Dealing With Pakistan’s Wild West
As the United States contemplates taking covert action in Waziristan, what should it know about the region’s culture?
- The religious figure and he becomes a dominant player in the area. Because of post 9/11 politics the local religious figures are easily identified as a local variety of Taliban.
- These are tribal people. They are proud and ancient people. They can be difficult. They will argue every point for hours and hours and hours.
- "We have seen what you have done to Pakistan, what modernization means to Pakistan — corrupt police, corrupt revenue officials, corrupt politicians."
- Thanks to the U.S. strategy of choosing a strictly military approach, the political agent has been sidelined and the Pakistan army now runs all affairs.
The Globalist: How did you personally come to work in Waziristan?
Akbar Ahmed: In the 1960s, I took the exam for and entered the CSP, the Civil Service of Pakistan. This was the elite service, and members of CSP were posted as political agents in the tribal areas. As assistant commissioners, CSP officers found themselves quickly — at the age of 25, in my case — in charge of several million people. The assistant commissioner was in charge of law and order, revenue and the judicial system.
The administration was like a triangle and the political agent was at the top. This was an old colonial structure from the British days and had many critics, but it was, by and large, better than anything else that Pakistan or the region could offer.
The Globalist: What was your first reaction when you were told you were going to Waziristan?
AA: I was thrilled. Waziristan was considered the plum appointment of British India and the most experienced and finest officers served here. It was considered one of the most dangerous and glamorous jobs in the British Empire. The South Waziristan Agency is a beautiful district — high mountains, deep ravines, forests and isolated valleys.
Why was it considered so prestigious? Because it was strategically and politically one of the most important areas of South Asia. It housed the two toughest of the Pashtun tribes, the Wazir and the Mahsud. They were tough, politically sharp and proud tribes.
The tribes function on the basis of what is called the Code of the Pashtuns, the Pashtunwali. One of the features of the code is respect or honor. You must respect their code of honor. And one way to respect their code of honor is to respect their culture and their traditions.
These are tribal people. They are proud and ancient people. They can be difficult. They will argue every point for hours and hours and hours.
The Globalist: It is often said that the people of Waziristan have historically failed to modernize. Is this a fact or myth?
AA: For Pakistani officers it posed a challenge because of the widespread poverty and lack of educational and health facilities. However the people of Waziristan living in Karachi are as modern as you and me. But back home in their own region, they preserve their own custom and tradition. It is a conscious choice—and has nothing to do with “barbarians living in caves.” They opted for preserving their identity and a culture. They said this preserves our freedom. That’s what they treasured above all. They said, “We have seen what you have done to Pakistan, what modernization means to Pakistan — corrupt police, corrupt revenue officials, corrupt politicians.’ So they said, ‘We have seen all this. What are you going to give us that is different? Why do you want to modernize us? Leave us alone.’
The Globalist: If democracy is about self-governance, do the Waziris have democracy?
AA: Yes, even if it is a local variety. To them, the most effective system is the jirga, the council of elders. If there is any major problem, the council of elders meets. It represents all sections of the tribe and decides on the course of action. It can be very effective.
Let’s say we are part of a jirga, and Person A has had a fight with Person B over a piece of property and there’s a problem and we have to decide who this belongs to. The jirga decides it’s Person A’s and declares that if Person B does not hand it over, the entire tribe will make sure that he hands it over. It’s rough and ready, but effective.
The Globalist: How was political power in Waziristan historically organized?
AA: In Waziristan, historically, there are three sources of power: the government’s political agent, the religious figure and the tribal chief.
What has happened after 9/11 is that, thanks to the U.S. strategy of choosing a strictly military approach, the political agent has been sidelined and the Pakistan army now runs all affairs. Musharraf abolished the administrative structure that had prevailed until recent times. A vacuum has therefore formed at the district or agency level of administration throughout Pakistan.
An army officer is not trained to run the civil administration. He is trained to be part of a modern army, not to deal with an agency containing different tribes and cultures. He will therefore make the same mistakes as any other foreigner. To make matters worse even the tribal elders and chiefs were marginalized after 9/11. That meant both the political agent and tribal chief were no longer functional.
Into that vacuum steps the religious figure and he becomes a dominant player in the area. His role is now exaggerated and expanded. Because of post 9/11 politics the local religious figures are easily identified as a local variety of Taliban.
The religious figure then says, ‘Any chief talking to the army will have his head cut off.’ They begin to impose their version of Islam because there is no counter balancing force of either the civil administration or the tribal chiefs. And they become known as the local Taliban. So what you are seeing in both North and South Waziristan is indeed what you read in the press — Taliban, Taliban. It is those guys who have taken over and they are really running things now. This is the classic case of a society that is no longer either in balance or harmony.
The Globalist: So would say that the most effective strategy for stability is to restore those pillars?
AA: Yes, it is to restore those pillars, restore the old practices. Currently, there is no communication, which involves respect and understanding, dignity and knowing the code of honor. President Musharraf, under U.S. pressure, has sent the army in three times. Each time he has been humiliated — three hundred soldiers surrendered to the Mashsud a few weeks ago and they lost the Sararogha Fort to the Mahsud a few days ago. The only relationship today with the tribal peoples is through the missile and the bomb .
The Globalist: From your experiences with the people of Waziristan, can the issues that occur in the tribal areas ever be pacified? And could you answer both as a diplomat —and as an anthropologist?
AA: The role of the political agent was defined as part-ambassador and part-governor. Speaking as a diplomat, Waziristan can be pacified and resolved through the code of honor, through understanding, through respect. As an anthropologist, I would say that it will not be easy until there is a proper understanding of society, of the chiefs, of the religious clerics, of what the young want. Remember there is a young generation. The young want change, they want a place in the sun, all this has to be recognized and only anthropologists give you that insight into society.
The Globalist: So, the most effective strategy is careful administration and treating everyone fairly?
AA: Yes, but unfortunately — and perhaps tragically — the odds aren’t good because the Americans, who seem to be on the war path if newspaper reports are to be taken seriously, have no idea of this type of administration. It is a colonial administration and Americans are not a very colonial people. The Americans are used to a mayor who is elected for a fixed period.
In Waziristan, when I was the political agent, I was accountable to no one, except for my own reputation. That is not a very acceptable concept in the West. A 21st century solution has therefore to be found which is informed by the past in which diplomacy and a shrewd understanding of the nature of tribal society often averted death and destruction while meeting the objective at hand.
Editors Note: This interview was conducted on January 6, 2008 by Nathan Richter as part of the St. Andrew’s American Century Oral History Project.