In Tribes of Terror, Stanley Kurtz looks at the Waziristan problem:
Lord Curzon, Britain’s viceroy of India and foreign secretary during the initial decades of the 20th century, once declared:
No patchwork scheme — and all our present recent schemes…are mere patchwork — will settle the Waziristan problem. Not until the military steam-roller has passed over the country from end to end, will there be peace. But I do not want to be the person to start that machine.
Nowadays, this region of what is today northwest Pakistan is variously called “Al-Qaedastan,” “Talibanistan,” or more properly, the “Islamic Emirate of Waziristan.” Pakistan gave up South Waziristan to the Taliban in Spring 2006, after taking heavy casualties in a failed four-year campaign to consolidate control of this fierce tribal region. By the fall, Pakistan had effectively abandoned North Waziristan. The nominal truce — actually closer to a surrender — was signed in a soccer stadium, beneath al-Qaeda’s black flag.
Having recovered the safe haven once denied them by America’s invasion of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and the Taliban have gathered the diaspora of the worldwide Islamist revolution into Waziristan. Slipping to safety from Tora Bora, Osama bin Laden himself almost certainly escaped across its border. Now Muslim punjabis who fight the Indian army in Kashmir, Chechen opponents of Russia, and many more Islamist terror groups congregate, recuperate, train, and confer in Waziristan. This past fall’s terror plotters in Germany and Denmark allegedly trained in Waziristan, as did those who hoped to highjack transatlantic planes leaving from Britain’s Heathrow Airport in 2006. The crimson currents flowing across what Samuel Huntington once famously dubbed “Islam’s bloody borders” now seem to emanate from Waziristan.
Slowly but surely, the Islamic Emirate’s writ is pushing beyond Waziristan itself, to encompass other sections of Pakistan’s mountainous tribal regions — thereby fueling the ongoing insurgency across the border in Afghanistan. With a third of Pakistanis in a recent poll expressing favorable views of al-Qaeda, and 49% registering favorable opinions of local jihadi terror groups, the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan may yet conquer Pakistan. Fear of a widening Islamist rebellion in this nuclear-armed state was General Musharraf’s stated reason for the recent imposition of a state of emergency. And in fact Osama bin Laden publicly called for the overthrow of Musharraf’s government this past September. It is for fear of provoking such a disastrous revolt that we have so far dared not loose the American military steamroller in Waziristan. When Lord Curzon hesitated to start up the British military machine, he was revolving in his mind the costs and consequences of the great 1857 Indian “Mutiny” and of an 1894 jihadist revolt in South Waziristan. Surely, Curzon would have appreciated our dilemma today.
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. Yet that neglect is a serious mistake. Given Waziristan’s new-found status as the haven and headquarters of America’s global enemies, Ahmed’s book is an indispensable guide to thinking through the past and anticipating the future of the war on terror. In addition to shedding new and unexpected light on the origins of the Taliban, Resistance and Control in Pakistan offers what is, in effect, a philosophy of rule in Muslim tribal societies — a conception of government that has direct relevance to our struggle to stabilize Iraq.
What a delightful place:
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 1930s 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.
Modern Americans have forgotten what it’s like to be responsible for one’s own:
The connection arises from the way Middle Eastern tribes are organized. These tribes are giant lineages, traced from male ancestors, which sub-divide into tribal segments, which in turn divide into clans, sub-clans, and so on, down to families, in which cousins may be pitted against cousins, or brother against brother. Traditionally existing outside the police powers of the state, Middle Eastern tribes keep order through a complex balance of power between these ever-fusing and -dividing ancestral groups. (Anthropologists call such tribes “segmentary lineages.”)
In such tribes, the central institution is the feud. Absent state policing, security depends on the willingness of every adult male in a given family, clan, tribe, etc., to take up arms in its defense. An attack on a lineage-mate must be avenged by the entire group. Likewise, any lineage member is liable to be killed for an offense committed by a relative, just as all lineage members would collectively share in compensation should peace be made (through, say, a tribal council or the mediation of a holy man). Tribal feuding and segmentation allow society to keep a rough (sometimes very rough) peace in the absence of a state. Conversely, societies with strong tribal components tend to have weak states.
A powerful code of honor ties the system together. Among the Pushtun tribes that populate Waziristan and much of Afghanistan, that code is called “Pushtunwali.” Avenging lineage honor is only one aspect of Pushtunwali. The code also mandates that hospitality and sanctuary be provided to any stranger requesting them. Thus a means is provided whereby, in the absence of a state, zones of security are established for travelers. Yet the system is based on an ever-shifting balance of terror which turns friends into enemies, and back again into friends, in a heartbeat. And this ethos of honor writes violent revenge and collective guilt deep into the cultural psyche. Although the British political agents who learned to live with Pushtunwali generally lionized it, Winston Churchill condemned it as a “system of ethics, which regards treachery and violence as virtues rather than vices.” In any case, the dynamics of the war on terror are easily recognizable as an extension of this tribal system of collective guilt, honor, humiliation, and revenge.