Future of Pakistan’s Western Frontier

Prof Farakh A Khan’s exclusive contribution for PTH

The aggressors have called people of what are now Fata and of Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa different names at different times of history labelled as terrorists or freedom fighters. The ten-year war has taken toll of the American purse and its fighters. On the other hand the Afghan people are constantly suffering. The Americans are openly talking to Afghan Taliban leadership since November 2010 to end American occupation of Afghanistan. The talks are at a crucial juncture where a Taliban office is to be opened in Qatar. The Americans have released five Taliban leaders from infamous Guantanamo prison to be stationed in Qatar. Team led by Marc Grossman from the American side and Qari Yousaf Ahmedi from Afghan Taliban side are in discussions (DeYoung, Karen. US links Taliban talks to Karzai’s consent. Dawn/Washington Post/ Bloomberg News Service. January 13, 2012). The Americans feel greater threat from Iran and want to windup operations in Afghanistan as early as possible.

We need to explore the background of resistance of the people in the area before we make sweeping judgments.

The invasion of Afghanistan by the British ‘Army of the Indus’ in 1839 led to annihilation of the army in its retreat in 1842. The Afghan invasion was pushed by the then Governor General Lord Auckland. This was the time when Britain was the sole super power. British arrogance led them to disaster. To boost army’s moral Sindh was conquered in 1843. This was followed by annexation of Punjab in 1849. These British moves sent clear message about future British intentions to the hill tribes in the north west of the expanding British Empire. Starting in 1850 the British were regularly sending in punitive expeditions into the Tribal belt.

During the Sikh Darbar the Sikhs held the plains but the mountains in the west were independent. Places like Hazara, Bannu, Kohat, DG Khan and DI Khan in the later Sikh period were under the British Deputy Commissioners. During the Sikh wars Amir Dost Mohammad of Afghanistan moved into the Peshawar valley up to the Indus. He made a grave miscalculation by sending a contingent of cavalry to aid the dying Sikh rule.

During the Sikh rule Peshawar valley (Kabul River) up to Jamrud in the west was held with great atrocities. In 1849 the British took over the Sikh Darbar territories and established pickets (check posts) along the eastern banks of Indus and in Kabul River valley along the bases of mountains to restrain raids from tribes beyond in the mountains. The first incursion of the British forces through what was Afghan tribal area took place when their army attacked Ghazni and Kabul in 1839 what became the disastrous 1st Afghan War. This was followed by revenge attack in 1879-80 (2nd Afghan War) when the invading British forces brutally killed people of all ages and both sexes. The scenes of massacres were still fresh in the memory of the tribes when the British forces launched Frontier War in 1863. The idea of this war was to teach a lesson to the tribes of Bonair to stop raids into the settled areas under British control and to ‘Hindustani fanatics’ of Wahhabi Islam who considered the British as occupier of their lands across India making jihad legitimate. The British felt that Hindustanis were also spreading Wahhabi Islam in Fata and had to be stopped (Albinia, Alice. Empires of the Indus. John Murray, London. 2008).

The Hindustani Wahhabi Fanatics were receiving funds from ‘Southern’ Bengal. The Mulka village of Syeds of Bunair housed left overs of Syed Ahmed Shaheed (d 1830) in Mahabun Mountains was eventfully burnt by the locals under a British detachment. Between 1850 and 1863 the British launched 20 expeditions into the mountains beyond the plains occupied by the British forces. Each time the number of invading forces increased. In Sitana campaign (1863) more than 5,000 troops were used and later enforced. The initial force was trapped in Ambela Pass and Gen Sir Sydney Chamberlain was evacuated with severe wounds. The cost of the expedition was worrying for the British administration. The tribesmen had few matchlock guns and mostly relied on swords and stones. Swords were used when they came close to the enemy (Adye, John. Sitana: a mountain campaign of the borders of Afghanistan in 1863. Published 1867).

The main issue of attacks by the British beyond its borders into Tribal Areas of Afghanistan was raids (cattle lifting) by tribes supported by ‘Hindustani Fanatics’ in the area. In 1858 the British army raid destroyed Sitana on the southern slopes of Mahabun Mountains. This was followed by destruction of ‘Hindustani settlement’ of Mulka located on the northern slopes of Mahabun Mountains in 1863. The British army in another raid destroyed ‘Hindustani village’ of Mundee in 1864. The other British approach was to stop supplies of funds and fighters from British India. For the people of Fata fear of British occupation of Punjab was an indication of their advancement and occupation of their areas (Punjab Administration Report, 1863-64 and 1867-68).

The British continued its policy of ‘Butcher and Bolt’ in retaliation of tribal raids. After subduing the lashkar the villages of ‘miscreants’ were torched or blown up, the crops burnt, waterways destroyed and cattle rounded up. Each time a new agreement was made with the tribal elders. Starting in 1917 the British troops used ‘Air Service’ to attack the tribal lashkar (now drone strikes by the Americans and bombing by Pakistani F16). In Tirah the tribes were asked to remove ‘Turk and Afghan’ settlers (foreign fighters) which they did sending them back to Afghanistan (Obhrai, 1938). It seems that nothing has changed in the 21st century.

From times immemorial the Pakhtun belt now located between Afghanistan and Pakistan has not changed although they were Hindus at one time then converted to Buddhism and finally to Islam. Babar (early 16th century) records his attack into Bonair to gather cattle and make a pyramid of heads of the local population (a Turkish tradition of Central Asia). The tribes were in constant war with each other but united against any invader. Nothing has changed.

When the British left in 1947 Pakistan reversed the ‘forward policy’ and pulled out the troops from Fata. We had peace in Fata till 2004.

Let us jump to recent events shaking Fata and Afghanistan. The bookshops today are full of bewildering array of publications on Afghanistan, Taliban and Al Qaeda. Most of the modern authors have little understanding of the area, people or its history under discussion. Al Qaeda as an entity appeared on our radar screen through American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Al Qaeda has a foreign agenda and is irrelevant for Pakistan’s Fata problem.

The Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 galvanised the tribes and people of the country against the occupiers. This time Russian had helicopters and tanks but in this asymmetrical war the Afghans had the terrain on their side and supplies of manpower and ammunition from America, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Al Qaeda was born out of this triple marriage. The supply of Stringer missiles by the Americans negated Russian air power. The American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 united the Fata tribes once again into military opposition. People of Pakistan are also opposed to American intervention. They are supplying manpower and funds to Taliban as seen in 1860s. The ‘Hindustani fanatics’ are now ‘foreign fighters’ or called ‘Punjabi Taliban’. The Pakhtun ‘raiders’ of 1863 were transformed into Mujahedeen during Russian occupation and then into Taliban when the Americans came in. AK47, Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and suicide bombers now affectively replace the Stringer missiles. The Pakhtuns are innovative. Pakistan became an enemy of the Taliban fighting the American and Nato armies because of Pakistan government support to Americans in the form of supplies and drone attacks. We saw spate of suicide and IED blasts in major cities of Pakistan.

The incidence of Lal Masjid in Islamabad and attack of the Pakistani army into South Waziristan in 2004 was the last straw for peace. Most of the students who died in Lal Masjid in the army assault were from Fata and KP. Then came the incidence of US troops killing 24 FC soldiers in cold blood in North Waziristan followed by freeze of Nato supplies through Pakistan and returning of Shamsi Air Base used for drone strikes in Fata. Earlier CIA agent Raymond Davis was held for shooting two motorcyclists in Lahore and then released. This was followed by the killing of Osama in an American raid in Abbottabad, which produced bad blood between the two countries. The people of Pakistan were told of thousands of visas issued by Pakistan to dubious people considered as CIA agents.

America is bleeding like its predecessor the Russians in Afghanistan. The 1st World armies require expensive services, which are not appropriate for war in the 3rd World. With killing of Osama the main reason for invasion of Afghanistan has been removed. The motivational force for the American troops in the field was to make ‘America safe’ by removing Al Qaeda leadership has been achieved. The Americans have killed enough Afghans to settle revenge for 9/11. The US soldiers in the field are now fighting a war where it is ‘them or us’. It is time they got out without giving an impression that they have their tail between the legs. Americans do not need troops on the ground in Afghanistan to ward off any untoward incidence. They have 50 bases in the Middle East and Qatar and Bahrain bases are not far from Afghanistan. For surveillance the Americans have ample supply of drones and settilites. Their troops can be moved into Afghanistan at short notice. I do not see how the Americans can maintain Karzai as the leader of Afghans once they leave.

The other player in Afghan scene is Pakistan. Afghans never had soft corner for the Pakistan. The bone of contention between the two is the 2,640 km 1893 Durand Line Agreement inherited from the British for fixing ‘spheres of influence’ between the two countries. Thus the British claimed Fata and what is now most of KP. Today neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan can dictate to the Fata tribes. Both keep Durand Line as a porous border and bone of contention. The attacks into Pakistan by Taliban or its splinter groups have been worrying. Like the Americans Pakistani leadership has made agreements with the various groups of Pakistani Taliban, which each side claim were broken by the other.

The ‘hull’ for Fata is not war but economics. Fata is heavily dependent on food, electricity, infrastructure, petrol and some places gas from Pakistan and survive on smuggling and jobs in rest of Pakistan. We are not sure of mineral wealth of Fata since no survey has been carried out. We should use the carrot rather than the stick to solve Fata problem. Gun shall make the situation worse. Above all we need professional research of the area and a ten years planned strategy with the consent of the Fata tribes. Before we plan for a long-term policy for Fata it has to be taken off the hands of the Pakistan Army.

Selected Bibliography
Elliott, JG. The Frontier 1839-1947: the story of the North-West Frontier of India. Cassell, London. 1968.

Wylly, HC. From the Black Mountain to Waziristan. Macmillan and Co., Ltd. London. 1912.

Steven, Coll. Ghost Wars. Penguin Books. 2004.

Barthorp, Michael. Afghan wars and the North-West Frontier 1839-1947. Cassell & Co, London. 2002.

Jan, Abid Ullah. Afghanistan: the genesis of the final crusade. Pragmatic Publication. Ottawa. 2006.

Ridedel, Milton A. In search for Al Qaeda: its leadership and future. Vanguard Books, Lahore. 2009.

Razvi, Mujtaba. The frontiers of Pakistan: a study of Frontier problems in Pakistan’s foreign policy. National Publishing House Ltd., Karachi. 1971.

The Second Afghan War: 1878-80. Complied by Charles Metcalfe MacGregor and India Army Intelligence Branch. Army Education Press. 1975.

Caroe, Olaf. The Pathans. Reprint by Oxford University Press, Karachi. 1975.

Pakistan: the militant jihadi challenge. Asia Report No. 164. March 13, 2009.

Fata- a most dangerous place. Principle Author Shuja Nawaz. Centre for Strategic & International Studies. 2009.

Obhrai, Divan Chand. The evolution of North-West Frontier Province. First published 1938. Reprint Saeed Book Bank, Peshawar, 1983.

Saleem, Shahzad. Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: beyond bin Laden and 9/11. Pluto Press, London. 2011.

Hussain, Mujahid. Punjabi Taliban: driving extremism in Pakistan. 2012.

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