A Grim Backgrounder on Waziristan

In the forthcoming issue of the Claremont Review of Books, Stanley Kurtz reviews three books by Akbar S. Ahmed, a social anthropologist who once served as Pakistan’s appointed “king” of Waziristan. Here are some excerpts about its grim political culture.

The British solution in Waziristan was to rule indirectly, through sympathetic tribal maliks (elders), who received preferred treatment and financial support. By treaty and tradition, the laws of what was then British India governed only 100 yards on either side of Waziristan’s main roads. Beyond that, the maliks and tribal custom ruled. Yet Britain did post a representative in Waziristan, a “political agent” or “P.A.,” whose headquarters was protected by an elite military force, and who enjoyed extraordinary powers to reward cooperative maliks and to punish offenders. The political agent was authorized to arrest and jail the male kin of miscreants on the run (particularly important given the organization of Waziristan’s tribes around male descent groups). And in special cases, the political agent could blockade and even destroy entire settlements. After achieving independence in 1947, Pakistan followed this British scheme, indirectly governing its many tribal “agencies” and posting P.A.s who enjoyed the same extraordinary powers as under the British.

Akbar Ahmed, a British-trained social anthropologist, served as Pakistan’s P.A. in South Waziristan from 1978 through 1980. Drawing on his academic background and political experience, he has written a fascinating book about his days as “king” (as the tribesmen used to call the political agent). First published in 1983 under the title Religion and Politics in Muslim Society, the book was reissued in 1991, and revised and released again in 2004, each time under the title Resistance and Control in Pakistan. Its obscure title and conventional academic introductory chapters explain why it has been neglected….

The first thing that strikes the reader of Resistance and Control in Pakistan is the pervasive nature of political violence in South Waziristan. And here, in contrast to his later work, Ahmed himself is at pains to emphasize the point. A popular novelist of the British Raj called Waziristan tribesmen “physically the hardest people on earth.” British officers considered them among the finest fighters in the world. During the 1930’s Waziristan’s troublesome tribesmen forced the British to station more troops in that agency than in the remainder of the Indian subcontinent. In more settled agricultural areas of Pakistan’s tribal Northwest Frontier Province, Ahmed says, adults, children, and soldiers mill about comfortably in the open, while women help their men in the fields. No guns are visible. But arid Waziristan is a collection of silent, fortress-like settlements. Women are invisible, men carry guns, and desolation rules the countryside.

Even in ordinary times, from the British era through the present, the political agent’s headquarters at Wana in South Waziristan wears the air of a fortress under perpetual siege. Five British political agents died in Waziristan. Ahmed reports that during a visit to Wana by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1976, the entourage of Pakistan’s Prime Minister was kept nervously awake most of the night by machine gun and rifle fire from the surrounding hills. In short, the Wana encampment in South Waziristan seems like nothing so much as a century-old version of Baghdad’s Green Zone.

Politics in Waziristan is inseparable from violence. A British official once called firing on government officers the local “equivalent for presenting a petition.” Sniping, explosions on government property, and kidnappings are common enough to necessitate continuous military protection for political officials. And the forms of routinized political violence extend well beyond direct attacks on government personnel.

Because government allowances are directed to tribal elders who control violent trouble-makers in their own ranks, ambitious maliks have reason to insure that such outlaws do in fact emerge. Waziristan’s many “Robin Hoods,” who make careers out of kidnapping even non-government officials and holding them for ransom, are simultaneously encouraged and controlled by local maliks. This double game allows the clans to profit from their own capacity for causing trouble, while also establishing a violence valve, so to speak, through which they can periodically convey displeasure with the administration. “To create a problem, control it, and terminate it is an acknowledged and highly regarded yardstick of political skill,” writes Ahmed. For the most part, income in Waziristan is derived from “political activity such as raiding settled districts” and “allowances from the administration for good behavior.” Unfortunately, a people who petitions by sniper fire seems poorly suited to democratic citizenship….

South Waziristan is populated by two major tribes, the Wazirs and the Mahsuds. (A century ago the Mahsuds were part of the Wazirs, but have since split off and gained their own identity.) The Mahsuds traditionally outnumbered the Wazirs and were at least relatively more integrated into modern society. After Pakistan gained independence in 1947, a few Mahsuds moved to “settled areas” and entered school. Many of these made their way into government service, thus connecting the Mahsuds to influential bureaucratic networks. Others started businesses, which brought a modern source of wealth to the tribe….

Following the oil boom of the 1970s, Wazirs and Mahsuds alike migrated to the Persian Gulf to work the oil fields and send their remittances back home. Maliks from the most prestigious tribal lineages initially resisted the call of migration. So the oil boom created an opening that “depressed lineages” happily filled. By the time the maliks began to send their sons to the Gulf, intra-tribal disparities of wealth and influence were disappearing.

So while the Mahsuds had outpaced the Wazirs, the power of maliks was waning among the Wazirs themselves. Now the Wazirs could afford to throw off those pliant elders who had taken and distributed British and later the Pakistan government’s pelf; and by supporting a radical mullah, the restive tribe could feed its resentment of both the government and the Mahsuds.

As Ahmed notes, and in pointed contrast to the “poverty theory” of Islamism, modern education and wealth seem to have sparked this early Islamist rebellion. Instead of spurring further development, economic opportunities have fed the traditionalist reaction. Waziristan’s tribesmen understand full well that their rulers mean to transform their way of life, thereby “taming” them through the seductions of education and modern forms of wealth. While some have accepted the trade, the majority consciously reject it. During the colonial period, education was despised as an infidel plot. In the 1970s conservative tribesmen systematically destroyed electrical poles, which were seen as a threat to Waziristan’s isolation and therefore to the survival of traditional Pushtun culture. Economic development might well “tame” these tribesmen, yet poverty is less the cause of their warlike ways than the result of a deliberate decision to preserve their traditional way of life—their Pushtun honor—even at material cost.

If only the Mahsuds and Wazirs could achieve the lasting peace with each other and the modern world that the Hatfields and McCoys of Pike County, Kentucky, have achieved.

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1 Comment

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One response to “A Grim Backgrounder on Waziristan

  1. Akbar S. Ahmed is partially correct to infer this conclusion from his assessment of Waziristan’s historical perspective. When he says “a British resident resided in the Tribal areas”, then around the settled NWFP of British India, a political agent indeed used to remain stationed in different regions of the frontier but their role was more like an unofficial ambassador of the Viceroy in each tribal agency. Not the role of an administrator which Akbar S. Ahmed thinks they enjoyed during the British Raj in the tribal agencies. Pathans of the tribal regions never did recognize the British suzerainty in the tribal belt except a truce which was agreed after British defeat at Helmand.

    I myself remember from my boyhood days that even after partition for a good number of years the alarm signals and announcements used to be made at dusk whereby people from settled areas used to be advised to avoid crossing the borderline separating these tribal agencies from the settled districts that later became part of the NWFP in Pakistan. The role he has assigned to the PA’s of Pakistan’s federal government to some extent are enjoyed by them now in the tribal agencies as these areas, after independence came under Pakistan’s suzerainty, but have enjoyed complete autonomy in their tribal and local affairs.

    As regards gun culture in Waziristan, its not only confined to this agency only. Carrying arms, even catapults knives, machetes and similar weapons are a sort of manly symbol in Pashtun culture. Even today if you visit Peshawar’s Namak Mandi, famous for mouthwatering dishes of Peshawar area, a side road leads you to the bazaar where you find only catapults. Ask a Pashtun of Peshawar, and he would explain to you in a highly poetic way:

    Catapult is a weapon that carried love letters in the past from lover to his beloved, was also used by a lover to put a rose in his catapult and send it to his beloved and lastly the use of this weapon is to train our boys how to defend oneself, for protection of honor and revenge for disgrace is rooted in the psyche of a Pashtun.

    Nayyar Hashmey
    http://wondersofpakistan.wordpress.com/

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