Empire and Tribe in the Afghan Frontier Region: Custom, Conflict and British Strategy in Waziristan until 1947

Beattie, Hugh (2019). Empire and Tribe in the Afghan Frontier Region: Custom, Conflict and British Strategy in Waziristan until 1947. London: I.B.Tauris.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.5040/9781838600839

URL: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/empire-and-tribe-in-...


The book focuses on relations between the people of Waziristan (mainly Pashtuns - Darwesh Khel Wazirs, Mahsuds or Mehsuds, Bhittanis and Dawars), a region on the border between what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan (referred to by the British as the North-West Frontier) and the governments of British India and Afghanistan between the mid-19th and the mid-20th centuries. At the beginning of this period Waziristan was largely independent. Some of its people were accustomed to carrying out destructive raids and incursions into the areas the British annexed in 1849. The British tried to deal with the problem in various ways, ranging from punitive military expeditions to schemes to settle people in British territory, but no attempt was made to establish a permanent presence in Waziristan.

This changed in the later 1880s as imperial strategy began to play a bigger role in dictating British policy along the North-West Frontier as a whole. The need to be able to repel a Russian invasion of Afghanistan was thought to require British control of the main passes leading into it from the Punjab. As two important routes did run through or near Waziristan, the local officials were encouraged to try and increase British influence over it, and regular troops were stationed at Miranshah in the Tochi valley and at Wana to the south. In response local religious leaders like the Shabi Khel Alizai Mahsud, Muhiy-ud-Din, referred to by the British as the Mullah Powindah, encouraged their followers to resist. He and other mullas received intermittent support from the Afghan government; there was also raiding by émigrés from Waziristan based in Afghanistan.

A major rising along much of the Frontier in 1897 led to the British adopting a less intrusive approach, and regular troops were withdrawn. This did not bring peace. There were suicidal attacks on British officials, for instance, and a major insurrection broke out in 1919. After it was defeated the British established a large permanent garrison of regular troops at Razmak in central Waziristan in the early 1920s. The RAF also began to play a part.

Partly thanks to the greatly increased military presence, the later 1920s were relatively quiet. The British also made some effort to improve the local economy, provide medical services, and offer educational opportunities. Mahsuds and Wazirs intervened in Afghanistan on various occasions in the inter-war period, for instance in 1929 helping Nadir Khan to take the throne. In the mid-1930s an anti-British agitation in northern Waziristan, instigated by a religious leader referred to by the British as the Faqir of Ipi, was mishandled by the local officials and developed into another major insurrection. Violence continued to flare up sporadically until the British withdrawal in 1947, when Waziristan and the rest of the Frontier were absorbed into Pakistan. Not everyone was happy with this; some people, including the Faqir Ipi, would have preferred to see the establishment of an independent Pashtun state, Pashtunistan.

In the final chapters there is some general discussion of issues raised in previous ones, including the role of religion and religious leaders, British understandings of Frontier society, political identities, and the function and meaning of violence. Comparisons are drawn with developments in other parts of this border, and in other frontier areas where there was considerable resistance to Western imperialism. Attention is also drawn to some parallels with recent events in Waziristan.

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