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The Boer War

16/03/17 07:27:58

Mar16

Last Saturday was Shabbos Zachor where we are commanded to remember our eternal enemy, Amalek, and their attack on the Jewish people in the desert on the way out of Egypt. The next day was Purim, where the Jews in the Babylonian Exile period were saved from the evil plans for their destruction by a descendant of Amalek, Haman. God was hidden in Purim; the Jews prayed collectively and Mordechai and Esther showed great courage in changing the course of events. In three and a half weeks we will celebrate Pesach, where we are commanded to tell our children of the miraculous ways by which God took the Jewish people out of Egypt.

There is a central theme of our enemies being powerful, threatening to destroy us, the Jewish people, and our salvation either through our own efforts or through Divine intervention. Sometimes we get more insights by reflecting on the experience of other peoples who have also faced great challenges. Accordingly, I share below an essay on the Boer War written a few years ago by my longstanding friend and former business partner, Robert Eales. Rob grew up in Bloemfontein in South Africa (our congregant Dr David Simmons went to school with him there); his father was English and his mother Afrikaans. His maternal grandfather fought with the Boers, but because he lived in the Cape Province under British rule when he was captured he was considered a traitor and sentenced to death; he was lucky to survive. In 2014 Rob wrote a book, The Compassionate Englishwoman, about Emily Hobhouse, an upper-class English woman who drew attention to the terrible conditions of Boers held in detention, most of whom were women and children.

Rob’s essay is long but it is interesting and it will make you think. After I read his essay and book I wanted to understand more about what happened; he directed me to Thomas Pakenham’s The Boer War, written in 1991, which is the best comprehensive account.

Are there lessons we should have learned from a war we have almost forgotten?

Robert Eales
This essay was written in 2010 and has been amended since then only to note the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden in the discussion on the Afghanistan war.

In 1899, Britain, supported by its Empire, went to war with two small southern African republics, the Orange Free State and the South African Republic. The Boer War, as the conflict became known, lasted nearly three years before Britain and its allies prevailed.

The Commonwealth of Australia did not exist at the start of the conflict and support from these shores came from the individual Australian colonies. Federation was achieved during the war and thereafter we, as a nation, continued to provide men and resources. Collectively Australia and its precursor states contributed around 20,000 soldiers, doctors and nurses; the exact number is not known. Canada and New Zealand also contributed substantial numbers and Britain recruited soldiers locally in her southern African colonies.

It was thus a war in which a major power, supported by smaller partners, set out to assert its authority over a less powerful pair of countries. Initial assessments favoured the view that the great imbalance in power would mean that there would be no war. The most likely scenario, it was thought, was that the two Boer nations would simply surrender their sovereignty in the face of the massive power that Britain could muster. If, on the other hand, it did come to a fight, victory would be achieved in a short time – months - and at manageable cost.

But the Boers did not subscribe to that story. They did not buckle under the pre-war pressure, their resistance – when it did come to war - was much stronger than anticipated and the duration of the conflict was much longer than anyone had predicted. The military resources required to achieve victory; the financial cost and the price paid in soldiers wounded or killed all vastly exceeded expectations. In southern Africa, the war caused great suffering, much more among civilians than combatants, and there was tremendous destruction.

When put like that, the description seems not so distant. We, the West and specifically Australia, have recently been engaged in two wars that can be described in broadly similar terms, one of which is on-going. Can the Boer War, considered in the cold light of history, provide insights that are relevant now?

It is worth highlighting a few notable features of the Boer War before returning to this question.

The first point is how poorly the conflict was justified. The reasons advanced for war did not stand scrutiny then and have not stood the test of time since. Even if they were valid, they did not warrant the drastic step of war. Opportunities arose again and again to resolve the real political tensions that did exist but they were not taken.

When the war broke out there had already been a hundred years of tension between Brit and Boer in southern Africa, a consequence of Britain’s colonial expansionism and the Dutch-speaking Boers’ determination to remain independent and culturally distinct. The tensions were heightened with the discovery of the rich Transvaal gold fields, an event followed by a large influx of fortune-seekers and financial capital, both mainly British.

The mining entrepreneurs had many gripes against the inexperienced republican government and some made no secret of their preference for British jurisdiction. This accorded nicely with the ambitions of the imperialistically inclined at the Colonial Office. But neither group had sufficient reason for a British invasion. A politically acceptable excuse was needed and the influx of miners provided it.

The good citizens of the South African Republic were fearful of being swamped by the flood of new arrivals and imposed a 14-year franchise qualification period upon the new migrants. The evidence suggests that not many of the newcomers cared much about politics in their new republican setting – they had come to make money and did not necessarily plan to stay – but skilful management fanned this issue into the principal cause over which the war was supposedly fought.

It was strange that Britain should go to war for the right of its people to become citizens of another country and the reason was so unconvincing that as late as 1965, Theodore Caldwell, an American historian, wrote ‘For most students the chief interest of the war lies in the sharp conflict of opinion in regard to causes, a conflict which has been waged ever since the months before the war began.’ He edited a book in whose sixteen chapters a diversity of writers all suggested different reasons why there was war. Today the cause is more apparent and it brings us to the next point.

The second striking feature of this conflict is the role of individuals in creating the war. It is now clear that the Boer War was a direct consequence of long, calculated, hard work by Sir Alfred Milner, the British High Commissioner for South Africa and a man of considerable capabilities. When he took office in 1897, the two Boer republics were almost surrounded by the British territories within his area of responsibility. He saw that unifying all of South Africa under the British flag would expand the Empire, capture the rich Transvaal gold fields for Britain and secure high honours for himself - just as unifying Canada had for Lord Carnarvon. He also knew this would be impossible without military conquest, so war there had to be.

At the outset, the British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, did not share Milner’s vision and the British Cabinet had no interest in war. Southern Africa was not a topic of everyday conversation in Britain’s pubs and clubs. Milner had to think carefully and invest much time and effort to get his war.

Without Milner, there would have been no war in 1899 and quite possibly no war at all but it was not a sole effort. He was aided initially by the passive ambivalence of his superior, the Colonial Secretary, Sir Joseph Chamberlain. Later Chamberlain provided direct, substantial and far-reaching assistance in swinging British public opinion around to favour war and in persuading a reluctant British Cabinet to commit to war.

Milner was also supported throughout his war-mongering by a cast of other influential people without whom he might not have succeeded. Alfred Beit and Percy Fitzpatrick from the leading gold-mining company and Lord Selbourne, Under Secretary at the Colonial Office, were crucial.

Thirdly, we should note the means by which these individuals succeeded. It would take more than a few pages to document the political machinations of Milner and his supporters in the crucial two years before the war, but they can be summarized.

Milner knew the Cabinet would never take Britain into war without broad support. So he sailed for Britain and saw everyone of influence: newspaper editors, leading politicians on both sides of both houses of Parliament and even Queen Victoria herself. To all he spruiked not war, but the difficulties created for him and fellow Britons by the republican administrations, especially Paul Kruger’s government in the South African Republic where the gold was.

During these discussions, it became clear to him that he needed an issue to arouse the British public. It was provided by that inordinately long period of qualification the South African Republic had imposed on new immigrants before granting them full citizenship. He stirred it skilfully after his return to Cape Town. For example, in a widely published telegram, he wrote about the migrants to the Colonial Office ‘… they are mostly British subjects, accustomed to a free system and equal rights; they feel deeply the personal indignity involved in a position of permanent subjection to the ruling caste which owes its wealth and power to their exertion.’ And, ‘The spectacle of thousands of British subjects kept permanently in the position of helots, constantly chafing under undoubted grievances, and calling vainly to Her Majesty’s Government for redress, does steadily undermine the influence and reputation of Great Britain and respect for the British Government …’

The well primed British press reacted as he wished and editorials railed against Kruger. Yet the grand rhetoric was mostly hypocrisy. There had already been military confrontations between Britain and the South African Republic and Britons were pouring into the Transvaal in such numbers that a realistic possibility existed that they might outnumber the local electorate. It is inconceivable that Britain, had it been in the S.A.R.’s situation, would have tolerated such an influx of aliens from a still hostile country, let alone enfranchise them. Moreover, the people acquiring the greatest wealth from the mining of the gold were the mostly British mining capitalists, not the locals as Milner implied. It was they who were keeping wages and conditions as mean as possible and causing the main grievances among the newly-arrived mine labour.

The danger, from Milner’s point of view, was that a political settlement would be reached with the Boers, thwarting his grand objective. During much of 1899, when strenuous efforts were being made to avoid warfare, he declined to negotiate in good faith and sometimes refused to negotiate at all. The other side, he and his supporters said, cannot to be trusted to abide by any terms. So they rejected all compromises offered – and there were several and substantial offers. Milner said these offers ‘only proved how weak they are’ and instead of finding middle ground he persuaded Chamberlain to up the demands.

General Butler, the pre-war commander of British forces in southern Africa, understood what was going on and opposed Milner’s stridency. Being on the ground, he could see how unnecessary, difficult and expensive a war would be. People who offer counsel such as his can do real harm to a case for war and he had to be removed from the debate. So, for his trouble, Butler was withdrawn from Cape Town and posted out of the way to Devon without so much as a debriefing at the War or Colonial Offices in London.

The gathering pro-war movement, Chamberlain included, de-humanised and belittled the other side. The Boers, they intimated, were backward people, mere peasants who did not merit the same consideration as Britons. This is a crucial step in making war. It is hard to get one’s mind around the calculated killing of people who are just like us. In this process, it helps to paint the leaders of the target group in the poorest light – in this case President Kruger – and then to attribute his supposed failings to the entire population. He was an unsophisticated old man and this was used to imply that all Boers were like that. It so happens that he was also perspicacious, realised what they were up to, had the real interests of his people at heart and remained resolute in the assertion and defence of their independence. Were all Boers like him? Well no. For example, Kruger’s principal advisor in the negotiations with Milner, the S A R’s State Attorney, Jan Smuts, had topped his year in law at Cambridge and had been admitted to the Bar in London before he returned to southern Africa.

There was another crucial element. Chamberlain, Milner and those who worked with them persuaded the British electorate that their aims were virtuous. Conquest would civilise the uncivilised, substitute good government for bad, and advance the cause of democracy and civil rights. War itself is a travesty of those very things and is therefore a particularly bad way to attempt to achieve such aims; it is about as uncivilised as humans can be, it rides roughshod over civil government, in forceful conquest it is the very opposite of democracy, it cares nought for civil rights. In due course, the Boer War duly failed to deliver on those promises. All that mattered, however, was that they could get the British electorate to swallow the line.

These measures were calculated to achieve a pre-determined outcome, war, and they succeeded.

The fourth general observation is simply to highlight the failure of the treaty that existed between Britain and the South African Republic in preventing the war. Britain simply brushed aside an agreement which bound it not to interfere in the internal affairs of the South African Republic and proceeded to interfere regardless and substantially, with the resulting tragic consequences.

Another feature of the conflict, our fifth point and also one with contemporary resonances, is the mistaken assessment that the British made of their adversaries. This occurred at the overt level of military strength, and also at the political and psychological level.

British intelligence pointed to the considerable military capabilities of the Boers. This was ignored. Instead the British Cabinet was persuaded that if it did come to war, victory would be achieved quickly and the cost in lives and money would be small.

Invasive wars, as the Boer War showed, stir deep emotions in the invaded country. First, of course, there is fear: fear of being killed or injured; fear that loved ones or friends might suffer; fear for the loss of or damage to property; fear of the loss of livelihood or career; fear of the damage to the country and the economy and of hardships that might follow.

Such concerns, huge as they are, can easily be ended by surrendering. The Boers could have conceded at any time before or during the war. They could have caved in when confronted with the growing military threat on their borders, when faced with Milner’s intransigence at the Bloemfontein peace conference of May-June 1899, during the months of argy-bargy following that failed conference, after the falls of their capitals, or during the privations of the guerrilla phase, or at any other time.

Fear is what Britain wanted to provoke and it figured highly in their pre-war assessments. In London it was considered likely that the Boers would capitulate to the threat of invasion. A majority in the British Cabinet allowed themselves to be persuaded that the Boers would not fight, that sending an ‘overwhelming force’ of 10,000 soldiers would ensure a back-down. Milner said, ‘it’s 20 to 1’. (The Empire eventually needed 448,435 to win the war.)

Instead the politics within a threatened country make capitulation unlikely. Bullying is not well received by anyone and a leader who hands over control of his country in the face of threats, no matter how dire, commits political suicide. If he is so inclined. President Kruger was not so inclined. The Boers knew that Britain wished to intimidate them and they responded with disdain. This response, which may not seem sensible in the cold light of a distant day, looks different when one is in the heat of the situation.

Think for a moment how we, here, now, would react to a credible threat of invasion. There would be gritting of teeth and a resolve to resist, come what may. 'We shall fight on the beaches', said Churchill so magnificently in June 1940, 'we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.' Unfortunately the British did not appreciate, decades earlier, that other peoples would feel as they did when faced with invasion.[1]

Provoking fear therefore does not necessarily stop conflict. Moreover, the Boers had reasons not to capitulate under the threat: They had driven the British and their proxies back in two earlier confrontations with victories at Majuba in 1881 and over the Jameson Raiders in 1896.

Lord Roberts, the British Commander in Chief of the forces in South Africa from December 1899 to November 1900, was infuriated that the Boers did not surrender after he had conquered and occupied their capitals, Bloemfontein and Pretoria. He could not understand their logic. They were finished, he believed, and the war was all but over, so much so that he packed his bags and went home, job done. Instead, the conflict had not even reached the half-way mark. The Boers were irrational and that is the point. They continued to resist far beyond the stage where simple, material self-interest suggested they should give up; after any chance of defeating the British in a conventional, military sense seemed first improbable, then increasingly impossible.

This resistance, in turn, provoked more severe actions by the British - scorched earth and concentration camps - and the psychological reaction in the republican population took on a new dimension. When innocents suffered as they inevitably seem to do in modern wars – children, women, the elderly, the disabled – injustice was perceived to have taken place and anger was stirred.

Then it was no longer about material self-interest for many of the defendants. After they had lost families or property, they cared less about their own safety and were prepared to fight to the finish.

It is worth noting that the British perspective, too, changed as the war progressed. For the soldiers on the ground in South Africa and many people at Home, it was eventually just about victory and all the original objectives and justifications became subservient to that single goal.

A sixth point to make is the extent to which the British Government failed to achieve its objectives and how soon the futility of the war was evident. One can assess the war against both the stated objectives (such as voting rights for the immigrants) and other probable objectives. For example, though it was vigorously denied at the time, there is no doubt that Milner and Chamberlain had imperial motives and wished to wrest control of the territory from the Boers. We can also be sure that in engaging in the war, the Salisbury Government believed it would strengthen its position at ensuing elections in Britain.

Milner had used the refusal of the Boers to grant an early franchise to the predominantly British fortune hunters flooding into the gold fields as the principal cause for war. Yet, after the war, he reigned autocratically for three years, giving neither the newcomers nor anyone else the vote for the duration of his incumbency, not even to elect the members of the advisory councils he created in both former republics. Instead he appointed all the members himself and took no steps towards representative government. This travesty surely exposes his pre-war mendacity.

The victory soon unravelled. By November 1907, five and a half years after Britain’s victory, the Boer leaders were again governing both former republics. This outcome was hastened by the political consequences of the war within Britain itself, by its domestic political failure. The Unionist Government’s popularity waned as the war dragged on and it was eventually defeated. The incoming Liberals - troubled by the manner in which hostilities had been conducted and by the high civilian deaths in concentration camps - considered that Britain owed a debt of restitution to the Boers, a debt they discharged by restoring self-government.

Chamberlain had intimated that improving the human rights of the indigenous population was another justification for asserting British power over the republics. But the Milner administration did nothing at all for black rights. Instead Milner and the colonial English pushed Britain into a peace treaty with the Boers that left the door open to the segregationist policies of later South African governments.

More than that, Milner established the Lagden Commission on Native Affairs whose recommendations included many of the features of the subsequent political and social landscape of South Africa – for example, the establishment of racially segregated residential areas and the representation of Africans by whites in future legislatures. Lagden thought the blacks in the mines were overpaid.

After the war, Milner agreed to allow the mine owners to recruit indentured labour in China and persuaded the British Government to permit this. The objective? To cut labour costs, of course, and avoid the wage increases that would otherwise be necessary to attract sufficient indigenous people to work underground. As far as the black people were concerned, the post-war slate remained, at best, empty.

Milner wanted to make southern Africa irreversibly British. He failed completely. Not only did the former republics revert to Afrikaner rule, so also did the Cape Colony whose government had until then been dominated by the English inhabitants. And just a few years later, the staunchly English colony of Natal joined the Afrikaner-dominated Union of South Africa in a referendum. It was a stunning reversal of the outcome Milner had hoped to achieve.

Britain entered the war in part to reinforce its standing in the world as a major power, the major global power. This was the reason the Cabinet could not see its way clear to backing away from the awkward situation Chamberlain and Milner had created for them. Instead, the struggle to bring the war to a close demonstrated the limitations of its power for all the world to see.

Britons considered themselves the finest race on the planet at the start of the Boer War. By the end of it, many were ashamed of their treatment of Boer women and children and Britain was a pariah in all Europe. The Continental countries were uncomfortable with and envious of Britain’s colonial expansion and were mostly on the Boer side.

Did the war secure the gold revenues for Britain? Hardly. The gold mines were owned primarily by British interests before the war, ownership that was under no threat. The profits were already flowing back to London and Britain was already the foreign supplier of choice to the industry. In embarking upon the war, Britain presumably saw the prospect that some of the tax revenues from the mines would also accrue to Britain. But after the war, that revenue was needed for reconstruction in South Africa and Britain felt obliged to add further financial aid. The financial prize the Britons won instead was of a different kind. They were left with depleted Treasury coffers, higher taxes and foreign debts.

Some British objectives were achieved. A unified South Africa did emerge, as they wished, though it came about by negotiation among the Afrikaner-dominated colonial governments and therefore might well have been achieved without war. The Union did become part of the British Empire and not, as Lord Selborne had feared, an independent United States of South Africa. That was clearly a consequence of the victory and a tick for British objectives. As a further result, Britain did secure a useful ally during World Wars One and Two.

Some argue that British control of the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope was crucially important in both world wars and that that control was made possible by the victory in the Boer War. Yes and no. Perhaps it was crucial but the critical harbours and the entire coastline were already in British hands before the Boer War. The war was not needed to secure them for Britain; both republics were, after all, completely landlocked.

Rather, South African membership of the Empire did not endure. Autonomy, when it was granted, was not sufficient for the hard-core Afrikaners. They wanted to regain complete independence and their commitment to that goal lasted until it was achieved generations later. The entire South Africa - including the pre-war British Colonies of the Cape and Natal - became an independent republic in 1961. The war was, in the last analysis, indeed futile.

Ultimately the Boer War was much worse than a failure - and this is the last and seventh point. It left behind a deeply fractured society with unfortunate long-term consequences. Before the war, Boer and British residents were coming to terms with each other. In much of the country, people were at ease with neighbours whose home language was different. They spoke each other’s tongue and intermarried. Even the President of the Orange Free State, Marthinus Steyn, had an English-speaking wife, a circumstance that did not provoke controversy because it was common. Integration of the white groups was well on its way. Fledgling steps had been taken to accommodate the indigenous people, too, if as yet only in the Cape and Natal where a qualified, non-racial franchise applied. The war rent all this asunder. After the deplorable civilian casualties, after the systematic property destruction and the loss of their independence, the Afrikaners feared for their cultural survival with good reason and hated and distrusted the English. The colonial English reacted with disdain.

In the decades that followed, the whites in South Africa turned inwards, grappling with the strains amongst themselves. The Afrikaners were concerned to recover the economic damage that had been inflicted on their communities and sought to alleviate the struggles of the ‘poor whites’. The English controlled the mining industry and increased their economic well-being by extending their domination over commerce and the professions. Both groups pursued their objectives at the expense of the black population.

The punitive Treaty of Versailles signed after the First World War forced Germany to pay war reparations she could never afford, and the resulting strain on the economy created the conditions in which Nazionalsozialismus could take root and grow. So, as several writers have argued, it is at least tenable to suggest that the Boer War contributed substantially in creating the conditions in which Apartheid could arise in South Africa. In the absence of the social circumstances created by the war, Herzog’s Afrikaner National Party may not have won government in the 1920’s at the expense of Smuts’s broader South Africanism. Malan, Verwoerd, Strydom, Vorster and their cohorts may not have succeeded in winning the 1948 election with Apartheid as the centrepiece of their policies. That victory, after all, was extremely close.

The Boer War does not exonerate the perpetrators of Apartheid, any more than the consequences of WWI exonerates Hitler, Himmler, Göring, Goebbels, Borman and all the rest of the Nazis, but it does suggest how far the unforeseen consequences of war can extend and how long its malevolent shadow can be.

The object of highlighting these seven features of the Boer War is, of course, that they apply in various ways and to varying degrees to other wars. Consider the Iraq War. We now know that the war was poorly justified; that President Bush (initially, apparently, a non-interventionist) was persuaded by a small group of neo-conservatives to launch the invasion (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Perle, Wolfowitz and one or two others); that they did not tell us the whole truth in arguing for war and disparaged those who cast informed doubt on their case - Dr Hans Blix, for example, whose UN team in Iraq could not find the supposed weapons of mass destruction. The intervention failed to secure the required UN mandate and the countries that participated in the invasion were therefore in breach of their treaty obligations. The war did not end when Baghdad was captured, just as the Boer War did not end when the Boer capitals were taken. With a Boer War perspective, the possibility that it would not end there was clear before the shooting started. It seemed likely then to informed observers that ‘shock and awe’ would not secure victory, that the war would not be short, that ‘irrational’ resistance might continue.

What has the war achieved? It is not clear that it has made the world safer. We do not yet know what the eventual outcome of the war will be in social and geopolitical terms so caution is needed in making judgements. However, Al Qa’ida in Iraq was rejuvenated by the invasion, at least for a time. It had not been supported by the pre-war Iraqi Government; it is a fundamentalist religious organisation, the government was secular.

If the root cause of the terrorism the war was meant to address is Middle Eastern antipathy towards America and the West, then the Iraq invasion has surely deepened that antipathy. It may come to be added to the long list of clumsy Western interventions in the Middle East, stretching back at least to the First World War, that gave rise to that antipathy.

The war has exposed the limits of US military power as the Boer War exposed Britain’s. It damaged diplomatic relations, not only between the US and Muslim countries, but also with allies like France and Germany who opposed the war. President Obama has since attempted to mend these fences. Domestically, it reduced President Bush to embarrassing impotence and contributed to the defeat of the Republicans in the ensuing election. It weakened the United States financially: the Bush administration was fiscally in deficit for the duration of the war and waged it by borrowing.

If a hidden objective of the war was to secure oil for the West, as Greenspan and Sachs, for example, have said it was, it seems equally misguided. Iraq would have and will sell its oil on the world market at prevailing prices. It was prevented from doing so by externally imposed sanctions. Perhaps the sanctions were justified, perhaps not, but war was in any event not the solution. It was certainly not the only way to get the oil flowing again. If, however, the war was really fought to benefit American corporations – let’s be cynical for a moment - then some have benefited handsomely.

The US and its allies point out that a ruthless tyrant has been removed from power together with his odious regime. They have, but that was never a declared objective of the war and it never was because regime change is not a legitimate justification for intervention. We would never have gone to war for that reason and it is, of course, rationalisation after the fact. Moreover, is it not the case that the West was supporting Saddam Hussein and supplying his regime with weapons not too many years before he so foolishly invaded Kuwait?

About five million Iraqis have been displaced and approximately a hundred thousand civilians have died either directly in the clash with Western forces or in the sectarian violence that followed the societal breakdown caused by the war. The harm that the Hussein regime did to the Iraqi people pales before these numbers. If we cannot yet observe this war’s long-term consequences from our perspective, for the residents of the country the answer is clear: it has been a disaster. Will they forgive and forget who invaded, or will they remember for a long time, as the Afrikaners did in South Africa?

Thus the Iraq War has its equivalents of all the features noted about the Boer War: poor justification, a war engineered by individuals who used similar and less than fully honourable tactics to achieve that end, breaching of international treaty obligations, underestimation of the difficulty and likely cost of the task, failure to achieve stated and implicit objectives and a post-war situation in which everyone is worse off, especially the civilian population of the invaded land but also the invading countries. Would we have invaded Iraq if we had understood all this?

The Iraq war is by no means the only war of the last hundred years in which the features that characterised the Boer War are present to a greater or lesser extent. Some of the same salutary lessons could have been learned from other conflicts. Conversely they, too, might have been prevented had the Boer War experience been understood. Pick your war. Vietnam? The USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan? The Iran-Iraq conflict? World War II? In these diverse conflagrations, as in others, the aggressors or invaders failed to anticipate the strength of the resistance they would encounter, none achieved their overt or implicit objectives, all resulted in huge casualties and left everyone much worse off. War, it turns out, is a poor foreign policy tool, more likely to fail than succeed even when a military victory is achieved as in the Boer War.

What of the Afghanistan War, in progress as this is being written? First, consider it from the Al Qa’ida perspective; they started it with their attacks on the USA on 11 September 2001. If those attacks were some sort of attempt to bring about a change in the US and in the wider Western community, a change that more closely aligns us with their world view, then the failure, indeed the counter-productivity of their violent action, could not be more comprehensive.

The subsequent US-led invasion of Afghanistan was precipitated by those egregious attacks and the harbouring of the leaders of Al Qa’ida within Afghanistan. This followed earlier Al Qa’ida attacks on US properties. From the first attack, the Taliban government was in dereliction of its responsibilities in preventing further attacks. It moreover refused to hold the perpetrators to account or to deliver them to international justice, thus implicating itself in the Al Qa’ida crimes. Under these circumstances, action against Afghanistan was justified and the invasion was indeed necessary. Unlike the invasions mentioned earlier, this one was, in its origins, more an act of defence than of aggression.

It is however apparent that the subsequent occupation of Afghanistan has lost its way. As time has gone by, its objectives have kept on changing. At first we were there to apprehend the leaders of Al Qa’ida and the Taliban and to root out the bases from which the attacks on the West were orchestrated. Then the principal objective became the establishment of a western style democracy within which, it was said, an Al Qa’ida could never re-establish itself. Along the way we would eliminate corruption, reform education and transform the treatment and role of women. These things are now hardly mentioned.

Osama bin Laden has been found and killed. That may remain the war’s only durable success. Mullah Omar – remember him, the Taliban leader? He is no longer mentioned. Hamid Karzai stole the Afghan election and still we support him - a real democracy unattainable; Afghanistan remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world; most kids are still educated in the old way if at all and the prospects for women have not changed greatly. What change there is, is insecure and seems to rely on our presence, a presence that will one day end.

The limitations of military conquest as a tool of foreign policy and societal change are again all too obvious. Now we have a much more modest aim: we are there to train the Afghan army until it has the capacity to resist the Taliban on its own. In an opaque and corrupt country, this is an objective fraught with risk and uncertainty: How can we control what they will do with their newly acquired capabilities once we depart? Which master will the troops serve?

The unspoken aim in Afghanistan is just to make a face-saving withdrawal. In the meantime, lives are at risk - Australian lives, NATO lives, Afghan lives - and the longer the occupation continues, the greater the chance that it will become counterproductive. What more is really, durably achievable and what price are we prepared to pay to achieve it? Will some of the long-run lessons of the Boer War be re-learnt here, too, when history weighs these awkward years in the balance?

[1] Interestingly, Churchill himself did understand for he said in Parliament in 1901, ‘…if I were a Boer I hope I should be fighting in the field ...’

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