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History's road to Waziristan

By David Ignatius
Sunday, October 25, 2009

ISLAMABAD

Talking with a Pakistani intelligence officer here last week about the army's invasion of South Waziristan, a visitor noted that troops have been marching down these same rough roads, toward the same tribal strongholds, for more than 150 years -- never with much success.

"Yes," replied the Pakistani official, "it's all been done before." The difference, he explained, was that this time the army would follow its invasion with a process of political and economic development to begin what the mighty British Raj never could accomplish -- the gradual assimilation of Waziristan into the rest of the country.

The value of history is that it teaches us to be skeptical about present-day projects for transformation. So while I share the Pakistani army's hope that the tribal areas may finally be joined with what are quaintly called the "settled areas," this will be a very tough counterinsurgency campaign -- one that will test Pakistan's military skill and its political resolve.

The tribes of Waziristan have been resisting outsiders ever since the British first reached their borders in 1850. The initial battles established a pattern that has been repeated ever since: The Mehsuds and Wazirs, the fiercest of the tribes, would repel those encroaching on their territory; the British would launch punitive raids. The tribes would bloody the British in battle and refuse concessions, whereupon the colonial troops would retreat. The modern Pakistani experience has been very similar.

The British launched at least six punitive expeditions into Waziristan from 1850 to 1880. Their frustration was exemplified by an 1860 assault by more than 5,000 British Raj troops down the same roads the Pakistanis are following today. The Mehsuds refused to negotiate, even after the invaders destroyed the homes of the tribal leaders. Eventually the British gave up and marched back out.

The tribal maliks prized their independence as part of the code of honor known as Pashtunwali. For the British, this obstinacy made Waziristan, as one colonial officer wrote, "a land of insolence." But a 1921 British history of military operations there conceded: "The Wazirs and Mehsuds operating in their own country can be classed among the finest fighters in the world."

Richard Bruce, a local commissioner of the British Raj, wrote after a failed 1894 attempt to establish a garrison in Waziristan that the tribes' insistence on separation inevitably made their areas a haven for outlaws: "As long as there is a purdah or screen in their country, the mullahs and other evil-disposed factions will hatch all manner of intrigues and villainies behind it."

There was a debate a century ago about how to handle the ferocious Waziristanis that is remarkably similar to the White House discussion now surrounding U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Essentially, the issue was whether to rely on the use of punitive military strikes ("counterterrorism," in modern parlance) or to adopt a broader policy of economic and social development to aid the population ("counterinsurgency").

The kinetic approach was known back then as the "close border" system. Lt. Col. Charles E. Bruce (son of the commissioner quoted above) explained in a 1938 monograph on Waziristan that this "policy of nonintervention tempered by punitive expeditions" had been a miserable failure: "Under that system, this belt of tribal territory . . . was left not only in a state of anarchy and chaos but continued to be a sanctuary for outlaws and raiding gangs."

A better approach, Bruce argued, was what he called "the Sandeman system," after Sir Robert Sandeman, the colonial administrator of Baluchistan, to the south. This stressed economic development and "the welfare of the tribes." He concluded: "It is a truism to say that the Frontier problem is far more an economic one than a military one. Yet, do we always act as if we remembered this?"

Bruce was making his pitch for the counterinsurgency approach in response to a 1936 uprising in North Waziristan by the Osama bin Laden of his day, a fiery mullah named Mirza Ali Khan, known as the Faqir of Ipi. The British chased him and his band of jihadists with as many as 40,000 troops. They even bombed his caves from the air, but they never succeeded. "We found the ashes of his fire still warm in a cave, but he had flown. Our informer, as usual, had informed both ways," lamented one British officer.

Students of history will note that the fearsome Faqir of Ipi eventually died of natural causes in 1960, by then a forgotten man.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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