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Armageddon at the Top of the World: *Not*! | The Nation

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Armageddon at the Top of the World: *Not*!

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Juan Cole
Juan Cole, who maintains the blog Informed Comment, is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the...

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On a recent research trip to the India Office archives in London to plunge into British military memoirs of the Waziristan campaigns in the first half of the twentieth century, I was overcome by a vivid sense of deja vu. The British in India fought three wars with Afghanistan, losing the first two decisively, and barely achieving a draw in the third in 1919. Among the Afghan king Amanullah's demands during the third war were that the Pashtun tribes of the frontier be allowed to give him their fealty and that Britain permit Afghanistan to conduct a sovereign foreign policy. He lost on the first demand, but won on the second and soon signed a treaty of friendship with the newly established Soviet Union.

Disgruntled Pashtun tribes in Waziristan, a no-man's land sandwiched between the Afghan border and the formal boundary of the British-ruled North-West Frontier Province, preferred Kabul's rule to that of London, and launched their own attacks on the British, beginning in 1919. Putting down the rebellious Wazir and Mahsud tribes of this region would, in the end, cost imperial Britain's treasury three times as much as had the Third Anglo-Afghan War itself.

On May 2, 1921, long after the Pashtun tribesmen should have been pacified, the Manchester Guardian carried a panicky news release by the British Viceroy of India on a Mahsud attack. "Enemy activity continues throughout," the alarmed message from Viceroy Rufus Isaacs, the Marquess of Reading, said, implying that a massive uprising on the subcontinent was underway. In fact, the action at that point was in only a small set of villages in one part of Waziristan, itself but one of several otherwise relatively quiet tribal areas.

On the 23rd of that month, a large band of Mahsud struck "convoys" near the village of Piazha. British losses included a British officer killed, four British and two Indian officers wounded, and seven Indian troops killed, with twenty-six wounded. On the 24th, "a picket [sentry outpost] near Suidgi was ambushed, and lost nine killed and seven wounded." In nearby Zhob, the British received support from friendly Pashtun tribes engaged in a feud with what they called the "hostiles" and--a modern touch--"aeroplanes" weighed in as well. They were, it was said, "cooperating," though this too was an exaggeration. At the time, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was eager to prove its colonial worth on the imperial frontiers in ways that extended beyond simple reconnaissance, even though in 1921 it maintained but a single airplane at Peshawar, the nearest city, which had "a hole in its wing." By 1925, the RAF had gotten its wish and would drop 150 tons of bombs on the Mahsud tribe.

On July 5, 1921, a newspaper report in the Allahabad Pioneer gives a sense of the tactics the British deployed against the "hostiles." One center of rebellion was the village of Makin, inhabited by that same Mahsud tribe, which apparently wanted its own irrigation system and freedom from British interference. The British Indian army held the nearby village of Ladka. "Makin was shelled from Ladka on the 20th June," the report ran.

The tribal fighters responded by beginning to move their flocks, though their families remained. British archival sources report that a Muslim holy man, or faqir, attempted to give the people of Makin hope by laying a spell on the 6-inch howitzer shells and pledging that they would no longer explode in the valley. (Overblown imperial anxiety about such faqirs or akhonds, Pashtun religious leaders, inspired Victorian satirists such as Edward Lear, who began one poem, "Who, or why, or which, or what, Is the Akond of Swat?")

The faqir's spells were to no avail. The shelling, the Pioneer reported, continued over the next two days, "with good results." Then on the 23rd, "another bombardment of Makin was carried out by our 6-inch howitzers at Ladka." This shelling "had a great moral effect," the newspaper intoned, and revealed with satisfaction that "the inhabitants are now evacuating their families." The particular nature of the moral effect of bombarding a civilian village where women and children were known to be present was not explained. Two days later, however, thanks to air observation, the howitzers at Ladka and the guns at "Piazha camp" made a "direct hit" on another similarly obscure village.

Such accounts of small, vicious engagements in mountainous villages with (to British ears) outlandish names fit oddly with the strange conviction of the elite and the press that the fate of the Empire was somehow at stake--just as strangely as similar reports out of exactly the same area, often involving the very same tribes, do in our own time. On July 7, 2009, for instance, the Pakistani newspaper The Nation published a typical daily report on the Swat valley campaign which might have come right out of the early twentieth century. Keep in mind that this was a campaign into which the Obama administration forced the Pakistani government to save itself and the American position in the Greater Middle East, and which displaced some two million people, risking the actual destabilization of the whole northwestern region of Pakistan. It went in part:

[T]he security forces during search operation at Banjut, Swat, recovered 50 mules loaded with arms and ammunition, medicines and ration and also apprehended a few terrorists. During search operation at Thana, an improvised explosive device (IED) went off causing injuries to a soldier. As a result of operation at Tahirabad, Mingora, the security forces recovered surgical equipment, nine hand grenades and office furniture from the house of a militant."

The unfamiliar place names, the attention to confiscated mules and the fear of tribal militancy differed little from the reports in the Pioneer from nearly a century before. Echoing Viceroy Rufus Isaacs, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on July 14th, "Our national security as well as the future of Afghanistan depends on a stable, democratic and economically viable Pakistan. We applaud the new Pakistani determination to deal with the militants who threaten their democracy and our shared security."

As in 1921, so in 2009, the skirmishes were ignored by the general public in the West despite the frenzied assertions of politicians that the fate of the world hung in the balance.

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