Afghanistan Reader: Lamentably Deficient, But Splendid Shots

The following comes from a 1905 essay by Colonel Sir Thomas Holdridge, a British soldier and geographer, in a book titled, “The Empire and the Century: A series of essays on imperial problems and possibilities by various writers. With an introducton by Charles Sydney Goldman, author of ‘With General French and the Cavalry in South African,’ and a poem by Rudyard Kipling, entitled ‘The Heritage.’ With seven maps.”

Holdrich’s subject: What would happen if the Russians threatened the northwestern frontier of British India (in modern terms, the northwestern border of Pakistan) by way of an attack through Afghanistan. I haven’t found details of his earlier career, but he writes as if he’d served in Afghanistan during earlier British adventures. Here’s a little of what he has to say about the Afghans of his age:

“… It is a matter of history that patriotism, unity of sentiment, and devotion to duty, have hitherto been lamentably deficient in Afghan armies; but if the morale is bad, the material is excellent; and nothing but the utter ineptitude of Afghan leaders prevents the Amir from possessing as efficient a fighting force as any in the East. We do not know, indeed, at the present time what the result of twenty-five years of careful nursing may be. The impulse of religious belief and inborn love of independence may have easily developed something akin to real patriotism. I worked with Afghan troops on the borders of Kafristan in 1895, and I could mark a distinct change, both in sentiment and discipline, which had been effected by fifteen years of peace amongst men of the same clan as those who had formed my escort in Herat in 1856, or who had acted as friendly guides in 1879. The metier of the Afghan is that of the irregular marksman. He is often a splendid shot, and no European troops could ever hope to compete with Ghilzai or Hazara mountaineers amongst their own hills in a defensive campaign. Ten thousand Afridis [Pashtuns], it may be remembered (I had special opportunities for estimating their numbers), kept 40,000 British and Indian troops well employed in Tirah, and there is little to choose between the Afridi and his Afghan neighbour. The Amir of Afghanistan could certainly put 200,000 irregular riflemen (armed with modern weapons) into the field if he chose to do so, and he has at his command a very efficient force of mounted artillery to support them. In short, it would be a serious mistake for us to imagine that we could make our way to Kabul now with the same comparative ease that we did in 1878. …”

“… At present Afghan troops, however excellent the raw material may be, want discipline, drill, and leading; and that they can only obtain by the importation of instructors from outside Afghanistan. These they will probably get, either in the form of British or Japanese officers, but time will be required for such outsiders to get on good terms with their men, and for the men to understand their instructors. The young British officer is unmatched in the world for his capacity to turn raw material into good fighting stuff; and here probably is foreshadowed the chief difficulty in the solution of the frontier problem. Where are officers to come from ? The supply which a few years ago seemed to be inexhaustible already shows signs of failing. The spirit of unrest and discontent which now pervades the service in India is such as has never before been known, and it is ominous of future difficulty in filling up vacancies which will rapidly occur. Indeed, there are notwanting symptoms on all sides that it is the ranks of the officers, rather than those of the men, that are likely to fail in numbers.”

One Reply to “Afghanistan Reader: Lamentably Deficient, But Splendid Shots”

  1. “The supply which a few years ago seemed to be inexhaustible already shows signs of failing….” Very interesting. Now, they’re drinking chai all day and smoking weed (among other things) all night.

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