An Elusive and Mobile Enemy

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

An army exists to advance by force — or the threat of force — civil policies that cannot be advanced by civil methods, John Masters reminds us:

The Government of India’s Frontier policy was always the same — the quickest possible re-establishment of tranquility. The army’s immediate task to achieve this invariable object depended on the circumstances of the particular trouble. It might be to break up the big armed bands, or lashkars, with which a tribe was defying the government. It might be to force the tribe to recall a lashkar of theirs that had gone over the border and was raising hell in Afghanistan. It might be to build a road, an airfield, or a new Scout fort in a hitherto inaccessible area, and so destroy the usefulness of that section as a refuge for outlaws and trouble makers. It might be to capture an important ringleader and arrest his personal followers — though the army was singularly unsuited to such a role.


The core of our problem in the army was to force battle on an elusive and mobile enemy. The enemy, while he retained any common sense, tried to avoid battle and instead fight us with pinpricking hit-and-run tactics. We had light automatic guns, howitzers, armoured cars, tanks, and aircraft. The Pathan had none of these things, yet when he tried to even up the disparity, and cumbered himself with stolen automatics or home-made artillery, he suffered heavily, because they constituted impediments, things that were difficult to move but were worth defending. And when he stayed and defended something, whether a gun or a village, we trapped him and pulverized him. When he flitted and sniped, rushed and ran away, we felt as if we were using a crowbar to swat wasps.

Even so, the scales were not so heavily loaded as it appears, for we fought with one hand behind our backs. We were usually denied a soldier’s greatest weapon — aggression, the first shot. Again the government remembered its object, the re-establishment of tranquillity, and reminded us that there would be no tranquillity among these proud and fierce people, however quickly we forced them into mere surrender, if we fought our campaign on unnecessarily ruthless lines. In ‘normal’ warfare armies bomb cities and destroy the enemy food supply without compunction, but we had to be careful not to harm women and children if we could help it, and we could not shoot on suspicion, only on certainty, and we could not damage fruit trees or destroy water channels.

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