Learning from History

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Learning from History, Ali Jan
Published in Khyber.ORG on Wednesday, May 15 2013 (http://www.khyber.org)

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Learning from History

Ali Jan

Publishing Date: Wednesday, May 15 2013

CCTV footage of a recent suicide attack targeting a convoy of the Frontier Constabulary's commandant in Peshawar shows a man clad in white shalwar kameez waiting on the footpath. As the convoy slows down near a check post, he casually steps on the road and blows himself up - killing over a dozen and maiming many others. Fortunately for the FC commandant, he remained safe. Nobody could have guessed the ordinary looking man was a suicide bomber. This incident once again exposed the challenges in countering suicide missions.

A similar attack took the life of Safwat Ghayur, one of Pakistan's best cops and the commandant of the FC at the time. Law-enforcement agencies, government officials and the ordinary public - all have borne the brunt of such attacks leaving thousands dead or crippled in the last decade. And the numbers are increasing, with no end in sight. What is fuelling this senseless mayhem? While everybody can disagree over the extent of it, most do admit that the American presence in neighbouring Afghanistan is fuelling the foreign jihad narrative. In their construct, Pakistan is an American ally and this they then use to justify their attacks on our country. With regard to the ongoing war in Afghanistan, some American generals have started echoing the words of their predecessors, the Russians, who declared their presence in Afghanistan an unwinnable war.

To face the future one needs to delve into history first - and learn from it.

On February 8 1872, the British Viceroy of India, Lord Mayo, was murdered by a convict serving a sentence at 'Kala Paani'. The event sent shock waves throughout British India. Even more shocking was the discovery when it was revealed that the assassin, named Shere Ali, was an Afridi tribesman from Tirah valley. The authorities went to great lengths to hide the perpetrator's Pakhtun ethnicity so as not to give an opportunity to their enemies to glorify the murderer of British India's supreme official.

Sher Ali Afridi Serving Prison Sentence
IMG: The Andaman Association, Switzerland

Shere Ali was an Afridi soldier in the service of the British mounted police. 'Badal' (revenge) is one of the core values of the Pathan code of Pakhtunwali. Although, there is a notion of 'bakhana' (forgiveness), a Pakhtun seldom forgives his enemy. It so happened that Shere Ali got involved in a personal blood feud in his village. Resultantly, the government sentenced him, which in his view was unjustified and he vowed vengeance against the 'white man' he reckoned had wronged him.

An obituary in a 1872 issue of Sunday Magazine, while referring to Shere Ali's roots in the tribal territory, stated: "It is from this little corner of our many hundreds of miles of British Indian frontier that all the assassins of British officers have of late years come."

Indeed for much of their presence in India, thousands of British were killed in everyday skirmishes, murders and raids mostly originating in the same border areas. Sometimes such everyday losses did not even rate a mention in the newspapers. On the contrary, high-profile assassinations received wider press. One such murder was that of Frederick Mackeson, commissioner of Peshawar. A tall memorial built at Company Bagh Peshawar in his memory, which no longer exists, bore the following inscription, "Here lies the body of Frederick Mackeson...who died Sep 14, 1853 of a wound inflicted by a religious fanatic."

Remains of the British lie buried in surviving cemeteries in the tribal territory and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. By studying headstone inscriptions or memorial plaques it is possible to grasp the entire history of the border area without the need to labour through heavy history books. Here, carved on stone memorials, are names of fallen soldiers, civil and military administrators and those killed in action or at the hands of 'ghazis' and 'fanatics'.

A plaque on the old memorial gate at Kohat Pass states: "This gate was erected to the memory of Eric Charles Handyside, Commandant, North West Frontier Constabulary, who was killed in action on 11 April 1926."

Plaque on old memorial gate at Kohat Pass, Photographed Muhammad Tayyab

Peshawar's St John's Church has a tablet inscribed in memory of "Thomas Arbuthnot Ekins, Assistant Superintendent of Police, Peshawar, who was killed on Feb 7 1926 by an armed criminal". Robert Roy Adams, an administrator was killed when he was returning from Peshawar city. His plaque in St Luke's Church in Abbottabad states, "Deputy Commissioner...struck down by the hand of an assassin on Jan 22 1865 aged 43".

Two bank colleagues from the Imperial Bank of India, James Lowe Hutcheson (agent) and James Nicol Dunsmorn (inspector) were "assassinated in the Khyber Pass on 20 April 1930" Their graves are in Peshawar.

Mollie Ellis (seated), photographed on 22 April 1923, one day before her release.
IMG: M.E. Lambert, "Kidnapping of Mollie Ellis by Afridi Tribesmen", Online: michaelelambert.com

Sometimes women also became victims. In the famous kidnapping case of Mollie Elis by Ajab Khan, Mollie's mother was killed in the raid on Kohat Cantonment. The inscription on her grave reads: "Dearly beloved wife of Maj AJ Ellis foully murdered at Kohat on April 14, 1923, aged 46 years." On his part, Ajab Khan justified his raid on Major Ellis's home as reprisal against an earlier raid by authorities on his own home, which was taken as an unforgivable insult and a violation of the privacy and honour of the women in his family.

One grave in Peshawar cemetery is that of "Captain Cecil John Russel Fulford - Died May 4 1882. Aged 37 years of wounds inflicted by an Afghan assassin on April 20 1882." Worthington Jukes, a missionary mentioning the incident in his memoir writes: "We were driving in the cantonments near the law courts on our way home, when I heard a shot, and very soon afterwards we overtook four natives carrying in a blanket Captain Fulford, who had just been shot by an Afghan fanatic owing to ignorant mullahs telling their fellows that to murder an Englishman was a sure way of getting into paradise...Assassin had immediately been shot dead in the lines of Native Regiment, and to act as a deterrent of such brutal and cowardly assassinations, his body was burnt in pigskin, by order of the civil authorities. The punishment was one which was most abhorrent to the Muhammadans, and according to their ideas, effectually prevented his getting to Paradise". (Reminiscences of missionary work 1873-1890)

In the half century that the British administered the tribal areas, five political agents were killed in South Waziristan alone. One was shot out of vengeance by a Mehsud in May 1948 in his winter residence in Tank just when he was preparing to leave for England.

Such acts testify, as the examples cited above show, how the might of the British Empire was challenged relentlessly throughout its rule. British rule lasted from 1849 to 1947 in the frontier regions. Britain was a global power but its efforts to dominate this volatile region took a toll on it. The aforementioned incidents also demonstrate the mindset of the assassin. He knew exactly what he was getting himself into and in a way it was a suicide mission knowing there was going to be no return and there were going to be fatal consequences. The assassins were either immediately put to the sword, or shot in the premises of camps or cantonments or executed after a trial. There is no countering that mindset to this day.

On their part, the British tried to quench rebellions with utmost ruthlessness to instil fear in their enemies. In the War of Independence 1857 forty mutineers were executed - and blown up from canons - at Peshawar. This was the largest mass execution anywhere in India. The British launched close to a thousand expeditions against tribes in the frontier in which countless natives died.

While the Royal Air Force (RAF) conducted aerial bombing of villages - albeit with advance warning via leaflets - the armies on the ground destroyed enemy homes and crops. Tactics like burning Muslims in pigskin were also employed. But for much of their presence in this part of British India the foreign occupiers got a bloody nose. When they finally departed, they had lost some of the finest military and civil officers - a long list of names.

During the time the British ruled here - a little under a century - they tried to understand the people by learning their language and ways. Through a political agent system which was relatively non-corrupt, in contrast to what we have at present, they employed a carrot and stick approach. Yet the whole tribal area remained volatile right till the end of their rule.

With the partition of British India, the sun had finally set on the British Empire. Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah was not a Pakhtun. But his astuteness in calling for withdrawal of regular troops from the tribal territory (codenamed: Operation Curzon) ushered in peace in an area that had become a battlefield. The same tribes that were up in arms against the British not too long ago formed tribal lashkars and wrestled back territories of Muslim-majority Kashmir from India in the war of 1948. The once forbidden tribal areas began to be visited by tourists from around the world.

The years between the 1950s and the 1970s saw droves of foreign tourists of all nationalities travel through Khyber Pass in caravans to and from Afghanistan. The tourist traffic continued on the Pakistani side of the border even after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and no untoward incidents against westerners took place. In keeping with the tradition of the land, locals greeted all outsiders as guests and welcomed everybody with unsurpassed hospitality.

This peace in the tribal areas was disturbed after the events of 9/11. The entire tribal belt was aflame as part of a chain reaction when in 2004 General Pervez Musharraf, a non-Pakhtun who had never served in the tribal areas in his entire military career, ordered his army into tribal territory. The military has since been unable to extricate itself from this quagmire.

To withdraw the forces now, without any future planning, would not be without consequences. The challenges in the tribal areas have mounted over time. The Taliban, although predominantly Pashto speakers, have evolved into a heterogeneous group comprising many foreign races and ethnicities including Arab, Chechen, Uzbek, Punjabi and so on.

The indoctrination of minds, which has been done over decades, has turned the sterner tenets of Pakhtunwali and increased religious Wahhabism into a dangerously lethal combination. There is no central authority and there are many splinter groups working independently on their own agenda. They have experienced the rigours of guerrilla warfare for decades and they excel at lethal ingenuity. The traditional tribal structure of elders has been systematically weakened, and the resultant vacuum has been filled by religious authority and militancy. Since the Afghan war, foreign-funded madressahs have mushroomed everywhere. Continued military operations, US drone strikes and the foreign jihad narrative are major inciting factors. These interplaying internal and external factors have turned the region into a hotbed of terrorism.

If the status quo continues, the future scene will be horrific. The key is to look for a solution staying within the tribal framework. Clearly militancy is on the rise. The government has to decide either to continue doing what it has been doing, or employ other strategies. Foremost on the list should be to reverse the foreign jihad narrative. The US has to understand that its presence in Afghanistan is not helping in the restoration of peace and stability in the whole region. In the post-2014 US withdrawal setting, the internal factors may still be surmountable as they do not seem as massive in proportion when compared to the external factors inciting militancy.

It is now imperative that the military should disengage itself in a dignified manner. Military might has to give way to a policy of dialogue and clemency. Despite all the challenges, we need to slowly and surely remove the backwardness of the militants in a way that is stern, yet just within their traditional framework to isolate the extremists, and bring peace back to the land. This can be achieved by introducing a more integrated approach on rehabilitation and development, removing their ignorance through social, political and economic reforms, particularly in education and health sectors. This will entail empowering the women and creating opportunities for tribal youth.

Compensating innocent affectees of drone strikes and military operations may help lessen their anguish. Extending electronic media (cable TV and FM radio) and the Internet to these areas will open a window to an outside world that contrasts sharply with their own. The government needs to actively patronise those community-based organisations that are promoting sports, setting up recreational facilities and working for revival of indigenous cultural activities and the hujra.

With elections just round the corner, who can best address Pakistan's future security threats is a major election question. The public has to decide whether to vote for those who have been tried and tested multiple times or those who promise change. Parties that seek non-military solutions through dialogue should be preferred. Distancing ourselves from the American war and finding a workable solution with all the regional neighbours under the UN is the way forward. This will ensure that no extremist group is allowed to use Pakistan's soil for terrorism nor will the country fight others' wars or act as a surrogate for any power in the future. Election 2013 offers an opportunity for voters to unite against extremism and cast their vote sensibly.

We would have made more friends, instead of enemies, in the tribal areas today had our previous governments cared to invest in the social sector instead of choosing the path of war. The real fight is to win the hearts and minds of the people there. Failure is not an option because if one studies the present trends, the future of terrorism spells doom. If current technology (suicide jackets and bombs) can cause so much havoc, fast forward a few years and imagine the devastation of the future. If we do not learn from history, and do not change our course now, the future will be even more horrific.

The writer is a conservationist based in Peshawar and a member of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. The article was first published in a two part series in The News on 8th of May, 2013.


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Learning from History, Ali Jan
Published in Khyber.ORG on Wednesday, May 15 2013 (http://www.khyber.org)