April 1, 2006  

Going native

Great powers, indigenous armies

It wasn’t so long ago that empire was in. For a brief, strange, almost Olympian moment earlier in this decade, it was just about all America’s foreign policy establishment wanted to talk about.

Before improvised explosive devices and Abu Ghraib darkened headlines, writers as ideologically diverse as Sebastian Mallaby, Robert D. Kaplan, Michael Ignatieff, Richard Haass and Dinesh D’Souza flirted with the notion of an “imperial role” for the United States. Writing a few weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Max Boot argued that “Afghanistan and other troubled lands … cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.” The New York Times Magazine picked up the theme, profiling “a new, proud American imperialism” in its annual “Year in Ideas” issue. Yale University’s Paul Kennedy noted in mid-2002 that, “From the time the first settlers arrived in Virginia from England and started moving westward, this was an imperial nation, a conquering nation,” while academic Niall Ferguson insisted that the United States was “an empire in denial.”

This burst of imperial exuberance has since tapered off. “A fit of absence of mind” is how historian J.R. Seeley described the way Britain acquired its empire, and three years into Iraq, many Americans have had their fill of the savage wars of peace. President Bush may still wax eloquent about a world without tyranny, but at the Defense Department, the immediate focus is on troop withdrawals from the Middle East, not future conquests.

“We hope not to be invading a big country for a long time,” one officer at the Pentagon remarked recently — a fitting epitaph for the Bush Doctrine if ever there was one.

Indeed, to the extent that empire is invoked today, it tends to be by opponents, not advocates, of a forward-leaning foreign policy. Just consider the counter volley of books — Rashid Khalidi’s “Resurrecting Empire,” Michael Scheurer’s “Imperial Hubris,” Robert Merry’s “Sands of Empire,” John Judis’ “The Folly of Empire” — that caution against missionary zeal and overreaching ambitions in international affairs, and especially in the greater Middle East. The imperial moment, it would seem, is over.

And, yet, here’s the irony: It has only been as the star of empire has faded and the costs of a long, hard slog through the Middle East piled up that the U.S. military has grown progressively more serious about the raising, training and mentoring of indigenous security forces in the war on terrorism — arguably, one of the oldest imperial tricks in the book.

In Iraq, the development of the army and police has catapulted from a backwater assignment in the days of L. Paul Bremer to the single most important metric for American victory and drawdown. The newfound focus on Iraqification reflects, at its best, the Bush administration’s belated recognition of what an effective counterinsurgency campaign entails and the fact that there are nowhere near enough U.S. soldiers in theater to wage one.

This calculus is even more at play in Afghanistan. There, from the moment the Taliban withdrew from Kandahar, it has been clear that no Western power would volunteer the vast number of troops needed to garrison and pacify the country. Instead, the job of providing security has been outsourced to locals — both informally, through warlords and their militias and, more hopefully, in the case of the emerging, U.S.-trained Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.

Yet the focus on indigenous forces is likely to extend far beyond these two fronts. The Quadrennial Defense Review heavily underlined the importance of supporting “surrogates” in the war on terror and a “shifting emphasis from performing tasks ourselves to enabling others.” Among the review’s specific policy recommendations are the creation of a “defense coalition support account … to stockpile routine defense articles such as helmets, body armor and night-vision goggles” and expanded Pentagon authority for train-and-equip missions.

This is hardly the stuff of unilateralism. On the contrary, the Pentagon has quietly moved from a defense strategy predicated on the assumption that America can do everything on its own to one that presumes a high degree of reliance on others.

The more perceptive acolytes of American empire might well have predicted this. Beginning in the 17th century, Portugal and the Netherlands built and maintained their overseas empires by raising and training soldiers from local populations. Two centuries later, every European country of strategic significance — from Britain to Belgium — relied overwhelmingly on African mercenary armies in the scramble to carve up the continent. The military power of empires, in short, has frequently depended on indigenous forces.

Yet despite the flurry of debate about empire earlier in this decade, native levies almost never entered into the discussion. Perhaps that’s because the imperial boosters of a few years back tended to be inspired by visions of American strength, not its limitations. For many pundits in 2002 or 2003, “empire” was really just a sexier, more provocative way of saying “superpower.” No surprise, then, that in our haste to dust off the pith helmets, we forgot about the turbans.


Expansionary European powers turned to native levies for much the same fundamental reason as the Bush administration: an economy-of-force solution for a manpower problem. For small countries such as the Netherlands, which had a population of a mere 2 million people during the 1600s, exporting the numbers necessary to hold its possessions abroad was a demographic impossibility. On the other hand, for countries such as France and Germany in the late 19th century, competing defense obligations on the continent — in particular, the threat of conventional war with another major power — made the permanent basing of a large army overseas too risky.

Then there was the prohibitive expense of deploying, supporting and paying a significant body of European soldiers far from home. Outsourcing to natives, by contrast, was a great deal cheaper. At the turn of the 20th century, it cost more than 2,000 francs a year to maintain a French marine infantryman in West Africa but only 980 francs for his local equivalent — who, not incidentally, was also less likely to collapse from malaria or some other gangrenous tropical disease.

“You can put more combatants in the field, you have fewer sick, and there is less gear to drag around,” Lt. Col. Albert Ditte noted in 1905, neatly summarizing the advantages of indigenous forces.

Native armies meant that Europeans could minimize their footprint in ways that surpass even the most feverish dreams of today’s Pentagon strategists. “The Senegalese light infantry are the real soldiers of the Sudan,” remarked Lt. Col. Joseph-Simon Gallieni, commander of French forces in West Africa in the late 1880s and the original strategist behind the “oil stain” theory of counterinsurgency. “By turns engineers, gunners, couriers, porters, always ready, always loyal, it is because of them that we are able to hold the vast territory [from the Senegal River] to the Niger River.”

This was no idle boast. In the late 19th century, the Belgian Congo was held by a scant 200 European soldiers, backed by several thousand native regulars. During roughly the same period, there were no more than 300 European officers and noncommissioned officers in all of Britain’s African empire.

Arguably the greatest example of imperial army-building was India. There, what began as a “rabble of peons” raised to defend a few British trading posts grew over the course of 200 years to become the largest all-volunteer army the world has ever seen, 2½ million strong at its zenith. It was this “sepoy army” — or rather armies, as there were several of them — that underpinned the military might of the British Empire, and not just on the subcontinent. It was Indian soldiers who fought with Roberts in Afghanistan, with Kitchener at Omdurman and with Maude in Mesopotamia. As George MacMunn, an old India hand, pointed out in 1911: “It is only necessary for a feeling to arise [among the Indians] that it is impious and disgraceful to serve the British, for the whole of our fabric to tumble like a house of cards without a shot being fired or a sword unsheathed.”

Even during the Great Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, when thousands of Indian soldiers did rise up, many more stayed loyal. “We could not have held our own for a day without help from the natives of India,” recalled one veteran who fought against the mutineers.


The weight of accumulated history that has been written on the British Indian army is enough to stun a small team of oxen, much less a contemporary policy-maker eager for quick-and-dirty lessons learned. Indian historian S.N. Prasad famously assembled a single-spaced bibliography on the subject that ran to 63 pages, and only after dismissing the pre-19th century work as “blank.” Where, then, to begin parsing through this embarrassment of riches?

While there are several good general studies of the Indian army under the British — Stephen P. Cohen’s “The Indian Army” and Byron Farwell’s “Armies of the Raj,” to name two — a more provocative, idiosyncratic introduction can be found in the form of Stephen Peter Rosen’s 1996 work “Societies and Military Power: India and Its Armies.”

The British, the joke goes, went to India for a spot of tea and ended up running the place. Rosen, meanwhile, set out to write a book about the relationship between social structures and military power, and ended up producing a magisterial history about the Indian way of war. “Societies and Military Power” is an intellectual feast, a rare example of a book that is both intensely cerebral and instantly accessible. Rosen’s chapter on the British army-building effort, in particular, should be on the reading list of every American unit bound for Iraq or Afghanistan.

A professor of political science at Harvard, Rosen frames his study by posing a fascinating question. Both the British and their predecessors on the subcontinent, the Mughals, “represented empires in which a religiously distinct foreign military elite claimed to rule an enormous indigenous population.” But whereas the British were able to rapidly stand up native armies that solidified control in South Asia and could even be exported to other parts of their empire, the Mughals — Chaghtai-speaking Turks who had ridden down to Delhi from Central Asia in the 16th century — fielded weak, disorganized armies that could scarcely hold together the realm, much less reconquer their ancestral homeland in the Ferghana Valley. “If neither the form of the political institutions nor the local social structures varied significantly during this period, why and how did the military outcome change so markedly? “The answer, Rosen maintains, is a function not of British moral superiority, as the Victorians insisted, or Western technological advantages, as many 20th century academics assumed. In fact, Indian firearms and artillery were frequently as good, if not better, than those of their European adversaries. Rather, the reason for the wildly divergent capabilities of the British and Mughal armies lies in the nature of their respective relationships with Indian society.

India, like Iraq, Afghanistan or any number of states in the modern developing world, is creased with ethnic, religious, linguistic and social divisions, most famously those of caste. The Mughal army, because it made no attempt to divorce its soldiers from the surrounding society, internalized these fissures in its structure and operations — and suffered the consequences.

Consider the battle of Dharmat in 1658. Indian historian Jadunath Sarkar describes the performance of the Rajput cavalry there, which, “being divided into many mutually antagonistic clans, could not charge in one compact mass; they were broken up into six or seven bodies, each under its own chieftains and each choosing its own point of attack.” Such problems were typical of Mughal military organization, which was constantly torn by distrust and rivalries both among Hindu subcastes and between Hindus and Muslims. As Rosen notes, “This was a big army of separate, socially based components, none of which could be expected or needed to cooperate with one another. … No unit would be called upon to maneuver in a way that made its survival dependent on the actions of any other part of the army. Success depended not on coordination among different units but on weight and inertia, with the simplest set of orders possible.”

These divisions didn’t disappear with the arrival of the British East India Company in the 1600s, of course. On the contrary, with the decline of the Mughal empire during the first half of the 18th century, they worsened, especially along the imperial periphery. Sikhs, Marathas and Telegu-speaking brigands all took advantage of Delhi’s weakness to begin assembling their own independent military capabilities. One Telegu bandit chief alone was reported to have a force of between 10,000 and 12,000 men.

Why, then, did the British succeed in subduing the continent where the Mughals had failed? Because unlike the Mughals, Rosen points out, they effectively separated sepoys from the surrounding society, insulating them from its most deleterious and destabilizing divisions. With a cohesive, professionalized body of rock-hard infantry at their disposal, the British could then set to work systematically disarming the militias and establishing their own military monopoly on the subcontinent.

In part, this separation of the sepoys was a matter of methodical, close-order drill and maneuver — an innovation the British were by no means the first to import to India. John Fortescue, the great historian of the British Army, describes how the French, who had their own toehold in South Asia at Pondichérry, “by a happy inspiration, armed four or five thousand Mahommedan natives and trained and drilled them after the European model” in the late 1730s. Nonetheless, the British were quick to copy their continental rivals, with Stringer Lawrence — who is still regarded as the father of the Indian army — raising his own native levies at Madras less than a decade later.

But training alone was only part of the trick. There was also an early, and conscious, decision by the British to emphasize the durability and permanence of the military institutions they were building. In particular, the British were punctilious as paymasters, something previously unheard of in India. “The leading principle of the Company’s Government should be that the pay of the soldier ought never to be in arrears,” reads an East India Company report from 1785. “While there was a rupee in the treasury, he was to be paid, every other article of expenditure being postponed to that consideration.” Such careful attention to salaries was, of course, also intended to blunt the threat of mutiny, but the ultimate effect was to nurture a sense of dependability and loyalty in the ranks.

This sense was further deepened by the decision to provide benefits not only to the sepoys, but also to their families. In Bombay, for instance, wives, children and grandparents came to live with soldiers — further separating the army from society — and a fund was established that provided compensation for the kin of those killed or disabled in battle.

Interestingly, this approach was not copied in the Bengal army, where the families of sepoys remained in their home villages. The Bengal army was also more homogenous in its recruitment, composed predominantly of high-caste Hindus, than were the Bombay and Madras armies, which tended to be more egalitarian and meritocratic, including “all classes and castes down to the most humble.” As one sepoy famously put it: “In Hindustan it is pride of caste; in Bombay, pride of regiment.”

These policy decisions on the part of the British go a long way to help explain the differences in behavior of the three forces during the 1857 mutiny, when the Bengal army rose up and the Madras and Bombay armies stayed loyal. Simply put, the greater the separation of sepoys from Indian society, the fiercer they clung to the new institutions.

British army-building in India did not happen in a vacuum. On the contrary, it grew out of a military revolution that took place two centuries before in Europe. There, the “invention” of highly trained, professionalized infantry — pioneered by Gustavus Adolphus and William of Nassau among others — helped demilitarize and consolidate the nation states that define the continent to this day. “European society did not transform itself overnight, but the armies of Europe did change dramatically,” writes Rosen. “Disciplined, militarily dominant, and more reliable, their behavior was less reflective of European society and more reflective of their own military structure.”

Nor was this, strictly speaking, a Western discovery. Consider, for instance, the Ottomans, whose leaders, like the British, built an empire on professionalized native levies. The Turks, Rosen observes, “systematically leveled and reduced the social structures in their domains that could serve as the source of organized social or military opposition to their rule, and constructed a state apparatus populated with slaves deliberately divorced, ethnically and professionally, from the host society.”


That British army-building techniques could be replicated by non-Westerners also posed a serious danger to London’s rising hegemony in India — and animated a larger part of their strategy there than commonly appreciated. Far from being “costly and irrational land grabbing,” as many historians have maintained, British expansion in India was often driven by the need to preempt rising peer competitors.

In the late 1790s, for instance, Governor-General Richard Wellesley warned of the threat posed by “the system, now pursued almost universally by the native princes, of retaining in their service numbers of European or American officers, under whom the native troops are trained and disciplined in imitation of the sepoys in the British service.” It was no coincidence that the regions of greatest concern to Wellesley, such as the Marathi-speaking south, were those “less divided by social structures,” where “more progress seems to have been made toward creating cohesive armies.”


Where Rosen’s book is an exemplar of cool, academic detachment, cutting toward its conclusions with scalpel-like precision, Philip Mason’s “A Matter of Honour: An Account of the Indian Army, Its Officers, and Men” is sprawling, chatty and cheerfully opinionated. The author — an Oxbridge-educated veteran of the pre-independence Indian Civil Service — is an unabashed puffer of British imperialism on the subcontinent, filling page after page with old-fashioned “guns and drums” accounts of battles won and lost. He addresses his readers as countrymen, with frequent asides about “our ancestors,” amidst other politically incorrect transgressions.

Beyond tales of heroism at Koregaum and the storming of the mud fortress at Bhurtpore, however, Mason’s book provides a thoughtful, nuts-and-bolts road map for how the Indian army came into being. To an even greater degree and in much greater detail than Rosen, Mason wants to understand “what made Indian soldiers give their lives for a flag they could hardly call their own. … Men may come to the colours for pay, but it is not for pay that they earn the Victoria Cross.”

“A Matter of Honour” is especially valuable in its attention to individual personalities and their decision-making processes. Mason appreciates the role of contingency in history, and while his narrative can be a bit rambling at times, so, too, was the process by which the British raised their armies on the subcontinent. Mason repeatedly stresses “experiment and transition” as the keynotes of early British policies — a nice way of saying that Stringer Lawrence and his colleagues were often making it up as they went along.

In many cases, debates familiar to U.S. military trainers in Iraq and Afghanistan went back and forth over decades without reaching any firm resolution. What, for instance, was the correct number of British officers to attach to an Indian battalion? One school of thought “argued that everything depended on the British officers and they must supervise everything.” Another, anticipating dependency theory by a few hundred years, felt that too many foreign overseers “reduced the responsibility of the Indian officers. … It was better to leave the internal management to the Indian officers and to run the battalion with as few British as possible.”

Mason also emphasizes, to a greater extent than Rosen, the importance of cultivating “a certain permanence, a continuity in policy, a courteous attitude to the future that was rare in Indian monarchs but essential to the confidence of troops.” This included a promotion system that was tied to the length of a soldier’s service, as well as a pension system that rewarded sepoys who stayed in the army for the long haul. In contrast to present-day Iraq or Afghanistan, where newly recruited soldiers have good reason to hedge against the possibility of American withdrawal and abandonment, the British went out of their way to make clear that a sepoy signing up in Madras or Bombay could count on getting his paycheck 30 or 40 years hence.

Perhaps the most provocative aspect of Mason’s book lies in its characterization of the relationship between foreigners and natives in the Indian army. While Rosen describes the separation of sepoys from society as a zero-sum game for British and Indians alike, Mason presents a more nuanced argument about how the British consciously incorporated elements of indigenous culture into their new military institutions. Much in the way Christianity and Islam were willing to accommodate and assimilate the local rituals and customs of converts as they spread into new territories, Mason insists that the success of the British-built army in India owed to its ability to adapt itself to the subcontinent’s concepts and beliefs.

The oath of loyalty a sepoy took upon enlistment, for instance, was “a vital factor in the development of the army,” Mason argues, carefully constructed to serve as a memorable, intelligible and binding appeal to personal honor. “It helped establish an atmosphere in which fidelity had meaning.” Similarly, Mason draws attention to the veneration of the regimental colors:

“There is a Hindu festival at which it is customary to worship the emblems of a man’s craft, which in the Hindu system is closely linked with his place in society and his religious duty. In some battalions, this festival was made a regimental occasion and the colours were the central object to which veneration was paid. … The colours were constantly presented to the men as the emblem of their military honour.”

The Indian army worked, in other words, not because it was a clever idea imported from abroad but because of the way it accommodated the cultures and identities of the people who lived inside its ranks. “The regiment, the colours, were British; destiny and fidelity to salt Muslim; the essential message of the Bhagavad Gita, which some regard as the core of Hinduism, is that each man shall perform his proper function. All three understood the concept of honour.” It was this, more than any other aspect, that “made it possible for men of these three faiths to live and work and die together.”


The willingness of people of different faiths and backgrounds to live and work and die together is also, ultimately, the center of gravity of the war the United States finds itself in. Can Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds come together to form genuinely national institutions? Can Iraq’s emerging security forces span the growing sectarian divisions roiling the country and establish a monopoly on the use of force? And what role should Americans play in that process?

All historical analogies are imperfect, of course, and the Indian army is no exception. The differences between America’s three years in Iraq and Britain’s two centuries in South Asia are so numerous and extensive as to all but defy description. At the very least, they reinforce just how far the United States is from being an imperial power, at least in any historically meaningful sense.

Even putting aside the political and economic arrangements implied by imperialism — none of which are remotely applicable to the foreign policies of the contemporary United States — the fact remains that British army-building was ultimately about consolidating and maintaining long-term foreign dominion on the subcontinent. For all their attention to institutions that could mitigate India’s internal divisions and thereby wrest the maximum military power out of the populace, the British nonetheless observed the time-honored imperial principle of “divide et impera.” This was especially the case after the 1857 mutiny, when London actively sought to reform the Indian army along “the geographical limits within which differences and rivalries are strongly marked” to preserve those divisions that “[make] the Muhammadan of one country despise, fear, or dislike the Muhammadan of another.”

For the United States in Iraq, of course, the opposite is true: Our deepest desire is not to divide and conquer the country but to unify it — and then draw down. It’s also worth noting that empires are not the only geopolitical powers that historically have made use of proxies and surrogates. During the Cold War, the United States frequently employed a range of direct and indirect means to bolster the military capabilities of front-line states threatened by communism, from West Germany to South Vietnam. That didn’t make Washington any more imperial then than building an Iraqi army does now.

Yet one needn’t believe that the United States is, or should be, an empire to recognize that it might be able to learn a thing or two from imperial examples, both positive and negative. The truth remains that there are historical precedents for building an effective, professionalized, indigenous army in a country torn by ethnic and sectarian tensions; to dismiss British policies in India as irrelevant and worthless to our present circumstances is, in its way, no less dogmatic than the case for blindly emulating them.

In particular, the British experience in South Asia strongly suggests that the link between army-building and nation-building is closer than contemporary policy-makers seem to appreciate. The Bush administration has treated Iraq’s security forces foremost as a tool of counterinsurgency — a replacement force for withdrawing American soldiers — and only secondarily as an instrument for national cohesion and integration. But the Indian example suggests that this approach may have it exactly backward.

Thus far, the distribution of military power in postwar Iraq, both formal and informal, has polarized along the country’s ethnic and sectarian fault lines. But it is precisely because the army — to a considerably greater degree than other state institutions — can be separated from the surrounding society that it offers a unique space in which to contain and defuse these centrifugal tensions and divisions. As an old subedar in the Madras army put it in the 1830s, “We put our religion into our knapsacks whenever our colors are unfurled.”

To do this in Iraq will require patience: “a certain permanence, a continuity in policy, a courteous attitude to the future,” as Mason put it — all traits that have not typified the American undertaking thus far. The continual rotation of American units in and out of theater disrupts the personal relationships on which Iraqi military development depends and vitiates the accumulation of institutional knowledge. Likewise, the vocal, public announcements of impending troop withdrawals — regardless of whether they actually happen — undermine the credibility of the structures we are trying to build. The U.S. military claims it doesn’t even possess detailed information about the ethnic and sectarian composition of the army units it is helping to stand up.

If only on this point, however, the lesson from history is clear. Loathe though the Bush administration may be to admit it, the development of effective indigenous security forces is not an exit strategy. On the contrary, it is a recipe for staying a long, long time.

Vance Serchuk is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.