Terrain Tribes and Terrorists: Pakistan, 2006-2008

“The two main factors for you will be the terrain and the tribes. You have to know their game and learn to play it, which means you first have to understand their environment.” It was May 2006, and the late-afternoon sun was slanting through the windows of my cluttered office on the second floor of the State Department in Washington D.C., where I was deep in discussion with Professor Akbar Ahmed. We were poring together over air photos, tribal gazetteers and topographic maps, laid out across my desk and spilling onto the floor: a panorama of the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier at one-to-a-million scale in the muted cartographic colors of British India. These were modern Pakistani maps, but not enough has changed on the frontier to justify re-drawing the old colonial map-makers’ work.

Professor Ahmed, already mentioned in the Afghanistan case study, is a noted anthropologist, diplomat, film-maker, Professor of International Relations and Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC. More to my purpose, he had served half a lifetime in the District Management Group, the elite cadre within the Civil Service of Pakistan that administered the tribal agencies on Pakistan’s frontier until disbanded by General Musharraf in 1999. In the 1980s, during the Soviet-Afghan War, when the United States, the Pakistani intelligence service (the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, ISI), and groups like those supported by the young Sa’udi militant Usama bin Laden were running separate networks for the mujahidin from safe houses in different parts of Peshawar, Dr. Akbar Ahmed had been Political Agent of South Waziristan—then and now, a stronghold of insurgency and tribal warfare. He had walked the Durand Line, the still-contested border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, when Soviet troops were operating just a few miles away and MiGs were overflying the frontier. I listened intently to his advice. I was leaving for the North-West Frontier in a few days— and a stint on the frontier concentrates the mind.

In the field, with military and civilian teams and local people in locations across Afghanistan and Pakistan at various times through the next three years, the wisdom of Professor Ahmed’s insight came home to me again and again. The fact is that the terrain and the tribes drive ninety percent of what happens on the frontier, while the third factor, which accounts for the other ten percent, is the presence of transnational terrorists and our reaction to them. But things seem very different in Washington or London from how they seem in Peshawar, let alone in Bajaur, Khyber or Waziristan—in that great tangle of dust-colored ridges known as the Safed Koh, or “white mountains”. This is a southern limb of the Hindu Kush, the vast range that separates Afghanistan (which lies on the immense Iranian Plateau that stretches all the way to the Arabian Gulf) from the valley of the Indus, the northern geographical limit of the Indian subcontinent. The locals call the area “the hills”—the highest peak is Mount Sikaram, just under sixteen thousand feet, a trifling height beside the nearby Hindu Kush and Himalayas—but anywhere else they would be mountains. The terrain is barely believable: razor-backed ridges, precipitous goat tracks and near-vertical foot trails, deep ravines where the sun scorches the midday rock and you seem to struggle in a furnace, rivers that are gravel gullies nine months of the year and roaring torrents the other three, winter passes deep in snow where vehicles bog, mountain winds slash your face and pack animals sink to the belly: but then lush river valleys with magnificent chenar trees, where the fertile green of crops and orchards and the sparkle of flowing water soothes the eyes. And there is a scent to the Frontier: aromatic, dusty, sun-baked—hot granite, dry grass, wood-smoke and pine—that never leaves you once you have smelled it.

The people, Karlanri hill-tribes of the Pashtun ethnic group, are as harsh and handsome as their hills.  Most men carry a rifle from boyhood and women are rarely seen and never heard in public, though some (particularly those of elite status)[1] are privately influential. Fierce pride, unyielding self-reliance and exacting reciprocity (the Pashto word for “revenge”, badal, can also mean “exchange”) are key assets in the struggle for life. The hill tribes regard warfare and pillage as forms of extreme sport, and tribal solidarity, the code of Pashtunwali (discussed already in the Afghan context in Chapter 2) and shari’a law are the only standards that count. The harshness with which men treat women and adults exploit children is often simply astonishing to outsiders. Yet these are also some of the kindest, liveliest, most humorous, hospitable and resilient people I have ever met.

Villages are tight clusters of dwellings and compounds, often located in valleys. Every house is a fortress, surrounded by its crenellated stone or mud-brick wall, with rifle loopholes instead of windows and every approach covered by observation and fire. Many compounds have a 20-foot tall watchtower or thick-walled central keep, and some have a fortified gatehouse.[2] Some clans have traditional ambush sites, passed from father to son like favorite fishing spots in a Western family. The young Winston Churchill, campaigning here in 1897, wrote that “all along the Afghan border every man’s house is his castle. The villages are the fortifications, the fortifications are the villages. Every house is loopholed, and whether it has a tower or not depends only on its owner’s wealth.”[3]

[1] See for example the detailed particularistic study of bibiane elite Pukhtun women in the traditional society of Swat, Pakistan, recounted in Amineh Ahmed Hoti, “Death and Celebration among Muslim Women: A Case Study from Pakistan”, Modern Asian Studies (2005), 39 : 929-980

[2] Author’s participant observation, during travel in the FATA and in Khost and Kunar Provinces, Afghanistan, 2006-2008. Fieldnotes, N.W. Frontier and Afghanistan 2006, “traveling into the FATA”; Afghanistan-Pakistan Autumn 2006 and Afghanistan field visit March 2008. 

[3] Winston L. Spencer Churchill, The Story of the Malakand Field Force: an Episode of Frontier War, Thomas Nelson and Sons, London, 1916, p. 273