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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 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.