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

The reported death by US drone strike of Baitullah Mehsud in Waziristan is straight out of the British colonial handbook.

The deserted village of Mandana in South Wazirstan on May 18, 2008. A 1901 British report on the area says it is "a tangled mass of mountains and hills of every size, shape and bearing." (Simon Cameron-Moore/Reuters)

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.