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

By Shepherd, William John | The Historian, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

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


Shepherd, William John, The Historian


Churchill's First War: Young Winston at War with the Afghans. By Con Coughlin. (New York, NY: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2014. Pp. xxi, 298. $26.99.)

Affiliated with London's Daily Telegraph, the author of this book is a veteran reporter and author on Middle East conflicts, especially notable for his critically acclaimed biography of Saddam Hussein. In this study, he investigates the historical context to the embattled region studied in Churchill's first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force [1898], as well as the twenty-first century's most enduring war. With one exception, the chapter epigrams are taken from Churchill's contemporary letters and his books Malakand and My Early Life [1930]. The exception is a provocative Pashtun tribe proverb: "You should always kill an Englishman. First comes one as a hunter, then two to make a map, then an army to take the country. So, better to kill the first one."

Chronic instability in Afghanistan prompted British authorities in India to develop a "forward policy" to forestall Russian influence. This resulted in two costly Afghan wars and a Pashtun tribal revolt in 1897 on the British side of the border, which was focused on Malakand in what is now Pakistan. Thereafter, the British found relative security via negotiated autonomy agreements with the Pashtuns, which independent Pakistan continued after 1947 until the 9/11 attacks. Interest has since focused on Churchill's time in the same valleys and villages now subject to American drone missile strikes. Churchill viewed Muslim holy leaders as a threat, stating that civilization was in conflict with militant Islam, but he also pragmatically argued that military intervention in Afghanistan is a "poisoned chalice" and financially "ruinous" (38, xxi). …

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