Chapter 4

Pakistan’s “Badlands”

Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa - the North-West Frontier

By Victoria Schofield

In ancient times, the north-west frontier of British India and later Pakistan was the eastern frontier of the Persian Empire. In the 6th century bc, Darius the Great of Persia conquered Kabul and Gandhara, as the valley of Peshawar was then known. In the 4th century bc Alexander the Great, son of Philip II of Macedon, defeated the Persians and continued into northern India. Huns, Mongols and Moguls all tried to expand their frontiers and conquer the region but were either pushed back or, as in the case of the Moguls, travelled further east, establishing a seat of authority in the heart of India.

It was not until the 18th century that the land between Persia and India, extending from Herat in the west to the Khyber Pass in the east, became a separate country – Afghanistan – and the idea of a “north-west frontier” of India took shape as a geographical reality. A hallmark of its nascence was its fluidity. Where would this north-west frontier lie and how would it be defined? Would it extend as far as the Hindu Kush mountains or be demarcated by the Indus river in the plains of India? Or, like Afghanistan itself, would it run somewhere in between?

As Britain’s imperial policy alternated between a “forward” offensive strategy and a “closed” defensive one, so the location of a potential north-west frontier shifted. In the early 19th century, the frontier could have followed the Indus river. The rulers of Afghanistan – successors to the country’s founder, Ahmad Shah Abdali – held sway as far as Peshawar and had briefly controlled the famed and beautiful valley of Kashmir.

When Mountstuart Elphinstone visited the ruler of Afghanistan, Shah Shuja, in 1809 – later writing his renowned Account of the Kingdom of Caubul – he met the Afghan ruler not in Kabul but at his winter capital, Peshawar. Soon afterwards, the rising power of the Sikhs in the Punjab under their charismatic leader, Ranjit Singh, pushed the Afghans back towards Central Asia.

Eager to prevent Tsarist Russia from gaining influence in the region, in 1839 the British briefly extended their imperial control to Kabul, unseating the ruler, Emir Dost Mohammad Khan, and reinstating his cousin to the throne, Shah Shuja, who had been deposed by another

cousin in an earlier power struggle.

The British did not remain long, their occupation ending disastrously with the retreat and deaths of almost all the Army of the Indus, nearly 4,000 Europeans and Indians with 12,000 camp followers. Tradition holds that only Dr Brydon survived the humiliating withdrawal. Others, including the redoubtable Lady Sale, who were held as hostages, were later released. Henceforward, Afghanistan would be left as a buffer, while attention was focused on maintaining control of the points of entry further to the east at the Khyber, Kohat and Bolan passes.

Tribal Territory

Although the Afghans were never again to reassert their political authority in Peshawar, people in adjacent lands, which the British called “tribal territory”, retained their cultural affinity with those living in southern and eastern Afghanistan. They spoke a language of east Iranian origin, known as Pashtu or Pakhtu, if a more guttural accent were used as in the north. Using the Indian version of their name, the British called them Pathans.

Observing a strict code of behaviour common to all Pashtuns, pashtunwali, or the way of the Pashtuns, they jealously guarded their gold, women and land (zar, zan and zamin). Living in barren and infertile hills, they were accustomed to fighting each other as well as raiding the more settled plain areas where food was more plentiful. While revenge (badal) demonstrated the harsh side of their character, it was incumbent on Pashtuns to offer hospitality (melmastia) to any visitor in need of refuge. Above all, honour (izzat) dictated their way of life. Disputes were settled in a tribal assembly (jirga) of elders or maliks, whose decision was binding.

Writing in the mid 20th century, the British civil servant, Ambrose Dundas, observed that the tribesmen, divided into several major and numerous minor clans or khels, were united only by “a common error as to their origins and a common aversion to their neighbours . . . they are a tribe in order to keep strangers out, to keep them out of their houses and off their lands and off their grazing grounds; they resent intrusion of any sort, they do not want a government of Sikhs or Christians or even other tribesmen or anything into their country; this is the result of generations of self-defence and of justified fear, suspicion and resentment.”

Indicative of changing perceptions of where the north-west frontier boundary might lie, and with the Sikhs in the Punjab vanquished, in 1857 Sir John Lawrence, chief administrator of the Punjab, suggested that the valley of Peshawar might be returned to the reinstated Afghan ruler, Dost Mohammad, to ensure his allegiance during the troublesome period of the Indian Mutiny. Once again the Peshawar valley had the potential to become the eastern frontier of Afghanistan. Unwilling to concede such a strategic entry point into the subcontinent, the answer to Lawrence’s suggestion came back from Lord Canning, the Governor General, as a resounding: “No! Hold onto Peshawar!”

Following the Second Afghan War of 1878, renewed impetus was given to an active British forward policy, again changing the possibility of where the north-west frontier might be located. But although British troops had successfully secured the roads and principal points of entry and exit from Central Asia – ever fearful that the armies of Tsarist Russia would descend onto the rich plains of India – it was considered more judicious to leave the tribes in their mountain strongholds without any further attempt to subjugate them.

The Durand Line

In 1893 the British government finally decided to define the disputed spheres of influence between Britain’s empire in India and Afghanistan, now under the authority of Emir Abdur Rahman, grandson of Dost Mohammad and responsible for conquering large parts of Afghanistan. Instead of adopting a geographical boundary, which would have meant either advancing into Afghanistan or retreating to the Indus river, after weeks of negotiations a line was adopted in between possible “forward” and ”closed” positions. Geography had little to do with its demarcation, so instead it was named after the man who drew it, Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, Foreign Secretary to the government of India and Britain’s chief negotiator.

At the time, Abdur Rahman was pleased to put an end to: “The misunderstandings and disputes which were arising about these Frontier matters . . . a general peace and harmony reigned which I pray God may continue for ever.” What neither side wished to publicise was that the line was deliberately drawn across ethnic groups to weaken them in territory neither Britain nor Afghanistan had fully explored nor could control. “Abdur Rahman, though he knew his frontier country well, knew it from personal visits or hearsay, not from the study of maps,” noted Durand. “Consequently he was at times at fault regarding the position of places. It was no use producing a map, for he would say, ‘That is no use. It is all wrong. I know, I have been to those places. Your maps are guesswork.’”

In London, debate raged over whether the British should retain Kandahar to the west or retire further to the east to Sibi in Baluchistan, relinquishing even Quetta to the Afghans. In the end, as noted by Ambrose Dundas, the agreed boundary, which stretched for approximately 1,740 miles, was “a vague sort of line, sometimes following watershed, and sometimes not. There is the same mountainous tangle of country on both sides of it, and nowhere is there anything artificial or natural to tell you when you have reached it.”

North-West Frontier Province

A further development in north-west frontier demarcation took place in 1901 when the Viceroy, George Nathaniel Curzon, restructured the administration of British India. A severe uprising in the northern Malakand region in 1897 had once more focused British attention on the frontier area of India and the importance of containing those tribes left under Britain’s administration east of the Durand Line. A new province, extending over 29,000 square miles (the approximate size of Scotland in the United Kingdom) was created with its own Chief Commissioner (later Governor) and Deputy Commissioners. Without focusing attention on its ethnic composition, which included both Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns, this new province was called the North-West Frontier Province or NWFP (henceforward retaining its separate administration except when briefly merged under the One Unit System as part of West Pakistan in 1955).

Curzon had another innovative strategy which helped to shape the character of the area we know today – he formally closed the line between the tribal territory and the settled districts in the plains. Instead of attempting to bring the tribes under British administration, they were to continue to be left to govern themselves, their customs and traditions intact. British forces were withdrawn from their advanced positions leaving tribal militias, commanded by British officers, to keep the peace.

“This was indeed setting the poacher to act as gamekeeper”, wrote Evelyn Howell in his report, Mizh, on the government’s relations with the Mahsud tribe who lived in the southern region of Waziristan. It was also an open admission that there was no prospect of integrating the territory within the British Empire. Instead, “tribal territory” would act as another buffer, in addition to Afghanistan, between British spheres of interest and those of Tsarist Russia (and later the Soviet Union) as they engaged in their Great Game for power and influence.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, a policy of “carrot and stick” was adopted – punitive raids were carried out when a particular tribe caused trouble and subsidies were given for good behaviour. Even when a young Englishwoman, Molly Ellis, was kidnapped in 1923 and taken

into the Tirah heartland of Afridi tribal territory, no attempt was made to dispatch British troops, which would only have resulted in her death. Instead a British nurse, Lillian Starr, was sent to rescue her assisted by local Pashtuns.

An exception to the “closed” policy was made in Waziristan in the 1920s when the British advanced to occupy the plateau of Razmak, strategically located to control both the Wazirs and Mahsuds. However, the move forward only succeeded after some of the fiercest fighting yet seen on the frontier and the use of the fledgling air force.

A notorious opponent was Mirza Ali, who rose to prominence in 1936. Better known as the Faqir of Ipi, a predecessor of present-day anti-foreign activists, he called for a Jihad or holy war against the British, happily accepting funds from the Axis powers during the Second World War to stir up tribal revolt. From the British perspective, with German agents operating in Kabul, the war emphasised the importance of guarding the subcontinent’s entry points. Lest the Germans attempt an invasion, huge concrete blocks known as “dragon teeth” were placed

along the Khyber Pass.


When the subcontinent became independent in 1947, the new government of Pakistan inherited the relationship with the tribes that had been established by the British, the distinct division between the “settled” areas of the North-West Frontier and “tribal territory” remaining. One of the few British political officers who saw the potential of developing a plan “to link the two in a natural whole” was Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Mallam, Chief Secretary of NWFP in the early 1940s and Planning and Development Commissioner until 1947.

Having ascertained that the major commodities “for which the Frontier provides climatic and other conditions unsurpassed” elsewhere in South Asia were fruit, medicinal herbs, sheep and poultry, apart from as yet unknown minerals, he and his colleagues developed a long-term development plan. Among the achievements that “could conceivably be attained during the next 25 years” were universal literacy; a frontier university; teacher training colleges; a medical college; research stations for fruit and fruit technology; and an expansion of the existing agricultural research and engineering centres. Also proposed was forestry research and a training school for forestry officers; an expanded hydroelectric scheme; and more roads and railways. Finally, there were a number of housing and town-planning schemes. As Mallam wrote: “It was made clear that our object was to raise the tribes eventually to the same standard of living as their non-tribal brothers resident in the Province.”

When the long-term plan was rejected as being “unrealistic”, Mallam then obtained provincial government approval for a shorter five-year plan. The plan contained 131 individual schemes separately formulated, costed and classified under the headings agriculture, animal husbandry, cooperative, medical, public health, industries and marketing, forests, education, public works and drinking-water supply. Of these, 28 were exclusively for the tribal areas and 55 for the province and tribal areas jointly. The whole plan was estimated to cost about £7 million.

 “It was”, Mallam wrote, “essentially a plan for the Pathans. It linked the tribal areas and the Province as a single economic unit; and, by setting a common educational standard for both, it forged strong cultural links between the tribes of the mountains and those of the plain, thus partly obliterating the administrative border that had run along the foot of the hills for almost a century.” But in the absence of funding and with the preoccupations of Independence and Partition, the plan never left the drawing board – the last and only attempt to integrate tribal territory with the rest of the province.

Instead the province retained much the same political structure as under the British, with tribal territory divided into seven semiautonomous agencies, running from north to south – Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram, North and South Waziristan, and six frontier regions of Peshawar, Kohat, Bannu, Lakki Marwat, Tank and Dera Ismail Khan. With a population numbering less than one and a half million in 1951, it officially became known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas or FATA.


Independence had once more emphasised the Pashtuns’ cultural and ethnic identity. Since the 1930s, the pioneer of the independence movement in the North-West Frontier had been Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a close friend of Jawaharlal Nehru and a supporter of the Indian National Congress Party and a united India. As the movement for Pakistan gained momentum, he demanded that the Pashtuns should have the opportunity to vote for their own independent country, Pashtunistan. Although this was not conceded as an option by the departing British, the idea remained a demand after Independence. In addition, the movement once more reinforced links with the Pashtuns in Afghanistan, the situation further complicated by Afghanistan’s repudiation of the Durand Line.

When the Afghan government headed by King Zahir Shah, a descendant of Abdur Rahman, chose to reject the Durand Line, it did so on the grounds that the line’s validity had lapsed with the departure of the British in 1947. In protest at the frontier’s “arbitrary nature”, Afghanistan vetoed Pakistan’s application to join the United Nations. In 1949, following the bombing of an Afghan village by a Pakistani aircraft in July, a loya jirga (grand council) was held, at which the Afghan government declared that it recognised “neither the imaginary Durand nor any similar line” and that all previous agreements were void. The government also announced that the ethnic division of the tribes had been imposed on them under duress.

Having been a party to the original agreement, the British government favoured retention of the Durand Line. On 30 June 1950 in the House of Commons, British Member of Parliament Philip Noel-Baker stated that it was the government’s view that “Pakistan is in international law the inheritor of the rights and duties of the old government of India and of His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom in these territories and that the Durand Line is the international frontier.” Yet the dispute rumbled on. Afghanistan further annoyed its neighbour by continued support for Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. To the irritation of the Pakistanis, Pashtunistan even featured in Afghan geography books as “a mountainous territory between Afghanistan and Pakistan”, no admission being given that the Afghan Pashtun regions should become part of Pashtunistan.

Mindful of Afghanistan’s occupation of the valley of Peshawar in the early 19th century, for the next 30 years relations between the two countries focused on the contentious border issue. However hard successive Pakistani governments might try to integrate NWFP into the national psyche of Pakistan, its efforts were undermined by continual pressure and propaganda from across the frontier, encouraging Pashtuns to assert their independence. Although it was a political tug-of-war, which appeared to be more emotional than practical, it soured relations at a time when the two countries could have been consolidating common links and communication.

In the late 1950s, young Pashtuns from tribal territory trained in Afghanistan carried out a number of guerilla-style attacks on the frontier. In an attempt to put a stop to the cross-border activity, Pakistan formally closed the border in 1961, which, in terms of trade, directed Afghanistan towards greater dependence on its northern neighbour, the Soviet Union.

The unresolved border issue also damaged relations between the politicians of the NWFP and the federal government in Pakistan. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s son, Khan Abdul Wali Khan continued to agitate for Pashtun autonomy within a Pakistani federal system, although he stopped short of arguing in favour of Pashtunistan. Imprisoned without charge in 1948, he spent five years under arrest. After his release, Wali Khan negotiated for the release of political prisoners and, as President of the National Awami Party (NAP), in succession to his father, he worked to protect the rights of Pashtuns. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, President and then Prime Minister of Pakistan, negotiated a constitution in 1973 giving a federal structure to the country’s administration, the NAP gave its support. But the NAP’s relations with the central government remained turbulent. When the Governor of the NWFP was assassinated in 1974, the NAP was held responsible. The party was banned and Wali Khan arrested, returning to active political life in 1986 with the foundation of the Awami National Party (ANP).

Throughout this period, the tribesmen only paid lip service to the notion of a political divide of their lands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, continuing to make seasonal migrations back and forth across the porous border. Although the political status of the frontier remained unresolved, by the end of the 1970s the idea that Pashtunistan would become a viable threat to Pakistan’s geographical integrity had faded.

“Smiles not bullets” was how Arthur Reed, writing for The Times, viewed the Khyber Pass and the route to Afghanistan through the border post at Torkham. “All is far from Kiplingesque adventure,” he wrote, describing the frontier as “a flimsy gate through which an Afghan soldier and his opposite number in the uniform of Pakistan let a constant flow of

tribesmen pass without formalities.”

Others who passed by were hippies from Europe, travelling overland to Kathmandu in a journey of self-discovery. Unaware that their presence was creating a very different image of the Westerner from that of the straight-laced memsahib of colonial days and ignorant of the conservative customs of the regions in which they were travelling, they found Afghanistan and the north-west frontier of Pakistan a place of liberal abandon. “The route from Kabul to Peshawar became a hippie trail with drug addicts, and this tarnished the image of the Westerners,” noted one Pashtun in the early 1980s. “It destroyed all the fantasies we had about white people.” Unforeseen at the time, the hippie movement in Central Asia and northern Pakistan laid the seeds for an embryonic anti-Western movement. “The boys prostituted the girls to get drugs. We did not want this culture in our society.”

The Soviet Invasion

In December 1979, Soviet tanks moved into Afghanistan. Their presence changed for the foreseeable future the lives of Afghans, as well as those living in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Until that time, very little world attention had been paid to the Soviet Union’s influence in Afghanistan, which had been increasing since Afghanistan signed a “treaty of friendship” in 1921.

According to retired Brigadier John Prendergast who had served on the North-West Frontier in the 1930s and 1940s, the political vacuum left by Britain’s departure from the subcontinent in 1947 had not passed unnoticed by the Soviets. Once they realised the British really had gone, they increased their presence in the Soviet Embassy from a second secretary who could speak neither English nor Persian and was “no more than a night watchman” with that of a well-educated English-speaking ambassador and three military attachés.

Educational scholarships for Afghanistan’s burgeoning middle class to study in the Soviet Union helped young Afghans to imbibe a socialist ethos in contrast to blind acceptance of their own autocratic leadership in the hands of King Zahir Shah. In 1973, he was deposed by his cousin, Mohammad Daoud Khan. Known as the Red Prince, Daoud capitalised on the relationship with the Soviet Union in terms of aid, trade and development for the landlocked country. But his authority was under threat from the growing body of educated “communist” intellectuals who had returned from the Soviet Union.

During the early days of Soviet influence in Afghanistan, the Pashtuns in the rural areas remained as untouched by progressive ideas as were their counterparts in the tribal territory of the North-West Frontier. It was only in April 1978, in an event known as the Saur (April) revolution when a communist government, led by Noor Mohammad Tarraki, took power in Kabul summarily killing Daoud and his family, that the reality of Afghanistan’s relationship with the Soviet Union became more evident. Historically opposed to the foreign invader, conservative Afghans resented the modernizing programmes of urban Afghans and their Soviet backers. They rejected policies educating women and the relaxation of tradition, enabling women to appear unveiled in public. Further hostility was generated by the new government’s apparent disregard for Islam. Tarraki’s adoption of a red flag for Afghanistan, dropping Islamic green, caused an outcry.

From the Soviet point of view, sending a “limited contingent” of Soviet troops to Afghanistan in December 1979 was necessary to support the fledgling communist government against its adversaries in an emergent civil war. The Soviet leadership was concerned that unrest in northern Afghanistan would affect the Muslims living in the Soviet Union’s southern states bordering Afghanistan. As expressed by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev: “Acting otherwise would have meant passively watching the creation on our southern border of a source of serious danger to the security of the Soviet state.”

Western countries, especially the Soviet Union’s Cold War antagonist, the United States, perceived a different agenda. In the wake of the invasion, and echoing the strategic rivalry of the Great Game, numerous officials, commentators and pundits propounded the view that the Soviet Union had moved into Afghanistan as part of a long-cherished plan to gain control of a warm water port as well as greater proximity to the oil fields of the Middle East. Largely ignorant of the complexities of Afghan society, the US administration of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan saw a golden opportunity to strike a blow at the Soviet Union.

In a post-Vietnam mindset, however, there was little appetite for American body bags arising from fighting in a remote and virtually unknown location. Their proxy combatants were to be the rural conservative tribes of Afghanistan. Without involving American soldiers or widening the conflict into a World War, the objective was to encourage the Afghans to fight the Soviets in a war of liberation. Lured by Pakistan’s military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq into supporting a Jihad to gain more recruits or mujahedin, soldiers of the holy war, the US embarked upon a course of action which ultimately contributed to the break-up of the Soviet Union. But it was to have devastating consequences for the region.

Taking advantage of the natural historical allegiance existing between the Pashtuns of the NWFP, who had already received thousands (rising to three million) of refugees, the North-West Frontier of Pakistan became the launching pad for the Jihad. To help their co-religionists, significant numbers of Muslims from throughout the Arab world were encouraged to come to the NWFP, either as fighters or facilitators in a massive recruitment drive.

One such was Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden who, together with the ideologue, Dr Abdullah Azzam, set up the Afghan Service Bureau to help raise funds and train men throughout the world to assist the Jihad. An essential element of their activities formulated in 1987 by Azzam was to nurture a group of men who would constitute a “solid base” (al Qaeda) to carry the revivalist Islamic movement forward, not only in Afghanistan but worldwide. Although Azzam and bin Laden eventually parted ways, the message behind the al Qaeda movement had tremendous appeal throughout the Muslim world.

When the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, the United States’ mission had nominally been accomplished. There was no plan to rebuild Afghanistan, nor monitor into whose hands the quantities of weapons and ammunition brought into the region had fallen. Still under the authority of Soviet-installed strongman, Mohammad Najibullah, Afghanistan remained divided between rival factions and warlords. No agreement on power sharing could be reached.

In the NWFP, the upheaval caused by being the physical headquarters of the Jihad was immense. For over 10 years fighters had come and gone across the Durand Line, shadowed by journalists telling their story, caught up in the romance of the Jihad. But while the spirit of Kipling adventure had returned to the frontier, the narrative was more deadly. In the final stages of the war, the mujahedin had been armed with thousand-dollar stinger missiles, a far cry from the ten-rupee jezail of Kipling’s Arithmetic on the Frontier. They had also begun to turn on their erstwhile Western sponsors.


Instead of negotiating with their communist opponents in Afghanistan, the Afghan political leaders, who had waged the Jihad both from within the country and from Peshawar, held out for total control. In 1992, President Najibullah stood down and the mujahedin assumed power in Kabul. But rival factions could not bury their regional and tribal differences. Appointed Prime Minister, Pashtun mujahid Gulbuddin Hekmatyar did not dare enter Kabul, while his arch-rival from the Panjshir valley, Tajik mujahid Ahmad Shah Massoud, now the Defence Minister, remained in control of the city. As the various factions fought each other, Kabul was destroyed, the period being known as zaman-esakht (the hard times).

Many of those who now found themselves in positions of authority had grown up in refugee camps in Pakistan’s NWFP with little knowledge of the history of their country or of administrative procedures. For thousands, their only form of education had been in the Islamic religious schools (madrassas) set up throughout the NWFP. Largely funded by Saudi Arabia, a more conservative version of Islam was being taught which in its extreme practice was hostile not only to non-Muslims but also to those Muslims who were believed to have abandoned fundamental Islamic traditions.

One group which rose to prominence in the NWFP refugee camps was the Taliban, meaning simply “the students”. When they returned to Afghanistan in areas centred around Kandahar, they retained their conservative beliefs and practices. Under the leadership of Mullah Omar, a former mujahid who had lost his right eye in the war, they embarked upon redressing some of the inequities of the chaos that was taking hold throughout the country. One particular grievance among the local people was the system whereby local warlords charged extortionate checkpoint tolls, at distances sometimes amounting to only a few miles.

According to popular belief, the rape of two teenage girls by a local military commander in Kandahar provided the catalyst for the Taliban’s rise to supreme authority in the country. Mullah Omar and a group of followers took immediate action and executed the perpetrator. As the southern provinces fell under their influence, the Taliban’s “rough justice” in the early months of their ascendancy was welcomed. The battle for the north, stronghold of the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ahmad Shah Massoud in the Panjshir valley, took longer and was more bloody.

The prevailing disorder in Afghanistan was mirrored by growing instability in the NWFP, especially in the unsupervised region of FATA. Donor fatigue meant that aid to refugee camps began to evaporate. The province had not only been left awash with weapons – many of which were now finding their way into Indian Jammu and Kashmir where insurgents were fighting the Indian government – but an irrepressible drug culture had taken hold. Both in Afghanistan and in FATA, heroin refineries for processing raw gum had turned poppy growing into a lucrative business, especially for the middlemen. A revitalised conservatism also took hold; in the streets of Peshawar, women were rarely seen unveiled. Western hippies had vanished.

Belatedly, the Pakistani government was working to address the political challenge of an autonomous and potentially lawless part of the country whose population had more than doubled since 1951, and which still had no representation in Pakistan’s National Assembly. In 1996, for the first time in FATA’s history, “adult franchise” was granted giving every adult the right to vote for their own representative. But the initiative created a new dynamic. Since political parties were not allowed, candidates campaigned through mosques and religious schools, resulting in the election of mullahs rather than secular tribal elders as FATA’s representatives in the National Assembly in 1997.

Aware of the power struggle taking place between the mujahid and Taliban forces in Afghanistan, successive Pakistani governments in the 1990s supported the majority Pashtun Taliban in preference to rival factions of non-Pashtuns in the north. As explained by retired General Nasrullah Babar, a Pashtun who had served in the early 1990s as Minister of Interior in the first Benazir Bhutto government, attempts to unify Afghans could not succeed, and so the only alternative was to put the power back in the hands of those who had always controlled Afghanistan – the Pashtuns.

When the Taliban took Kabul in September 1996, setting themselves up as the government of Afghanistan, Pakistan, together with Saudi Arabia (and briefly the United Arab Emirates), was the only country to recognise the Taliban as legitimate. For the rest of the century, Pakistan’s policy of supporting the Taliban continued, on the grounds that “we have an enemy in the east in India because of the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir. We cannot afford to have an enemy in the west as well.” 

Pakistan’s support, administered through the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), created a new and sometimes murky nexus between factions in both countries. In early September 2001 when Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated, the finger of suspicion was immediately pointed at the Taliban and indirectly at the ISI in Pakistan, from where the assassins had travelled.

9/11, 2001

The attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and other locations in the United States on 11 September 2001 had worldwide and unprecedented implications. The United States’ decision to mount a campaign against Afghanistan to root out al Qaeda militarily had disastrous consequences for the NWFP. In the wake of the American and allied operations, members of al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden and fleeing Taliban, began sheltering in FATA while the senior Taliban leadership, the Shura, took up residence in Quetta, Baluchistan, from where it continued to direct insurgent operations across the border against the US, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and non-NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Eager to flush them out, but with no mandate to enter Pakistani territory, pressure was exerted by the United States on the Pakistani government, headed by General Pervez Musharraf, to forswear its prior commitment to the Taliban and fight alongside the Americans in a “war on terror”. For the first time since Pakistan’s creation in 1947, Pakistani regular forces entered the Tirah valley in the Khyber Agency of FATA, later moving into North and South Waziristan. A small contingent of American special forces briefly accompanied them.

But their presence was resented. “The Americans should not be here. It’s a disgrace to our religion, our tradition and our people,” a young Pashtun told Sunday Telegraph correspondent Philip Sherwell in June 2002. Evidence of growing anti-Western sentiment in the North-West Frontier was demonstrated in the October 2002 elections, when the “pro-Taliban” Islamic parties, whose manifesto demanded the withdrawal of the American presence, won a majority in both the NWFP and Baluchistan.

The Pakistani military became caught in a vicious circle of retaliatory military operations. In December 2003 two assassination attempts in Rawalpindi against President Musharraf were found to have originated in Waziristan. In March 2004, 80,000 Pakistani troops were sent into FATA. They too met with fierce resistance, resulting in heavy casualties. The collateral damage of military operations created hardship for the local people, further alienating them against their own countrymen.

In April 2004 the Pakistani government signed a peace agreement with the militants in South Waziristan. The “Pakistani Taliban”, as they were now known, did the negotiating – not, as was customary, the tribal elders whose authority was being eliminated by the militant leaders. However, the peace agreement coincided with the US decision to begin unmanned drone operations against specified targets in FATA, the first high-level target in June 2004 being Nek Mohammad Wazir, a former mujahid who had fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan. As a result, the peace agreement was nullified.

Another agreement was negotiated in February 2005 with Nek’s successor, Baitullah Mehsud, initiating a period of relative calm. Given the continuing presence of al Qaeda activists in the North-West Frontier Province and the ongoing search for Osama bin Laden, operations against select targets continued. In early May 2005, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, bin Laden’s third-in-command and believed to be behind the two assassination attempts on Musharraf in 2003, was captured by Pakistani commandoes near the town of Mardan, north-east of Peshawar.

The volatile situation in the NWFP was exacerbated by the deteriorating relationship with the US. In Pakistan, the drone attacks were resented because of the implied infringement of the country’s territorial sovereignty and political fallout from collateral damage. The US considered the Pakistani government was being too selective regarding which militants were targeted, believing that the military were concentrating on those who were opposed to the Pakistani state rather than those working against the coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s continued covert support of the jihadi groups was creating friction, especially in relation to the continuing unrest in Indian Jammu and Kashmir. Whereas previously the US had been prepared to distinguish between freedom fighting and terrorism, after 9/11 that distinction was no longer politically acceptable.

The Rise of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)

As politicians and commentators were beginning to realise, events in FATA were gaining a momentum of their own, both linked and distinct from what was going on in Afghanistan. On 21 June 2006, the Afghan Taliban leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, had stated that it was not their policy to attack the Pakistani military. But his message was not circulated in North Waziristan, and there remained general confusion over the extent to which the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban were working together.

At the same time the tribal leaders were attempting to reassert their authority against the overbearing strength of the militants. On 5 September 2006 the Waziristan Accord was signed in Miranshah between the tribal elders and the Pakistani government. The agreement provided for assistance by the Pakistan Army to help reconstruct parts of North and South Waziristan, as well as providing compensation for the loss of life and property. All “foreigners”, meaning jihadists, were not allowed to use Pakistani territory for militant “terrorist” activities anywhere in the world.

Although the accord was credited with bringing some stability to the region, during the lull in Pakistani military operations hard-line militant factions could regroup, and violence on both sides continued. At the end of October, Pakistani forces conducted an air strike against a madrassa in Bajaur, killing over 70 people. In retaliation, a suicide-bombing attack was made on an army camp in November, killing over 40 Pakistani soldiers and wounding 20.

On 4 June 2007, Pakistan’s National Security Council met to decide measures to stabilise Waziristan and prevent its “Talibanisation”. These measures included intensifying law enforcement and military operations, taking action against madrassas, which were clearly advocating radical anti-state actions, and jamming radio stations, which were broadcasting inflammatory messages. As the government had found, problems facing the country were no longer geographically confined to the North-West Frontier. Radical elements from the other provinces, including the majority province of the Punjab, were undertaking anti-state activities.

Since early 2006, religious leaders and students, mainly from the NWFP, had been gathering in the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, calling for the imposition of shari’a law and the overthrow of the Musharraf government as well as launching an anti-vice campaign against alleged prostitutes.

While attempting to negotiate with the occupants of the Lal Masjid, in July 2007 Musharraf put the mosque under siege. When negotiations failed, the Pakistan Army’s special forces stormed the buildings, resulting in 154 deaths and the capture of 50 militants. As a result, the September 2006 Waziristan Accord was broken, triggering another localised war in Waziristan and an upsurge in militant activity throughout Pakistan. 

An increase in suicide bombers resulted in numerous deaths, not only of soldiers and police but also civilians. In one month alone, during the summer of 2007, an estimated 250 militants and 60 Pakistani soldiers were killed. One of the most startling incidents, among many, occurred in early September when Baitullah Mehsud and a small militant force successfully ambushed an army convoy, capturing over 200 soldiers without a visible fight. Heavy fighting at Mir Ali resulted in over 250 deaths in October 2007, including militants, soldiers and civilians. 

Fighting had broken out in the Swat valley, famed as the most tranquil and beautiful part of NWFP, haven of tourism and Pakistan’s only ski slope. Under the influence of religious leader Maulana Fazlullah, the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM, Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law), a militant organisation which supported the Taliban in Afghanistan, was attempting to impose shari’a law by force. In response, the Pakistani government sent an estimated 3,000 special forces into the region. Both sides suffered heavy casualties. At the beginning of November, after an army position and two police stations were overrun, the Pakistani military surrendered, leaving the TNSM in control of most of Swat.

The fighting in Swat signified the first serious attempt by pro-Taliban militants on a “settled” area in Pakistan, as opposed to what had been taking place in FATA. In mid November, the regular Pakistan Army was deployed, resulting in the defeat of Fazlullah’s forces. However, a number of TNSM militants remained at large and continued to confront the Pakistani military throughout 2008.

In the interim, law and order throughout Pakistan had deteriorated to such an extent that on 3 November 2007 President Musharraf instituted a state of emergency, suspending the constitution. Claiming that the state of emergency was due to militant activity in Waziristan, the government was being challenged by the prospect of elections scheduled for early 2008, which former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were intending to contest.

When Bhutto was assassinated on 27 December 2007, Musharraf blamed Baitullah Mehsud and al Qaeda. Mehsud denied having assassinated Bhutto and instead blamed the Musharraf government. In December, under Baitullah Mehsud’s leadership, several militant Pakistani Taliban groups merged together, taking the official name, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Almost immediately the Pakistan Army embarked on “Operation Zalzala” (earthquake) to flush out the TTP militants in Waziristan. Yet again, the operation caused a humanitarian crisis with an estimated 200,000 civilians displaced. In February Lieutenant General Mushtaq Baig was killed in a suicide attack, also resulting in the death of two soldiers and five civilians. Baig was the most senior military official killed since 2001. 

Throughout 2008 attacks targeting Pakistani forces and military institutions continued. In May, the government of Pakistan, now under a Pakistan Peoples Party coalition administration following the electoral victory of Bhutto’s party, signed a peace agreement with the TTP. Even so, fighting continued and once again FATA hit the headlines when militants took over the town of Jandola, executing a number of pro-government tribal fighters. Another military offensive, codenamed “Operation Sirat-e-Mustaqeem”, enabled the army to assert some authority in the Khyber region.

As previously, disaffection was not confined to FATA. In late July there was renewed fighting in Swat as well as in Baluchistan. Heavy fighting erupted again in the Bajaur Agency, when militants forced the Pakistani military to withdraw from the Loisam area, strategically located on the road to Peshawar. There was fighting in Buner when several policemen were killed. On 21 August 2008 in retaliation to the army’s offensive, the Pakistani ordnance factories in Wah were attacked by suicide bombers, resulting in at least 70 deaths.

It was becoming increasingly apparent that a three-sided war was now being waged between the TTP and various militia against the Pakistani military as well as by the TTP against the local tribal inhabitants, who were organising themselves into their own traditional lashkar (private army) to counter the militants.

Monitoring events (and mirroring their earlier strategy in Afghanistan), the US favoured enlisting the tribal leaders in FATA to assist with the fight against al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and the TTP militant groups, arguing that their participation was recompense for the $750,000 million assistance package agreed for the seven FATA agencies, and which would benefit the local people by providing improved health and education facilities. Assistance in counter-narcotics was provided to the locally recruited Frontier Corps.

The pattern of tit-for-tat warfare between the Pakistani military and the TTP continued throughout 2008 and into 2009, with losses and gains on both sides. Invariably, the targets chosen by the militants in retaliation for a military offensive into FATA were military installations, police stations and checkpoints. Intermittently the targets were high-profile locations in Pakistan such as the prestigious Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, blown up by a massive suicide bomb in September 2008. Yet again, the Pakistani military retaliated with an offensive into FATA, code-named “Operation Sherdil”. Using air strikes and helicopter gunships, heavy losses were inflicted on both al Qaeda and local militants. But the relative success in terms of militants killed compared with the number of civilians caught in the crossfire was questionable.

An added dimension remained the US activity from neighbouring Afghanistan, which created complications for the Pakistani government. On the one hand as an ally of the US, the government and military were helping in the “war on terror” by fighting their own insurgent nationals. On the other hand, Pakistan had to counter the resentment felt by many Pakistanis against the US and its continuing drone operations.

Following a border clash between US military helicopters and Pakistani forces on 25 September 2008, recently elected President Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower, stated at the UN General Assembly in New York that Pakistan would not tolerate violations of its sovereignty, even by its allies. “Just as we will not let Pakistan’s territory be used by terrorists for attacks against our people and our neighbours, we cannot allow our territory and our sovereignty to be violated by our friends.”

The issue of the Pakistan–US relationship was critical because, as with the transit of men and weapons during the Jihad against the Soviet Union, the US and coalition countries were dependent upon being able to use routes through Pakistan to supply their forces in Afghanistan. Yet again the north-west frontier was both a conduit and a crossroads. In November, as part of a continued and determined effort by the TTP to derail supply routes, two convoys, carrying wheat and US military vehicles, were captured as they travelled up the Khyber Pass. This action was followed by a series of attacks on supply vehicles, culminating in the destruction of a bridge in the Khyber Pass, which temporarily halted the transport of supplies.

In late April 2009, the Pakistan Army started “Operation Black Thunderstorm”. Its objective was to retake areas in the north, including Swat, where the TTP had again taken control. While Lower Dir and Buner were retaken by early May, the fighting in Swat was brutal. In late May the battle for Mingora city was over but more than 100 soldiers and nearly 1,500 militants were reported to have been killed. Over 300 soldiers were wounded and an additional 95 soldiers and policemen were captured by the militants. Over 100 militants had been taken prisoner. By mid June 2009, the Pakistani military had regained control of Swat. “Mopping up” operations, however, led to another humanitarian crisis.

After re-asserting control over Swat, the authorities refocused attention on South Waziristan against Baitullah Mehsud’s stronghold in the mountains, from where he had been directing a concerted suicide-bombing campaign throughout the summer, calling for the withdrawal of Pakistani forces from the frontier region and an end to US drone attacks. Having held back from eliminating Mehsud in 2004, 2005 and 2008, this was to be the Pakistan Army’s fourth attempt against him.

In August 2009 Mehsud was confirmed as having been killed by a US drone. Once more the TTP, now led by Baitullah’s deputy, Hakimullah Mehsud, threatened retaliation, striking at targets both in the NWFP, in Peshawar, Charsadda and Kohat, and in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Lahore, making the average Pakistani realise that the civil war raging in their country was not confined to the NWFP.

Yet another offensive was launched in South Waziristan, deemed successful in December 2009. Operations by the Frontier Corps were continuing in Bajaur, which was declared a conflict-free zone in April 2010. Orakzai and Kurram agencies were retaken from the militants by the beginning of June.


In 2010 after months of discussion and 109 years since its creation, the Pakistani government renamed the North-West Frontier Province “Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa” (KPK), giving the province a name which reflected its cultural identity. It was a cosmetic change which may have heartened some that, over 60 years after Independence, they had rid themselves of an inherently colonial name. But the renaming of the province could neither turn back the clock in terms of the ideological rift which still existed between FATA and the rest of the province, nor between militant extremists throughout the province and the federal capital in Islamabad.

A sub-theme to the ongoing conflict remained the deteriorating relationship between Pakistan and the US. On 30 September 2010 two Pakistani soldiers were killed by NATO helicopters, leading to a nearly two-week border closure in protest. The following April supplies were again halted in protest at the drone attacks.

Of paramount interest to the US remained the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, still widely believed to be hiding somewhere in FATA’s unyielding terrain. On 1–2 May 2011, after almost ten years in hiding, a force of US Navy Seals killed bin Laden in Abbottabad, not far from Islamabad. Embarrassed both at the US summary intrusion into sovereign territory, as well as having bin Laden’s place of refuge located in a supposedly secure garrison town of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, bin Laden’s death left Pakistan once again vulnerable to a spate of retaliatory

attacks by the TTP.

Relations with the US nose-dived, further exacerbated by Admiral Mike Mullen accusing Pakistan of supporting the Haqqani militant group in Afghanistan and a subsequent curtailment of aid. Then came the accidental killing of at least 24 Pakistani soldiers in November 2011 when NATO forces fired across the border, hitting an army check post. In the absence of an apology, Pakistan cut off the supply routes and the matter was only resolved months later in July 2012.

Throughout 2012 and 2013 suicide bombings and targeted assassinations continued, directed mainly against Pakistan’s security forces. In early 2013 TTP militants operating in the Khyber Agency took control of the Tirah Valley, traditional home of the Afridi tribe. In response, in April 2013 the Pakistan Army launched “Operation Rah-e-Shahadat” (Path to Martyrdom) in the hope of restoring stability before national elections in May 2013.

Although Muslim League (N) leader Nawaz Sharif won a majority, becoming Prime Minister for a third term, the majority party in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa was the Tehrik-e-Insaf, led by former cricketer, Imran Khan. An opponent of the United States’ use of drones, Khan called for an end to the military operations and peace talks with all militant groups including the TTP.

Future Stability?

What began as neighbourly assistance to Afghanistan in time of need has had a far greater than expected blow-back effect on the region. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, gateway to Central Asia, has become a new frontline in one of the most under-reported aspects of the decade-long “war on terror”. Due to the hostile environment, and the fact that Western journalists and other foreigners are not permitted into FATA, comparatively little has been written about the region. Known now as Pakistan’s “badlands” – a region that is both politically part of the country but where segments of the population are implacably hostile to the centre – its incorporation into Pakistan’s body politic is still a distant prospect. Even in areas outside FATA, such as Swat, clashes of ideology have brought turmoil. On 9 October 2012 schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai was shot in the head by an irate Taliban because of her outspoken stance in favour of girls’ education. The attack, which also wounded two other girls, Kainat Riaz and Shazia Ramzan, epitomised the struggle between progressive and ultra-conservative belief in the region, which remains unresolved.

Given the shared history and cultural affinity between Afghanistan and Pakistan, it was perhaps inevitable that Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa became caught up in the maelstrom. If, however, certain landmark events in the region’s history had been handled differently, the fallout might not have been so destructive.

The first relates to the retention of “tribal territory” as an autonomous region in 1947. Had the Frontier Development Plan been adopted at Independence and the region effectively integrated into Pakistan over 60 years ago, the use of its territory as a launching pad for the Jihad and a safe haven for fleeing fighters might have been more circumscribed.

Secondly, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, had Western analysts paid greater attention to the domestic situation in Afghanistan in the late 1970s, they might have understood the dangers of supporting and arming a conservative rural movement against one which had as its objective the modernization of the country, albeit in Soviet style. They might also have thought seriously about the wisdom of supporting the concept of Jihad which could, in a different scenario, be waged against any non-Muslim foreigner, not only those of communist persuasion. Against this more sanguine approach was the irresistible attraction of subverting communism. Apologists still argue that supporting the Afghan Jihad was the correct policy because it contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union, bringing an immediate end to the Cold War.

Other events, seemingly unrelated at the time, helped to define the current situation. Establishing a frontier – the Durand Line – separating ethnic groups, who did not acknowledge their division, facilitated the traffic of men and weapons to and from Afghanistan. President Obama may have coined the term “AfPak” in 2009, but as a cultural concept it has long been in existence.

That Pakistan and Afghanistan never stabilised their political relationship enabled factional politics to prevail. Importantly, the continually fractious relationship between India and Pakistan is often missing from analyses of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Had these two countries reconciled their differences, their rivalry might not have spilled over into competition for influence in Afghanistan, with Pakistan bidding for “strategic depth” as a supposed counterweight to pressure on its eastern frontier.

Finally, if the Soviets had stopped short of sending their “limited contingent” of troops to Afghanistan, the leaders of the Western world might not have focused their attention on the region to such an extent that their agenda became paramount. Without the international Jihad

bringing militants from all over the world – including al Qaeda – to Afghanistan, Afghans may have been left to resolve their problems internally, brutally perhaps, but in the time-honoured Afghan way. In this scenario the North-West Frontier – Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa – might just have remained shielded from the turbulence.

To date the Pakistan Army has lost thousands because of the conflict emanating from Afghanistan and played out in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Thousands more civilians have also died. Yet because of the “double game” which the ISI has been suspected and sometimes revealed as

playing, Pakistan has received little thanks for its efforts. Instead, it has been subjected to international scrutiny as to its commitment to fight extremism, whilst being condemned for supporting jihadi groups. Paradoxically, the country has received billions of dollars of assistance and still requires more to bolster its unstable economy.

The US has not helped their cooperative relationship. Given the lack of trust between the two countries, the US has followed its own agenda when circumstances demand. The high and low point was the operation to take out bin Laden. A singular achievement for the US, it heralded the most acrimonious phase in US–Pakistani relations, with over half of Pakistan’s population considering the US as the “enemy” and only 6 percent regarding it as a partner. Although there has been an improvement in the ratio of civilian to military deaths by drone attacks since 2008, when almost half of those killed were estimated to be civilians, the drone attacks remain highly contentious. Since Pakistan remains an ally of the US, the unpopularity of American actions helps to fuel anti-state behaviour, not just in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, but throughout the country. 

If the region is to have a peaceful future, there is a long agenda of requirements. Relations between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan need to be stabilised and the frontier agreed; FATA has somehow to be integrated into the administrative framework of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa without steamrollering established traditions and customs nor simply resorting to force of arms to bring law and order.

India and Pakistan have to reconcile their differences, especially in relation to the dispute over the state of Jammu and Kashmir to put an end to their regional rivalry; issues of health, education and social welfare need to be addressed; steps have to be taken to eradicate corruption at all levels and this applies to the legal system as well as reforming economic practices; above all, the inhabitants of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, including those in FATA, have to feel that they are better off living as part of a larger divergent whole.

“The children of Adam are limbs of one another, created from a single

substance. When one limb suffers misfortune, the others cannot be at

rest. You who do not suffer the pain of others do not deserve to be

called human.”

Sa’adi, 12th/13th century


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