The tribal militias of the Frontier

Joshua Foust

ONE of the ideas recently circulating around US.policy circles is utilising a tribal militia of some sort to address otherwise intractable security issues. The “Sons of Iraq,” as the Anbar Awakening came to be known in the US government, seems to be a popular model for problems everywhere: with the Pentagon, one can find “Sons of…” ideas for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even Somalia.
One western power in particular, however, has a long history of using these tribal militias in pursuit of its interests. Perhaps most famously along the Northwest Frontier in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the British empire employed multiple types of militias and community defence organisations in an attempt to secure their border along Afghanistan. Examining their creation, successes, and failures, lends substantial lessons for today.
Probably the earliest deliberate use of tribal elements in providing security along the Northwest Frontier was the Queen’s Own Corps of Guides, formed in Peshawar in 1846. Created by Sir Henry Lawrence, the Corps of Guides was a mixed infantry and cavalry force that had a Pashtun majority, though there were some other ethnic groups involved in its early days—most notably Sikhs.
Very quickly, the Guides developed into an elite force with a strong reputation in the Indian Army. In contrast with later militia groups, the Guides did not elevate their tribal or communal loyalties above that of their unit. During the Second Anglo-Afghan War, a group of the Corps of Guides accompanied the British contingent and stood guard at the embassy they established in Kabul. After the signing of the Treaty of Gandamak, an angry mob attacked the embassy in Kabul, killing all the Englishmen inside, including Sir Louis Cavagnari, the British Resident. After their deaths, the remaining Corps of Guides were offered safe passage back to India if they laid down their arms; all, however, refused, and fought to the death. This sort of devotion made them legends in the British empire.
By 1878, the Frontier Scouts, whose members were drawn directly from local tribes, entered service along the Northwest Frontier. Their primary mission was policing the Khyber Pass, a job the Scouts did with little fanfare, budget, or firepower. Part of this was born of necessity—the British were wary of imposing too much change on a people they considered primitive—but part was born of an ingrained distrust in the Scouts’ loyalty. This distrust kept them lightly armed and at arm’s length. The importance of this distance came to matter a great deal during the Third Anglo-Afghan War, when King Amanullah Khan capitalised on the growing weakness of British rule along the Frontier and marched as far as the city of Thal in Parachinar. During this war, many Pashtuns in the Frontier Scouts deserted to fight alongside the Afghans.
One of the most visible successes the British had with tribal militias was in the war against the Faqir of Ipi from 1936 to 1947, also known as the Tori Khel Rebellion. Led by by a charismatic Islamic fundamentalist leader named Haji Mirza Ali Khan, or the Faqir of Ipi, all of Waziristan collapsed into violence. After a few months of sustained fighting, the Tori Khel came to a peace jirga. Despite this, there remained a serious problem of cross-border tribal militancy from Afghanistan—militants continued to cross the Durand Line and launch attacks. This postponed the fighting until well into 1939, not fully petering out until the 1940s.
In his diary-like account of an early period of the war, Geoffrey Moore, for example, noted that they could only threaten entire communities with violent reprisals should attacks on British troops continue—a provision written into the very laws of Pakistan’s tribal areas.
The Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), which was first drafted in 1872 but made law in 1903, enshrines the role of Sharia in judicial settlements in FATA. This brought the areas under de facto British control, but exempted the area’s residents from de jure British rule. A key enforcement clause of the FCR is the idea of collective or communal punishment, in which an entire community is held responsible for the actions of an individual or group of individuals. While Moore highlights one way this could be effective, today collective punishment could be classified as a crime against humanity.
The British found terrible luck, at least in the long term, in purchasing the loyalty of tribal groups. During the First Anglo-Afghan War, for example, the loyalty of local Pashtuns from Rawalpindi to Kabul was purchased in gold. When the gold ran out in 1842, however, and the Pashtuns demanded even more than the British had paid before, the result was the disaster at Gandamak. FW Johnston, who wrote the briefing paper for future political agents to the area, noted that they promised the Ahmadzais vast tracts of land in return for help in providing security. It is unclear the Pakistani government could bring about a similarly appealing set of incentives for reduced militancy.
Another challenge the British faced was the periodic rise of charismatic figures that used prophesies and appeals to tribal and Islamic loyalties to urge the local Pashtuns to rebel. In the Dir district of the FATA in 1897, a man known only as the Mad Mullah incited a series of violent attacks on the camps in Dir and western Swat. After a rapid movement of reinforcements, the British fought off the tribes, and though there remained holdouts in Upper Swat they never reprimanded.
Furthermore, the tribal militias were not guarantors of security. HRC Pettigrew tells the story of the Frontier Scouts’ aggressive push into Ladha, “the highest of the Scouts’ posts.” It was deep into Mehsud territory, and relations with them were always restless.
While tribal issues in NWFP were not a significant factor during the anti-Soviet jihad (most of the tribes’ energy, save some fighting amongst the different warlord factions, was spent trying to kill Soviets), tribal issues again rose to prominence in the 1990s. During this time, the Pakistani government actively encouraged militancy in many of the NWFP and FATA districts as a deliberate strategy to build up “fanatical” religious soldiers to fight India in Jammu & Kashmir. These zealot-tribals also took advantage of the relative lawlessness and anarchy in Afghanistan and increased their cross-border economic and military activities, often doing tours fighting both for the Taliban and in low-intensity conflicts in Kashmir. This was openly practised until just after September 11, 2001; since the US invasion of Afghanistan, such activity has become much more proscribed.
The recent calls within the US for a “Sons of Pakistan” program—such as a late 2007 decision to “partner” with renowned militant leader Maulvi Nazir—reflect an unsettling ignorance of the use of these militias in the tribal areas of Pakistan. For its part, the Pakistani government has steadfastly refused to arm or otherwise support home-grown tribal militias for reasons many Americans find inexplicable. The answer lies buried in history, one few westerners have ever much explored.