Empire's Paranoia About the Pashtuns

A Century of Frenzy over the North-West Frontier

What, what, what,

What's the news from Swat?

Sad news,
Bad news,

Comes by the cable led

Through the Indian Ocean's bed,

Through the Persian Gulf,
the Red
Sea and the Med-

Iterranean -- he 's dead;

The Ahkoond is dead!

-- George Thomas Lanigan

Despite being among the poorest people in the world, the inhabitants of
the craggy northwest of what is now Pakistan have managed to throw a
series of frights into distant Western capitals for more than a
century. That's certainly one for the record books.

And it hasn't ended yet. Not by a long shot. Not with the headlines in
the U.S. papers about the depredations of the Pakistani Taliban, not
with the CIA's drone aircraft striking gatherings in Waziristan and
elsewhere near the Afghan border. This spring, for instance, one
counter-terrorism analyst stridently (and wholly implausibly) warned
that "in one to six months" we could "see the collapse of the Pakistani
state," at the hands of the bloodthirsty Taliban, while Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton called the situation in Pakistan a "mortal danger" to global security.

What most observers don't realize is that the doomsday rhetoric
about this region at the top of the world is hardly new. It's at least
100 years old. During their campaigns in the northwest in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, British officers, journalists
and editorialists sounded much like American strategists, analysts, and
pundits of the present moment. They construed the Pashtun tribesmen who
inhabited Waziristan as the new Normans, a dire menace to London that
threatened to overturn the British Empire.

The young Winston S. Churchill even wrote a book in 1898, The Story of the Malakand Field Force,
about a late-nineteenth-century British campaign in Pashtun territory,
based on his earlier journalism there. At that time, London ruled
British India, comprising all of what is now India, Bangladesh, and
Pakistan, but the British hold on the mountainous northwestern region
abutting Afghanistan and the Himalayas was tenuous. In trying to puzzle
out -- like modern analysts -- why the predecessors of the Pakistani
Taliban posed such a huge challenge to empire, Churchill singled out
two reasons for the martial prowess of those Pashtun tribesmen. One was
Islam, of which he wrote,
"That religion, which above all others was founded and propagated by
the sword -- the tenets and principles of which are instinct with
incentives to slaughter and which in three continents has produced
fighting breeds of men -- stimulates a wild and merciless fanaticism."

Churchill actually revealed his prejudices here. In fact, for the most
part, Islam spread peacefully in what is now Pakistan, by the preaching
and poetry of mystical Sufi leaders, and most Muslims have not been
more warlike in history than, for example, Anglo-Saxons.

For his second reason, he settled on the environment in which those
tribesmen were supposed to thrive. "The inhabitants of these wild but
wealthy valleys" are, he explained, in "a continual state of feud and
strife." In addition, he insisted, they were early adopters of military
technology, so that their weapons were not as primitive as was common
among other "races" at what he referred to as "their stage" of
development. "To the ferocity of the Zulu are added the craft of the
Redskin and the marksmanship of the Boer," he warned.

In these tribesmen, he concluded, "the world is presented with that
grim spectacle, 'the strength of civilization without its mercy.'" The
Pashtun were, he added, excellent marksmen, who could fell the unwary
Westerner with a state-of-the-art breech-loading rifle. "His assailant,
approaching, hacks him to death with the ferocity of a South-Sea
Islander. The weapons of the nineteenth century are in the hands of the
savages of the Stone Age."

Ironically, given Churchill's description of them, when four decades
later the Pashtuns joined the freedom movement against British rule
that led to the formation of independent Pakistan and India in 1947,
politicized Pashtuns were notable not for savagery, but for joining
Mahatma Gandhi's campaign of non-violent non-cooperation.

Nevertheless, the Churchillian image of primitive, fanatical
brutality armed with cutting edge technology, which singled Pashtuns
out as an extraordinary peril to the West, survived the Victorian era
and has now made it into the headlines of our own newspapers. Bruce
Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst, was tasked by the
Obama administration to evaluate security threats in Afghanistan and
Pakistan. Arnaud de Borchgrave of the Washington Times reported breathlessly on July 17th that Riedel had concluded:

"A jihadist victory in Pakistan, meaning the takeover
of the nation by a militant Sunni movement led by the Taliban... would
create the greatest threat the United States has yet to face in its war
on terror... [and] is now a real possibility in the foreseeable future."

The article, in true Churchillian fashion, is entitled "Armageddon Alarm Bell Rings."

In fact, few intelligence predictions could have less chance of coming
true. In the 2008 parliamentary election, the Pakistani public voted in
centrist parties, some of them secular, virtually ignoring the Muslim
fundamentalist parties. Today in Pakistan, there are about 24 million
Pashtuns, a linguistic ethnic group that speaks Pashto. Another 13
million live across the British-drawn "Durand Line," the border --
mostly unacknowledged by Pashtuns -- between Pakistan and southern
Afghanistan. Most Taliban derive from this group, but the vast majority
of Pashtuns are not Taliban and do not much care for the Muslim

The Taliban force that was handily defeated this spring by the
Pakistani army in a swift campaign in the Swat Valley in the North-West
Frontier Province, amounted to a mere 4,000 men. The Pakistani military
is 550,000 strong and has a similar number of reservists. It has tanks,
artillery, and fighter jets. The Taliban's appeal is limited to that
country's Pashtun ethnic group, about 14% of the population and, from
everything we can tell, it is a minority taste even among them. The
Taliban can commit terrorism and destabilize, but they cannot take over
the Pakistani government.

Some Western analysts worry that the Taliban could unite with
disgruntled junior officers of the Pakistani Army, who could come to
power in a putsch and so offer their Taliban allies access to
sophisticated weaponry. Successful Pakistani coups, however, have been
made by the chief of staff at the top, not by junior officers, since
the military is quite disciplined. Far from coup-making to protect the
Taliban, the military has actually spent the past year in hard slogging
against them in the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Bajaur and
more recently in Swat.

Today's fantasy of a nuclear-armed Taliban is the modern equivalent of
Churchill's anxiety about those all-conquering, ultramodern Pashtun
riflemen with the instincts of savages.

Frontier Ward and Watch

On a recent research trip to the India Office archives in London to
plunge into British military memoirs of the Waziristan campaigns in the
first half of the twentieth century, I was overcome by a vivid sense of
deja vu.
The British in India fought three wars with Afghanistan, losing the
first two decisively, and barely achieving a draw in the third in 1919.
Among the Afghan king Amanullah's demands during the third war were
that the Pashtun tribes of the frontier be allowed to give him their
fealty and that Britain permit Afghanistan to conduct a sovereign
foreign policy. He lost on the first demand, but won on the second and
soon signed a treaty of friendship with the newly established Soviet

Disgruntled Pashtun tribes in Waziristan, a no-man's land sandwiched
between the Afghan border and the formal boundary of the British-ruled
North-West Frontier Province, preferred Kabul's rule to that of London,
and launched their own attacks on the British, beginning in 1919.
Putting down the rebellious Wazir and Mahsud tribes of this region
would, in the end, cost imperial Britain's treasury three times as much
as had the Third Anglo-Afghan War itself.

On May 2, 1921, long after the Pashtun tribesmen should have been pacified, the Manchester Guardian
carried a panicky news release by the British Viceroy of India on a
Mahsud attack. "Enemy activity continues throughout," the alarmed
message from Viceroy Rufus Isaacs, the Marquess of Reading, said,
implying that a massive uprising on the subcontinent was underway. In
fact, the action at that point was in only a small set of villages in
one part of Waziristan, itself but one of several otherwise relatively
quiet tribal areas.

the 23rd of that month, a large band of Mahsud struck "convoys" near
the village of Piazha. British losses included a British officer
killed, four British and two Indian officers wounded, and seven Indian
troops killed, with 26 wounded. On the 24th, "a picket [sentry outpost]
near Suidgi was ambushed, and lost nine killed and seven wounded." In
nearby Zhob, the British received support from friendly Pashtun tribes
engaged in a feud with what they called the "hostiles," and -- a modern
touch -- "aeroplanes" weighed in as well. They were, it was said,
"cooperating," though this too was an exaggeration. At the time, the
Royal Air Force (RAF) was eager to prove its colonial worth on the
imperial frontiers in ways that extended beyond simple reconnaissance,
even though in 1921 it maintained but a single airplane at Peshawar,
the nearest city, which had "a hole in its wing." By 1925, the RAF had
gotten its wish and would drop 150 tons of bombs on the Mahsud tribe.

On July 5, 1921, a newspaper report in the Allahabad Pioneer
gives a sense of the tactics the British deployed against the
"hostiles." One center of rebellion was the village of Makin, inhabited
by that same Mahsud tribe, which apparently wanted its own irrigation
system and freedom from British interference. The British Indian army
held the nearby village of Ladka. "Makin was shelled from Ladka on the
20th June," the report ran.

The tribal fighters responded by beginning to move their flocks, though
their families remained. British archival sources report that a Muslim
holy man, or faqir,
attempted to give the people of Makin hope by laying a spell on the
6-inch howitzer shells and pledging that they would no longer explode
in the valley. (Overblown imperial anxiety about such faqirs or akhonds,
Pashtun religious leaders, inspired Victorian satirists such as Edward
Lear, who began one poem, "Who, or why, or which, or what, Is the Akond
of Swat?")

The faqir's spells were to no avail. The shelling, the Pioneer
reported, continued over the next two days, "with good results." Then
on the 23rd, "another bombardment of Makin was carried out by our
6-inch howitzers at Ladka." This shelling "had a great moral effect,"
the newspaper intoned, and revealed with satisfaction that "the
inhabitants are now evacuating their families." The particular nature
of the moral effect of bombarding a civilian village where women and
children were known to be present was not explained. Two days later,
however, thanks to air observation, the howitzers at Ladka and the guns
at "Piazha camp" made a "direct hit" on another similarly obscure

Such accounts of small, vicious engagements in mountainous villages
with (to British ears) outlandish names fit oddly with the strange
conviction of the elite and the press that the fate of the Empire was
somehow at stake -- just as strangely as similar reports out of exactly
the same area, often involving the very same tribes, do in our own
time. On July 7, 2009, for instance, the Pakistani newspaper The Nation published a typical daily report
on the Swat valley campaign which might have come right out of the
early twentieth century. Keep in mind that this was a campaign into
which the Obama administration forced the Pakistani government to save
itself and the American position in the Greater Middle East, and which
displaced some two million people, risking the actual destabilization
of the whole northwestern region of Pakistan. It went in part:

"[T]he security forces during search operation at
Banjut, Swat, recovered 50 mules loaded with arms and ammunition,
medicines and ration and also apprehended a few terrorists. During
search operation at Thana, an improvised explosive device (IED) went
off causing injuries to a soldier. As a result of operation at
Tahirabad, Mingora, the security forces recovered surgical equipment,
nine hand grenades and office furniture from the house of a militant."

The unfamiliar place names, the attention to confiscated mules, and the
fear of tribal militancy differed little from the reports in the Pioneer from nearly a century before. Echoing Viceroy Rufus Isaacs, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said
on July 14th, "Our national security as well as the future of
Afghanistan depends on a stable, democratic, and economically viable
Pakistan. We applaud the new Pakistani determination to deal with the
militants who threaten their democracy and our shared security."

As in 1921, so in 2009, the skirmishes were ignored by the general
public in the West despite the frenzied assertions of politicians that
the fate of the world hung in the balance.

A Paranoid View of the Pashtuns, Then and Now

On July 21, 1921, a "correspondent" for the Allahabad Pioneer
-- as anonymous as he was vehement -- explained how some firefights in
Waziristan might indeed be consequential for Western civilization. He
attacked "Irresponsible Criticism" of the military budget required to
face down the Mahsud tribe. He asked, "What is India's strategical
position in the world today?" It was a leading question. "Along
hundreds of miles of her border," he then warned darkly in a mammoth
run-on sentence, "are scores of thousands of hardy fighters trained to
war and rapine from their very birth, never for an instant forgetful of
the soft wealth of India's plains, all of whom would descend to harry
them tomorrow if they thought the venture safe, some of whom are
determinedly at war with us even now."

Note that he does not explain the challenge posed by the Pashtun tribes
in terms of typical military considerations, which would require
attention to the exact numbers, training, equipment, tactics and
logistics of the fighters, and which would have revealed them as no
significant threat to the Indian plains, however hard they were to
control in their own territory. The "correspondent" instead ridicules
urban "pen-pushers," who little appreciate the "heavy task" of
"frontier ward and watch."

Not only were the tribes a danger in themselves, the hawkish
correspondent intoned, but "beyond India's border lies a great country
[Afghanistan] with whom we are not even yet technically at peace." Nor
was that all. The recently-established Soviet Union, with which
Afghanistan had concluded a treaty of friendship that February, loomed
as the real threat behind the radical Pashtuns. "Beyond that again is a
huge mad-dog nation that acknowledges no right save the sword, no creed
save aggression, murder and loot, that will stay at nothing to gain its
end, that covets avowedly a descent upon India above all other aims."

That then-Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, who took an extremely dim view
of colonialism and seriously considered freeing the Central Asian
possessions of the old tsarist empire, was then contemplating the rape
of India is among the least believable calumnies in imperial
propaganda. The "correspondent" would have none of it. Those, he
concludes, who dare criticize the military budget should try
sweet-talking the Mahsud, the Wazir and the Bolsheviks.

In our own day as well, pundits configure the uncontrolled Pashtuns
as merely the tip of a geostrategic iceberg, with the sinister icy
menace of al-Qaeda stretching beneath, and beyond that greater
challenges to the U.S. such as Iran
(incredibly, sometimes charged by the U.S. military with supporting the
hyper-Sunni, Shiite-hating Taliban in Afghanistan). Occasionally in
this decade, attempts have even been made to tie the Russian bear once again to the Pashtun tribes.

In the case of the British Empire, whatever the imperial fears, the
actual cost in lives and expenditure of campaigning in the Hindu Kush
mountain range was enough to ensure that such engagements would be of
relatively limited duration. On October 26, 1921, the Pioneer
reported that the British government of India had determined to
implement a new system in Waziristan, dependent on tribal mercenaries.

"This system, which was so successfully inaugurated in the Khyber
district last year," the article explained, "is really an adaptation of
the methods in vogue 40 years ago." The tribal commander provided his
own weapons and equipment, and for a fee, protected imperial lines of
communication and provided security on the roads. "Thus he has an
interest in maintaining the tranquility of his territory, and gives
support to the more stable elements among the tribes when the hotheads
are apt to run amok." The system would be adopted, the article says, to
put an end to the ruinous costs of "punitive expeditions of merely
ephemeral pacificatory value."

Absent-minded empire keeps reinventing the local tribal levy, loyal to
foreign capitals and paid by them, as a way of keeping the hostiles in
check. The U.S. Council on Foreign Relations reported late last year
that "U.S. military commanders are studying the feasibility of
recruiting Afghan tribesmen... to target Taliban and al-Qaeda elements.
Taking a page from the so-called 'Sunni Awakening' in Iraq, which
turned Sunni tribesmen against militants first in Anbar Province and
then beyond, the strategic about-face in Afghanistan would seek to
extend power from Kabul to the country's myriad tribal militias."
Likewise, the Pakistani government has attempted to deploy tribal
fighters against the Taliban in the Federally Administered areas such
as Bajaur. It remains to be seen whether this strategy can succeed.

Both in the era between the two world wars and again in the early
twenty-first century, the Pashtun peoples have been objects of anxiety
in world capitals out of all proportion to the security challenge they
actually pose. As it turned out, the real threat to the British Isles
in the twentieth century emanated from one of what Churchill called
their "civilized" European neighbors. Nothing the British tried in the
North-West Frontier and its hinterland actually worked. By the 1940s
the British hold on the tribal agencies and frontier regions was
shakier than ever before, and the tribes more assertive. After the
British were forced out of the subcontinent in 1947, London's anxieties
about the Pashtuns and their world-changing potential abruptly

Today, we are again hearing that the Waziris and the Mahsuds are
dire threats to Western civilization. The tribal struggle for control
of obscure villages in the foothills of the Himalayas is being depicted
as a life-and-death matter for the North Atlantic world. Again, there
is aerial surveillance, bombing, artillery fire, and -- this time --
displacement of civilians on a scale no British viceroy ever

In 1921, vague threats to the British Empire from a small, weak
principality of Afghanistan and a nascent, if still supine, Soviet
Union underpinned a paranoid view of the Pashtuns. Today, the supposed
entanglement with al-Qaeda of those Pashtuns termed "Taliban" by U.S.
and NATO officials -- or even with Iran or Russia -- has focused
Washington's and Brussels's military and intelligence efforts on the
highland villagers once again.

Few of the Pashtuns in question, even the rebellious ones, are really
Taliban in the sense of militant seminary students; few so-called
Taliban are entwined with what little is left of al-Qaeda in the
region; and Iran and Russia are not, of course, actually supporting the
latter. There may be plausible reasons for which the U.S. and NATO wish
to spend blood and treasure in an attempt to forcibly shape the
politics of the 38 million Pashtuns on either side of the Durand Line
in the twenty-first century. That they form a dire menace to the
security of the North Atlantic world is not one of them.

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