The Magazine

Back to the Afghan Future

The return of the Gurkhas.

May 10, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 32 • By ANUP KAPHLE and GRAEME WOOD
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Back to the Afghan Future

Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan

Last summer, before the U.S. Marines moved into Marja and began doing what Marines do best, the NATO command center in nearby Lashkar Gah—capital of Helmand province—had a small black-and-white poster on its wall. It featured a grinning Asian man, wearing a hat with a chinstrap and carrying a small, cucumber-shaped sword. The caption read: “Gurkhas: Because a big guy with a little knife and a frown isn’t as scary as a little guy with a big knife and a smile.”

There are about 3,700 Gurkhas in the British army, and until a few months ago they were the dominant presence in Lashkar Gah. Thanks to a long history in the British army, these Nepalese soldiers have a reputation as fearsome warriors. It seems vaguely improbable when you first meet them. Where other soldiers are broad-backed and tall, the Gurkhas are skinny and short. Where others are loud and blustery, the Gurkhas are quiet and reserved. The assumption, which the Gurkhas and their British comrades seem pleased to cultivate, is that their silence is of the tightly wound, steel-nerved kind, and that in battle they strike with deadly precision. The enduring romantic totem of their violence is the kukri knife. When we asked a Gurkha why he would carry a knife to a gunfight, he looked surprised by the question and said “To chop the enemy,” as matter-of-factly as if he were talking about preparing dinner. 

The Gurkhas’ reputation as unsentimental killers has shown no sign of dying down in recent decades. But during their six-month turn in Helmand last year, the signature virtue of the Gurkhas was less their bravery than their culture. NATO has struggled to field soldiers who can relate well with their Afghan counterparts. Nepal is only a few hundred miles from Afghanistan, and Gurkhas share linguistic and social kinships that should make them ideal trainers and partners to the Afghan army. The Gurkhas have a storied past in Afghanistan, too. Gurkha units fought for the British in the Second and Third Anglo-Afghan Wars (1878-80 and 1919).

The Gurkhas’ latest Afghan deployment began modestly, with a 45-soldier detachment that joined an initial force of about 380 British soldiers in Helmand. In 2006, they saw their first serious resistance from the Taliban. During a shura in Nawzad, Taliban ambushed 110 Gurkhas. In the six-hour battle, 20-year-old Gurkha rifleman Nabin Rai was hit first in the eye and then in his helmet but refused to be evacuated for treatment. The British papers fawned over a quote from Rai’s commander indicating that the Gurkha had played to character, sitting down for a cigarette to shake off the shock from the second hit before quickly returning to duty. 

In Helmand the following year, hundreds of Gurkhas took part in Operation Palk Wahel (“Sledgehammer Hit”), where they were tasked with driving away the Taliban from the Upper Gereskh valley and into Musa Qala. The subsequent battle claimed the life of Yubraj Rai, the first Gurkha to die in Afghanistan for almost a century. Two more would be killed before the deployment ended.

But last summer the Gurkhas in Helmand moved from offensive missions to staffing mentoring teams tasked with training the Afghan police. NATO soldiers have so far failed miserably at training the Afghan security services and convincing them to do their job. Even with interpreters the two sides have rarely really understood each other. This is a natural and predictable effect of pairing a force that uses night-vision goggles with one that has never before worn footwear with laces. 

A scene last summer at Lashkar Gah’s last checkpoint on the road to Kandahar was typical: The British soldiers were supposed to be overseeing the Afghan policemen manning this important post, but mostly they just traded dumb grins and fondled each other’s weapons (taking care to check twice to make sure the Afghans’ dime-store Kalashnikovs were clear). Trucks passed by, and British soldiers watched in dismay as the Afghans occasionally conducted strange and incompetent searches. One British soldier had a fresh tattoo in what he thought were Dari letters but were in fact pure gobbledygook. He slouched against a wall sullenly, hiding his arm from the eyes of the few literate Afghans, so they wouldn’t ridicule him. 

But when the Gurkhas arrived, an unlikely communion began. The Nepalese soldiers and the Afghans have a common language—Hindi—because of their shared love of Bolly-wood. When they talk the affection seems real. A British platoon commander said that policemen would first come to the Gurkhas with intelligence on location of the Taliban or about a possible attack. “It’s easier for them to come to the boys because they can communicate with each other,” he said. Afghans who stand baffled and tightlipped when a British soldier asks questions will suddenly open up and spill vital details when the question comes from a Gurkha. 

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