Journey of transitions

Published October 7, 2022
The writer is author of Pakistan: In Between Extremism and Peace.
The writer is author of Pakistan: In Between Extremism and Peace.

THE Mehsuds have been in the headlines from time to time ever since the British rule and during the ‘war on terror’. Locally known as Maseed, the Mehsuds are primarily divided into three sub-tribes ie Alizai, Shaman Khel, and Bahlolzai. The tribe is also known as Dre Maseed (three Mehsuds).

The Mehsuds are surrounded in the north and west by the Wazirs, on the south by the Wazirs and Shiranis, and on the east by the Bhittanis. Most Mehsuds reside in Waziristan; others are settled in Tank, Bannu, and Afghanistan’s Logar Valley. While the mountains geographically isolate the Mehsuds, they provide them a strategic edge against invasions, enabling them to ambush would-be attackers.

Mohiuddin Maseed, known as Mullah Powinda, is considered an icon of the anti-imperialist movement. Between 1893-1913, all anti-British actions were carried out under his patronage, which is why he is also known as the ‘King of Mehsuds’ and ‘Badshah-i-Taliban’. Mehsud tribesmen killed a number of British servicemen and administrative officers of the Raj. Initially, the British opted to deal with them through the Nawab of Tank as an intermediary but that initiative proved unsuccessful and Tank was repeatedly attacked by the Mehsuds.

Many Mehsuds also enlisted in the military during the British rule. In 1910, Mullah Powinda visited Afghanistan where he was persuaded to stop his tribesmen from enlisting and to resist the construction of roads. In 1911, as part of economic empowerment from Kalabagh to Paizu and Tank, a railway track project was approved for which 2,000 Mehsuds were employed while another 2,000 were hired to construct Zhob Road. Mullah Powinda considered the establishment of a communication network as detrimental to their freedom and continued to attack British officers.

Mehsuds are possessive about their freedom.

Although the imperialists had great expectations of the Maliks in helping to expand their footprint, the British forces were unable to capture strategically important locations in the Mehsud areas.

It was in 1889 that Robert Bruce, DC Dera Ismail Khan, proposed the Maliki system for Waziristan. Bruce selected the Maliks and graded them according to their influence. While replicating Robert Sandeman’s policy in Balochistan, Bruce failed to realise that the Baloch and Mehsuds had different tribal dynamics. The Mehsuds were more democratic; hence their chiefs were not as powerful as the Baloch sardars to be able to influence their tribesmen. Bruce also did not station troops at a central point in Waziristan to assist the Maliks in case of emergency.

Moreover, whereas in Balochistan the British with the help of the Baloch sardars were able to build forts, cantonments and roads and thus successfully establish their control, it was difficult to replicate the model in Waziristan owing to the Mehsuds’ resistance. With time, the government realised that in the Mehsud areas, paying only the Maliks did not work and that instead of individuals, payment should be made to the tribe.

Contrary to the assumptions of the British Indian government that the movement would fizzle out with the death of Mullah Powinda, his son Fazal Din continued where his father had left off.

A long military operation (1919-20) did not yield the desired dividends. In 1924, an army cantonment was established in Waziristan and it was declared an active service area.

Historically there was no internecine strife among the Mehsuds. This changed with the rise of the Taliban. Until then, the Mehsuds had only had disputes with the Wazirs and Bhittanis over territory and grazing rights.

Charles Chen­e­vix Trench descri­bed the Mehsuds in his book Viceroy’s Agent as being “very possessive about their freedom”, while British administrative offi­cer Olaf Caroe prai­sed their proficiency in weapon handling and warfare.

During the last five decades, many Mehsuds have transited from Waziristan to Tank, where they bought property. In the 1970s, substantial numbers of them obtained employment in the Middle East. During the last few decades, their sociocultural fabric has been greatly impacted by the arrival of the Arabs and Uzbeks in their tribal areas, the Afghan jihad, Talibanisation, military operations, Middle East returnees, internal displacement and Afghan refugees.

South Waziristan is the largest (6,620 sq km) among the newly merged districts but has the least population density and shares a 107km-long border with Afghanistan. The decision of the provincial cabinet to bifurcate SW into two districts will improve public service delivery and governance. However, the real challenge is how to synchronise the interests of the Wazirs and the Mehsuds; that will determine the success of such administrative reforms. The journey from persistent transitions to sustainable peace requires sincere efforts on the part of all stakeholders to play their role in the implementation of the Fata reforms.

The writer is author of Pakistan: In Between Extremism and Peace.

Twitter: @alibabakhel

Published in Dawn, October 7th, 2022

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