What's new in Af-Pak? History you haven't read

The more things change on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the more they seem to stay the same … the same as in the 1870s.

The latest news from Waziristan — the reputed death by U.S. drone strike of Baitullah Mehsud, West Asia’s Public Enemy No. 2 — doesn’t generate as much optimism as, perhaps, it should.

Those Anglo-Saxons active earlier in the region, British colonial forces, killed many Mehsuds over the years, but without, it seems, changing all that much.

In Islamabad early last year, as I was covering former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, a Pakistani arms dealer handed me a copy of a 108-year-old pamphlet, "Report on Waziristan and its Tribes." “This will make your work easier,” he said wryly. “Just copy what’s in this, changing only the dates.”

The Pakistan government, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Britain’s MI-6 had just named Baitullah Mehsud of Waziristan as the mastermind behind Bhutto’s killing in December 2007. A longhaired, bearded tribal leader, Baitullah, 34, claimed to be friendly toward, but not part of, the Al Qaeda terrorist group. Nevertheless, the CIA has repeatedly identified nearby mountains in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas as the hiding place also of enemy No. 1, Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, and his closest aides.

Despite its antiquity, "Report on Waziristan," first published by the British colonial authorities in Lahore in 1901, gives a good idea of why 21st-century air attack might be the preferred method of warfare. Mehsud country, says the report, is “a tangled mass of mountains and hills of every size, shape and bearing … penetration into it [is] a matter of extreme difficulty.”

Even more noteworthy are the report’s stark reminders of just how fiercely Waziristan’s locals have long resisted any efforts by outsiders to bring modernization into their valleys.

From the mid-19th century to 1947, the end of British rule in the subcontinent, the British army did what it could to bring the Mehsuds to heel. But the interlopers were never really successful.

The Waziristan report includes an analysis of the tribe written in the 1860s by one of frontier history’s most renowned British officers, Brigadier-General Neville Chamberlain. It gives us a good idea of the reason for this failure:

The Mehsuds, wrote the brigadier, “were formerly celebrated as the earliest, the most inveterate and the most incorrigible of all the robbers of the [Afghanistan] border. It was their boast that while kingdoms and dynasties had passed away they alone of all the Afghan tribes had remained free, and that the armies of kings had never penetrated their strongholds, that in their intercourse with the rest of mankind they knew no law or will [other than] their own.”

One of their favorite killing fields was the region around the Gomal Pass linking Waziristan with Afghanistan, then the annual route, says the report, of about 50,000 traders “their families, flocks, herds and long strings of camels laden with merchandise.” The traders “more than once attempted to come to a compromise with them and to arrange for unmolested passage through the Gomal Pass in exchange for payment of fixed blackmail, but the Mehsuds invariably refused to listen to any compromise.”

Over the decades of British rule, Baitullah Mehsud’s recent ancestors appear and reappear in the worst reports of frontier savagery. Brigadier Chamberlain tells of their exorbitant ransom demands for kidnapped children, with the children’s severed fingers sent to parents to emphasize the kidnappers’ urgency.

The Punjab government in 1881 observed that no other tribe had been “more daring or more persistent in disturbing the peace of British territory.” Added the Punjab’s British overlords: “For the first 20 years after the annexation [of the Punjab in 1849], not a month passed without some serious crimes, cattle-lifting, robbery accompanied by murder being committed by armed bands of marauders from the Mehsud hills”.

An unprovoked pillaging of the town of Tank and the subsequent loss of 300 soldiers in a British-raised Punjabi cavalry relief force obliged the British to send a punitive expedition against the Mehsud in 1860. The troops “burnt [the Mehsuds’] houses and destroyed their crops wherever they found them,” says the Waziristan report. “The force, however, left the country without securing the submission of the tribe.”

On some occasions during the British Raj era, the Mehsuds behaved themselves but never for long. British reports tell repeatedly of their intransigence: the “plunder of camels,” “kidnapping of Hindus,” and of the tumult of 1867-1872 when the tribe were allegedly responsible for 727 crimes and misdemeanours including 15 murders.

One of the last punitive expeditions mounted by the British came in 1946, the year before Pakistan’s independence. A friend of mine, a former British diplomat now retired in Kent, was a young subaltern on the expedition.

Recently he found his old "Handbook on Frontier Warfare" — a restricted document issued to him when he joined his regiment.

“I skimmed it again and realized how little had changed,” he told me in a recent email. “And so I sent it off to a young British officer serving in Helmand [Afghanistan].”

On Pakistan’s northwest frontier, my friend observed, “Little seems to change, despite the increase in fire power.”

The Mehsuds’ ambitions now seem to range much further than in earlier years. In an interview aired on Al Jazeera television in January of last year, Baitullah declared that his sights were now on Europe and North America. “We pray that Allah will enable us to destroy the White House, New York and London,” he told the interviewer.

Impossible? Perhaps. But according to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, there is evidence that Mehsud’s writ has already extended far beyond Waziristan.

In January 2008, Spain revealed that it had foiled a terrorist plot to blow up Barcelona’s public transport system. Gates told a security conference in Munich the following month that the suspects, nine Pakistanis and an Indian Muslim, had been trained in one of Mehsud’s Waziristan camps.

In the wake of Pakistan’s elections in February last year, the country’s new prime minister,  Yousaf Raza Gillani, announced that it would be his top priority to hold talks with militants.

The following day, a Taliban spokesman agreed to negotiate on condition Pakistan “give up its pro-U.S. stance first.” That same day, as an editorial in the Lahore-based Daily Times dryly noted, the Taliban blew up another girls’ school in Darra, a town bordering Waziristan, “as a kind of foreplay.”