Victoria Schofield, Writer: Paper provided for the WSN-RCDS FATA Workshop

Posted in Other | 16-Feb-09


Victoria Schofield has been reporting as a writer and broadcaster on Pakistan and South Asia for thirty years. She is the author of Afghan Frontier: Feuding and Fighting in Central Asia (2003 & 2009), Kashmir in the Crossfire (1996), Kashmir in Conflict (2000, 2003, 2009), Bhutto: Trial and Execution (1979 & 1990), Old Roads, New Highways, (ed.) (1998). She has also written a biography of Field Marshal Earl Wavell (2006) and is currently writing the history of The Black Watch. Schofield has travelled widely in South Asia and is a frequent commentator on BBC World TV and BBC World Service as well as contributing to numerous journals and publications. She has an MA (Hons) degree from the University of Oxford and was President of the Oxford Union (1977). Victoria Schofield is the author of Afghan Frontier: Feuding and Fighting in Central Asia.


‘Who today is disgraced, tomorrow will be lost.’ Pashtu proverb.

Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), running for some three hundred miles from Waziristan in the south to just beyond the Khyber Pass (to the agencies of Mohamand and Bajaur) in the north, with a population of approximately 3 million people, is a unique political phenomenom. No where else in the world is there an area which has existed for so long as an autonomous region within a nation state, where the frontier with the neighbouring country, Afghanistan, has not been recognized and whose inhabitants have more cultural and linguistic affinity with nationals in Afghanistan than with their own co-nationals in Pakistan.

To compound the anomaly, the region is home to two of the most lethal weapons of modern society – drugs and guns, complemented in the 21st century by the ability to reach other select locations by means of satellite communication. With porous borders both into Pakistan and Afghanistan, FATA, once regarded as sufficiently isolated and inward looking to be left alone, has become a running sore in Central Asia. As a safe haven for terrorists and misfits of the world to operate with impunity, it poses a threat not only to the security of Pakistan and Afghanistan but to the wider world

Altering the status quo poses several problems. Firstly, since the days of the British, the inhabitants have resented any foreign intrusion. Again, uniquely, until 2001/02, Pakistan’s regular army never made any attempt to enter what is informally called ‘tribal territory’. After bitter experience, the British had adopted a policy of permitting the different tribes to police themselves with local khassadars, keeping their own military presence to a minimum in forts strategically located along the passes so that they could control the entry and exit points into Afghanistan. Secondly, the status quo is difficult to alter because of the terrain, which is mountainous and inhospitable, providing impenetrable hiding places for the guerilla fighter but making operations for a regular army treacherous. As noted by a British political officer in the 1930s: ‘There are steep precipices, narrow winding valleys, every vantage point commanded by another, and innumerable refuges and routes of escape. It is this country which makes the Frontier problem.’ As a result, the preferred way to subjugate the area is by aerial bombardment but this results in severe collateral damage which, in turn, increases hostility to the perpetrator, be it the Pakistan army or the United States through its aerial operations from bases in Afghanistan.

Thirdly, the difficulty of altering the status quo is exacerbated by the lawlessness in the region since the breakdown of the tribal structure and the killing of many of the tribal leaders. This makes dialogue a risky business. Without accurate intelligence, it is hard to identify influential interlocutors, who will not use proffered material benefits to settle scores, as happened when the United States gave financial incentives to assorted groups in Afghanistan during the 2002 operations. As much as the enemy is faceless, so to is the friend.

In order to make any inroads, either territorial or ideologically, into FATA, a thorough understanding of the tribal clans (khels) is necessary together with a full comprehension of the tenets of pashtunwali, the code of honour practiced by the Pashtuns [Pakhtuns] of all tribes. It is well known, for example, that the Mahsuds of Waziristan have had a traditional enmity with the Wazirs, but what is the current state of this enmity within the context of the Al Qaeda movement. Which group would be more likely to sympathise with the Al Qaeda ideology and why? What instruction is carried out in the madrassas and who teaches the teachers? If foreigners are unwelcome, how can the benefits of progress be passed on to the inhabitants without tarnishing those who introduce those benefits with the brush of being ‘liberal’ pro-western, and therefore regarded as anti-Islamic? How much is anti-westernism a new phenomenom and how much is it a continuation of the traditional antagonism towards foreigners [feringhees] categorized as ‘kafirs’ [unbelievers] in the 1930s?

What do the inhabitants of the region consider to be beneficial progress and what do they consider to be an infringement of their established traditions? In other words, what contact with outsiders would be acceptable to them and what would not? Is there a silent majority who would appreciate greater interaction with the rest of Pakistan and who could be coaxed into mutually beneficial communication? What is the true status of women? If too progressive a policy is pursued towards women will it jeopardize interaction with the men? In order to encourage dialogue with male members in FATA, are we going to have to accept that seeking progress for women will have to be put on the back burner?

Addressing these questions will go some way to rebuilding the shattered lives of thousands who are themselves victims of increasing anarchy. The aim must surely be to offer the inhabitants of Pakistan’s Federally Adminsitered Tribal Areas the benefits of modernisation without threatening customs and traditions. Above all, a fuller understanding of the society should assist with isolating hostile elements which are antipathetical both to the Government of Pakistan and its western allies, as well as identifying potential spokesmen. Although the world situation has changed dramatically since pre-Empire days, it may be that there are some lessons to be learnt in terms of how the British political agents handled the region, from both strength and weakness.

London, February 19, 2009