President Donald Trump recently made headlines when he claimed that the Soviets were justified in invading Afghanistan. It appears that Trump does not want America to be involved in the Great Game, and the implications of this have not been thought out, especially with thousands of American troops still in Afghanistan. The Great Game, the competition for influence between the great powers that in the nineteenth century included the Imperial British, Imperial Russia, and Imperial China, was played in this region which included Central Asia and where it met South Asia. Trump’s statement supporting the Soviet invasion is akin to Queen Victoria in the nineteenth century applauding the Czar’s fresh excursions into Afghanistan.When I served in Waziristan, the region was contested between the US and the Soviet Union and I was on the front lines of that rivalry and confrontation. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 I was on the Pakistan side of the Durand line-the unmarked international border in Waziristan. The Great Game is still being played in the region-today the US, China, Russia, India, Pakistan and Iran compete for influence. Where Central Asia meets South Asia, lie the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, which merged last year with the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. They are some of the most notoriously difficult areas for central government to administer, due to both the inaccessible terrain and the independent-minded Pukhtun people who live there. I served in several posts in the Tribal Areas including Political Agent, South Waziristan, and thus acquired some understanding of the region and how to work there, chiefly by understanding the culture of the tribes and applying that knowledge. This is a crucial point to consider in the context of the war on terror in which the Pakistan central government and the tribal periphery have had a difficult relationship.When I was in Waziristan looking at the Soviets across the border-and they had already been strongly backing the Afghan government before their actual invasion-I was conscious that anything happening in that frontier region could be inflamed and become a much larger geo-political issue. I was also conscious of the Soviet strategy and their aims in the Great Game derived from Czarist traditions: they would not stop at the Khyber Pass and aim to head south for Karachi and the warm waters of the Gulf. I knew that sooner or later the Soviet invasion would land on the borders of Pakistan, if not inside Pakistan, on its way to this objective. Afghanistan was thus a means to an end. If the Soviets were able to achieve this objective, a major goal of the Great Game would have been achieved by them. Waziristan, in its history, has traditionally been seen as a mysterious land beyond the pale, a hostile and forbidding zone best avoided. It is home to two of the major Pukhtun tribes, the Wazir and their cousins the MahsudThere were two policies that traditionally dominated action in this part of the world during the Great Game. One was “masterly inactivity” which argued that nothing should be done to create or escalate confrontation or tension; the other was the “forward policy” which advocated a strong confident approach. Considering the imminent arrival of the Soviets on my borders and the fact that my administration had virtually no access to them, I believed I had no choice but to opt for the latter.At the time, Pakistan government authority did not extend to the international border especially in the Birmal region, and basically did not exist on the ground. There were no schools, offices or officials in that area. Yet it was critical for Pakistan to be on the international frontier. I realized that in order to extend Pakistan government authority to the border, I would have to work through the tribes, the local people of the area. In this case, it was the Wazir tribe which extended on both sides of the border. I had to win over the Wazir tribe and then take them with me in implementing the forward policy. I will here discuss a case study showing how administration can function successfully even in a time of tension and political turbulence in a tribal region through my visit to the Birmal area deep in Waziristan on the international border. Though time has moved on since then, in essence tribal societies, their values, and even to an extent their organization remain. It is only through the method of respecting and working with the tribes that government can effectively extend its authority in the Tribal Areas and administer efficiently.I discussed my Birmal trip in my book Resistance and Control in Pakistan, first published in 1983, in which I examined how state administration might be best implemented in Muslim tribal society and focused on Waziristan. I returned to these themes in my 2013 book The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam. Before discussing the trip itself, it is necessary to put Waziristan and its people in context. The tribes of Waziristan, like tribes in other societies, lived by an ancient code of honor here known as Pukhtunwali or the code of the Pukhtun. Other central parts of the code include hospitality and revenge. The people of Waziristan belonged to clans and tribes and were linked through lineage descent from common ancestors. The tribes had what could be described as an egalitarian and democratic traditional form of government and were governed by councils of male elders known as maliks whose status was earned through feats of courage, honor, and bravery. The Pukhtun of the area lived in thinly populated environments, raised livestock such as goats, and did not pay taxes.Waziristan in history has traditionally been seen as a mysterious land beyond the pale, a hostile and forbidding zone best avoided. It is home to two of the major Pukhtun tribes, the Wazir and their cousins the Mahsud, considered the fiercest of fighters. Waziristan is characterized by mountains, Preghal is the highest peak at 11,500 feet, a varied and often inhospitable landscape ranging from thick forests to deserts, and an extreme climate, with temperatures reaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and well below freezing in the winter. During the colonial era the tough tribes of Waziristan remained a constant source of problems and anxiety for the British government in Delhi. So great was the concern that Lord Curzon, the viceroy of India, in an unprecedented move at one point took charge of its administration directly. In 1937 the Mahsud tribe in Waziristan ambushed an entire British brigade in a classic guerrilla manoeuvre, killing nine British officers and forty-five soldiers and wounding a further forty-seven. In the 1930s the British had more troops in Waziristan alone than in the rest of their Indian Empire.British administration functioned through the Political Agent, the government representative who worked among the tribes to implement state policy. The tribes were able to preserve their way of life, however, as during British rule colonial laws were usually applied only up to 100 yards on either side of main roads.At independence in 1947 and the creation of Pakistan, the new government inherited the British administrative structure, complete with its Political Agents who lived among the tribes. Yet the state footprint in these areas remained weak. When I took over Waziristan as Political Agent it had been some four decades since independence and the tribes lived much as they did then.To be continuedThe writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and IdentityPublished in Daily Times, January 19th 2019.