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Posted on Feb 6, 2012 in Carlo D'Este, War College

What would Churchill have done about Afghanistan?

By Carlo D'Este

Churchill as a correspondent for the Morning Post during the Boer War, 1899

As an observer of the world as it exists at the beginning of 2012, I sometimes reminisce on the subject of leaders and what a difference someone like Winston Churchill might make in dealing with these difficult times.

Churchill was a huge supporter of what we today call special operations. During World War II he seized upon and supported virtually any idea that would help win the war, no matter how offbeat or how much it went against conventional thinking. Some but not all of his more conservative generals, admirals and air marshals were often horrified by and resisted most of his ideas.


Churchill’s ability to think outside the box was on full display during World War I when he avidly supported the development of a “land ship” that became the first British tanks employed in the war. Having previously directed the construction of an armored car capable of crossing trenches, it was a simple extension of logic to develop a tracked armored vehicle.

The first makeshift demonstration of the new “land ship” took place on February 16, 1915. In one of the most remarkable sights ever seen in London’s Whitehall, a prototype was pulled around the historic Horse Guards Parade by a large white horse in what derisively was referred to by some as “Winston’s Folly.” As the horse towed a small, engineless tracked vehicle manufactured by the Diplock Transport Company, Churchill was briefed on the characteristics and capabilities of the engine-powered version that his planners intended to build.

Earlier, during the Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa, Churchill saw firsthand for himself the value of unconventional warfare. When Britain again found itself at war many years later, Churchill had not forgotten the chilling effectiveness of the Boer commandos and their stealth tactics that caused the British Army fits and untold casualties.

The Boer War also taught Churchill another lesson he never forgot but which is still one that has been repeated time and again by other leaders.

Reflecting on the Boer War and Britain’s mistakes, he wrote prophetically in 1930 a warning ignored by more than one modern statesman: “Let us learn our lessons. Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth or easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The Statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”

After 9/11 Churchill would have responded in Afghanistan much the same way as the United States did in 2001. However, it is equally likely he would not have sacrificed victory in Afghanistan to wage a second war in Iraq as President Bush did in 2003. In last month’s article I discussed Churchill’s wariness over Iraq. But he would also have been equally wary of Afghanistan, for this was a place where he had fought as a young officer and nearly been killed in action.

While he was posted in India to a cavalry regiment in the late 1890s, Churchill was bored by the endless routine of peacetime duty and determined to participate in a war. He had gone to Cuba in 1895 to observe the war between Spain and the Cuban rebels but had seen no action despite the fact that a stray bullet from an unseen rebel had whizzed close to his head on his twenty-first birthday.

Map of Afghanistan and PakistanIn 1897, Britain was engaged in one of its numerous tribal wars in the North-West Frontier of what today is the border area of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The war in the mountains of the North-West Frontier was fierce and without quarter and was fought between the Malakand Field Force and rebel Pathan tribesmen. There were deadly ambushes, battles fought with rifles at point blank range reminiscent (on a far smaller scale) of the American Civil War. It was common to hear bugle calls sounding “Charge!” Churchill attached himself first to a cavalry unit and then to a Sikh rifle company. He had come to find action, and action is what he got.

During an ambush several of his fellow officers were either killed or wounded and Churchill himself was nearly killed. Churchill confided to his grandmother that war was unforgiving and that the British were as cruel as their enemy. “I wonder if people in England have any idea of the warfare that is being carried on here . . . no quarter is ever asked or given. The tribesmen torture the wounded & mutilate the dead. The troops never spare a man who falls into their hands – whether he be wounded or not … The picture is a terrible one … I wish I could come to the conclusion that all this barbarity – all these losses – all this expenditure – had resulted in a permanent settlement being obtained, I do not think however that anything has been done – that will not have to be done again.”

One of his duties was to attend the funerals of those killed in action. In the first book he wrote, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, Churchill said:

The funerals of the British officers and men, killed the day before, took place at noon … but all the pomp of military obsequies was omitted, and there were no Union Jacks to cover the bodies, nor were volleys fired over the graves … To some the game of war brings prizes, honour, advancement, or experience; to some the consciousness of duty well discharged; and to others – spectators, perhaps – the pleasure of the play and the knowledge of men and things. But here were those who had drawn the evil numbers – who had lost their all, to gain only a soldier’s grave. Looking at these shapeless forms, coffined in a regulation blanket, the pride of race, the pomp of empire, the glory of war appeared but the faint and unsubstantial fabric of a dream; and I could not help realizing with Burke: “What shadows we are and what shadows we pursue.

The area in which Churchill fought at the end of the 19th Century is today the sanctuary of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Britain’s wars that attempted to control Afghanistan were both painful and ended in failure.

Later in life, far more experienced in politics and war, Churchill would have seen Britain’s colonial experience in the former Northwest-Frontier as a war that would have been difficult, if not impossible, to win. The British experience may not have lasted as long nor was it as disastrous as the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, but it nevertheless eventually failed, just as every attempt to subjugate this inhospitable place has failed throughout history.

What makes the problem in the current war even more difficult and deadly is Pakistan with whom the United States has a love-hate relationship and where the Taliban and, we suspect, Al Qaeda, are given protection by Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) organization.

Britain’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1841 was an unmitigated disaster (losing some 16,000 men) and was followed by another invasion in 1878 that had mixed results and eventually resulted in a political failure. Yet another war of short duration occurred in 1819.

Afghanistan’s long and checkered history of never having been conquered over a sustained period of time by a foreign power would most certainly have been at the forefront of any decision a modern day Churchill would make in the present war.

During World War II, Churchill had a somewhat checkered history of conducting or attempting to conduct diversionary operations of dubious value; however, there is no reason to suppose that he would not have recognized the futility of attaining a military victory in Afghanistan. Although Churchill would not have shied away from waging war in Afghanistan after 9/11, I believe he would have opted for an unconventional war using special forces.

Both Afghanistan and the Boer War were stark reminders of the savagery and unpredictability of war. Equally, I believe Churchill’s experience in Afghanistan would have led him to see the folly of a long-term, large-scale large military engagement in Afghanistan.

Click here to read Carlo D’Este’s assessment of how Churchill would have regarded invading Iraq in 2003.

Carlo D’Este is author of the acclaimed biographies Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life, Patton: A Genius for War and Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945.


  1. A thougtful analysis. Dealing with the Afghans is a no win situation, not even with spec ops on the ground. Anytime the folks whom you are trying to help kill your folks on the ground, the whole thing is a loser.

  2. Having been an advisor in 2006 to the Afghan Army in the Korangal Valley, I can say that SOF and small independant units linked to the individual villages are the answer, not “Big ARMY”. The key to those people is to work within their culture and help them with THIER goals while building empathy, trust, and comradery. Isolating ourselves in camps and throwing money at the problem while high handedly throwing around principles like “Democracy” and “Human Rights” to those people is a sure fire loser.

  3. Hello, Viper26
    Your observations are correct – as far as they go. SOF and small advisory units, and forget the massive bases, spreading money around, lots of contractors (usually retired military). But, the matter is more complicated than that. The development, the “nation building” must come from within, cannot be taught or imposed from the outside. My earlier point about the killing of our folks who are there to help is a sure indicator of the local attitudes towards outsiders, which is what we are.

    As for Afghanistan, given the intractable tribalism, and Islamic fundamentalism, we have no business there, except to try to put some soret of crimp in opium production, if we can even do that.

    PS: I write as an advisor to the South Vietnamese, and as a Foreign Area Officer (South Asia) who has studied the situation there for a long time.

  4. Most people consider that the only truly successful anti-terrorist, anti-whatever action in recent history was the British in Malaya in the 1950’s. And that has been used to justify small unit, deep penetration patrols, village defence communities etc etc.

    But what is missed and indeed the only point missing in this excellent evaluation is the one factor that distinguished it from later and less successful attempts. The British insisted and asserted total Political CONTROL over the communities they were protecting as a basic premise of support.

    In other words Afghanistan when the Taliban were driven out would have been faced with an ultimatum: NATO and its surrogates has complete final determination – and if not accepted we leave and just bomb things for the next 20 years! Now whether it would have been accepted (I think the Northern Alliance would have) is moot – the point is that such a dogmatic approach would have saved far, far too many NATO lives. And Churchill would certainly have insisted on it – he had little time for the posturings of the helped.

  5. 100% agreed.

    One of the biggest we as Western military folks make is that we expect the opponents (especially eastern ones) to follow the same rules we do. Not only is this utter nonsense, but when they don’t follow our rules we shackle ourselves by continueing to do so. While it may create less incidences of bad western media coverage, this creates the impression in the eastern opponent that we are weak and will ultimately be driven out. On top of that, we also do not follow our own rules completely. Western militaries tend to follow the axioms of Von Clausewitz on the surface but we shackle ourselves in that we forget that the ultimate desired outcome of war is to destroy ones opponents from resisting your political will. The British Malaya example is a perfect one of fighting eastern style but keeping western objectives in the foreground.