The Long Life of the Frontier Mullah

The Long Life of the Frontier Mullah

The history of Pakistan’s border regions remains an unruly captive of the imperial “Great Game.”


Late one evening in March, I sat in Haandi, a Pakistani restaurant on Lexington Avenue, and watched the swearing in of the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, Yousaf Raza Gillani. Gillani is a loyalist of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which since its founding in 1967 has been led by the Bhutto clan. The general election in February was held seven weeks after the PPP’s chair, Benazir Bhutto, was killed by a bomb blast and a bullet to the head at an election rally in Rawalpindi, and in an acrid climate of grief, anger and bewilderment, the PPP ended up trouncing President Pervez Musharraf’s Pakistan Muslim League. A television suspended from the ceiling at Haandi showed Pakistan’s new prime minister discussing the restoration of democratic institutions and then announcing the release of the sixty-two judges, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who had been living under house arrest since President Musharraf imposed martial law on November 3. Soon after Gillani’s announcement, the television showed Chaudhry on the balcony of his house in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. Crowds of supporters danced about and showered him with rose petals.

The news anchor then claimed a scoop, as one of the network’s reporters thrust a cellphone into Chaudhry’s face. The chief justice spoke into it, and his words reached me and the dozen or so Pakistani cabdrivers staring at a television in a restaurant in New York City. “There is still a long struggle ahead of us,” he said. Three men at my table broke into a spontaneous discussion. The newscast’s images of reform and hope reminded them of their country’s failures: a feudal social system, the rule of the landlords, nearly four decades of military rule, widespread inequality. These were men who worked twelve-hour shifts in their rented cabs and had for years lived apart from their families in Pakistan, to whom they regularly remitted their meager savings. One man talked about the tragedy of the partition of British India into India and Pakistan. Another compared prepartition India to a neighborhood: the country had been a cluster of houses owned by people who were related, often sons of the same father. They argued and fought, but at the end of the day they lived together as part of a larger whole. “We didn’t even maintain the house we got,” the man said.

The rooms long thought to be Pakistan’s messiest are the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which hug 500 miles of the country’s mountainous and dangerous border with Afghanistan. Six years ago, the mullahs of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of six Islamist parties, were elected in the NWFP during the wave of anti-Americanism that swelled up after the US invasion of Afghanistan. Yet in the recent elections there, the MMA was defeated by the Awami National Party (ANP), a secular Pashtun nationalist party established in 1986 after the merger of a few left-leaning parties. The ANP is led by Asfandyar Wali Khan, the grandson of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the foremost twentieth-century leader of the Pashtuns, who was known as Frontier Gandhi and had opposed the partition of British India. The MMA’s re-election bid faltered because the party had failed to provide even the most rudimentary government services to the impoverished people of the frontier region, an area scarred by the brutal insurgency and counterinsurgency warfare being waged by the Taliban and other Islamist militants who control the area and Pakistani soldiers supported by US forces. The MMA’s defeat has been celebrated as one of Pakistan’s most dramatic and positive developments.

The “war on terror” has made the borderlands a newsworthy topic, yet accounts of the daily struggles, aspirations and challenges of the region’s population are rare. American coverage of the recent elections there spotlighted the ANP’s victory as a rejection of Islamist parties and marginalized the issues that dominated the campaign: reducing the presence of the Pakistani military, lowering civilian casualties in the counterinsurgency operations and pushing a development agenda in the tribal belt. What’s not in short supply are stories about the mullahs and warring tribes; their prominence is a testament to how the frontier region remains an unruly captive of the narrative that first defined it for the world beyond the Hindu Kush and the Khyber Pass: the imperial “Great Game” played by Britain and Russia in the region in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Great Game had its second inning in the early 1980s, when the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan supported the Afghan resistance against Soviet forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

One of the first printed works to establish the reputation of the North-West Frontier tribes as bloodthirsty and acrimonious was written in 1897 by a second lieutenant of a British cavalry regiment. The young officer was Winston Churchill, who had ended up commanding a brigade tasked with subduing tribes in Malakand–in the frontier territory’s northern reaches–after refining his polo game during a posting with his regiment in British India. In The Story of the Malakand Field Force, which is peppered with racist and Islamophobic remarks, Churchill says of the frontier tribes, “Except at the times of sowing and of harvest, a continual state of feud and strife prevails throughout the land…. Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger…. To the ferocity of the Zulu are added the craft of the Redskin and the marksmanship of the Boer.” He goes on to write that the frontier people were exposed to the “rapacity and tyranny of a numerous priesthood…and a host of wandering Talib-ul-ilms, who correspond with the theological students in Turkey, and live free at the expense of the people. More than this, they enjoy a sort of ‘droit du seigneur,’ and no man’s wife or daughter is safe from them.”

In Sana Haroon’s Frontier of Faith, the history of the borderlands is not a chapter in the story of the Great Game. Haroon, a young Pakistani historian trained at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, provides a complex and valuable account of the role and influence of the mullahs in the frontier region and the frontier’s relationship with external powers from the late nineteenth century to the 1960s. The position and power that the mullahs came to possess in the frontier areas, she explains, was not some sort of a divine right but rather assiduously built from social networking, political and spiritual manipulation, and coercion. The product of meticulous doctoral and postdoctoral research, Frontier of Faith draws on a wealth of sources, such as the correspondence and memoirs of British officials, Indian Muslim nationalists and Deobandi scholars; the archived files of the colonial police and administration in Peshawar; Pakistani Urdu and English newspapers of the era as well as rarely explored anticolonial jihadi papers like Al Mujahid; and interviews of various descendants of the frontier mullahs in Peshawar. Haroon offers a fascinating street-level view of frontier life and politics, but unfortunately she often gets overwhelmed by details and loses direction. Her book’s many insights suffer from the absence of a coherent and elegant narrative.

The rise of the frontier mullahs is not solely religious in origin. While the mullahs’ emergence is inextricably linked to the nineteenth-century revival of the ideas of a seventeenth-century north Indian Muslim philosopher, Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi, and his disciple Shah Wali Ullah, their ascendance was boosted by the transformation of those ideas into weapons of regional warfare and, later, anticolonialism. Sirhindi mixed Sufi practice with a return to the fundamentals–the Koran and the hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Wali Ullah added the idea of social practice based on Shariah and called for social and political reform. In the early nineteenth century, Wali Ullah’s grandson, Shah Ismail, and his friend Sayyid Ahmed Barelvi interpreted this call for social and political reform as a call for jihad and launched campaigns against the Sikhs who ruled most of Punjab and Peshawar. During the campaigns, Barelvi struck a strong alliance with Akhund Ghaffur, a Pashtun Sufi from the tribal belt, and preached Wali Ullah’s revivalist vision of Islam among the Pashtuns. (Wali Ullah’s faith is akin to Wahhabism, the ultraconservative brand of Sunni Islam whose dramatic spread since the 1970s has been fueled by Saudi petrodollars as well as American cash funneled to the mujahedeen who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan.) Although Barelvi was betrayed by some tribal chiefs and killed during an 1831 battle in a small town in the NWFP called Balakot, about 125 miles from Islamabad, some of his men found refuge in the frontier region with Ghaffur.

Among the descendants of Sirhindi who had settled in Kabul was the city’s head priest, Hafiz Ji, the mentor of Ghaffur and religious policy adviser to the Afghan king. In 1835 Dost Muhammad Khan, the ruler of Afghanistan, went to battle against Ranjit Singh, the Sikh ruler of Punjab. On Hafiz Ji’s recommendation, Dost Muhammad had appealed to Ghaffur, among others, for military support. Ghaffur obliged, bringing his supporters and students to Peshawar to join the Afghan army. Dost Muhammad rewarded Ghaffur for his support with vast tracts of land throughout the frontier areas. Ghaffur’s newfound wealth led him to establish a langarkhana (free community kitchen), where 500 people were fed every day; his reputation grew, and the town he lived in turned into a “thriving city whose economy revolved around the langarkhana.” His disciples spread out and set up bases throughout the frontier promoting Wali Ullah’s revivalist vision of Islam.

The Afghan patronage ended in 1878. Ghaffur died, and his disciple Hadda Mulla Najmuddin succeeded him. At the same time, a new ruler in Kabul, Amir Abdur Rahman–after establishing a centralized bureaucracy and a state army–ignored the mullahs and spearheaded intrusions into the tribal regions. The British were also pushing forward from Peshawar to establish control of the frontier region. As he strived to further consolidate his authority and extend the network of his order throughout the entire frontier area, Hadda Mulla resisted the unfavorable Afghan ruler and obsessively fought the British, most famously in the Battle of Malakand, which Churchill chronicled. Haroon quotes a letter Hadda Mulla wrote to persuade tribal elders to join a campaign against the British: “The kafirs have taken possession of all Muslim countries, and owing to the lack of spirit on the part of the people are conquering every region.” These words have been reverberating in those mountains ever since.

Hadda Mulla’s words didn’t repel the British, but his revivalist religious order continued to dominate the frontier, and opposition to the British continued after his death in 1903, thanks to the work of his disciples. They were led by Haji Turangzai, a mullah who had ventured into the larger world–first to the revivalist Islamic seminary of Deoband near Delhi and then to Mecca for hajj. Turangzai and other disciples of Hadda Mulla named their revivalist agenda amr-bil maruf wa nahi anal munkir (the movement for “the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice”), which Haroon describes as “a social mission that was to give the line [their order] its greatest cohesion and form its primary agenda in the twentieth century.” Turangzai consolidated the mission’s influence by establishing 150 madrassas throughout the British-administered North-West Frontier Province, and then settling full-time in the tribal region of the frontier.

In 1893, after the Second Anglo-Afghan War, the British forced Afghanistan to consent to the drawing of the Durand Line, which demarcated a rough boundary between Afghanistan and British India and was meant to formally limit Afghan influence in the North-West Tribal Areas. But the frontier remained porous, and the tribal mullahs continued to rally their militias in support of various men fighting for the throne of Kabul. The mullahs, who were mostly Pashtuns, enmeshed themselves in the fabric of village life in the frontier region, “trading, interacting and inter-marrying within the clan unit,” Haroon writes. The mullahs claimed their place in the villages by managing the local mosques, which Haroon aptly describes as “a functional, inclusive and vibrant arena of male village life.” Despite their poverty, illiteracy and sparse communication with the greater world, the villagers in the frontier area were hungry for news–“about on-going wars, the nationalist movement in India, colonial governance, and intrigue at the Afghan darbar, and events across the Tribal Areas.” Rumors such as Turks coming to liberate India, and Germany embracing Islam filled the frontier villages. The

mullahs received travelers and the occasional newspaper someone brought to the mosque, and used the “traditional Friday sermon to comment on the content of news and its implications.”

Around the time of World War I, political activism among Indian Muslims grew more common, invigorated by anticolonialism and questions about colonial repression shared by Muslim communities across the world. “Using the Urdu press to publicise their ideas,” Haroon writes, Indian Muslims criticized the British government of India fighting the Ottoman caliph. In this atmosphere, Maulana Mahmudul Hasan, the chancellor of the revivalist Islamic seminary at Deoband, conceived of a plan to launch armed rebellion against the British from the Tribal Areas. Some Deobandi sought assistance and financial support from Afghanistan, and others made plans in 1916 to invite the Ottoman vizier to attack and liberate India. The Deobandi initiative in the frontier died when letters from frontier-based Deobandis to the vizier and Hasan, “written on pieces of silk to avoid detection,” were intercepted by the colonial police and most of the senior Deobandi leaders were arrested.

The tribal mullahs turned toward Kabul and fought against the British in 1919 during the Third Anglo-Afghan War, which led to an end of the British control of Afghan foreign policy. Beginning in the 1920s, the British made strong efforts to expand roads, railways and garrisons, especially in Waziristan. Led by the mullahs, the tribes resisted. But when the British responded heavy-handedly, using RAF planes to bomb Muslim militias, the mullahs showed that maintenance of their regional authority was closer to their hearts than anticolonialism. The main mullah order led by Turangzai “did not see the utility in opposing the [colonial] scheme once its monetary benefit accrued to them.” (British allowances to the frontier tribes for projects like roads and railways had more than doubled between 1919 and 1925.) And during moments of relative peace between the British and the tribes, Haroon shows, Turangzai, backed by a private militia of mullahs and tribesmen, positioned himself and other mullahs as the chief arbitrators of disputes and order in the frontier–for example, by preventing the extradition of a Pashtun man who had kidnapped a young British girl, and negotiating the release of the girl and the safety of the kidnapper.

Even by the late 1930s, the British had not succeeded in destroying the mullahs’ authority, although the RAF’s “disproportionate response” to unrest, and the deaths of prominent mullahs like Turangzai, had reduced militant campaigns against the colonial government. But throughout the ’30s, opposition to the British rule had grown stronger throughout India. Haroon traces a web of relationships among the tribal mullahs, the Deobandi ideologues and militants, the Khudai Khidmatgars (the nonviolent anticolonial followers of the Gandhian Pashtun leader Ghaffar Khan), Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League and Mahatma Gandhi’s Indian National Congress Party. These relationships also involve a contest for allegiances, which the Muslim League won after Jinnah (who would become the first governor-general of Pakistan in 1947) traveled through the NWFP in 1936, criticizing the British frontier policies and valorizing the independence of the tribal region.

In the summer of 1947, when the British were leaving and the partition plan had been announced, the Tribal Areas joined Pakistan but retained their autonomy and traditional systems of power and authority, even though Ghaffar Khan and his supporters in the NWFP remained committed to an undivided India and, later, a separate state of Pashtunistan. In fact, the Tribal Areas’ relationship with the postcolonial Pakistani state was not very different from the region’s relationship with the Afghan rulers or with the British. It was a patron-client affair wherein the state provided the tribes with financial and other kinds of assistance to earn their cooperation. The tribal belt was never integrated into the Pakistani polity, and Pakistan made no real effort at establishing modern systems of administration and infrastructure in the region.

Yet from the very beginning the tribes served the purposes of the state, first and foremost in the first Indo-Pakistan war over Kashmir in 1947-48, when Pashtun mullahs led by Turangzai’s son, Badshah Gul II, and supported by the Pakistani military led a tribal attack to liberate Kashmir. The invasion, Haroon explains, was not fueled so much by Pakistani “nationalism” as by “opportunity, bravado, and possibly hunger, shored up by massive moral and material support.” The first India-Pakistan war over Kashmir helped the Pakistani government “to convene jirgas with almost all tribes and ratify new treaty-based settlements between them and the Pakistan government on the colonial model.” It took Islamabad many more years to establish control as some Pashtun tribal leaders in Waziristan began an insurgency for a Pashtun state.

Khan, a towering, muscular man with a beaklike nose and much personal wealth, got involved in the Indian freedom struggle in 1919 after the British passed the infamous Rowlatt Act, which denied the right of trial to dissidents. Under Gandhi’s influence, Khan turned to an austere life–most photographs show him as a smiling giant dressed in homespun cotton. Khan founded the Servants of God, or the Red Shirt Movement, in 1929, and his roughly 100,000 followers (all turned out in red shirts) were mostly Pashtun peasants. They formed a unique, nonviolent Pashtun army pledged to follow the teachings of Islam and to pursue social and political reform among the Pashtuns and nonviolent agitation for Indian independence. Khan and his Red Shirts supported the Congress Party’s cause of an undivided India over the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan. Khan’s biographer (and Gandhi’s grandson), Rajmohan Gandhi, writes, “The naturalness of his Islam, his directness, his rejection of violence and revenge, and his readiness to cooperate with non-Muslims add up to a valuable legacy for our angry times.”

After 1947, as the NWFP became part of Pakistan, Khan’s demands for an autonomous Pashtunistan earned the wrath of the Pakistani government. He was jailed for many years and spent most of the 1960s exiled in Afghanistan, where the government of Mohammed Zahir Shah (the king in exile rediscovered by the world in Rome after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001) supported the Pashtunistan demand, opposed Pakistan’s membership in the United Nations and provided financial and moral support to secure the loyalty of the frontier mullahs. The volatile frontier was stabilized in the 1950s by American pressure on Afghanistan and Pakistani military action against dissenting tribal leaders like Mirza Ali Khan, who led an armed group of tribesmen from the Mahsud tribe (which counts among its brethren Baitullah Mahsud, the militant leader accused of assassinating Benazir Bhutto). Pakistani military and elected governments believed in the “intractability of the tribes” and avoided the expense of infrastructure development, controlling the frontier through financial assistance to tribal leaders. Haroon argues that the tribes would have embraced the social, civic and institutional amenities available to citizens elsewhere in Pakistan, since hundreds of young Pashtuns “were migrating from the Tribal Areas to Peshawar and Kabul in pursuit of education, business opportunities or jobs.”

Pakistan mostly ignored the Tribal Areas until the beginning of the US-backed resistance to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the early 1980s, when the NWFP and FATA became staging areas for Afghan fighters. The story of the Afghan war, the role of Pakistani and American intelligence agencies and Islamist groups, and the rise of the Taliban are stories better read in Steve Coll’s fascinating Ghost Wars or Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban. Senior Pakistani journalist Zahid Hussein’s Frontline Pakistan is another valuable addition to the literature on a post-9/11 Pakistan dominated by terrorist and counterterrorist operations in the NWFP and FATA. Al Qaeda, Afghan, Uzbek and Arab militants and the Taliban have enmeshed themselves in the region, especially Waziristan, marrying local women, living like locals, alternating between working in the fields and firing rockets on US coalition forces in Afghanistan and the Pakistani military.

Haroon’s account of the region is marred by her failure to acknowledge the stature of Ghaffar Khan, his movement among the Pashtuns and the nature of his influence in the tribal region. Haroon’s discussion of Khan is slight, an odd way to treat a man whose death in 1988 at 98 prompted the Pashtun guerrillas fighting the Soviet forces in Afghanistan to declare a cease-fire for a day in his honor. The Soviets permitted thousands of guerrillas to cross the border into Pakistan for his funeral. Still, this oversight doesn’t hamper Haroon’s understanding of the origins of the political tragedy of the frontier areas, where about 4 million people have no recourse to Pakistani laws or courts; the literacy rate is only 17 percent, against the Pakistani national average of 45 percent; and female literacy is 3 percent, against the national average of 32 percent. As Haroon observed recently in a column in the Guardian, “As long as the Pakistan state continues to represent the tribal areas as a nightmare landscape of roads cut deep through unknowable mountains swarming with enemies–and keeps persisting in trying to control or subjugate them instead of governing–extremists will continue to find them a haven.”

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