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Leave Mountain People Alone

By T.X. Hammes Strategic Insights

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Leave mountain people alone

We have over 4,000 years of recorded history of human conflict. As Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has noted “There is nothing new under the sun.” And from this wealth of experience, a number of rules of thumb for military operations have evolved. Perhaps the most famous is “Don’t get in a land war in Asia.” Interestingly, I have never seen a similarly obvious rule – “Leave mountain people alone.” Yet even a brief historical survey shows that campaigns against mountain people rarely pay off. Afghans, Chechens, Kurds, Montagnards (which literally means “mountain people” in French), Scots, Welsh, Swiss, Druze, Maronite Christians, and West Virginians have all repeatedly seen off outsiders. 

I first used this idea as a joke concerning rules of thumb for military planners. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a serious caution. From Alexander’s long campaign attempting to control what is now Afghanistan, military history is full of stories of major powers, confident of victory, venturing into the territory of mountain people – only to be ejected. Most campaigns reflect the now conventional wisdom about Afghanistan, “It’s very easy to get in, much harder to get out.” 

It’s not just Afghanistan. The English first began serious efforts to subdue Scotland in the 12th Century but the Act of Union joining the two countries did not occur until early in the 18th Century. The Russians have been fighting on and off in the Caucasus since the early 1700s and still struggle to suppress terrorists groups in the region. The Maronite Christians of Lebanon have held their mountains against Muslims for over a thousand years. Every mountain society has stories of outside invaders turned away. Just as central to mountain identities are epic feuds between families and clans that have lasted centuries. Inevitably outsiders who enter the mountains get drawn into these feuds although they rarely understand them.  

If the rule is to be applied, an obvious question is how to determine if you are really dealing with mountain people. Just because people live in a mountainous area does not mean they are mountain people. I define mountain people as those who make their living in the mountains not in the valleys. For instance, the Koreans and Japanese live in a very mountainous countries but they developed as rice cultivating societies – which means they focused on the valley floors up to the height they could terrace. In contrast, mountain people make a living raising livestock, mining, logging, smuggling, or other economic activities tied to the mountains. They also traditionally made part of their living by raiding lowland communities. Further clouding the issue are peoples like the Kurds. While some Kurds have remained in the mountains, many others have moved into the flat lands of Iraq and these Kurds are no longer mountain people. Thus there is no clear cut definition of mountain people. But, in the tradition of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, you will know them when you see them. It will be even clearer if you choose to fight them.  

The next obvious question is why are mountain people so hard to conquer? Mountainous terrain favors the defender. Avenues of approach into such a region are almost always limited and frequently have numerous chokepoints. In Afghanistan, the Soviets “successfully” invaded the Panjshir Valley nine times. Each time causing great damage to the mujahedeen defenders and their families. Yet each time, the Soviets withdrew and left the Afghan insurgents in command of the valley. 

Even if an outside force does take control of a mountainous region, it will find it very difficult to maintain control. Historically, conquerors have only stayed when the resources available in the conquered territory are sufficient to pay the expense of maintaining control with additional profit for the home country. Most mountain societies are poorer than their lowland counterparts and produce too little surplus to pay for occupation much less make a profit. At some point, the occupying power understands it is cheaper to deal with any threat from the mountains by blocking it in rather than trying to change the mountain society via occupation. The chokepoints that keep outsiders out can also keep mountain people in.  

Yet terrain only explains part of the difficulty of “pacifying” mountain people – and the least significant part. Culture is a much greater problem. Mountain people tend to be clannish, inwardly focused, belligerent toward outsiders, and very tough. Constant infighting among clans and families insures their fighting skills and toughness are continually honed. Mountain people use the terrain to neutralize the attacker’s numerical or technological superiority – and their toughness to wear the interlopers down. Most important, they do not want to be part of the lowland civilization. They have been watching the lowlanders for decades if not centuries. If they wanted to be part of the lowland society, it is literally downhill. Some, like many Kurds, made the choice to move to the flatlands. But, for a wide variety of reasons, many have chosen not to. 

Policy Implications 

This brief analysis of mountain people has implications for U.S. policy. Despite the abysmal historical record of changing mountain societies, the United States finds itself directly or indirectly in three conflicts with mountain people – the eastern Pashtuns, the Kurds, and the Houthis of Yemen. While it is too late to avoid getting involved in these conflicts, history should temper our ideas on how to resolve them and to be realistic about what we can actually accomplish. Perhaps the most important factor is to recognize the realities of mountain cultures. A common trait is the idea that all men are independent decision makers. They will accept rule by local governments – made up of people they select, not those appointed from outside. Mountain people have consistently demonstrated they do not want to live under same type of government, or often, even share a government with lowlanders. They have demonstrated this through centuries of active and passive resistance to assimilation. Integrating mountain people into a state can be done, but takes hundreds of years. 

Switzerland, now seen as one of the most stable, democratic, and prosperous nations in the world, took centuries to work out its internal government issues. First formed in 1291 by an alliance of three cantons, it was not until 1848 the Swiss agreed to their first constitution. Prior to that, there was a great deal of internal conflict. Even today, the 26 cantons and 3000 communes (municipalities) retain a great deal of independence in deciding local issues. Even as a modern, highly urban society, the Swiss retain the mountain culture’s desire for local governance. It is also important to realize that we will probably not like their decisions because they will not reflect our values. For instance, Swiss women did not get the right to vote in federal elections until 1971, and the last canton to grant women the right to vote on local issues, Appenzell Ausserrhoden, only did so in 1991 and only when ordered to by the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland.  

Thus the first rule in dealing with mountain people is do not attempt to impose centralized government and especially do not try to force outside officials on them. Historically, mountain peoples govern themselves locally. Any larger government is usually achieved through voluntary association but only after a long, long series of intra-mural fights which usually left the local governance essentially intact. As the United States seeks to resolve the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen, it is essential we do not try to fundamentally change their societies. Rather than trying to “fix” societies that do not think they are broken, we must focus on our strategic goals. In each of these campaigns, the U.S. goal is to prevent the creation of a sanctuary for international terrorists. In the past, we have tried to alter societies to eliminate the motivation to become terrorists. For the most part, the United States must let mountain people govern themselves. If they choose to continue to threaten U.S. security, then the United States will have to focus on managing the toxicity that leaks out of their territories. They must contain them rather than “civilize” them. 

As for the future, our default position should be to just leave mountain people alone. Unfortunately, there may be times, like our post 9-11 invasion of Afghanistan, when we have to take action. In these situations it is essential we keep in mind the historical record. Nation building, even when done by the people of the mountain society, is a decades to centuries long struggle that will most likely fail to significantly alter their society. We need to accept that punishment raids followed by campaigns focused on suppressing terrorist capabilities (“mowing the grass”) will be both more effective and cheaper. 


Dr. T.X. Hammes is a Distinguished Research Fellow in the Center for Strategic Research, Institute for National Strategic Studies, at the National Defense University. The views expressed in this op-ed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of NDU, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.