Horse Sense, or What We Can Learn from a British Cavalry Officer of the 1830s

One of my favorite writers, Patrick Devenny, wrote an article recently for Foreign Policy that’s not only fascinating and fun, but also has much to teach us about, in Mr. Devenny’s words, “one of the most complicated problems in Afghanistan today: the training and oversight of local defense forces.”


The article, “Call In The Cavalry,” is about a British mounted officer, Capt. Charles Trower, who served in India in the 1830s, and wrote a book about his experiences, titled Hints on Irregular Cavalry. In the article, Devenny writes:


Among Trower’s horsemen was a troop known as the “Khandahar Horse—Pashtun recruits from modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. . . . Trower writes extensively on how to properly manage and maintain the support of these units, the members of which he describes as “generally illiterate, haughty and turbulent: but they are gallant and true, hard-working and zealous.” Of their martial skills, they were “first in excellence.”

 Alexander did it–and so did our Marines in Iraq


I love this stuff, not just because it’s romantic and swashbuckling (I know, I know, that doesn’t count), but because I believe history has real lessons to teach us. Alexander did the same thing Capt. Trower did—hiring and organizing tribes to fight on his side and not on the enemy’s—as did our Marines in Ramadi and the Sunni tribal belt. It worked.


Can the same trick be pulled off in Afghanistan? Is it possible to duplicate the success of the Anbar Awakening in Iraq? Can tribal self-defense forces like the Afghan Public Protection force, just now being organized by U.S. commanders, serve as a realistic adjunct to NATO forces? Can such units even, on their own on their home turf, achieve the COIN aim of “protecting the people?”

Let Tribes be Tribes


Capt. Trower had some interesting advice for foreigners attempting to manage native tribal units.  First, don’t try to change them.   


Trower’s colleagues were advised to ignore any impulse to “civilize” such units. “There is nothing as distasteful to the majority of the natives as change of any kind, above all any change affecting their purse or prejudices.” Trower tells the story of Colonel Davis who had interfered with the “purse and prejudices” of his men. They later killed him.

 Work With Tribalism, Not Against It


Educated by years of living in the tribal areas of Pakistan and India, Trower argues that British   officers should make every effort to blend in with their native recruits. This recommendation will ring familiar to American military advisors, particularly U.S. Special Forces. . . . [Native troopers should be treated] with the utmost respect: “It is the treatment they receive which will make them either cheerful or zealous soldiers or useless rabble.” . . . [and] tribal leaders were to be treated as allies, not subjects.


Thanks, Patrick Devenny, for blowing the dust off Capt. Trower’s book. As you yourself caution, historical precedents and parallels must always be taken with a grain of salt. But the past contains gold too.

Protect the People


In Afghanistan today, the aim of organizing tribal self-defense forces is simply to keep the Taliban and al Qaeda out of the local tribal areas. The role of the foreigner, i.e. us, is not to reinvent the wheel, but to assist and empower the existing social structure—the tribes on their home turf—to do what Afghan tribes have done brilliantly for at least three millennia: protect their own people.


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  1. Ed Brenegar on July 8, 2009 at 5:37 am

    Steven, letting the tribes be the tribes, and protecting the people is not just good strategy for fighting a war in Afghanistan. It is great strategy for any leader. When you let the people develop as a tribe, they find their own leaders, and they own the outcome of the endeavor. This is becoming more important as downsizing and change make things difficult for companies who are used to a type of compartmentalized organizational structure that discourages people from collaborating with one another. That luxury, thankfully, is too costly and ineffective now. Now, leaders need to equip the people to lead, and in so doing will make the changes need to protect their strengths.
    Great stuff. Thanks.

  2. Andrew Lubin on July 8, 2009 at 10:22 am

    Such a common sense strategy…I just hope we can stick to it.

    The tribes will work with us if it’s in their best interests – which means we help keep the women and children alive and then bring in some basic services like fresh water and jobs. And if one tribe seems to be ‘advancing’ due to their co-operation with the Marines, then the other local tribes will co-operate so as not to be left behind.

    I saw it work in Ramadi with the Marines and Sunnis, it can easily happen here. The big difference is that there’s no Sheik Sattar in Helmand or Farah to help rally the tribes like he did in Anbar, so it looks like 2MEB needs to build up dozens of little local leaders.

  3. Fred Woodbridge on July 9, 2009 at 7:56 am

    “Purses and prejudices” just about sums this whole thing up!

    Anyway, it’s quite interesting to discuss the Afghanis (or anyone else, for that matter) in such clinical terms, as if they’re so completely “un-self-aware” that they either don’t realize or care they’re the subject of this kind of scrutiny and study. I think it likely they fall into the latter class of not giving a hoot what others think about them.

    I believe this is part of what makes them worthy both of praise of a sort and a faded derision simultaneously.

  4. Wisner on July 9, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    Interesting that CPT Trower’s work is being cited. I suppose we could read about Alexander (finely quoted by our host), Moses, Joshua, Ceasar, Kahn, Sun Zu, Mao, COL Kurtz etc…and find the same type of information. Why did Patreus have to rewrite thousands of years of history on fighting these types of engagements for the Army? Why wasn’t the Small Wars Manual doctrine for all the services? There is the critcal observation. How does it change? Steven said earlier…it must be doctrine! Did it take Afghanistan to prove the value of unconventional warfare? If so will the US leadership, both civilian and military, adapt fast enough? I’m not so sure. It will take the firing of Generals who do not adapt and the seemingly rapid advancement of maverick young leaders to postions of higher authority to see that these doctrines are implemented.

  5. Jordan on July 9, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    I knew you were great after reading Gates of Fire and I happened to hear you on Hewitt last night so I learned too that I was going to be hooked even more so.
    The stories you have here in these posts are so gripping that I want to but billboards that say “Go read this now!”

    It’s in the interest of the world for this to go viral.

  6. Jim Carrozza on July 9, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    I love this stuff too, but let’s not fool ourselves, the dangers to our people on the ground are very real. Will the perspective of 2,300 years be taught to our personnel? Will they get these thoughts in their day-to-day briefings? I hope so.

  7. John Boland on July 9, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    God bless the U.S. Marine Corps, but I find it ammusing that the Marines always seem to get credit in the popular media for success in Iraq, even though the most innovative tactics originated with 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in 2005, and again in 2007. It was 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division who turned things around in Ramadi in 2006, not the Marines. And, of course, biggest and most complicated city in the country, Baghdad, was pacified by the Army. Oh well.

    Great series on Afghanistan. I think its worth mentioning that while the broad counter-insurgency doctrine is applicable to that theatre, the specifics on the ground are very different than Iraq.

  8. Garth on July 10, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    I second John, and say this…God bless all our troops! I live in Oceanside, CA. I’m not in the military, but have a tremendous respect for all who serve. I notice this same “tribalism” and pride exists in the branches of our own forces, as evidenced by John’s comment. I’m not saying it’s good or bad…it’s just there, don’t you agree?

  9. Wisner on July 11, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    John, your comments are right on. Interestingly enough, those Army officers responsible for those changes and for the outreach to the Sheiks in Ramadi and up North were rewarded under Patreus with promotion and recognition. Some regretably paid the ultimate price as AQ-I attempted to stop the tribal uprising before it got much support behind it. Ricks in his book The Gamble does a fantastic job of naming the players and their roles.

  10. David M. Hauntz on July 11, 2009 at 11:49 pm

    Lots of boys tried clearin’ this place before. Maybe we should study what they did and learn from it. Mr. Kipling told us: “search your manhood
    Through all the thankless years,
    Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,
    The judgement of your peers.”

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