Custom and conflict in Waziristan: some British views

Beattie, Hugh (2012). Custom and conflict in Waziristan: some British views. In: Marsden, Magnus and Hopkins, Benjamin eds. Beyond Swat: History, Society and Economy Along the Afghanistan-Pakistan Frontier. London: Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., pp. 209–220.



The chapter focuses on British relations with Waziristan in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A region on the border between Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan (referred to by the British as the North-West Frontier), Waziristan at that time was largely independent. Until the later 1880s the main problem the British faced was raids and incursions launched by members of the main tribal groups living in it –Darwesh Khel Wazirs, Bhittanis, Dawars, and Mahsuds. In order to deal with this, as these groups had no leaders with whom they could negotiate, the British tried to identify subdivisions based on shared patrilineal descent from a common ancestor, and treat their members as collectively responsible for each others' actions. They did not, however, attempt to establish a permanent presence in Waziristan itself.

This began to change in the later 1880s as concerns about a possible Russian threat to Afghanistan led the British to pursue a more interventionist approach in Waziristan. The Mahsuds were seen as the most difficult to deal with because they were particularly reluctant to recognise any form of authority. The official responsible for relations with them, Richard Bruce, tried to address this problem by paying allowances to maliks, men he regarded as having some standing in the tribe, in return for which they were expected to keep the Mahsuds under control.

However, some of his nominees were murdered by fellow tribesmen, and Mahsud robbery and murder in the settled areas along the eastern Waziristan border actually increased. In 1900 William Merk took over responsibility for relations with the tribe. He decided that they were too ‘democratic’ for Bruce’s approach to work, and that allowances would be paid to the heads of families rather than to a small number of maliks, and that the tribe as a whole should again be responsible for any problems caused by its members.

The new arrangements were not very successful either. Difficulties included opposition from a religious leader whom the British called the Mullah Powindah, interference from Afghanistan, and growing disunity amongst the Mahsuds themselves. However, the chapter argues, their highly individualistic ethos was also an important factor. In conclusion some comparisons are drawn between the situation in the earlier 20th century and position today; there are seen to be some revealing parallels.

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