We left Wana well before sunrise. No roads or paths existed west of Wana when the standard maps were made more than half a century ago and none did now. After heading due west, we turned north. Our journey through ravines and stream beds was slow and bumpy. On either side, running north to south, were mountain ranges between 8,000 to 10,000 feet high, mostly covered by forests. After climbing up to the Srakanda Pass we descended into the Birmal area.
Once we entered the Birmal valley, the Wazir elders accompanying me took charge and shouldered the Mahsud members of the bodyguard aside. Through their protective gesture they were pointing out that we were in the most exclusive Wazir area. They rightly calculated that if an enemy wished to embarrass them personally by firing on me or our convoy this area provided the ideal opportunity. They were acutely aware that the honor of the Wazirs, as hosts, was at stake; that was Pukhtunwali. At one stage my jeep was separated from the rest of the party for a short while. Had the Wazir elders with me decided to take me hostage during this time in order to bargain for the release of the mullah, they could have done so. Indeed, when I joked about this, one of the Wazir elders with me expressed disagreement, claiming, “the Wazirs now have two chiefs.” He was restoring the Political Agent to the role of chief of the agency, alongside the mullah, a considerable concession as I knew he was a key member of the mullah’s cabinet.
Upon arriving at the shrine of Musa Nikka we offered our prayers. The grave itself was made of mud and plaster. On behalf of the government I announced that a dome would be built over the grave. Two primary schools and a dispensary were also sanctioned, to be started as soon as sites could be found. At lunch I chided the Wazirs for being so involved in agency politics as to neglect their revered ancestor. The Wazirs took the point. After a brief excursion to Suwwey Warra (“small rabbit”), a knoll on the Durand line that overlooked the irrigated and large plains leading to Urgun, an Afghan district headquarters, we began the return trip and arrived in Wana by sunset. Within hours of our departure from Suwwey Warra, Afghan fighter jets flew along the Durand line, our trip perhaps having been mistaken for a military maneuver.
We left Wana well before sunrise. No roads or paths existed west of Wana when the standard maps were made more than half a century ago and none did now. After heading due west, we turned north. Our journey through ravines and stream beds was slow and bumpy. On either side, running north to south, were mountain ranges between 8,000 to 10,000 feet high, mostly covered by forests. After climbing up to the Srakanda Pass we descended into the Birmal area
The news of the trip to Birmal spread like wildfire. It was reported in the Khyber Mail on June 3, 1979. Its effect on the Wazirs was considerable. Wazir in Afghanistan wrote to congratulate me for “removing the parda[‘veil’] of Birmal.” Even the brother of the imprisoned mullah congratulated me in a letter, reminding me of his goodwill in not spoiling the journey, through a hostile act such as gunshots. Wazir tribal councils and meetings for months afterward would begin with a recitation of the Birmal trip as evidence of their loyalty and hospitality. They also expressed gratitude to me for honoring their ancestor, something they underlined no official had done before. I thanked them for the honor and hospitality they showed me. The Wazir sense of self-respect was being restored. The rival Mahsud triberesponded byrequesting me to visit a holy ancestor of theirs, Borak Nikka, near Tiarza. I promised to visit Borak Nikka once we moved to Tank for the winter.
Apart from the cultural goodwill generated among Wazirs, important political consequences followed the Birmal trip. In a gesture of friendship, the Zilli Khel clan donated land for a new Scouts’ post at Zallay Sar, west of Wana and just short of the Durand line. The post controls three routes, including the Birmal route, which converge at Zallay Sar on the path to Wana. Usually such exchanges of land are realized with considerable effort, cost, and often fighting. The Scouts’ posts of Zallay Sar and Zarmelan, also established during this period, were the earliest government footholds in the area. For the first time the Pakistani flag flew on the Durand line in the agency; the governor of the North-West Frontier Province recorded his “appreciation.”
The trip to Birmal also helped to flush out “Pukhtunistanis,” a generic term used by the administration for outlaws and pro-Afghan “trouble makers,” from that area. In a jirga, or assembly of tribal elders, near the new Zallay Sar Scouts’ post, the first one ever conducted in this remote area with the Political Agent, a large group of well-known Birmal Pukhtunistani Wazirs surrendered to me. They were made to feel welcome at the jirga and thereby honored. An appropriately dramatic backdrop to the ceremony was provided by the mountain range along the watershed of which runs the Durand line. The surrender helped me to encourage other groups of Waziristan Pukhtunistanis to do the same. Thus the government made slow but steady attempts to reconcile the Wazirs within the agency framework, and Wazirs made a slow but steady response. Even so, the relationship remained fragile and was marked by tension and sometimes aggressive demonstration of support for the mullah.
Since that time, much has happened in Waziristan, which after 9/11 became “ground zero” in the war on terror and a high concentration of US drone strikes were conducted there. Yet despite the massive changes that have occurred, including the merger with the KP province and the changes to the benighted FCR and much of the population being forced to flee the violence, the realities of tribal society remain. The elders, the councils, the centrality of revenge, and above all honor remain of utmost importance. The Pakistani government still must administer that region and it can only do so through understanding the people they are administering and how their society functions. If it does not, violence and instability will invariably result.
The need to administer the area effectively of course is particularly important in the context of the current Great Game and the control of Pakistan’s frontiers, which can only be achieved by working through the tribes. The example I have highlighted here shows what is possible and it can assist administrators as they navigate the challenges of dealing with the tribes on the Pakistan-Afghan borders today.
The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC
Published in Daily Times, January 21st 2019.