U.S. Forces Abroad Should Copy British Colonialism

After the Taliban, Back to Normal: Click on image to view gallery James Reeve

It’s always interesting and a little frustrating to talk to the Brits about the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Having established long and tragic histories in both countries during the 19th and 20th centuries, they took the stunning decision to follow the United States back into both those quagmires in the 21st, and now they’re stuck.

Yet they are full of pith-helmet wisdom from their old colonial days. Thus one rather senior diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous, told me recently that in Afghanistan, “What you [the Americans] need is a civilian viceroy there.” Another equally influential British civil servant started a discussion of Afghanistan’s potential mineral wealth by saying, “If you were a 19th-century empire builder, you would identify the areas with the most resources and put a massive blanket of security there.”

Well, we Americans are not 19th-century empire builders, or at least we never intended to be. But as we struggle to extricate ourselves from the ill-conceived imperium left over by the George W. Bush administration, we might as well admit there are some important lessons to learn from the Britain’s unhappy experiences. No, we don’t need a viceroy. No, we don’t need rapacious industrialists scarfing up mining concessions. Who we do need is Colonel Creighton.

A creation of Rudyard Kipling, Creighton is that most shadowy and unforgettable figure in the novel Kim: an ethnographer-scholar-soldier-spy who has mastered the Great Game in 19th-century India and, indeed, in the parts of Afghanistan that mattered most to the British empire. He epitomized what was best, and perhaps what was worst, but certainly what was most needed by the British administrators of India, and nobody ever described him better than that great critic of colonialism and Orientalism, Edward Said.

“Creighton sees the world from a totally systemic viewpoint,” Said wrote in his 1987 introduction to the Penguin edition of Kim. “Everything about India interests him, because everything is significant for his rule.” Creighton was in the tradition of the great, sometimes infamous, agents of empire marked by “their sense of freedom, their willingness to improvise, their preference for the formal over the informal.”

Said writes that Creighton’s skill with languages and his deep knowledge of the society “embodies the notion that you cannot govern India unless you know India, and to know India means understanding the way it operates.” Perhaps most telling, Creighton’s approach is almost entirely free of dogma—or, indeed, what many would consider morality. “To the government personality,” writes Said, “the main prerogative is not whether something is good or evil, but whether it works or not, whether it helps or hinders one in ruling what is in effect an alien entity.”

“There is no sin so great as ignorance,” Creighton tells young Kim O’Hara, the polyglot street urchin at the center of the story whom Creighton recruits into the Great Game of espionage against Russia and other enemies of the Raj.

One suspects that the former Afghan commander Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and his aides saw themselves in the Creighton mold, and, you know, maybe they had their moments when they weren’t boozing it up at an Irish pub in Paris (which says something about their lack of cultural curiosity) and spilling their guts to Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone.

To be fair, throughout the U.S. military, at the State Department, and no doubt in other government agencies, there are Creightons-in-waiting who work very hard to understand the languages and cultures of countries where American troops might be engaged. Every so often we hear about a new project in one corner of the government or another that promises actually to understand in depth the people the U.S. government says it wants to help. One recent example is the Office for the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, set up to try to right some of the administrative wrongs that were obvious soon after the Iraq invasion.

From the top down, it’s acknowledged today that this sort of thing is important. Dealing with “fractured or failing states is, in many ways, the main security challenge of our time,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates writes in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs. But, whether individually or collectively, these efforts rarely get the funding they need or, for that matter, the leadership. And they often fall prey to bureaucratic infighting. “The United States’s interagency tool kit,” write Gates, “is still a hodgepodge of jury-rigged arrangements constrained by a dated and complex patchwork of authorities, persistent shortfalls in resources, and unwieldy processes.”

Thus, for instance, the top U.S. military intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, published a paper at the beginning of this year stating flatly that “the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy” in Afghanistan. In fact, when intel did supply the kind of social and political information that should be integral to the effort, many commanders simply weren’t interested. They just wanted to know who they should shoot. Changing that mindset is going to take a long time—if indeed it can be changed at all.

The truth is that most soldiers did not join the military to become ethnographers and scholars, and most diplomats did not join the State Department to get combat pay. What’s needed is a whole new institution, what the Brits would have called the colonial service but which the Americans might like to think of as a Peace Corps with police powers—or, looking at it another way, a gendarmerie with linguists and scholars.

In those future conflicts and challenges Gates foresees, the business of waging outright war would be left to the conventional military because that’s what it’s good at, as the early days in Afghanistan and Iraq made abundantly clear. But when the shock and awe ends, you’ve got to be able to establish law and order quickly, which the Americans signally failed to do. Soldiers aren’t cops, and cops weren’t available. You’ve got to prove to the populations that there are immediate benefits to your presence by providing, very quickly, electricity, water, and communications. (This was another area of obvious and prolonged failure on the part of the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan.) In other situations, the same Stabilization and Development Service, or whatever it’s called, could be deployed in the wake of natural disasters, or to help support struggling governments in those “failed or failing states” that Gates writes about. Instead of training armies, meanwhile, they could focus on training effective police forces, which are more important in the daily lives of most people, and also more effective than soldiers when it comes to gathering useful intelligence about potential insurgencies.

But even if this is an idea whose time has come—and variations on this theme are being bandied about at NATO headquarters in Brussels as well as in Washington—the American government doesn’t really have the will to create such a service. In which case, it’s best to consider another of Kipling’s works. His infamous poem “The White Man’s Burden” was dedicated to the United States after it won the dubious prize of the Philippines in the Spanish-American War. Its message is simple and cautionary: the Yanks can wage their “savage wars of peace,” they can build roads and harbors—“go make them with your living, and mark them with your dead”—but they’ll find they get no thanks for any of it.

The white man’s burden, in Kipling’s view, was to stay the course, but, then, his Creightons made that possible, and then only for a while. The Raj, as you’ll recall, ended rather badly in 1947. If the United States is not willing to educate, recruit, fund and organize the kind of operation the colonial service ran, perhaps it should read Kipling’s warning another way: don’t stay the course—don’t go there to begin with.

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