1.2 Tribal Trouble

As well as having to deal with the threat of Russia to their frontiers, the British were distracted with trying to control the “turbulent and undisciplined people” (Philip, 1967, p.150) of the tribal areas. British India’s attempts to bring these people under their control were met with fierce resistance from the Pashtuns who “were not prepared to welcome any foreigners threatening their independence or territory” (Philip, 1967, p.150).
The extremely independent nature of the Pashtuns seems to be incompatible with foreign interference and meddling in their traditional way of life. The pre-Islamic code of tribal conduct, Pashtunwali, consists of three main concepts, ‘Zan, Zar and Zamin’, which translates to the protection of Women, Assets and Land at any cost. “Famed for their warrior spirit, love of freedom and strict adherence to their tribal code of Pashtunwali” (Cappelli, 2005, p.713-729), Pashtuns highly value with pride, freedom in their lands and resent control, be it by another Pashtun or a great power, being more than willing to fight to the death in a bid to uphold this principle, “”they were eulogised as a martial race that would rather die for its pukhtunwali than submit to the will of me alien power” (Khan, 2005, p.86).
Sir Olaf Caroe, the last British administrator in the British Indian Government, was one of the first to educate the unfamiliar of the fiercely independent nobility of the Pashtuns in his elaborative detailed book on them (Caroe, 1958).
However the lack of understanding of the sensitive nature of the freedom loving Pashtun tribes by the Forward Policy exponents in the government subsequently led to the British blindly adopting an aggressive forward policy which inevitably clashed with the strict tribal way of life giving rise to what the British soldier and diplomat, Sir William Kerr Fraser Ttyler, termed the “Problem of the Tribes” (Fraser Tytler, 1967).
Tribal revolts and uprisings were frequent and violent against the British, proving the confrontational Forward Policy to be inadequate in trying to control the frontier tribes, “the pukhtun tribes were virulently resistant to colonial rule and almost every one of these tribes fought against the British and ambushed and killed their personnel and civilians” (Khan, 2005, p.85).
Despite the success of some Forward Policy military ventures such as the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880) which gave the British possession of the tribal frontiers, it was not enough to allow them to exert influential control over the people of the frontiers. The demarcation of the Durand Line also failed to give the British the control they aimed for. Instead “the Durand agreement restricted Pashtun autonomy” (Cullather, 2002, p. 7) creating a further deep seated resentment among the tribes which in turn challenged the presence of the British in the region.
It was recognised by Fraser Tytler that “the safety of India depends on the degree of control which the rulers of India can exert on the mountains of Hindu Kush and the Oxus Valley beyond, for only thus can the ‘barbarian’ be kept at arms length” (Fraser Tytler, 1967, p.282). A more restrained approach, therefore, towards the Pashtuns would have given the British more control over frontier through co-operation with the tribes. Fraser Tytler, emphasised that the frontier tribes would have discarded their weapons for a more settled and peaceful way of life if the British adopted a more tailored attitude with the “British and Afghans working each in their own fashion with the common aim of bringing peace and security to an area which has known neither peace nor security for maybe a thousand years” (Fraser Tytler, 1967, p.270).
Realising this, the British Indian Government’s Lord Curzon opted for the less ambitious Close Border Policy which paved the way for an indirect administrative control of the area by grouping the Pashtun areas into the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) as ‘settled districts’ and the more loosely administered Tribal lands in to the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA) which includes to this day Malakand, Khyber, Kurram, North Waziristan and South Waziristan. The perseverance of the tribes allowed them to retain the freedom to roam in their lands, following their own code of conduct.
It may be safe to suggest that the British underestimated the political relevance of the tribes, let alone foreseeing the enormous effects the divisions would come to cause over a century later. The hostility with which the subsequent Afghan rulers have come to view the Durand Line has been damaging for me relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, “By not attempting to settle the problem, which was an outgrowth of policies related to the defence of India, the British, perhaps inadvertently, sowed the seeds of discord between Afghanistan and the future state of Pakistan” (Ghaus, 1988, p.12).

Continue reading – Chapter 2: A Turbulent Relationship: Afghanistan and Pakistan