100 Years of Imperial Paranoia About the Pashtuns
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Despite being among the poorest people in the world, the inhabitants of the craggy northwest of what is now Pakistan have managed to throw a series of frights into distant Western capitals for more than a century. That's certainly one for the record books.
And it hasn't ended yet. Not by a long shot. Not with the headlines in the U.S. papers about the depredations of the Pakistani Taliban, not with the CIA's drone aircraft striking gatherings in Waziristan and elsewhere near the Afghan border. This spring, for instance, one counter-terrorism analyst stridently (and wholly implausibly) warned that "in one to six months" we could "see the collapse of the Pakistani state," at the hands of the bloodthirsty Taliban, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the situation in Pakistan a "mortal danger" to global security.
What most observers don't realize is that the doomsday rhetoric about this region at the top of the world is hardly new. It's at least 100 years old. During their campaigns in the northwest in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, British officers, journalists and editorialists sounded much like American strategists, analysts, and pundits of the present moment. They construed the Pashtun tribesmen who inhabited Waziristan as the new Normans, a dire menace to London that threatened to overturn the British Empire.
The young Winston S. Churchill even wrote a book in 1898, The Story of the Malakand Field Force , about a late-nineteenth-century British campaign in Pashtun territory, based on his earlier journalism there. At that time, London ruled British India, comprising all of what is now India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, but the British hold on the mountainous northwestern region abutting Afghanistan and the Himalayas was tenuous. In trying to puzzle out -- like modern analysts -- why the predecessors of the Pakistani Taliban posed such a huge challenge to empire, Churchill singled out two reasons for the martial prowess of those Pashtun tribesmen. One was Islam, of which he wrote, "That religion, which above all others was founded and propagated by the sword -- the tenets and principles of which are instinct with incentives to slaughter and which in three continents has produced fighting breeds of men -- stimulates a wild and merciless fanaticism."
Churchill actually revealed his prejudices here. In fact, for the most part, Islam spread peacefully in what is now Pakistan, by the preaching and poetry of mystical Sufi leaders, and most Muslims have not been more warlike in history than, for example, Anglo-Saxons.
For his second reason, he settled on the environment in which those tribesmen were supposed to thrive. "The inhabitants of these wild but wealthy valleys" are, he explained, in "a continual state of feud and strife." In addition, he insisted, they were early adopters of military technology, so that their weapons were not as primitive as was common among other "races" at what he referred to as "their stage" of development. "To the ferocity of the Zulu are added the craft of the Redskin and the marksmanship of the Boer," he warned.
In these tribesmen, he concluded, "the world is presented with that grim spectacle, 'the strength of civilization without its mercy.'" The Pashtun were, he added, excellent marksmen, who could fell the unwary Westerner with a state-of-the-art breech-loading rifle. "His assailant, approaching, hacks him to death with the ferocity of a South-Sea Islander. The weapons of the nineteenth century are in the hands of the savages of the Stone Age."
Ironically, given Churchill's description of them, when four decades later the Pashtuns joined the freedom movement against British rule that led to the formation of independent Pakistan and India in 1947, politicized Pashtuns were notable not for savagery, but for joining Mahatma Gandhi's campaign of non-violent non-cooperation.