Churchill’s First War: Young Winston and the Fight Against the Taliban, by Con Coughlin
“Morally it is wicked . . . politically it is a blunder”: does Churchill’s verdict on making war in Afghanistan still hold true?
Churchill's First War: Young Winston and the Fight Against the Taliban
In the course of his long career as a defence journalist, Coughlin has covered many modern conflicts, including the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. During his research for this book, he travelled to both Afghanistan and Pakistan to visit some of the locations associated with Churchill’s story. He has, therefore, an invaluable insight into the current conflict and he makes useful comparisons between the modern situation and late 19th-century “problems on the frontier.” Such comparisons occur too frequently in some places in this book and, on occasion, they could be qualified to some degree. In recent years, much effort has been spent in trying to gain a greater understanding of the means, methods and purpose of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is perhaps too simplistic to refer to the adversaries faced by Churchill as the “great-grandfathers of the Taliban”. Nevertheless, a disturbing pattern of historical analogies develops in the course of this treatment of Churchill’s early military career. For example, Coughlin points out that some of the areas in which Churchill campaigned in 1897 have recently been the targets of US drone attacks.
Churchill later summed up British policy in the area, stating: “Financially it is ruinous. Morally it is wicked. Militarily it is an open question and politically it is a blunder.” It could be argued that this remains largely true. For anyone with even the most casual interest in military history, the term “North-West Frontier” holds ominous resonances. In the modern conflict, we can see patterns of continuity that refer back to earlier conflicts in this region.
Ultimately, Coughlin has shown that Churchill’s memoir of the campaign, The Story of the Malakand Field Force: An Episode of Frontier War (1898), is yet another of the many books that western leaders should have read before becoming embroiled in this latest adventure on the North-West Frontier.
David Murphy lectures at the Centre for Military History and Strategic Studies in the department of history at NUI Maynooth