churchill and the taliban -- 8/18/14

Today's selection -- from Chuchill's First War by Con Coughlin. The irresistible juxtaposition of young Winston Churchill and the Taliban:

"When the young Winston Churchill arrived at the North-West Frontier of the Indian Empire in the early autumn of 1897 he very quickly formed a low opinion of the Taliban. In Churchill's day, the great-great-grandfathers of those who created the modern Taliban movement were known as the Talib-ul-ilms, a motley collection of indigent holy men who lived off the goodwill and hospitality of the local Afghan tribes and preached insurrection against the British Empire. To Churchill's mind, these Talibs were, together with other local priestly figures such as the mullahs and fakirs, primarily responsible for the wretched condition of the local Afghan tribesfolk and their violent indisposition to foreign rule. In Churchill's view they were 'as degraded a race as any on the fringe of humanity: fierce as a tiger, but less cleanly; as dangerous, not so graceful'. He blamed the Talibs for the Afghans' lamentable absence of civilized development, keeping them in the 'grip of miserable superstition'. Churchill was particularly repelled by the Talibs' loose moral conduct. They lived free at the expense of the people and, 'more than this, they enjoy a sort of 'droit de seigneur', and no man's wife or daughter is safe from them. Of some of their manners and morals it is impossible to write.'

Winston Churchill, aged 19, as a second lieutenant in the Fourth Queen's Own Hussars

"Churchill saw the conflict in even more apocalyptic terms when he published his first newspaper article on his experiences as a young British soldier locked in mortal combat with these fearsome Afghan tribesmen. 'Civilisation is face to face with militant Mohammedism,' he wrote. He entertained no doubts as to the conflict's ultimate outcome for, given the 'moral and material forces arrayed against each other, there need be no fear of the ultimate issue'. Even so, he lamented the warlike nature of the tribes who inhabited the mountainous no-man's land between Afghanistan to the north and British India to the south. Many tribes, the majority of them Pashtuns, lived in the wild but wealthy valleys that led from Afghanistan to India, but they were all of similar character and condition. Except when they were sowing or harvesting their crops, Churchill observed that a continual state of feud and strife prevailed throughout the land. 'Tribe wars with tribe. The people of one valley fight with those of the next. To the quarrels of communities are added the combats of individuals. Khan assails khan, each supported by his retainers. Every tribesman has a blood feud against his neighbour. Every man's hand is against the other, and all are against the stranger.' More than a hundred years later, when a new generation of Western soldiers deployed to Central Asia, they found that little had changed in the way the tribes of the Afghan frontier conducted themselves.

"In criticizing some of the Talibs' more depraved practices, Churchill conveniently overlooked the conduct of his own social milieu back in London, which could hardly be described as a cradle of virtuous rectitude. The loose moral values observed in certain upper-class circles of late-Victorian England were most famously embodied by the louche conduct of the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. A close family friend of the Churchills, 'Bertie' entertained a string of mistresses; one of his conquests was said to be Winston's mother Jennie, the wife of the Tory peer Lord Randolph Churchill and a notable society beauty. The American-born Jennie is credited with having had more than two hundred lovers of her own and was susceptible to the charms of young Guards officers who were barely older than Winston."


Con Coughlin


Churchill's First War: Young Winston at War with the Afghans


Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2013 by Con Coughlin


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