in India, China and Pakistan.

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