A history of trouble in the NW Frontier

Events in Pakistan have taken yet another dreadful turn for the worse with the suicide bomb attacks on Benazir Bhutto’s homecoming rally. Ms Bhutto has been quick to accuse supporters of the late military ruler Mohammad Zia ul-Haq of complicity. Others suspect al-Qaeda.

For any Pakistani politician the equation seems unappealingly simple. Attacking the terror fastnesses in Waziristan and the other border regions along the old North West Frontier courts personal danger, while appeasing these mountain territories risks national catastrophe.

The tentativeness has been such that Pakistan’s Army did not venture into the Tirah Valley until 2002, 55 years after its absorption into Pakistan. But before accusations of neglecting duty are heaped upon President Musharraf’s predecessors, it is well to recall that the British Raj also kept as much distance as it could from taking responsibility for what are now known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Having annexed the Punjab in 1849, the British authorities looked nervously towards the mountain regions beyond. Humiliation in Afghanistan had taught the hard lesson that bringing the tribesmen to heel was beyond the reach of British ambitions. A policy of “masterly inactivity” was pursued instead, with the focus on bribing chieftains to keep the main passes open. Whatever else they got up to was their own affair.

The proviso was that they should not launch raids into the areas directly under British administration. This was like asking mice to kindly refrain from the cheeseboard. Thus British-led troops found themselves mounting a succession of punitive hit-and-run retaliatory missions into the mountains before getting out again at the first opportune moment.

The extent to which these efforts produced short-term obedience may be gathered by the repetition with which they were made. British expeditions were launched against various Waziri tribes in 1852, 1859, 1860, 1880, 1881, 1894, 1897 and 1902. Missions continued during the interwar years.

The most famous expedition against the Pashtun tribesmen was led by Sir Bindon Blood’s Malakand Field Force in 1897 with the 23-year-old Winston Churchill in tow. “The strong aboriginal propensity to kill, inherent in all human beings, has in these valleys been preserved in unexampled strength and vigour.” Churchill reported of his experience there, proceeding to identify the strain of Islam, “founded and propagated by the sword” as stimulating “a wild and merciless fanaticism”.

All that has changed in the succeeding 110 years is the ability of these fanatics to inflict ever greater horrors upon those whose writ still fails to run in the mountains of Pakistan’s border regions.

Graham Stewart