Reviewed by Jakob Steiner
IT takes few words to describe the region along the Afghan-Pakistan border in popular narratives: ‘remote’ and ‘lawless’ are usually the expressions of choice. Ironically, these two words also define how the area is approached — by unmanned drones that are used in a rather unclear legal manner. And while this aerial view may have increased deadly efficiency, it has done nothing to increase knowledge about the living. Not only is there lack of accessible daily reporting from the border areas, the written accounts that exist go back to colonial reports or even earlier stories of the ‘uncontrollable savage lands’, the yaghestan.
Shahzad Bashir and Robert D. Crews, in the epilogue to their co-edited volume Under the Drones: Modern Lives in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Borderlands, make the startling choice of comparing two recent frames of narrative on the area. “The prominence given to [Greg] Mortenson and [Osama] bin Laden in the worldwide media’s portrayal of Af-Pak is indicative of the way the agency of individuals and communities that inhabit the borderlands have been written,” they say. “The locals seem to need foreigners to come and tell them what to do.”
Bashir and Crews attempt to change this by providing “a corrective to the mainstream media’s portrayal of the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderland”. They have decided to pack a wide variety of topics into a rather slim edition, which has both advantages and disadvantages. To a close follower of contemporary scholarship on Pakistan and Afghanistan, many writers and their contributions hold nothing new. Amin Tarzi’s and Gilles Dorronsoro’s historical accounts on the border area as well as Thomas Ruttig’s take on the tribal culture of the Taliban and Tahir Andrabi’s, Jishnu Das’s and Asim Ijaz Khwaja’s contribution on the link between madressah education and extremism are, as always, well-balanced and insightful but contain little that is new. As for some other contributions — Faisal Devji’s on the Red Mosque siege, Farzana Shaikh’s “Will Sufi Islam Save Pakistan?” and Jamal Elias’s writing on truck art — it remains unclear how they fit at all within the title of the book.
In the end the title is catchy but misleading — the modern life of the people of Waziristan, Bajaur or Paktia is not covered at all. The piece coming closest to a depiction of modern life is Fariba Nawa’s excellent account in “Women and the Drug Trade in Afghanistan”. By choosing three personal stories (only one of them set briefly in the Afghan-Pakistan borderland), she lends some insight into the decision-making that leads people to move in and between the countries. The story of Mahbooba who, with her family lived in Peshawar and returned an addict, gives a glimpse of modern life in the area — mobile and continuously under the spell of political instabilities and a war the people have otherwise little to do with.
When it comes to countering the narratives nourished by the likes of Mortenson or bin Laden, three essays in this book are helpful and provide credible accounts. James Caron writes on the cultural grass-roots movements that are a major identity component of the present-day Taliban — see Poetry of the Taliban by Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn. Shah Mahmoud Hanifi’s account of how the “eighteenth-century colonial knowledge” is ultimately “underpinning the American project in the country in the twenty-first century” and Lutz Rzehak’s take on the Baloch and their quest for political clout as a minority both hold important observations that are helpful in understanding the area.
In the end, it’s the sharp and sometimes daring observations of the editors themselves in the brief introduction and epilogue that make worthwhile reading even for someone otherwise familiar with the content of the essays.
What is missing in Bashir and Crews’ book, though, is how the Frontier came to be regarded in such a way that simplistic and poorly founded narratives today abound. It was the colonial state that created the idea, and its heirs — foremost the Pakistani state with the help of international think tanks and ‘experts’ — managed to foster it till this day. And how this remote space of imagination is created is studied by Magnus Marsden and Benjamin D. Hopkins in Fragments of the Afghan Frontier. The two step back into colonial history and look at its creation.
“While often referred to as ‘indirect rule’, governing local communities through ‘tradition’ was in fact extremely invasive of indigenous society. It was, after all, the colonial state that defined what was and what was not appropriate and acceptable ‘tradition’,” they say.
Hopkins, a historian, explains how the border has a history that shapes its present — not just its present reality but also its present representation in the writings and opinions of outsiders. “To state authorities, this made this tract yaghestan an ungovernable land of chaos. These tropes continue to be energised and embraced by popular studies and journalistic accounts, such as Rory Stewart’s revealingly entitled work The Places in Between, as well as within policy circles.”