Will Happen In Afghanistan?"
By Steve Sailer
UPI National Correspondent
9/26/2001 14:07 PM
LOS ANGELES, Sep. 26 (UPI) -- No
great adventure movie, not even "Lawrence of Arabia,"
offers more insights into the upcoming war in Afghanistan than
John Huston's 1975 film "The Man Who Would Be King."
Starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine, the film is based on
Rudyard Kipling's 1888 short story set in Afghanistan.
the last two weeks, a couple of contradictory assertions about
Afghanistan have become commonplace in the press.
first is that outsiders inevitably face horrifying defeat in
second is that the U.S. must not only kill Osama bin Laden and
batter the Taliban regime, but should then take up the Imperial
Burden in Afghanistan. The U.S., they say, should conquer and
pacify the entire Texas-sized country, build a unified nation out
of its warring ethnic groups, reconstruct its economy, liberate
its women, calm its furious holy men, and make it a middle class
Man Who Would Be King" reminds us that neither despair nor
utopianism is a realistic attitude for anyone contemplating a
military incursion into that harsh land.
may seem strange to look to a Victorian costume drama for
perspectives on a 21st Century war, but few movies have benefited
more from the energetic inspiration of a young genius and the
skeptical wisdom of an old artist who'd been everywhere and done
Kipling, the youngest man to win the Nobel Prize for Literature
(at age 41 in 1907), was only 22 when he wrote "The Man Who
Would Be King." Yet, he'd already been shot at by a Pathan
tribesman in the famous Khyber Pass that links Pakistan and
Afghanistan. Although out of fashion for decades, the Bombay-born
Kipling is now the literary immortal of the hour as America
contemplates the same question that so long plagued the British
Empire: What to do about Afghanistan?
was long despised for his imperialism. Yet, at a time when many,
including more than a few anti-Taliban Afghans, want the U.S. to
occupy and take responsibility for Afghanistan, Kipling's sharp
eye for the rewards and dangers of imperialism is suddenly
relevant once again. In
the words of critic John Derbyshire, Kipling "was an
imperialist utterly without illusions about what being an
imperialist actually means. Which, in some ways, means that he was
not really an imperialist at all."
it took 69-year-old John Huston to richly flesh out Kipling's tall
tale. Huston gave the story a classic arc. From a slow beginning,
it ascends to a peak of cynical yet rousing adventure comedy, then
descends into inexorable tragedy.
Further, Huston added an astute post-Vietnam moral. While
Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" (the inspiration for
"Apocalypse Now") is the allegory of a good man
corrupted by absolute power over natives, Huston's movie is about
a rascal ennobled - yet ultimately doomed - by his growing sense
of kingly responsibility for the welfare of the natives that he
had come to plunder
film Kipling's story was the obsession of the erratic second half
of Huston's long Hollywood
career. Having previously written and directed such Humphrey
Bogart classics as "The Maltese Falcon," "The
Treasure of the Sierra Madre," and "The African
Queen," Huston cast Bogey and Clark Gable as Kipling's
anti-heroes, Peachey Carnehan and Daniel Dravot.
charismatic rogues -- former British Army sergeants turned
gunrunners and conmen -- intend to make themselves "Kings of
Kafiristan." They plan to become the first Europeans since
Alexander the Great to penetrate this isolated region in
Northeastern Afghanistan that was the last refuge of Afghanistan's primordial pagan culture. Then, they'll "loot it six ways
Bogart died in 1957 and Gable in 1960. Over the years, Huston had
three screenwriters pen adaptations. Finally, Huston and his
long-time secretary Gladys Hill collaborated on a brilliant fourth
version. In Huston's proud but accurate words, "We did a lot
of invention, and it turned out to be good invention, supportive
of the tone, feeling and spirit underlying the original short
story… I like this script as well as any I ever wrote."
the early 1970's, Paul Newman and Robert Redford were on-board.
Then, Newman, always one of Hollywood's least selfish stars, told Huston his script deserved British
actors. He exclaimed, "John, get Connery and Caine!"
Connery and Michael Caine went on to make what might be a more
delightful buddy movie than even Newman and Redford's "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Connery's
performance as the Scotsman Daniel is widely considered the
greatest of his majestic career. And Caine's turn as the clever
Cockney Peachey might be better.
in the movie, Connery's Daniel tells an incredulous Rudyard
Kipling (played by Christopher Plummer), "We have been all
…and we have decided that India isn't big enough for such as us."
Peachey chimes in, "We are not little men, and there is
nothing that we are afraid of except Drink, and we have signed a
Contrack on that. Therefore, we are going away to be Kings."
two reasons they expected success in their audacious project are
directly relevant to the question of whether the U.S. can win in Afghanistan.
is widely remarked these days that no external power has ever
permanently dominated Afghanistan. True, but what's forgotten is that no internal power has either,
suggesting that the life expectancy of the five-year-old Taliban
regime might be limited.
severity of the Afghan terrain works against both conquest and
unified resistance. As Kipling warns the buccaneers, "It's
one mass of mountains and peaks and glaciers."
Daniel responds, "The more tribes, the more they'll fight,
and the better for us." The more broken the ground, the more
broken the society, and thus the harder it is to form a cohesive
army to resist an invader.
located in the Hindu Kush mountains northeast of Afghanistan's capital of
Kabul, remains even today a scale model of Afghanistan's overall fractiousness. In this region that only covers 2
percent of the entire country, there are currently fifteen ethnic
groups speaking five different languages.
his 1896 jihad, Amir Abdur Rahman, Khan of Kabul, changed the name
Kafiristan ("land of infidels") to Nuristan
("land of light"). He offered the conquered Kafir pagans
the choice of being put to the sword or to the knife. Most of the
men chose the latter and were circumcised into Islam, although in
that era before anesthetics and antibiotics, the pain couldn't
have been all that much less.
Jonny Bealby spent four weeks retracing the fictional footprints
of Daniel and Peachey in 1997, walking 250 miles across
Kafiristan-Nuristan. (Even today, there are no roads.) "On
the four week journey, I'd heard of twelve murders and enough
tales of thieving and brigandage to fill a small book,"
Bealby recounted. "When I asked Ismael, our Nuristani
translator, why this should be, he simply shrugged, 'It is our
culture,' he said." (Nuristan, by the way, was the first
place in Afghanistan to rebel against the Soviets.)
concluded, "If [Daniel and Peachey] were to tumble from the
skies once again, more than a hundred years later, the task
confronting them would be exactly the same. Kafiristan is now Nuristan; the infidels have been enlightened. But beyond religion, little
of their ways seem to have changed."
Afghanistan as a whole remains subdivided into hostile ethnic groups. The
Taliban rulers, who control most but not all of the country, are
drawn overwhelmingly from the Pashtun (know as the
"Pathan" in Kipling's day), but they only make up
three-eighth of the population and are concentrated south of the Hindu Kush. They may be the most war-like of the Afghans, but the reason
they are experienced at fighting is because they so often try to
kill each other.
22-year-old Winston Churchill fought them in an 1897 "butcher
and bolt" punitive expedition (depicted in the 1972 film
"Young Winston"). Churchill observed, "The Pathan
tribes are always engaged in private or public war. … The life
of the Pathan is thus full of interest."
second insight into the difficulties faced by the Taliban at
waging modern war - beyond their small and rusty arsenal - is
implicit in Daniel's explanation to Kipling of their strategy for
becoming Kings of Kafiristan. "In any place where they fight,
a man who knows how to drill men can always be a King,"
Connery's character expounds. "We shall go to those parts and
say to any King we find - 'D'you want to vanquish your foes?' and
we will show him how to drill men; for that we know better than
anything else. Then we will subvert that King and seize his Throne
and establish a Dynasty."
confidence in the might of properly drilled men goes to the heart
of the difference between irregular and regular armies. For tens
of thousands of years, men have been waging irregular war -
shoot-from-behind-a-rock style raiding. If you assume, like many
Afghans, that war sputters on forever - that it is the natural
state of human relations - then sniping is the sensible fighting
method for clans willing to lose some young warriors but not risk
everything on one battle. Ambushes allow your men to slip away
into wild country if the enemy proves too strong.
nation-states long ago developed a more formidable style intended
to win wars. The ancient Greeks discovered that trained,
disciplined armies could maneuver to win decisive battles.
Alexander the Great used this Greek breakthrough to conquer Afghanistan, among much else. (Kipling asserted that Alexander then married a
Kafir princess named Roxanne and had a son.)
famed military historian John Keegan wrote in "A History of
Warfare," "It is a general rule that primitives lose to
regulars over the long run; harassment is an effective means of
waging a defensive war, but wars are ultimately won by
when Daniel and Peachey arrive at Er-Heb, their first Kafir
village, headman Ootah, familiar only with irregular war, offers
them two goats for each of his Bashkai neighbors that they will
kill for him. Peachey, the embodiment of regular soldiering,
replies suavely, "A handsome offer, but rather than knocking
them over one at a time, we'll do the whole thing in one fell
swoop: storm Bashkai and give you a proper victory."
next morning drill instructor Daniel starts teaching the men of Er-Heb
to march in ordered ranks like British soldiers. "When we're
done with you," he roars at the recruits, "You'll be
able to stand up and slaughter your enemies like civilized
explains to his uncomprehending boot privates, "Good soldiers
don't think. They just obey. Do you think that if a man thought
twice, he'd give his life for Queen and country? Not bloody
likely!" Noticing an Er-Heb man with an extremely small head,
Daniel remarks, "Him there with the five and a half hat size
has the makings of a bloody hero."
their drilled army, stiffened by twenty smuggled rifles, quickly
goes from victory to victory. And their pinheaded rifleman
distinguishes himself for loyalty. By treating newly conquered
villages well, Daniel and Peachey recruit their men into the
general, regular armies have been able to take from irregular
fighters the kind of land that's most worth taking: flat, fertile
what's a regular army to do in a place like Afghanistan that's eminently not worth conquering? In 1842, the British lost
all but one of 16,000 trying to retreat from the Afghan capital of
Kabul. This showed once again that irregulars could destroy a regular
army in severe enough terrain.
1878, however, the Afghan ruler was again flirting with the
expanding Russian Empire. Fearing the Czar's army would soon be
pouring through the Khyber Pass and into the lightly defended
plains of colonial India, the British set out to take control of Afghanistan's foreign policy.
his conquest of Kabul
and Kandahar, Sir Frederick Roberts solved the problem of how to beat Afghans
in their own mountains. "General Bobs" used
professionally drilled mountain men as his shock troops. Passes
were taken by the Scottish Highlanders (in which Daniel and
Peachey fictitiously served) and the Nepalese Gurkha Rifles (like
their loyal translator Billy Fish, who is played by the tremendous
Indian actor Saeed Jaffrey).
the U.S. has about 30,000 elite Special Forces troops trained in both
regular and irregular fighting. America's British allies have superb S.A.S. commandos, as well as 3,400
was General Bobs' campaign simply another long-term failure? It
depends on whether you consider 40 years of success a failure.
British eventually placed Abdur Rahman on the throne in Kabul. Within
's now carefully defined borders, they let him have his way - such
as waging jihad against the poor Kafirs - so long as he delegated
the conduct of Afghanistan's external relations to London. In the "Great Game" (the subject of Kipling's
masterpiece "Kim"), Britain's spies and diplomats used bribes and threats to keep the Afghans
from being bought off by the Russians.
policy worked well enough for four decades. Finally, exhausted by
lost control in 1919, a date now considered by Afghanistan to be the year of its independence.
began to slowly tip toward the Soviet Union, which ultimately led to the Soviet invasion of 1979, a full
century after General Bobs' invasion.
if a war in Afghanistan
does prove winnable, which it should, ought the U.S. to undertake a long-term benevolent occupation to attempt to turn
that desolate land into a peaceful "normal country?"
Huston's movie offers a skeptical perspective.
the two pirates' plan succeeds wildly. The pagans believe Daniel
is a god, the son of Alexander. The high priests place the great
Greek's crown upon his head and offer him a treasure room full of
rubies and gold. All Daniel and Peachey need to do to become the
two richest men on Earth is to fill their packs, wait four months
for the snows in the
to melt, and then walk out.
awaiting Spring, Daniel amuses himself by playing at being king.
To the applause of his new subjects, he enforces peace, dispenses
justice at traditional durbars, sets up granaries to insure
against famine, and builds bridges to tie the country together.
the passes finally open, Peachey learns to his horror that Daniel
now feels too responsible for his people to grab the loot and run.
The grandiose nation-building urge that in the 1990's helped
inspire American interventions in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia has infected him. "A nation I shall make of it, with an
anthem and a flag," King Daniel thunders.
Daniel has decided to take a Queen. He has picked out a local
beauty called Roxanne - the same name as Alexander's wife. The
priests demur. Billy Fish tries to explain to the king why his
marriage would be an affront to Kafir beliefs. Daniel, blinded by
his victories - "Have I not put the shadow of my hand over
this country?" - fails to grasp that what seems a quibble to
him is of dread import to the Kafirs.
fiction novelist Orson Scott Card ("Ender's Game")
summed up "The Man Who Would Be King:" "This is the
classic tragedy that Aristotle spoke of - so powerful that some of
us can only stand to see the ending once."
who advocate that we stay in Afghanistan long after Osama bin Laden and the Taliban are dealt with should
ponder Kipling and Huston's parable.
is the national correspondent
and film critic for UPI.