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

E Battery Royal Horse Artillery escaping from the overwhelming Afghan attack at the Battle of Maiwand.



by Juan Cole


On July 21, 1921, a “correspondent” for the Allahabad Pioneer — as anonymous as he was vehement — explained how some firefights in Waziristan might indeed be consequential for Western civilization.

He attacked “Irresponsible Criticism” of the military budget required to face down the Mahsud tribe. He asked, “What is India’s strategical position in the world today?” It was a leading question. “Along hundreds of miles of her border,” he then warned darkly in a mammoth run-on sentence, “are scores of thousands of hardy fighters trained to war and rapine from their very birth, never for an instant forgetful of the soft wealth of India’s plains, all of whom would descend to harry them tomorrow if they thought the venture safe, some of whom are determinedly at war with us even now.”

Note that he does not explain the challenge posed by the Pashtun tribes in terms of typical military considerations, which would require attention to the exact numbers, training, equipment, tactics and logistics of the fighters, and which would have revealed them as no significant threat to the Indian plains, however hard they were to control in their own territory. The “correspondent” instead ridicules urban “pen-pushers,” who little appreciate the “heavy task” of “frontier ward and watch.”


[Right: Pathans await the retreating British Army after the Battle of Maiwand]

Not only were the tribes a danger in themselves, the hawkish correspondent intoned, but “beyond India’s border lies a great country [Afghanistan] with whom we are not even yet technically at peace.” Nor was that all. The recently-established Soviet Union, with which Afghanistan had concluded a treaty of friendship that February, loomed as the real threat behind the radical Pashtuns. “Beyond that again is a huge mad-dog nation that acknowledges no right save the sword, no creed save aggression, murder and loot, that will stay at nothing to gain its end, that covets avowedly a descent upon India above all other aims.”

That then-Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, who took an extremely dim view of colonialism and seriously considered freeing the Central Asian possessions of the old tsarist empire, was then contemplating the rape of India is among the least believable calumnies in imperial propaganda. The “correspondent” would have none of it. Those, he concludes, who dare criticize the military budget should try sweet-talking the Mahsud, the Wazir and the Bolsheviks.

In our own day as well, pundits configure the uncontrolled Pashtuns as merely the tip of a geostrategic iceberg, with the sinister icy menace of al-Qaeda stretching beneath, and beyond that greater challenges to the U.S. such as Iran (incredibly, sometimes charged by the U.S. military with supporting the hyper-Sunni, Shiite-hating Taliban in Afghanistan).

Occasionally in this decade, attempts have even been made to tie the Russian bear once again to the Pashtun tribes.

In the case of the British Empire, whatever the imperial fears, the actual cost in lives and expenditure of campaigning in the Hindu Kush mountain range was enough to ensure that such engagements would be of relatively limited duration. On October 26, 1921, the Pioneer reported that the British government of India had determined to implement a new system in Waziristan, dependent on tribal mercenaries.

This system, which was so successfully inaugurated in the Khyber district last year,” the article explained, “is really an adaptation of the methods in vogue 40 years ago.” The tribal commander provided his own weapons and equipment, and for a fee, protected imperial lines of communication and provided security on the roads. “Thus he has an interest in maintaining the tranquility of his territory, and gives support to the more stable elements among the tribes when the hotheads are apt to run amok.” The system would be adopted, the article says, to put an end to the ruinous costs of “punitive expeditions of merely ephemeral pacificatory value.”

Absent-minded empire keeps reinventing the local tribal levy, loyal to foreign capitals and paid by them, as a way of keeping the hostiles in check. The U.S. Council on Foreign Relations reported late last year that “U.S. military commanders are studying the feasibility of recruiting Afghan tribesmen… to target Taliban and al-Qaeda elements. Taking a page from the so-called ‘Sunni Awakening’ in Iraq, which turned Sunni tribesmen against militants first in Anbar Province and then beyond, the strategic about-face in Afghanistan would seek to extend power from Kabul to the country’s myriad tribal militias.” Likewise, the Pakistani government has attempted to deploy tribal fighters against the Taliban in the Federally Administered areas such as Bajaur. It remains to be seen whether this strategy can succeed.

Both in the era between the two world wars and again in the early twenty-first century, the Pashtun peoples have been objects of anxiety in world capitals out of all proportion to the security challenge they actually pose. As it turned out, the real threat to the British Isles in the twentieth century emanated from one of what Churchill called their “civilized” European neighbors. Nothing the British tried in the North-West Frontier and its hinterland actually worked. By the 1940s the British hold on the tribal agencies and frontier regions was shakier than ever before, and the tribes more assertive. After the British were forced out of the subcontinent in 1947, London ‘s anxieties about the Pashtuns and their world-changing potential abruptly evaporated.

Today, we are again hearing that the Waziris and the Mahsuds are dire threats to Western civilization. The tribal struggle for control of obscure villages in the foothills of the Himalayas is being depicted as a life-and-death matter for the North Atlantic world. Again, there is aerial surveillance, bombing, artillery fire, and — this time — displacement of civilians on a scale no British viceroy ever contemplated.

In 1921, vague threats to the British Empirefrom a small, weak principality of Afghanistan and a nascent, if still supine, Soviet Union underpinned a paranoid view of the Pashtuns. Today, the supposed entanglement with al-Qaeda of those Pashtuns termed “Taliban” by U.S. and NATO officials — or even with Iran or Russia — has focused Washington’s and Brussels’s military and intelligence efforts on the highland villagers once again.

Few of the Pashtuns in question, even the rebellious ones, are really Taliban in the sense of militant seminary students; few so-called Taliban are entwined with what little is left of al-Qaeda in the region; and Iran and Russia are not, of course, actually supporting the latter. There may be plausible reasons for which the U.S. and NATO wish to spend blood and treasure in an attempt to forcibly shape the politics of the 38 million Pashtuns on either side of the Durand Line in the twenty-first century. That they form a dire menace to the security of the North Atlantic world is not one of them.


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

Page 1 2 3

Juan Cole is an American schoolar, public intellectual, and historian of the modern Middle East and South Asia. He is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Cole has published several peer reviewed books on the modern middle East. Read his blog ‘Informed Comment (juancole.com)

Copyright 2009 Juan Cole
Source: TomDispatch, Posted: August 1, 2009, Photo Credits: Part 1: Title Photo: Winston Churchill in the Hussars mailonline Part 2: Title map: http://www.stratfor.com/ Part 3: Title Photo: www.britishbattles.com, Second photo on rightpakistanrevolution.wordpress.com
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12 replies to “Empire’s Paranoia About the Pashtuns [3 of 3]

  1. i am from the Mahsud tribe, and although i have lived in america my whole life, i go back every chance i get. i take great pride in my tribe and always will. I am so sad and upset as to how my Waziristan has turned out, but InshaAllah, with the Grace of Allah, it will get better soon, and my people will prosper. Aameen..


  3. This website presented the Pashtuns as foolish, mindless and brutal who are not even able to decide for themselves and they are just killing machiens.
    You are wrong, you insulted Pashtuns. How you posted something which calls Pashtuns the “Mad-Dogs”, you are more uncivilized than Pashtuns. We will decide our future, not the America or India.

  4. @ Marwat,
    You are not right. You seem to have made a wrong conclusion out of the opinions of a correspondent for Allahabad Pioneer, which should be termed more as an imperial spokesman of the time and whom Juan Cole aptly mentions as “ a correspondent — as anonymous as he was vehement”. If you read all the posts in this series, you will be able to note that this very point has been contested by Juan Cole.
    Paranoia is a psychological ailment which obsesses a person to see the only view he wants to form in his own mind. This view being hypothetical and purely an imagination has often led the individuals, the communities as well as nations to face disasters and this very point has been emphasized by the writer in his posts.

  5. He is my take:This bold and important book strives to be a practical “strategy for a Second American Century.” In this brilliantly argued work, Thomas Barnett calls globalization “this country’s gift to history” and explains why its wide dissemination is critical to the security of not only America but the entire world. As a senior military analyst for the U.S. Naval War College, Barnett is intimately familiar with the culture of the Pentagon and the State Department (both of which he believes are due for significant overhauls). He explains how the Pentagon, still in shock at the rapid dissolution of the once evil empire, spent the 1990s grasping for a long-term strategy to replace containment. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Barnett argues, revealed the gap between an outdated Cold War-era military and a radically different one needed to deal with emerging threats. He believes that America is the prime mover in developing a “future worth creating” not because of its unrivaled capacity to wage war, but due to its ability to ensure security around the world. Further, he believes that the U.S. has a moral responsibility to create a better world and the way he proposes to do that is by bringing all nations into the fold of globalization, or what he calls connectedness. Eradicating disconnectedness, therefore, is “the defining security task of our age.” His stunning predictions of a U.S. annexation of much of Latin America and Canada within 50 years as well as an end to war in the foreseeable future guarantee that the book will be controversial. And that’s good. The Pentagon’s New Map deserves to be widely discussed. Ultimately, however, the most impressive aspects of the book is not its revolutionary ideas but its overwhelming optimism. Barnett wants the U.S. to pursue the dream of global peace with the same zeal that was applied to preventing global nuclear war with the former Soviet Union. High-level civilian policy makers and top military leaders are already familiar with his vision of the future—this book is a briefing for the rest of us and it cannot be ignored. –Shawn Carkonen
    From Publishers Weekly
    Barnett, professor at the U.S. Naval War College, takes a global perspective that integrates political, economic and military elements in a model for the post—September 11 world. Barnett argues that terrorism and globalization have combined to end the great-power model of war that has developed over 400 years, since the Thirty Years War. Instead, he divides the world along binary lines. An increasingly expanding “Functioning Core” of economically developed, politically stable states integrated into global systems is juxtaposed to a “Non-Integrating Gap,” the most likely source of threats to U.S. and international security. The “gap” incorporates Andean South America, the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and much of southwest Asia. According to Barnett, these regions are dangerous because they are not yet integrated into globalism’s “core.” Until that process is complete, they will continue to lash out. Barnett calls for a division of the U.S. armed forces into two separate parts. One will be a quick-strike military, focused on suppressing hostile governments and nongovernment entities. The other will be administratively oriented and assume responsibility for facilitating the transition of “gap” systems into the “core.” Barnett takes pains to deny that implementing the new policy will establish America either as a global policeman or an imperial power. Instead, he says the policy reflects that the U.S. is the source of, and model for, globalization. We cannot, he argues, abandon our creation without risking chaos. Barnett writes well, and one of the book’s most compelling aspects is its description of the negotiating, infighting and backbiting required to get a hearing for unconventional ideas in the national security establishment. Unfortunately, marketing the concepts generates a certain tunnel vision. In particular, Barnett, like his intellectual models Thomas Friedman and Francis Fukuyama, tends to accept the universality of rational-actor models constructed on Western lines. There is little room in Barnett’s structures for the apocalyptic religious enthusiasm that has been contemporary terrorism’s driving wheel and that to date has been indifferent to economic and political factors. That makes his analytical structure incomplete and more useful as an intellectual exercise than as the guide to policy described in the book’s promotional literature.
    Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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    • Hardcover: 448 pages
    • Publisher: Putnam Adult; First Edition edition (April 22, 2004)
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  6. Continued)
    Pentagon Map Shows Wide Taliban Zone in the South ( 0) Print This ShareThis
    By Gareth Porter
    Inter Press Service
    Saturday, May 1, 2010

    The Pentagon was still trying to spin its report on the war in Afghanistan issued this week as holding out hope because the instability had leveled off, even as some news outlets were noting that it documents the continued expansion of Taliban capabilities and operations.

    The most significant revelation in the report, however, is that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and the U.S.-NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) joint command now acknowledge officially that the Taliban insurgents dominate a vast contiguous zone of heavily populated territory across southern Afghanistan that McChrystal regards as the most critical area in the country.

    The report admits that the population in key districts across most southern provinces is sympathetic to or supportive of the insurgents.

    The contiguous zone of Taliban political power stretches all the way across the 13 provinces from Farah province in the far west of the country through Helmand and Kandahar to Wardak, Logar, Paktia and Khost provinces west and south of Kabul.

    The extent of Taliban political power in southern Afghanistan, which had not been acknowledged previously by ISAF, is documented in a map showing an “overall assessment of key districts” as of Mar. 18.

    The map shows for the first time the location and political and security status of 121 districts chosen late last year by planners on McChrystal’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Joint Staff as the most important for a strategy of weakening the Taliban gains.

    The contiguous Taliban zone includes but is not limited to 58 of the 121 key districts, of which seven have populations assessed as “supporting” the Taliban, 25 with populations “sympathetic” to the Taliban, and 21 with populations that are “neutral”.

    Only five of the districts within that zone are shown as having populations that are “sympathetic to” the Afghan government and none that are “supporting” the government.

    The degree of Taliban political dominance in the south is partly obscured, however, by an obvious effort to portray the attitudes of the population in Helmand and Kandahar provinces more favourably than is reflected in reports from those locations.

    Eight of the “neutral” districts shown on the map are in Helmand province, where it has acknowledged in the past that the population was largely sympathetic to the Taliban.

    The districts of Nad Ali, in which Marja is located, Naw Zad, Lashkar Gah and Sangin are all shown on the map as having “neutral” populations, even though it has been well documented that the populations of those heavily opium poppy-growing districts had turned decisively against the government and foreign troops over government eradication efforts and the abusive behaviour of police associated with local warlords.

    The population of Nad Ali had been shown in an assessment in late December as being supportive of the Taliban. Naw Zad and Sangin districts, on the other hand, had been assessed as “neutral” in December.

    A report by The Guardian’s Jon Boone last week quoted a recent British visitor to Sangin as remarking on the “intense hatred of people who hate everything you stand for” he had felt from people there.

    McChrystal’s staff apparently defined “neutral” so as to include populations in districts where U.S. and NATO forces have carried out operations aimed at clearing the Taliban and are now the object of attempts to change their political views.

    Earlier this year, however, an ISAF official familiar with the assessment on which the command was basing its plans clearly included those same districts among those in which the Taliban were regarded as having gotten popular support. The official told IPS in an interview in late January, “We have a system of 80 districts where Taliban influence is strongest, where people support the Taliban for whatever reason.”

    That set of 80 districts that are the most pro-Taliban in the country is same set of 80 “Key Terrain districts” defined in the new Pentagon report as “areas the control of (and support from which) provides a marked advantage to either the Government of Afghanistan or the insurgents.”

    The ISAF official also said that “about one-fourth” of the 80 districts in which the Taliban had the strongest support would be in the “contiguous security zone” that ISAF was planning to establish in Helmand and Kandahar provinces this year. That coincides with the 19 districts in those two provinces that are shown on the Dec. 24 assessment map as “neutral”, “sympathetic” to the Taliban or “supportive” of the Taliban.

    If the districts labeled on the map as “neutral” are understood to be pro-Taliban as well, the districts in all three categories form an almost unbroken chain of territory with populations leaning toward the Taliban across the full length of the Pashtun south.

    The 80 districts described by the ISAF official in January as providing the strongest support to the Taliban apparently included only those pro-Taliban districts that had the largest population and were closest to the major lines of communications. The list does not include a large number of other districts in several Pashtun provinces of the south where the Taliban insurgents predominate but which are farther from the major roads.

    The evidence of a coherent Taliban zone of political control in the new Pentagon assessment is consistent with an Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) Provincial/District Threat Assessment as of Apr. 23, 2009, which was reported by BBC last August. An ANSF security map reflecting the ASNF assessment showed almost every district in the Pashtun south except for Nimruz province as being either “high risk” or Taliban-controlled.

    Although McChrystal seemed to reject the idea that the Taliban had broad political support in his initial assessment last August, an “integrated campaign plan” jointly agreed by McChrystal and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry that same month hinted strongly at such support in Pashtun areas.

    The campaign plan document concluded, “Key groups have become nostalgic for the security and justice Taliban rule provided.”

    McChrystal’s announcement earlier this year that ISAF would establish a “contiguous security zone” which would include the bulk of the population of Helmand and Kandahar provinces may have been a response to the recognition that the Taliban had formed its own zone of political dominance in southern Afghanistan.

    However, given recent evidence that foreign troops have been unable to clear insurgents from Marja, and that local leaders and elders in Kandahar are opposing U.S. military operations in and around the city, that objective now appears to be well beyond the reach of U.S. and NATO troops.

    *Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in 2006.

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