Empire’s Paranoia About the Pashtuns [1 of 3]

The ongoing hysteria about lightly settled, mountainous Pashtun tribal lands in Pakistan or near the ill-defined Afghan border might seem unique to our imperial moment. So imagine our surprise when Juan Cole tells us it actually has a history more than a century old.
And there’s nothing like a little history lesson, there, to put the strange hysterias of our moment into perspective? So who better to offer a little history lesson in imperial delusions of grandeur and peril?
If you feel like a more extensive lesson in what to make of the gamut of issues where the U.S. and the Muslim world meet, or rather collide, don’t miss what he says. It’s a continual eye-opener. [image: Winston Churchill in the Hussars just before he saw action in present day Pakistan].



by Juan Cole


First a Note from WoP: The Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan (FATA) have either, traditionally been autonomous or semi-autonomous region. Before the British, Pathan chieftains had their sway and prior to Mughals, the Pathan dynasty of Lodhis ruled the subcontinent. Later during the Mughal and the successive Punjab kingdom of Raja Ranjit Singh even, the Pashtun chieftains exercised their might though they either remained as satraps of the Delhi Darbar or were completely autonomous. During these epochal periods of history, they sometimes aligned themselves with the rulers in Delhi and other time with the man occupying the throne in Kabul. However, in the heydays of these empires, they retained their autonomous/quasi autonomous status in one form or another.

When the British expanded their rule, after the end of the Sikh kingdom of Lahore (which was the only region in the subcontinent which last of all, finally annexed to the Delhi Darbar), even during British rule, in spite of the best military maneuvering (a part of the great game played then between the British and the Tsarist Russia) the British could not subdue the whole of Pashtun borderlands.  Excepting the garrison towns of Peshawar, Kohat, Nowshera and Bannu, where every morning Union Jack was unfurled at all the cantonments, the areas beyond the garrisons, were completely autonomous and most of the time at war with Gora lords of the Delhi Darbar.

After various episodes of war and peace between tribes of the frontier and the central authority in Delhi, ultimately the parties agreed to maintain a status quo but now and then skirmishes always did take place.

In 1947, when British were to pack up, two independent states emerged on the landscape of Hindostan. The people of the North West frontier decided through a referendum to join the newly established state of Muslim Pakistan.

Qaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a statesman that he was, had the vision to assure at the very outset that all tribesmen inhabiting the PAKISTANI borderlands will enjoy an autonomous status within the state of Pakistan. Central Govt. will not interfere with the local customs and they will continue to have their tribal jirgas according to Pakhtunvali, the traditional Pathan code of life, and ever since they have enjoyed this status as loyal citizens of Pakistan.

Before 2001, one never heard of a single suicide attack from any area in the tribal agencies or FATA (as they are administratively called). There was never any trace of an Islamic Zealot from the Pashtun tribal belt of Pakistan nor was there any thing called Taliban or some Mujahid /s plotting to bomb some embassy, some building, fortress or army convoys in Pakistan, India or any where else in the world.

The plane hijackings were initiated and undertaken by Palestinian guerrillas in the sixties and suicide bombings were also initiated either by LTTE insurgents in Sri Lanka or the Palestinians in the Mideast peninsula.

Such things have entered in our borderlands only after 2001, when the neoconservatives under the senior Bush and later by his son Bush junior unleashed their all out offensive against Muslims under the banner of the so called clash of civilizations.

An outfall of these activities especially in Afghanistan has been the Pakistani borderlands. Unfortunately the militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan has taken many nuances some very ugly indeed. The ulterior motives of wars for control of energy and its transmission lines have made this area a hot bed of geopolitical endeavors, military ventures, adventures and misadventures.

It is in this context that you will find Juan Cole’s post as a highly interesting and thought provoking read. Its an eye opener for all actors on the great Asian stage, the Afghans, the Pakistanis, Indians, Chinese, Russians but above all for our American friends in the Pentagon and the State Department. [Nayyar]

And now the note from my friend Tom Engelhardt (TomDispatch): 

These days, it seems as though the United States is conducting its wars in places remarkably unfamiliar to most Americans. Its CIA-operated drone aircraft, for instance, have been regularly firing missiles into Waziristan, where, in one strike in June, an estimated 80 tribes people were killed while at a funeral procession for the dead from a previous drone strike.

Waziristan??? If you asked most Americans whether their safety depended on killing people in Waziristan, they might wonder what you were talking about. But not in Washington, where Waziristan, the Swat Valley, the Lower Dir district, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, also known as FATA, and the North-West Frontier Province, among other places you’d previously never heard of, are not only on the collective mind but evidently considered crucial to the well-being, and even existence, of the United States. Perhaps that’s simply the new norm. After all, we now live in a thoroughly ramped-up atmosphere in which “American national security” — defined to include just about anything unsettling that occurs anywhere on Earth — is the eternal preoccupation of a vast national security bureaucracy whose bread and butter increasingly seems to be worst-case scenarios.

The ongoing hysteria about lightly settled, mountainous Pashtun tribal lands in Pakistan on or near the ill-defined Afghan border might seem unique to our imperial moment. So imagine my surprise when Juan Cole told me it actually has a history more than a century old. And there’s nothing like a little history lesson, is there, to put the strange hysterias of our moment into perspective?

Cole has just written a whole book about America’s “Islam Anxiety,Engaging the Muslim World, and his invaluable website Informed Comment is one of my first daily on-line stops — so who better to offer a little history lesson in imperial delusions of grandeur and peril? If you feel like a more extensive lesson in what to make of the gamut of issues where the U.S. and the Muslim world meet, or rather collide, don’t miss his book. It’s a continual eye-opener.



WHAT, what, what,
What’s the news from Swat?
Sad news,
Bad news,
Comes by the cable led
Through the Indian Ocean’s bed,
Through the Persian Gulf, the Red
Sea and the Med-
Iterranean — he ‘s dead;
The Ahkoond is dead!

— George Thomas Lanigan

Despite being among the poorest people in the world, the inhabitants of the craggy northwest of what is now Pakistan have managed to throw a series of frights into distant Western capitals for more than a century. That’s certainly one for the record books.

And it hasn’t ended yet. Not by a long shot. Not with the headlines in the U.S. papers about the depredations of the Pakistani Taliban, not with the CIA’s drone aircraft striking gatherings in Waziristan and elsewhere near the Afghan border. This spring, for instance, one counter-terrorism analyst stridently (and wholly implausibly)warned that “in one to six months” we could “see the collapse of the Pakistani state,” at the hands of the bloodthirsty Taliban, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the situation in Pakistan a “mortal danger” to global security.

What most observers don’t realize is that the doomsday rhetoric about this region at the top of the world is hardly new. It’s at least 100 years old. During their campaigns in the northwest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, British officers, journalists and editorialists sounded much like American strategists, analysts, and pundits of the present moment. They construed the Pashtun tribesmen who inhabited Waziristan as the new Normans, a dire menace to London that threatened to overturn the British Empire.

The young Winston S. Churchill even wrote a book in 1898, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, about a late-nineteenth-century British campaign in Pashtun territory, based on his earlier journalism there. At that time, London ruled British India, comprising all of what is now India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, but the British hold on the mountainous northwestern region abutting Afghanistan and the Himalayas was tenuous. In trying to puzzle out — like modern analysts — why the predecessors of the Pakistani Taliban posed such a huge challenge to empire, Churchill singled out two reasons for the martial prowess of those Pashtun tribesmen. One was Islam, of which he wrote, “That religion, which above all others was founded and propagated by the sword — the tenets and principles of which are instinct with incentives to slaughter and which in three continents has produced fighting breeds of men — stimulates a wild and merciless fanaticism.”

Churchill actually revealed his prejudices here. In fact, for the most part, Islam spread peacefully in what is now Pakistan, by the preaching and poetry of mystical Sufi leaders, and most Muslims have not been more warlike in history than, for example, Anglo-Saxons.

For his second reason, he settled on the environment in which those tribesmen were supposed to thrive. “The inhabitants of these wild but wealthy valleys” are, he explained, in “a continual state of feud and strife.” In addition, he insisted, they were early adopters of military technology, so that their weapons were not as primitive as was common among other “races” at what he referred to as “their stage” of development. “To the ferocity of the Zulu are added the craft of the Redskin and the marksmanship of the Boer,” he warned.

In these tribesmen, he concluded, the world is presented with that grim spectacle, ‘the strength of civilization without its mercy.'” The Pashtun were, he added, excellent marksmen, who could fell the unwary Westerner with a state-of-the-art breech-loading rifle. “His assailant, approaching, hacks him to death with the ferocity of a South-Sea Islander. The weapons of the nineteenth century are in the hands of the savages of the Stone Age.”

Ironically, given Churchill’s description of them, when four decades later the Pashtuns joined the freedom movement against British rule that led to the formation of independent Pakistan and India in 1947, politicized Pashtuns were notable not for savagery, but for joining Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign of non-violent non-cooperation.

Nevertheless, the Churchillian image of primitive, fanatical brutality armed with cutting edge technology, which singled Pashtuns out as an extraordinary peril to the West, survived the Victorian era and has now made it into the headlines of our own newspapers. Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst, was tasked by the Obama administration to evaluate security threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Arnaud de Borchgrave of the Washington Times reported breathlessly on July 17th that Riedel had concluded:

“A jihadist victory in Pakistan, meaning the takeover of the nation by a militant Sunni movement led by the Taliban… would create the greatest threat the United States has yet to face in its war on terror… [and] is now a real possibility in the foreseeable future.”

The article, in true Churchillian fashion, is entitledArmageddon Alarm Bell Rings.”

In fact, few intelligence predictions could have less chance of coming true. In the 2008 parliamentary election, the Pakistani public voted in centrist parties, some of them secular, virtually ignoring the Muslim fundamentalist parties. Today in Pakistan, there are about 24 million Pashtuns, a linguistic ethnic group that speaks Pashto. Another 13 million live across the British-drawn “Durand Line,” the border — mostly unacknowledged by Pashtuns — between Pakistan and southern Afghanistan. Most Taliban derive from this group, but the vast majority of Pashtuns are not Taliban and do not much care for the Muslim radicals.

The Taliban force that was handily defeated this spring by the Pakistani army in a swift campaign in the Swat Valley in the North-West Frontier Province, amounted to a mere 4,000 men. The Pakistani military is 550,000 strong and has a similar number of reservists. It has tanks, artillery, and fighter jets. The Taliban’s appeal is limited to that country’s Pashtun ethnic group, about 14% of the population and, from everything we can tell, it is a minority taste even among them. The Taliban can commit terrorism and destabilize, but they cannot take over the Pakistani government.

Some Western analysts worry that the Taliban could unite with disgruntled junior officers of the Pakistani Army, who could come to power in a putsch and so offer their Taliban allies access to sophisticated weaponry. Successful Pakistani coups, however, have been made by the chief of staff at the top, not by junior officers, since the military is quite disciplined. Far from coup-making to protect the Taliban, the military has actually spent the past year in hard slogging against them in the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Bajaur and more recently in Swat.

Today’s fantasy of a nuclear-armed Taliban is the modern equivalent of Churchill’s anxiety about those all-conquering, ultramodern Pashtun riflemen with the instincts of savages.


Next: Empire’s Paranoia About the Pashtuns [2 of 3]

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