Arguments Along the Northwest Frontier

Monday, November 25th, 2013

John Masters describes the Northwest Frontier and the “arguments” available to the civil government:

On November 25th, 1936, the Frontier, which had been simmering since the Mohmand Campaign of 1934–35, suddenly exploded. The first incident in what was to develop into the biggest campaign since 1919 took place at Biche Kaskai in Waziristan, where Waziri tribesmen ambushed the Bannu Brigade on a carefully laid, well-concealed, and boldly executed plan. The brigade suffered one hundred and thirty casualties and lost many arms and much ammunition. The tribesmen, elated by the early success, went on to higher things. The rallying point of tribal hostility was a man called the Faqir of Ipi, a man who still in 1955 occasionally hits the headlines, as he is currently the leader of the movement to form a separate Pathan country, to be called Pakhtunistan.

Waziristan contains two great and well-armed tribes, the Mahsuds in the south and the Wazirs in the north. The whole area, which is about the size of Wales, had been fairly quiet since the big campaigns of 1919–1923, but many young men had grown up who had not fought in the old battles and were eager to take up their national pastime of war and emulate the feats of their elders.

At a time when several sections of the Wazirs were complaining of other grievances a Wazir abducted a young Hindu girl from Bannu, on the edge of tribal territory, and forcibly converted her to Islam. The political authorities had to exert all their power to get the girl back and return her to her parents. This recovery of the girl from the arms of Islam aroused the strongest feelings among the fanatically Moslem Wazirs, who began whispering, when shouting, the magic word Jehad! Affairs moved steadily towards an explosion through all those on the government side tried as hard as they could within limits set by policy, justice, and the bands of history to avoid war. But wa it had to be, war it was, and the guns — ultima ratio regis, a king’s last argument — poured into Waziristan in increasing numbers.

The first arguments were the normal methods of diplomacy — persuasion, conferences, minor bribery, rewards, and threats. The civil government’s second argument was the khassadar system. A khassadar was a local tribesman who wore an armband labelled ‘K,” but was otherwise indistinguishable in his dirty grey or black cotton from any other tribesman. He received a small pay and sat on hill-tops near his village with the task of shooting at disaffected or excitable friends who tried to kill soldiers and rob convoys. The tribesmen were reluctant to shoot at khassadars for fear of becoming engaged in a blood feud. Unfortunately the khassadars were equally reluctant to fire on their naughty fellows for precisely the same reason. Furthermore, all khassadars seemed to be permanently in a temper about pay or promotion, and a high proportion of the stray shots fired at the army in Waziristan was fired by peevish khassadars. We thought they were an unmitigated nuisance, but they were probably a necessary step in the development of local responsibility for law and order, and we had to put up with them.

The third argument was the militia, or Scouts, or levies — they had many names. The whole length of tribal territory, from Gilgit in the north to Mekran in the south, was patrolled by the volunteers of these highly disciplined corps. They were armed, but their pay came from civil funds, not from the army budget, and they were under the control of the local political authorities, not of the military commander-in-chief. In ordinary times they could keep the peace because they were light-armed and fast and because they were themselves Pathans, usually from another part of the Frontier. Their officers were British officers of the Indian Army (or Indians holding King’s Commissions) who were lent or seconded to them for three- or four-year tours of duty. The various corps had romantic titles, romantic crests, and romantic tasks: the Gilgit Scouts, with their ibex-horn badge and the duty of patrolling the Karakorams and the Pamirs on the verges of China and Russia; the Chitral Scouts, circling always within sight of Tirachmir’s 25,230-foot cone on the edge of the Wakhan, the Afghan panhandle; the old Khyber Rifles; the Kurram Militia, safe in a nest of anxious Shia Moslems among hostile surrounding Sunni Moslems; in Waziristan, the two biggest and most warlike corps of all, the Tochi Scouts and the South Waziristan Scouts; farther south again, the Zhob Militia; and last, patrolling the deserts that run down to the Indian Ocean, the Mekran Levies.

That’s from chapter 17 of Bugles and a Tiger.


  1. Bruce says:

    “…in the 1920s, the Soviet press expressed resentment and amusement over a ruse adopted by the British in the course of operations in the Northwest Frontier. Plane-mounted loudspeakers had told the Pathans, in Pushto, that God was mad at them for breaking the pledged peace, with the result that they scattered and gave up. This maneuver exasperated the Russians, who themselves were making equally sweeping propaganda inroads on the other side of the Palmirs. The Russians were attacking religion, and having heavy going; it struck them as improper warfare to make use of local superstition.” Paul Linebarger, Psychological Warfare.

  2. Stretch says:

    I had the pleasure of meeting Major Masters’ son. The young Masters was pitching his father’s books to Hollywood for a movie or TV deal. Unfortunately there was no interest in the Major’s stories.

  3. Isegoria says:

    Linebarger is a fascinating character. I’ve been meaning to read Psychological Warfare one day.

  4. Isegoria says:

    A movie about British action along the Northwest Frontier couldn’t've been more timely a decade ago.

Leave a Reply