By Invitation: Pakistan’s Frontier

Put the lantern on your shoulder


The Wana operation is developing quickly into a severe headache for the Pakistani army. The army cannot get a grip on the tribals and the “foreign elements” – as Pakistani press calls them – are exporting their particular brand of mayhem to Karachi and Peshawar. The oddest thing, I suppose to foreign observers is the notion that Pakistan does not control all of its own territories. Well, we can thank the British for that as usual.

The British East India Company knew the importance of Khyber Pass. Legendary as the “Gateway to India”, it needed to be under secure Company rule, especially because the tribal forces in the area could not be trusted. In the Great Game between Britain and Czarist Russia, Afghanistan had to be parcelled out. The wars of 1840, 1880 left the British in charge of the Khyber Pass but little else. They were not able to take and control Kabul. Afghanistan became the legendary graveyard of foreign armies within the hagiography of British Empire. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson was a veteran of this same 1880 war.

By the turn of the century, Britain decided to make another effort at controlling the areas around the Khyber Pass. The campaigns of the 1890s bought Hunza, Chitral and Waziristan into British control. In 1893 the British sent Sir Mortimer Durand to define the limits of British and Afghan control in the territories. The demarcation, which was neither topographical nor tribal, was to stand for a hundred years. The British side was divided into seven semi-autonomous regions called Agencies administered by a British official, called a Political Agent (PA) with local representatives. The seven Agencies – Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram, North and South Waziristan collectively called Federally Administered Tribal Areas in the Pakistan Constitution. Along with Durand Line came the Frontier Crimes Regulations imposed by the British to solicit tribal control through Political Agents. The laws remain on the books in Pakistan. Under the Constitution, only articles 246 and 247 apply in FATA – which make the President of Pakistan a sole source of authority in the agencies with the power to appoint Political Agents and Gen. Musharraf is still using them against the tribal people. These laws prohibit travelling in the FATA areas by “strangers”, restricts the rights of citizens, enforces a “jirga” system of justice and other nice colonial practices. The jirgas, composed of 12 or so elder males are the primary authority with the federal government of Pakistan an interested observor.

The long 20th century did not bring any administrative changes in FATA. Pakistani governments continued to exist in limbo in the northern regions. The right to vote did not appear in FATA until 1997. The army maintains barracks and a few police units can be found, but largely, it is the rule of the tribal chief (Malik). I remember vividly my first visit. I needed to go into the woods to relieve myself and my host gave me a gun and oil-lantern. “Put the lantern on your shoulder,” he advised, “so they can see your face and avoid shooting you by mistake”. Needless to say, I did not have the urge anymore. And that is the pre-dominant culture among the Pashtun tribes: gun, fierce independence, pride in honor. Characteristics that have played straight into the hands of the terrorists and fascists of the 21st century.

How many Taliban or al-Qaeda supporters are in FATA today? Hard to say. If you go by the severe resistance against the Pakistani military, you would be wrong. That has more to do with the (resistance to) the imposition of the will of the Pakistani State onto the tribal areas. I must think that they are a fair contingent that will not give up with escalating military engagement. But the cost to Pakistan is severe. It has no option now, but to throw away the FCR and impose full constitutional power in the agencies. It can only do so by strong military presence in the area and even then, it will have to count on sizable support from the jirgas. It is hard to foresee either of those things happening with any great success.

In the end, I am reminded of an interview by a jirga-head at the beginning of Wana operations. He plaintively asked: What has Pakistan done for us?

[Sepoy is a doctoral candidate in History and South Asian Languages and Civilizations department at the University of Chicago. All opinions expressed in this article belong to him and do not reflect the views of his employers, his school, his daughter or that weird lady who has been walking along drexel and 60th for the last 5 years looking for cigarette butts to smoke.]

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