Waging War in Waziristan: The British Struggle in the Land of Bin Laden
By Andrew M. Roe
University Press of Kansas, 2010
328 pp. $34.95
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, Osama bin Laden, along with senior members of his al Qaeda terror group, decamped his safe haven in Afghanistan for a location believed to be in Waziristan, a remote, mountainous area of northwestern Pakistan. It is home to fiercely independent tribes that have refused to submit to outside governance for centuries and that today are part of Pakistan’s semiautonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). It is particularly well known by the British military as the home of the Fakir of Ipi, an early 20th-century Islamic extremist who was the subject of intensive British manhunts of up to 40,000 troops scouring the countryside between 1936 and1947. The Fakir was never caught, and he lived out his days in the region, dying a natural death in 1960.
In his inaugural book, Andrew M. Roe has taken on a region of the world that is obscure to most people not concerned with the ongoing efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, despite the remoteness, Roe has combined his significant practical experience as a British infantry officer and former Afghan army kandak (battalion) mentor with an academic’s sense of history derived from his postgraduate and doctoral studies of the area to pen a book of substance that should appeal to historians, military professionals, and policy planners.
In establishing the purpose for his book, Roe is guided by Shakespeare’s assertion that “what’s past is prologue." In particular, Roe is convinced that we need to examine the British experience in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for policies that were developed through trial and error and that have been the guiding principles for administration of the FATA for nearly a century. In the end, the raison d’être for this book is that Roe strongly believes that history and culture matter and that the “many . . . hard-earned lessons from Waziristan can be adopted as part of a contemporary solution" (p. 14).
Recognizing that “there is a lack of contemporary literature" (p. 6) on Waziristan, Roe has organized his book into three areas: a regional background, an overview of the British military and civilian government experience, and an analysis of modern parallels between the colonial period and present-day issues along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The first two chapters provide the historical context defining the grindstone upon which the British would simultaneously sharpen their troops’ proficiency in counterinsurgency warfare and wear down their own political resolve to dominate the tribes. Principal factors influencing the tribal mentality include the unmatched harshness of the terrain, the intense isolation of the people, and the unwavering dictates of the Pashtunwali code of honor.
Roe is particularly adept at explaining the importance of differentiating between the isolated and independent tribes, categorized as nang (honor) tribes, in which individual independence was of paramount importance and that were characterized by “proud and uncooperative self-government" (p. 41), and the qalang (rent/tax) tribes identified by strong centralized leadership. As he notes, “The psychological difference between the . . . tribes . . . was stark" (p. 39). In describing the region’s major tribes, Roe’s descriptions of the Waziris (for whom the region is named) and the Mahsuds hold as true today as they did 150 years ago, when one official described the tribes as “the largest known potential reservoir of guerrilla fighters in the world" (p. 59).
The subsequent six chapters provide an exceedingly detailed account of the specific policy and military efforts undertaken between 1849 and 1947. Reminiscent of Peter Hopkirk’s seminal work, The Great Game, Roe draws from an extensive number of primary government sources, unit histories, memoirs, and news accounts of the day to recount Great Britain’s efforts to secure the northwest border of the empire’s “crown jewel," India. Without reexamining Roe’s detailed analysis, this section of the book will be most appreciated by historians and those interested in the finer details of British northwest frontier policy formation. It is an excellent recounting of the politics and practicalities associated with evolving and implementing the close border policy, the forward policy and maliki (tribal leader) system, and the modified forward policy.
The crux of these different systems lies in how they addressed the issue of “rule" with the tribes. As the British quickly learned, the tribes produced excellent guerrilla fighters who would never quit. The resulting changes eventually led to a policy of cooption and containment in which the government utilized heavy subsidization to influence malikis to accept those benchmarks deemed to be “good enough" (p. 196) in attaining Great Britain’s goals, and torealize the importance of cultural experts and experienced political officers who could negotiate with the tribal leaders.
The final chapters summarize the lessons learned during this period as well as analyzing parallels that exist between the colonial era and the present day. On the whole, these chapters represent an unnatural f low from the rest of the book; however, they are the most relevant from a policy and planning perspective. Within the author’s analysis, there are no perfect solutions, yet he notes, “[d]espite a varied record of success, the British approach to tribal control was adopted by the Pakistan state at independence" (p. 193)—an approach that remained little changed until President Pervez Musharraf, pressured by the United States, began to modify how the Pakistani government approached the now restive tribal areas.
In the final analysis, Roe is clear in noting that current issues—such as the role of a reality-based policy informed by clear cultural understanding, the challenges of the disputed border as represented by the Durand Line, and the need for a civil-military relationship that is both flexible and responsive to changes on the ground and that “employs all the elements of national power" (p. 256)—are necessary in establishing a policy that effectively works to resolve the issues of distrust, politics, and pride that guide tribal interests.
As the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States work to counter Islamic extremists, particularly along the illdefined border derived from the Durand Line, the region of Waziristan will remain as central to resolving the issue as it was a century ago. Success will not be achieved through attainment of Western-dictated standards. Instead, it will be accomplished by realizing that the tribes must be consulted and their preexisting structures used.
History is replete with lessons to be learned if only we take the time to study them. In this case, the consequences of failing to draw on the lessons of our predecessors cannot be known. We have put “payment received" on Osama bin Laden’s personal debt to society. However, if the past is perceived as prologue, we can almost be guaranteed that unless we draw from the British government’s 19th-century playbook, senior insurgent leaders will likely—much like the Fakir of Ipi—die of old age in the safety of Waziristan’s remote hills and protective tribes. JFQ