|The last frontier
PESHAWAR AND WANA: Waziristan, headquarters of Islamist terror, has repelled outsiders for centuries. Now the Pakistani government is making a determined effort to control the place
“YOU should enjoy this,” said a Pushtun from Waziristan, the most remote and radicalised of the tribal areas in North-West Pakistan that border Afghanistan, as he proffered a bottle of Scottish whisky. It was an excellent Sutherland single-malt; but the man was referring to the bottle’s more recent provenance, not its pedigree.
He had been given it by a fellow Waziristani working for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. This spy had received the illegal grog from an American CIA officer. Your correspondent’s friend returned homewards, Scotch in hand, driven by another Waziristani, who is also employed as a fixer by al-Qaeda.
Waziristan, home to 800,000 tribal Pushtuns, is a complicated place. It is the hinge that joins Pakistan and Afghanistan, geographically and strategically. Split into two administrative units, North and South Waziristan, it is largely run by the Taliban, with foreign jihadists among them. If Islamist terror has a headquarters, it is probably Waziristan.
For terrorists, its attraction is its fierce independence. Waziristanis (who come mostly from the Wazir and Mehsud tribes) have repelled outsiders for centuries. Marauding down onto the plains of northern Punjab—now North-West Frontier Province (NWFP)—their long-haired warriors would rape, pillage and raise a finger to the regional imperialist, Mughal or British, of the day. No government, imperialist or Pakistani, has had much control over them. “Not until the military steamroller has passed over [Waziristan] from end to end will there be peace,” wrote Lord Curzon, a British viceroy of India at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
With 50,000 Pakistani troops now battling the Taliban in Waziristan, even that may be optimistic. One of the current drivers of the steamroller is Major-General Tariq Khan, head of the army’s 60,000-strong Frontier Corps (FC), whose forebears, rulers of neighbouring Tank, were often robbed by the hill-men. For him, Waziristan is “the last tribal area”.
Despite their remoteness, these tribesmen have often had a hand in the fates of governments in Kabul, Delhi and elsewhere. In 1929 a British-backed Afghan, Nadir Shah, used an army of Wazirs to seize the Afghan throne. A force of Wazirs and Mehsuds was dispatched in 1947 to seize Kashmir for the newly formed Islamic republic, sparking the first Indo-Pakistan war. In the 1980s Pakistan, America and Saudi Arabia armed them to fight the Soviet army in Afghanistan. In 2001 thousands of Afghan Taliban and their al-Qaeda guests fled to Waziristan. They have resumed their jihad from across the border, this time against NATO troops—aided, Afghans say, by the ISI.
Fighting and spying on the frontier is often described as a Great Game, after the 19th-century Russo-British sparring for which the phrase was coined. And on a five-day visit to South Waziristan in December as a guest of the FC—a rare privilege for a foreigner—and in interviews with Wazirs and Mehsuds in Peshawar, Islamabad and Lahore, your correspondent was struck by how many used this phrase, speaking of the crises that periodically buffet the frontier as a “game”, and themselves, through their alliances with one power or another, as “players”. “It is all a great game,” said Rehmat Mehsud, a Waziristani journalist. “The army, the Taliban, the ISI, they are all involved, and we don’t know who is doing what.”
Tribal kin may find themselves playing on different teams. For example, a Mehsud army officer, a member of the most radical Pushtun tribe, whose militant chiefs head a frontier-wide conglomeration of tribally based Islamists known as the Pakistani Taliban, admits that several of his cousins are high-ups in the Taliban. Yet he bears them no ill-will. “We are all Mehsud,” he says, over a beer or two. “So long as one family earns, the rest can eat,” said another South Waziristani, explaining the advantages of thus spreading political bets.
Making for the hills
The journey to Waziristan began on December 7th in Peshawar, NWFP’s capital, with a thunderous roar, as just across the street a man blew himself up. Black smoke spewed from the blast-site, a police checkpoint, now obliterated, at the entrance to the province’s high court. Eleven were killed. Bloodied policemen and lawyers staggered from the wreckage.
As a military convoy carrying your correspondent tried forcing its way through this throng from the adjacent Bala Hisar fort, the FC’s citadel, there was chaos. Horns blared and men and boys shrieked and yelled. Cars attempted impossible U-turns. A police wagon loaded with dead or injured rattled along the pavement, blood-stained limbs flapping from its open back. The FC men, representing a medley of frontier tribes, Afridis, Mohmandis, Yusufzai, bullied their way through. At speed, the convoy headed south out of Peshawar for Waziristan.
Since mid-October, when over 30,000 Pakistani troops launched an attack on Mehsud territory, a retaliatory terrorism spree has ripped through every large Pakistani city, including Peshawar, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore and Multan. Over 500 have been killed and thousands injured, mostly by suicide-blasts executed by indoctrinated young Mehsuds. Senior army officers, who have lofty status in a country ruled by them for half its history, have been among the dead. Among 40 killed in a commando-style attack on a crowded mosque in Rawalpindi last month was the only son of Lieutenant-General Masood Aslam, commander of Pakistan’s north-western campaign.
Bowling along the frontier, over castellated ridges, boulder-strewn plains and rounded limestone hills, there was much evidence of recent explosions. A jagged crater, in the Indus highway that spans Pakistan north-south, showed where a police check-point had been almost erased. Two recently mined road-bridges were under repair.
Nearing the arms-making town of Darra Adam Khel, which is inhabited by Afridis, whom the British considered almost as fierce as the Waziristanis, the convoy accelerated again. A one-street mud-built huddle, dedicated to making counterfeit modern weapons, Darra was once a favourite of western backpackers; for a few dollars, they got to fire an anti-aircraft gun or lob a grenade. It is now Taliban-infested.
Nearing Tank, a town swollen with Mehsud refugees, the hills unfold into a large dusty plain. This is the last “settled area”, as parts of NWFP that touch the tribal areas are known: a civilised status emphasised by a sign on its main drag, advertising the “Oxford high school”. Looking up to the north-west, the mountains of South Waziristan, faintly outlined behind a wintry mist, rise steeply to jagged peaks. That is Mehsud country, only a night’s journey away for tribal raiders.
The Mehsud have attacked and looted Tank for centuries. “They’re the biggest thieves, crooks, liars, everything bad, they’ll kill you for what’s in your pocket,” says Nawab Zadar Saadat Khan, the septuagenarian chief of Tank’s historic ruling family. The Taliban are, in his view, just as bad: “Taliban! These are people who used to stand outside our door begging for food!” he says inside the crumbling mud walls of his ancestral fort, where Sir Henry Durand, a British lord of the frontier whose son drew the line that remains the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, met his fate in 1871. He was a victim not of treacherous tribesmen but of an elephant he was riding, which reared and brained him on a stone archway he was passing through. But the British had a similar view of the Mehsud to Mr Khan. According to an 1881 report, no tribe had “been more daring or more persistent in disturbing the peace of British territory…not a month passed without some serious crime, cattle-lifting, robbery accompanied by murder being committed by armed bands of marauders from the Mehsud hills.”
Leaving Tank, the convoy climbed through brittle yellow hills into South Waziristan, aboard Toyota pickups, not elephants. But the view was much the same as in 1859, when British troops first marched into Waziristan. Stony ridges rise up from ravines, dry riverbeds and hardly vegetated plains, and curl around each other. Houses are thinly sprinkled alongside South Waziristan’s one good road, which runs 80km (50 miles) from Tank to its main town of Wana. Every one has 20-feet-high walls, built of sun-baked mud studded with pebbles to withstand machinegun bursts. On the grander dwellings a multi-storey tower, with lavish brickwork decoration and firing-slits, rises up to improve the household’s field-of-fire.
But outside the ramparts are scenes of everyday peasant life. Women in bright headscarves stump along under bundles of firewood. (In Waziristan, as in Afghanistan, most tribal women wear burkas only to town.) Swarms of children, also brightly coloured against the ubiquitous yellow backdrop of mud and rock, run shrieking from the convoy. Bearded men, squatting together in the pale afternoon sun, stare impassively as the FC goes by.
With the annexation of Punjab in 1849, British India reached the frontier. The British had no immediate interest in these barren tribal territories, which were mostly claimed by Afghanistan. But to keep the tribes at bay, they were forced to launch a big military operation on the frontier almost every year for the next half-century. This was tiresome and expensive, so around the time the frontier was demarcated in 1893, the strategy changed, and the British began a concerted effort to buy off tribal elders, or maliks. In egalitarian Pushtun society, where prestige is won in battle, these grey-beards initially had limited authority. But through British patronage it grew, creating for the colonialists a pliable tribal elite. With this toehold established, the British then took a firmer grip on the area, developing a system of indirect rule that has hardly changed since.
In Wana, a two-road town 40km from the Afghan border, surrounded by orchards and a vast FC camp, Syed Shahab Ali Shah explains the system that he runs. He is South Waziristan’s political agent (PA), the government’s chief representative in the area and the man whose job it is to keep the tribes in check. He imposes fines and taxes—on transport, trade, and whatever else he chooses—and returns this money to the maliks, in the form of allowances or other sweeteners. Representatives of a network of tribal police, known as khassadars, also get a share. In return, these local leaders are charged with ensuring the security of government property, including roads, and personnel. When they fail, the maliks must produce the culprit, his guilt attested by a tribal jirga, or council, for punishment by the PA (until recently up to 14 years in prison with no appeal). If they fail to do that, the PA can call up the FC to weigh collective punishments against the offending tribe, for example by taking prisoners or bulldozing houses.
On occasion the PA may take notice of extraneous crimes, including the blood-feuds that are a fact of Pushtun life—“We would never allow two tribes to fight each other indefinitely,” says Mr Shah. But the tribes are mostly free to decide such matters among themselves, which they do, remarkably harmoniously, through jirgas and riwaj—tribal customary law. In Waziristan, as in most of the tribal areas, there is no written land register. Nor, until 2001, was there much crime. “The tribal areas was lawless only in the sense that there are no laws. But they have a certain way of going about things there,” says Major Geoffrey Langlands, 92, a British colonial officer who stayed on, serving as headmaster of North Waziristan’s only secondary school for a decade. His tenure ended, in 1988, after he was kidnapped by an aggrieved Wazir. He considered his detention, in a frozen mountain hut, to be “quite tolerable, on the whole”. Major Langlands is now headmaster of a school in Chitral; his former school in North Waziristan was closed in July after the Taliban kidnapped 80 of its pupils and ten teachers.
The British frontier effort was cemented by a tough and accomplished breed of Pushtu-speaking British PAs, several of whom were murdered in Waziristan. The enmity between the two big tribes, which they encouraged by giving the Mehsuds a disproportionately high share of loot, helped keep them in check. Mehsuds, now as then, consider Wazirs slow-witted, mercantile and untrustworthy—“If your right hand is a Wazir, cut it off,” advises a Mehsud. Wazirs mainly consider Mehsuds as vagabonds and cattle-rustlers, often quoting as evidence for this a prayer that Mehsud women are said to chant to their infants: “Be a thief and may God go with you!” Mehsuds also quote this, to illustrate their people’s cunning and derring-do.
The maliki system, reinforced by the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation, still the only law in the tribal areas, worked remarkably well. Nonetheless, every decade or two, the British faced a major tribal revolt, typically led by a charismatic mullah. A frontier trait, this was nowhere more pronounced than among Waziristanis. Their warrior mullahs included Mullah Powindah, an Afghan-backed Mehsud, who in 1894 led an attack on the British team demarcating the frontier. Taking the title, Badshah-e-Taliban, King of the Taliban, he was a two-decade-long headache for the British, who decried him as an irredeemable fanatic, but were not above trying to buy him. Curzon wrote that Powindah was “a first-class scoundrel that we are taking under our wings”.
A Wazir of North Waziristan, Mirza Ali Khan, known as the Faqir of Ipi, was a harder case. From 1936 to 1947 he led a freedom struggle that at one point sucked in 40,000 British Indian troops, and was quelled only by brutal aerial bombing. Khan was also backed by the Afghans, and was allegedly in contact with Nazi Germany. But when he died, in 1960, the London Times mourned him as a “doughty and honourable opponent”.
From the officers’ mess of the South Waziristan Scouts, the FC’s Wana-based contingent, formed in 1899, it is tempting to think Waziristan has hardly changed since those colonial days. The heavy silver beer tankards of its former British inhabitants stand, dutifully polished, ready for use. The incumbents, Punjabi army officers on secondment to the FC, in fact drink Sprite with their curried dinner—yet their conversation is in a time-worn tradition. Mostly, they discuss their belief that India is behind the current troubles on the frontier. Lieutenant-Colonel Tabraiz Abbas, just in from fighting the Mehsud militants, describes finding Indian-made arms on the battlefield. Substitute “Russian” for “Indian” and you have the standard British Great-Game gripe. As late as 1930, a senior British official, in dispatches stored in India’s national archives, reported that a clutch of Russian guns had been found in Waziristan: “Of these 36 are stamped with the ‘Hammer and Sickle’ emblem of the Soviet government, while one is an English rifle bearing the Czarist crest.”
Don’t mess with the Waziristanis
Yet Waziristan is greatly changed. Its administrative system, overrun by militancy, now functions only weakly in Wazir areas. There, the PA has a shaky peace agreement, brokered by maliks, with the Taliban who are to be seen lounging in Wana bazaar. But the government has been entirely absent from Mehsud areas for three years. Mr Shah, the PA, sees the origin of this collapse in the anti-Soviet war, which glamorised Islamic militancy and flooded the tribal areas with sophisticated weapons. Wana was an important mujahideen headquarters during that war, with many willing recruits among some 80,000 Afghan refugees encamped near the town. At a gathering of a dozen lavishly turbaned Wazir maliks in Wana, your correspondent asked if anyone had fought the Soviets. Everyone raised a hand—and one man a leg, to reveal an ugly scar left by a Soviet bullet.
When the Taliban and many foreign jihadists were forced to flee Afghanistan in 2001, Wana made an obvious retreat. Several hundred Uzbeks—members of the exiled Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan—and a smaller number of Arabs and Turkmen came, guided by a local ne’er-do-well, Nek Muhammad, who had won fame fighting with the Afghan Taliban. And the Wazirs opened their doors to these fugitives. “It is our custom to give sanctuary to whoever requests it,” said Mir Khajang, a malik with a black beard and golden turban. “The Uzbeks said they had been forced to leave Afghanistan and were good Muslims. So we took them in.” Indeed the Pushtun tribal code imposes a duty of hospitality. Yet the Wazirs are also said to have charged the foreigner jihadists hefty rents.
Under pressure from America, the army moved into the tribal areas to mop up the al-Qaeda fugitives. It at first offered amnesty to other foreign fighters, provided they registered and behaved themselves. But in March 2004 it encountered fierce resistance near Wana, mostly from the Uzbeks. The fighting left over 50 soldiers dead, and ended in a peace settlement in April, signed with Nek Muhammad—who was killed in an airstrike shortly afterwards. The Uzbeks and their local allies then set out to control the area. Their first step was to kill its maliks. Seven of Mr Khajang’s close relatives were accordingly hanged by the Uzbeks.
The army often stood by, unsure whether to fight the militants or negotiate with them. Meanwhile a tide of militancy spread from Wana across the frontier. Its rallying-cry was the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, where a Taliban insurgency began gathering pace in mid-2003. But the upheaval was also a response to the weakness of an outworn administrative system—which the presence of the army, a powerful alternative command structure, further undermined.
The Mehsud militants, for example, have been led by veterans of Afghanistan’s wars, such as Baitullah Mehsud, supreme leader of the Pakistani Taliban until he was killed by an American drone in August. Yet certainly compared to the Wazirs, the tribe has little interest in Afghanistan. Among them, the uprising is an obvious power grab by a jihad-pumped underclass. The tribe’s maliks, widely reviled as “corrupt puppets of the British Raj”, according to a high-up Mehsud, were again the first victims. Across South Waziristan over 600 have been murdered. In addition, an assistant PA was kidnapped in North Waziristan and several lower-level civil servants killed. All were blamed for a chronic lack of development. According to a decade-old census, the literacy rate across the tribal areas is 17%—and just 3% for women—compared to 44% across Pakistan. The tribal areas have only one doctor for every 8,000 people—and no decent hospital for over half a million Mehsuds.
With the army still grappling for a strategy, two events in 2007 demonstrated that the insurgency’s centre had shifted to the Mehsud. First, egged on by the ISI, the Wazir tribes were incited to rise up and drive the Uzbeks from Wana, whence most went to Mehsud areas. Then, in July 2007, the army’s stormed an Islamabad mosque, the Lal Masjid, that had been taken over by well-armed jihadists, killing over 100. This sparked an ongoing Pakistan-wide terrorism campaign, including around 300 suicide blasts to date, for which the Mehsud have been largely blamed. Benazir Bhutto, a two-time former prime minister, assassinated in a suicide and gunfire attack in late 2007, was allegedly among their victims.
For the next 18 months or so, the news from the frontier was grim. Flush with foreign cash and through their own extortion rackets, the Mehsud militants and their allies seized a broad swathe of territory, from Waziristan through Orakzai and Khyber to Bajaur, and including much of NWFP’s Malakand region. Across the settled areas, the slogan “Meezh dre Maseet”—“I belong to the Mehsud”—struck terror. Wealthy Peshawaris fled the city, fearing bearded kidnappers. Last April the Taliban seized Malakand’s Buner district, just 100km (62 miles) from Islamabad.
This said little for Pakistan’s army. It had long been accused of tolerating, even harbouring, the Afghan Taliban. Now it seemed neglectful of its country’s very security, as blasts ripped through Pakistan’s cities. And there was something to both charges. Many senior army officers considered that the Afghan militants were no concern of Pakistan’s, and reckoned it was better to come to terms with the Pakistani Taliban rather than fight them. This was to some degree understandable: the frontier campaign was unpopular in Pakistan, the army was coming off badly against the irregulars, and making deals with rebels was, after all, how the frontier had been contained for 150 years. Unfortunately, however, that method was no longer working.
A soldier’s lot is not a happy one
So this year the strategy was changed, with considerable success. In May the army swept the Taliban from Malakand, to national acclaim. And in October and November, after a three-month blockade of the Mehsud fief, displacing over 200,000 people, it routed the militants there. On the road from Tank to Wana, perfect round shell-holes, punched through the mud-walls of now-empty houses, show where the army advanced. In Sarwakai, a former Taliban logistics hub, army bulldozers were levelling a bazaar as open-backed trucks loaded with prisoners, blindfolded and bare-headed, drove by. Most of their comrades, including the Pakistani Taliban’s current leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, escaped—some to Orakzai, where they are again under attack. Several thousand more are believed to be in Miran Shah and Mir Ali, in North Waziristan, and the army is currently deciding whether to pursue them there.
Pakistan will struggle to pacify Waziristan so long as Afghanistan is ablaze. Yet it is at last giving itself a fair chance, on the heels of its advancing troops, by launching a serious-looking bid to rebuild its shattered administration. South Waziristan’s development budget has been increased 15-fold and, with improved security, the PA should actually be able to spend it. To sideline the weakened maliks, he will be given command of a new, 4,000-strong, tribal police force. The agency may also be divided, to ensure greater attention is given to the marginalised and seething Mehsuds. And political reform is coming, too, with a law passed last August granting political parties access to the tribal areas. For more meaningful democracy, some far-sighted officials advocate setting up agency-level councils, with powers over development projects.
This would be overdue. Many young Waziristanis are hungry for the political freedoms enjoyed, alas fitfully, by the rest of the country—as their enthusiasm for an abortive effort to introduce local government in 2005 showed. Even the Wazir maliks assembled in Wana, prime beneficiaries of the old order, admitted this. “Our youngsters want reform, adult franchise, no collective punishments,” admitted one of the old men, Bizmillah Khan. “But they also want our culture, our traditions and our freedom to remain intact.”
They will be disappointed. When Waziristan is merged with Pakistan proper, as eventually it must be, good things will be lost. The jirga system, so much more efficient than Pakistani courts, will be weakened or erased. Corruption, rife in Pakistan, will become endemic. And the furious spirit of independence that has impelled Wazirs and Mehsuds to resist outsiders for centuries will recede. For the most part, that would be a blessing. Yet in that calmer future, when Pakistan’s current agonies are largely forgotten, many may hark back fondly to a world enlivened by such remarkable people.