Lessons For Afghanistan From Reconstruction And The Raj

The current administration is making a complete review of our strategy and position and prospects in Afghanistan to great public notice.  It usually is best to consider such matters much more privately than is being done with this.  The great decisions of WWII between Churchill and Roosevelt were made behind closed doors with their most trusted advisors and after policy was determined an announcement was made.  The present process seems almost like a political campaign and the president using polling and marketing tools to determine which course of action is most politically astute.  There has been several media reports about the people involved in the process studying the mistakes and circumstances from the past to aid in determining the best future course for the US in Afghanistan.  They mostly rely on our history of Viet Nam.  I never think it is a bad idea to look at historical events to make future plans and learn from those prior experiences; however, I wish they would also take a gander at the history of the US during Reconstruction and the British Raj to evaluate our future actions in that region.

There is a very substantial body of work regarding the Reconstruction era after the war in the South.  There are certainly some parallels to Afghanistan.  The basic infrastructure of the land was in ruins.  The railroads, ports,  manufacturing, telegraphs, and the agricultural business were all decimated.  There was no positive outlook for the region economically for years to come.  That accounts for the many hundreds of thousands that left the South after the war and headed West to start over.  They really had nothing left back home and anything worth having was taken by the Carpetbaggers and the Scallewags.  Lastly, the South was under occupation by a “foreign” invader and there was no natural sympathy or empathy between them and the locals–indeed there was great mistrust and overt hostility.  Of course Reconstruction didn’t mean what you might think; it was not designed to restore economic vitality and prosperity to the South but was designed to punish and to skim off the top any added value or profits that the region could produce.  There was some local insurgency from time to time and the corruption between the Scallewags and the military/political authorities poisoned the relationships between the North and South for years.  Reconstruction lasted over 10 years.  Indeed it was the potential easing of some the most onerous of the Reconstruction actions that handed Hayes his victory as President in 1876.  The Republicans offered some amelioration in exchange for Democratic votes to assure his election after it was thrown into Congress because of alleged fraud and no winner in the Electoral College.  We haven’t been in Afghanistan that long yet.  

The British ruled India, Pakistan, Bangladeesh and Afghanistan for more than 150 years with only a handful of Englishmen on sight as administrators and few regular British troops.  The British in many ways followed the old lessons of the Roman by granting great power to the local administrator who had both civil and military control over a region.  District managers were the local authority and their word was usually final.  The British didn’t fight against the tribal system but subsumed it.  They would make alliances with the local leader.  They would bring a school and hospital to the area.  The local leader and his cohorts did well and the people had stability and at least the tribal leader couldn’t go too far in corruption or abuse or else the British would respond. The British always went after the leader not the ordinay folks.  The leader if he was cooperative would have his sons educated by the British, he would prosper and his people were happier than they had been.  If things went badly then the British would go straight after the leader, not the ordinary soldier.  The leader didn’t want to give up his good life and live like Bin Laden.  There was always someone ready to assume the role of local leader and reap the rewards of cooperation with the British.

The British didn’t attempt to keep soldiers stationed throughout this vast region but trained and relied upon local military/p0lice forces lead by British officers for most of their security measures and needs.  When trouble would flare up they would send more forces as needed to deal with the recalcintrant or leader gone rebel on them.  It actually happened remarkably little over that span of time.  There was always some little episode going on somewhere but it was a huge territory inhabited by millions of people.

The US did reconcile after the war and Reconstruction but it took over a generation.  It was not a quick exit because memories were long (for some they still are) and the destruction was great.   But there was a shared Judeo-Christian ethic and shared loved of Federalism and democratic government and ulitmately that trumped the memories.  The British and the Indians never became great buddies but each in their own way did profit from the experience.  Britain advanced economically some from the venture and the Indians were certainly and clearly better off in 1948 than they ever would have been without the intervention of the British.  The British brought them a concept of law and stability and that corruption was not acceptable–basic British fair play.   If Britain had only traded in the coastal ports with the Indians and left the interior to the tribal leaders India would have still been in a very backward state.  Communications, transportation, schools and hospitals were the result of the British stay.

Please read your own histories of both these eras.  There are many parallels and much to remember and copy or not copy.  The British didn’t try to change the culture of the region and the North didn’t give a hoot about the Southern culture or were outright hostile to it.   Both occupations had their plusses.

“To admit poverty is no disgrace to a man, but to make no effort to escape it is indeed disgraceful”  Thucydides   www.olcranky.wordpress.com

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Filed under Culture, Economics, Foreign Affairs, history, military history, Politics, War

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