Frontier: the land of the untamed

Shiite Muslim militants burn tires as they shout slogans during a protest in Quetta, Pakistan. “The Savage Border” takes a look at the present and past of the North West Frontier, seen as a lawless wilderness for centuries. (PHOTO EPA, MUSA FARMAN)

May 13, 2012, Sunday/ 12:41:00

It seems to be increasingly true that the countries of the world can be divided into two mutually exclusive groups by the watchers of 24-hour news television stations: those who produce advertisements aimed at enticing tourists and investors to their countries, and those who feature in the news reports themselves due to unrest whether political, economic or geographical.

Top of the list of the second grouping at the moment are the usual Middle East candidates of Iraq, Syria and Egypt, the Central Asian thorns in the West’s side of Afghanistan and Pakistan and the unusual entry of a European state: Greece.

I describe these groups as mutually exclusive because one cannot really imagine what strap-line would be appropriate to describe the attractions of these nations currently to investors or tourists. “Incredible India” and “Malaysia, Truly Asia” don’t really translate into anything particularly attractive when applied to a nation under the daily threat of suicide bombers. Ukraine’s advertisements emphasize the transparency they seek to achieve in government institutions; Turkey majors on its economic dynamism. Any advertisement for investment in the world’s hotspots would have to avoid mentioning political instability, the potential for your investment to be blown literally to high heaven either by rioters, protestors, insurgents or government forces.

Whilst it seems that Afghanistan and Pakistan are never far away from the news headlines, the border land between them seems to drift on and off of the global agenda, even though it symbolizes perhaps all the reasons that the two nations are so much in the spotlight. Historically the tribal heartlands of Central Asia and home to the Pathans, who at over 36 million people comprise the largest tribe in the world without their own nation state, this area is simply known as the North-West Frontier.

Just the name “Frontier” is sufficient to generate an image of a line on the edge of civilization. Recall all of the wagon-train and cowboy films you have ever seen, transplant them to a landscape of hills and mountains that gradually rise to become the highest peaks on the globe, and you begin to capture a little of the essence of this part of the world.

But it is not just the foreign powers that see this 10,500-square-mile area as a frontier land. The Pathans themselves call their homeland Yaghistan -- the Land of the Untamed. And it has not just become a hotspot in the 20th and 21st centuries with the rise of the Taliban, Bin Laden and al-Qaeda: The Pathan tribesmen learned to defend their homeland against centuries of foreign invaders and inter-family warfare, from Alexander the Great to the present day.

Jules Stewart’s fascinating tale of the North-West Frontier, titled “The Savage Border,” deserves another look. Western diplomats, spies and military strategists rediscovered this area with the conviction that bin Laden was hiding in the caves and mountains of the South Waziristan region of this remote area. Since his discovery and destruction in Abbottabad, the area has been once more relegated to just off the radar.

But the overwhelming message of this incisive history is that if we refuse to understand the warnings we have clearly marked out for us in history, we will carry on making the same blunders in the North-West Frontier, with continuing dire consequences. Looking at the failure of the Persians to tame this land some 2,000 years ago, through the Russian and British collapses 200 years ago, how can we simply demand of Pakistan that it does what the rest of us have miserably failed to do?

In fact, as Stewart clearly points out, some of our greatest military strategists in history have warned about the folly of an incomplete strategy for this part of the world. The Duke of Wellington -- famous for his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo, so we are pretty safe to say he knew a thing or two about defeating an enemy -- warned a general that if he sanctioned an invasion of Afghanistan through the North-West Frontier “the [British] government would find itself embroiled in perpetual conflict.”

As the tribesmen in the area have very little in the way of written history, this story of the North-West Frontier looks at the area very much from the British viewpoint. This enables us to consider the utter pointlessness of the lives that have been lost through continual attempts to impose control on an area that was seen as the essential line of defense of British India. It is a story of a “butcher and bolt strategy” -- the only way to impose rule from a distance was to launch punitive expeditions to restore discipline after a revolt.

It also leaves us stunned that we knew so little of the history of this part of the world -- a history of colonial interference and manipulation that set the scene for this small area of land to be at the epicenter of modern conflict zones. At its southern border is Baluchistan, where the Pakistani government is facing a revolt. To the north lies the Wakhan Corridor, historically the buffer zone between the British and Russian empires. To the east is Kashmir, a territory still bitterly disputed between India and Pakistan. Over its western border lies Afghanistan.

Yet, despite the focus on the British, Russian, Indian and Pakistani names that have shaped this area, Stewart presents a sympathetic understanding of the locals. The first fifth of the book is spent describing the many tribes that make up the local human tapestry: the Waziris, Orakzai, Zakka Khel, Afridi, Mahsuds, Daurs, Khattaks, Utmenkhe, Yusufzai, Turis … the list goes on.

Even the shelter and assistance given to al-Qaeda by these people can be understood when Stewart explains their ethical codes. He insists they are “not lawless, but have a different code of law and order, enforcing rigid standards of behavior on individuals and tribes.” This code is called Pakhtunwali and its key features are badal -- the blood feud, and melmastia -- the giving of hospitality and sanctuary to any who seek it.

Through his telling of the stories of Mullah Ahmal Shah and the Wahhabi “Hindustani Fanatics” movement (the first al-Qaeda movement?) and that of Faqir of Ipi some hundred years later (always one step ahead of his pursuers in a game of hide-and-seek through the frontier land) we clearly see history repeating itself. Stewart subscribed to the theory that bin Laden was not in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, but in the tribal area of South Waziristan, west of Peshawar. Although this is close, it is not close enough (bin Laden was found in Abbottabad -- a city named after a British soldier whose story we also read here). I would appreciate seeing an updated revised edition, giving us Stewart’s educated opinion on bin Laden’s discovery.

After all, Stewart does have an amazing ability to get us to put ourselves into the other man’s shoes: “From the Frontier Pathan’s point of view, anyone who drops bombs on their villages or invades their territory is, quite understandably, perceived to be a mortal enemy.”

If only our history had not led to the following Pathan proverb, perhaps the news from this area in the 21st century would be slightly different. “First comes one Englishman for hunting, then come [sic] two Englishman [sic] to draw a map, and then comes an army to take your land. So it is best to kill the first Englishman.”

Stewart gives us enough food for thought to conclude that maybe the Pathans are wiser than us, in that history has not taught them nothing. We, on the other hand, seem destined to continually prove the philosopher Hegel right when he says, “What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” Stewart issues a clarion call for those involved in this part of the world to wake up and take note of its history.

“The Savage Border,” by Jules Stewart, published by Sutton Publishing, 19.99 pounds in hardcover ISBN: 978-075094452-6

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