The British colonial experience in Waziristan and its applicability to current operations(Chapter 2)CHAPTER 2
General description of Waziristan and its peoples
Waziristan is a complex, little known part of the world. To truly
appreciate the British colonial experience in Waziristan, it is
critical to first understand the characteristics that make this area so
unique. This chapter examines the geographic, administration,
meteorological and sociological factors as well as the tribes,
transportation network, and populace of this area.
Waziristan, located on Pakistan’s northwestern border with Afghanistan,
is part of the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), an area only
nominally controlled by the Pakistani government. Waziristan is
administratively divided into two agencies and encompasses 11,326
square kilometers. North Waziristan has a total of 4,707 square
kilometers, while South Waziristan has a total area of 6,619 square
Approximately ninety-six kilometers at its widest point, Waziristan is
a rough parallelogram, which extends 144 kilometers from the Gumal and
Sawa rivers in the south to the Kaitu (or Ketu) and Kurram rivers in
the north. Bordered by Afghanistan to the west and the Bannu basin and
the Derajat on the east, the terrain is mountainous in the south; the
hills rise gradually from east to west, reaching heights of more than
3,000 meters. Preghal is the highest mountain peak at 3,513 meters. The
northern part of Waziristan is more open and contains valleys separated
by high hills. The rugged terrain not only made Waziristan difficult
for outside armies to occupy but it also inhibited economic development
by the indigenous population.
Waziristan did not, however, contain the critical passes the British
used to transit to Afghanistan from India. The British primarily used
the Bolan and Khojak Passes near Quetta and the Khyber Pass near
Peshawar. Despite its lack of strategic passes, the British expended
scare resources on Waziristan for its trading, revenue collection, and
missionary potential. As its presence along the border endured, the
British remained in the area to protect its territory from raiding by
predatory tribes based in Waziristan.
Miranshah is the administrative center of North Waziristan and Wana is
the agency headquarters for South Waziristan in the summer. The city of
Tank (in the Tank district located directly east of Waziristan) serves
as the winter headquarters for South Waziristan. Each agency is further
organized into sub-divisions and tehsils or sub-units. The Pakistani
government oversees each agency through a political agent. An assistant
political officer/assistant political agent governs each sub-division
and political tehsildars oversee each tehsil. The malik system 5
provides another layer of traditional governance between the central
administration and the individual tribe member. A malik is a hereditary
intermediary between the tribe and the agency administration. The Lungi
system or Sufaid Resh is a lower form of malik.1
All criminal and civil cases in Waziristan are guided by customary law
called Rewaj, which is outlined by the Frontier Criminal Rules in 1901.
This code governs the procedures for both criminal and civil cases.
Political disputes are resolved by decisions derived by jirgas or
councils of local elders. Waziristan’s current political administration
is similar to the British system prior to 1947. The Pakistani
government left the traditional structure in place to help ensure the
loyalty of the tribes. Pakistan also adopted a “Close Border” policy
and limited interference in tribal affairs. The nascent Pakistani
government used a political agent to maintain relations with the tribes.
North Waziristan is divided into three sub-divisions and a total of
nine tehsils. The Miranshah sub-division comprises the Miranshah,
Ghulam Khan, and Datta Khel tehsils. The Mirali sub-division contains
the Mirali, Spinwam, and Shewa tehsils. The Razmak sub-division
consists of the Razmak, Dossali, and Garyum tehsils. South Waziristan
has three sub-divisions (Sarwakai, Ladha, and Wana) and eight tehsils:
Sararogha, Makin, Ladha, Sarwekai, Tiarza, Birmal, Wana, and Toi
The political agent of each agency has a security force consisting of
Khassadara (local police) and Scouts. Local tribes contribute men to
the Khassadars who protect roads and bridges, escort government
officials, and help maliks carry out government orders. Scouts provide
general security for the entire agency. South Waziristan has 3,689
Khassadars and each tribe contributes
1 Government of Pakistan. 1998 Census Report of North Waziristan
Agency. (Islamabad: Population Census Organization, Statistics
Division, 2000), 8.
the following number of personnel: 2,495 (Mahsud), 1,014 (Wazir), and
180 (Miscellaneous tribes). The number of Scouts who serve in South
Waziristan is unknown.
North Waziristan has 3,269 Khassadars organized into forty-seven
companies. An unknown number of Scouts serve in North Waziristan in
three formations: Tochi, Shawal, and Thall. The Tochi Scouts are
headquartered in Miranshah. The Shawal Scouts are based in Razmak and
the Thall Scouts are headquartered in Thall.
Waziristan's limited transportation network consists of 1699 kilometers
of roads. It has approximately 812 kilometers of paved (metalled) roads
and 897 kilometers of unpaved (shingled) roads. Large sections of North
Waziristan are inaccessible and must be covered by foot. Most main
roads in North Waziristan are well maintained, but the bridges (a
number of which were constructed prior to 1947) are in poor condition.2
The poor transportation network limited British military options during
the colonial period. The lack of roads, however, did not impede the
mobility or military effectiveness of the tribes. These realities
forced the British to operate in a deliberate, set-piece manner to
limit their vulnerability to the tribes.
Waziristan has hot summers and cold winters. The summer starts in May
and ends by September. June is usually the warmest month with
temperatures rising over thirty degrees centigrade. The winter starts
in October and lasts until April. December, January, and February are
the coldest months with temperatures sometimes falling below zero
centigrade. Most areas in Waziristan average six inches of rainfall a
year. Yet the temperature extremes did not hinder the ability of the
tribes to resist British military operations. Inclement weather did not
prevent the British from carrying out punitive expeditions either, but
it usually limited the length of operations.
2 Government of Pakistan. 1998 Census Report of North Waziristan Agency, 12.
According to the latest Census (1998) taken by the Pakistani
government, Waziristan has a total population of 791,267. 361,246
individuals live in North Waziristan and 429,841 persons inhabit South
Waziristan. The population in Waziristan has grown between 2 and 2.5
per cent since the last Census in 1981. Over 97 per cent of the
population speaks Pashto and more than ninety-nine percent is Muslim.
The remaining population is either Christian or Ahmadi and speaks
Punjabi, Urdu, or some other language.3
Certainly, most of the population in Waziristan live in austere
conditions. Approximately 83.8 per cent of households in North
Waziristan are constructed from unbaked bricks or earth and only 59.8
per cent of all homes have electricity. Over 79 per cent of the homes
in South Waziristan are made of unbaked bricks or earth and only 58.7
per cent of all households have electricity.4 Nearly 40 per cent of the
population in Waziristan use kerosene to light their homes and cook
their food. These austere conditions illustrate why South Waziristan is
the most impoverished agency in the FATA.
The majority of the tribes in Waziristan are Pashtun. A small number of
Hindus (known as Urmars or Barakis) live in Kaniguram in South
Waziristan. The most populous tribe is the Darweh Khel Wazirs or
Wazirs. The Mahsuds, Bhittanis, and Dawars constitute the last three
most important tribes. Pashtun tribes can generally be classified into
two categories: nang (honor) and qalang (rent, tax). Nang tribes “…live
in remote areas supporting only subsistence agriculture, [and] do not
have strong leaders,” while qalang tribes “…are found in areas which
support irrigated agriculture and produce substantial surpluses…”5
Qalang tribes generally have centralized leaders and are landlords of
non-Pashtun tribes. These differences are so distinct that,
3 Government of Pakistan. 1998 Census Report of North Waziristan Agency, 17-8.
Government of Pakistan. 1998 Census Report of South Waziristan Agency, 17-8.
4 Government of Pakistan. 1998 Census Report of South Waziristan Agency, 24-5.
5 Hugh Beattie. Imperial Frontier: Tribe and State in Waziristan. (Richmond: Curzon Press, 2002), 4. 8
“When individuals from qalang society confront nang tribesmen, they
show unease and uncertainty, which reflects the structural and
fundamental differences in the two systems.” 6 The Pashtun tribes in
Waziristan can be classified in the nang category and are economically
dependent on the outside world.
Before examining the specific characteristics of each tribe in
Waziristan, it is important to understand Pasthunwali, the distinctive
moral code of the Pasthun tribe. It governed the way tribes related to
the British and it influences how these tribes still behave. This code
determines ways of treating guests and weaker parties, decision-making,
reacting to insults and injury (both real and imagined), and behaving
toward first paternal cousins. Overall, this code requires all Pashtuns
to “…maintain honour (nang or izzat) and avoid shame (sharm).”7
One of the main tenants of this code, for example, is the autonomy of
the adult male. The adult male is supposed to be as independent as
possible and not dominated by another person’s will. This is why
matters of common concern are decided at jirgas, because it provides a
forum where each individual elder’s voice can be heard and respected.
The political independence of the tribe is important.8 Tora (courage)
is a critical trait for a male in this tribal society as well.
The tenant of hospitable behavior (melmastia) is also an important
concept. Melmastia requires the protection of any guest or supplicant
from harm. This tenent is closely related to nanawatai, which is the
act of an enemy suing for peace. This act demonstrates submission and
was intended to prompt generosity in return.9 Melmastia helps enable
members of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist groups to find
sanctuary in Waziristan.
6 Akbar Ahmed. Religion and Politics in Muslim Society. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 27.
7 Beattie, 7.
8 Ibid., 6.
9 Beattie, 7. 9
Pahtunwali also requires a violent redress from insult or injury
(including insults against the sanctity of a woman’s sexual purity).
Badal is the term for revenge and it is “’…the only successful defence
of honour…equal to or beyond the extent of the original insult, so as
to re-establish parity or gain an advantage vis-à-vis one’s rival…’”10
The injury inflicted in revenge, therefore, should be greater than that
suffered. Badal has caused generations of infighting and destruction in
the Pashtun tribal areas, which has impeded economic development and
social cohesion. Badal has also discouraged Pakistani Army operations
in Waziristan due to fears that any operation would incite years of
retaliatory attacks against Army personnel and installations.
Additionally, this code requires submission to Islam. There were two
main types of religious leaders in Waziristan. The mullah operated
local mosques, conducted rites of passage, but did not have a very high
status. Sayyids and Mians, on the other hand, enjoyed a higher status
because of their purported descent from the Prophet Muhammad. “In
Waziristan both mullahs and Sayyids wrote charms, read incantation, and
enjoyed ‘alms, sacrifices, and pilgrimages to shrines for the cure of
disease.’”11 Sayyids and Mians also acted as mediators in disputes.
Another important type of religious leader in Waziristan during the
British colonial period was the faqir, “…supposedly God-inspired holy
men who cared nothing for material possessions or power. Such men
usually live off alms and often stayed with the precinct of a holy
man’s tomb.”12 During the 1930s and 40s, the Faqir of Ipi, an
anti-British militant, challenged British rule in Waziristan and
continually harassed British troops without ever being killed or
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Pashtunwali was tarburwali.
Tarbur is the term for one’s first paternal cousin and “…had the
connotation of rival or enemy. Thus tarburwali denoted enmity in
Pashtun custom and tradition, and referred to the tension and rivalry
10 Ibid., 8.
11 Beattie, 8.
12 Ibid., 9. 10
agnatic collaterals [paternal relatives] which appears to have
characterized Pasthun life along the frontier.”13 Tarburwali
particularly influences inter-tribal politics among the Mahsuds.
With a general understanding of Pashtunwali in mind, it is possible to
examine the tribes in more detail. The Darweh Khel Wazirs (Wazirs)
constituted the most populous tribe and perhaps the most important
tribe the British encountered on the northwestern frontier after
1849.14 The two main branches of the Wazirs are the Ahmedzais and
Utmanzais. They primarily live in northern Waziristan but a sub-section
of the Ahmedzais live around Wana to the southwest of Mahsud territory.
This sub-section has been the focus of Pakistani Army operations in
2004. Most Wazirs made their living by raising sheep and goats and
normally grazed their herds in higher pastures in the summer and lower
ones in the winter. Many Wazirs also served as traders in salt and as
The Mahsuds have a close genealogical link with the Wazirs and are made
up of three branches: Alizais, Bahlozais, and Shaman. They live in the
central and southern parts of Waziristan, west of the Bhittanis and
generally south and east of the Wazirs. In the late 19th century, the
primary occupations of the Mahsuds were “…agriculture, pastoralism,
trade, forestry, mining, small-scale manufacturing, and raiding.”15 The
Alizais were the principal traders during that time period and the
Mahsuds as a whole exported the following: “…iron and iron
manufactures, timber (for roofing and bedsteads), matting and other
manufactured goods. Imports included cloth and other manufactured
In contrast with other tribes along the frontier, the different
branches and sections of the Mahsuds often lived together in the same
areas. The main centers of the population were near
13 Ibid., 8.
14 Ibid., 13.
15 Beattie, 6.
16 Ibid., 6. 11
Kaniguram and Makin. An egalitarian ethos among the men and an absence
of a centralized, hereditary leadership allowed the branches and
sections of the Mahsuds to settle together. Other tribes along the
frontier often designated chiefs and lower level leaders but individual
leaders within the Mahsuds only obtained the status of malik, which
“…gave men some influence but not much power. Authority was fluid and
had to be continually created and recreated by negotiation and
power-broking.”17 This fact ensured years of conflict between the
British and the Mahsuds because the British found it difficult to
negotiate and maintain an agreement with a tribe where maliks could not
enforce a decision on the entire tribe, branch, or section.
The Mahsuds also experienced constant internal strife because blood
feuds between close relatives were not as taboo as in other tribal
groups along the frontier. Tarburwali among the Mahsuds was a cause of
violent conflict and political association because land inheritance and
the right to speak at jirgas were decided by patrilineal descent. In
the nineteenth century, “…alliances were formed between Mahsud
household on the basis of cognatic [paternal and maternal descent] as
well as agnatic [paternal descent] ties, and other types of
relationships, particularly common enmity towards members of other
During the nineteenth century, the British believed the Mahsuds were
incessant raiders. Poverty was the primary reason for some of this
raiding. Attacking caravans in the Gumal Pass (which became British
territory after 1849) seemed to be a long-standing Mahsud tradition.
Raiding took place for political reasons as well. Despite their
notorious reputation, “…probably only a few Mahsuds were full-time
outlaws, it would appear, …[they] divided their time between farming
and robbery, while others rarely if ever took part in raids at all.”19
17 Ibid., 10.
18 Beattie, 11.
19 Ibid., 7. 12
The third most important tribe is the Bhittanis and this tribe consists
of the Dannas, Tattas, and Warshpun (Uraspun) branches. The Bhittanis
lived in eastern Waziristan from Marwat in the north to the Gumal Pass
in the south. Generally speaking, the Dannas lived in the northern
section of their territory, the Uraspun in the center, and the Tattas
in the south. The Bhittanis lived principally by pastoralism (sheep and
cattle) and agriculture (wheat and other grain). Some of them traded
small, consumable goods (wood, goats’ wool, ropes, mats, etc.) as well.
The sections of the Bhittanis lived in homogeneous territories in
contrast to the Mahsuds and their maliks also demonstrated more
The Dawar is the last important Pashtun tribe in Waziristan and they
live in the Dawar Valley, located west of Bannu. The tribe has two
branches: the Tappizad and Malizad.21It is also made up of two parties
or blocs: tor (black) and spin (white). “By the 1870s, the valley
supported many madrassehs or religious seminaries and a considerable
population of religious students (taliban, literally ‘seekers after
One of the most important features of the relations between the tribes
is the nikkat (from the word nikka, meaning grandfather or ancestor)
system; this arrangement pervades every aspect of the modern
governmental administration in Waziristan. “In Waziristan, these
figures provide a traditional basis for the division of profits and
sharing of loss, which is worked out with exact mathematical precision
between and within the tribes.”23 In South Waziristan, the nikkat is a
nonnegotiable law of tribal division, which is defined as three-fourths
for the Mahsuds branch and one-fourth for the Wazir branch. The nikkat,
for example, currently determines how many personnel each tribal branch
is required to contribute to the Khassadara. From 1849-1947, the
20 Beattie, 12.
21 Syed Mazhar Ali Shah. Waziristan Tribes. (Peshawar: Provincial Services Academy, 1991), 298-9.
22 Beattie, 16.
23 Ahmed, 18.
nikkat decided the division of resources among the tribes but also
determined the share that each part of the tribe had to pay if fined by
Waziristan is a complex part of the world. Its tribal character, which
is complicated by age-old traditions and nonnegotiable rules of
behavior, makes it an enigmatic place to nearly all outsiders,
including most Pakistanis. Similarly, its high population, complex
terrain, poverty, and martial ethos of its inhabitants make it easy to
understand why Islamic militants find safe haven in this part of the
world and why many outside military forces find it so difficult to
operate there. To appreciate the British colonial experience in
Waziristan, it is critical to understand the realities that make it
such a unique place in the world. With this basis in mind, it is
possible to recognize why the British faced such considerable
challenges in Waziristan from 1849-1947.
Mr. Matthew W. Williams,