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Weak state and strong militancy

Tracing the history of militant Islamic revivalism in FATA

Weak state and strong militancy
Result of a loose state. — Photo by Ishtiaq Mahsud / AP

Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have traditionally remained at the heart of militant violence. This article argues that historically patronage to religious functionaries within the condition of loose state authority primarily accounts for militancy in FATA. Because sponsorship to non-state religious and non-religious entities in the periphery was either established or sustained or at least acquiesced to with the consent of the ruling authority at a given time, I call these anomalous features of state as the informal state.

Of the not-too-distant past, the Mughal rulers were the first to patronise village level religious functionaries among the Pashtuns in the tribal hinterland. Respected among the locals who accorded a mediatory role to them, the pirs or sufis were vested some authority as a means in asserting the government writ in the outlying tribal areas.

Of the Afghan rulers, whereas Ahmed Shah Abdali continued with patronising the religious authorities in the making of modern Afghanistan from 1747 onwards, Amir Dost Mohammed Khan was probably the first to use the pirs — with the Swati Akhund Abdul Ghaffur as a case in point — to militarily mobilise tribesmen for jihad against Ranjit Singh in 1835 at Peshawar. Resisting the British penetration of the tribal territory, Mullah Najmuddin known as Hadda Mullah marshaled tribesmen in the famous Malakand battle in 1897-8. Besides, forces called lashkars comprising mullah/akhund’s taliban and tribesmen were armed in many instances, especially when exacting a punishment on an offending party in line with tribal norms.

Militant Islamic revivalism was first attempted among the tribesmen in the late 1820s. A militant interpretation of Shah Waliullah’s religious reforms among the Muslims, Syed Ahmad Barelvi’s led movement culminated in the Battle of Balakot 1831 resulting in his death. Ahmad’s mission, with its emphasis on the holy Quran and the traditions of the Prophet (pbuh), got real impetus among the Pashtun populated North West when Fazal Wahid — popularly known as Haji Turangzai — was won over to the mission in 1878. Sufism was meshed with revivalism in the person of the Haji. Moreover, recourse to literal Islam also found its way among the tribesmen through the influence of students from tribal areas educated at Darul Ulum Deoband. The transition from Sufi Islam to Islamic revivalism was aptly reflected through the spreading of the term mullah replacing sheikh and akhund by the turn of the 20th century.

The colonial British did almost nothing to reverse the trend of weak statehood. The tribesmen were left to fend for their security, otherwise one of the basic functions of the state. Similarly, legislation, execution and judicial arbitration — the three main functions of the three vital organs of the state namely legislature, executive and judiciary — were abdicated to Pashtun tribal mores, tribal force called lashkar and tribal council billed as jirga respectively.

The colonial British did almost nothing to reverse the trend of weak statehood. The tribesmen were left to fend for their security, otherwise one of the basic functions of the state.

However, the authority was not altogether absent either. Where the state was visible — along the roadsides or government installations — the exercise of authority was demonstrated in its harshest form. Collective responsibility envisaged in section 21 of the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) — a gross violation of the individual liability before law — offers a glimpse into the inhuman nature of the colonial rule in the North West tribal areas of British India.

The guarding of the colonial state’s narrowly perceived interests lost a huge space for the tribesmen rebellion on various occasions. In 1916, the Ulema from Darul Uloom Deoband Saharanpur Utter Pardesh India, in a failed attempt, availed themselves the opportunity to involve local clergy as intermediaries from the tribal areas in staging an armed struggle called Tehreek Reshmi Rumal while using the tribal areas as a launching pad in order to rid India of the British yoke.

Of the Afghan kings, Amir Habibullah Khan (1901-1919) continued to discreetly support the tribesmen despite the British pressure to sever ties with the British side tribes. His successor Amir Amanullah Khan, in order to end Afghanistan’s protectorate status, as stipulated in the Gandamak Treaty 1879, instigated Third Anglo Afghan War on May 4, 1919. He mobilised thousands of the eastern Pashtun tribesmen mainly through tribal clergy. On two other occasions — in 1924 and 1928 — the Amir mobilised the eastern tribesmen through their clergy. In 1929, Nadir Khan successfully captured the Afghan throne though support from mullahs’ championed tribal lashkars from across Indian side of the Durand line.

In the aftermath of Qissa Khawani Bazaar killing of peaceful demonstrators by police in Peshawar in April 1930, tribal areas were mobilised on a scale unprecedented since the Third Anglo Afghan War. The tribal clergy rallied lashkars in their thousands among the Afridis, Mohmands, Wazir and Mahsud to advance on settled areas.

In March 1936, the rise of Faqir of Ipi became a deadly concern. By the end of 1937, with the man at large the hunt had cost the British 1000 men out of 40,000 personnel deployed. True, it was never the case that the colonial dispensation could not afford to strengthen the writ of the government in the tribal hinterland but they chose not to do so.

From imperialistic perspective, it was bad economics to extend the state’s welfare arm to a region which had little to offer in extraction. Probably, the main reason for the British acquiescence to weak statehood emanated from the de-facto nature of the tribal areas as a buffer zone. The tacit understanding between the British and Afghan kings was that the former would not withstand any Afghan infringement beyond the tribal areas. There was then little reason to develop an area which would function as a safety valve for Afghan trespass.

Outliving the colonial empire, the Faqir remained a constant threat to Pakistan in his bid for an independent Pashtunistan — duly supported by Afghanistan and popularised by India — until he passed away in 1960. In the year, the crossing of border from Afghanistan of a lashkar of 15,000 men and the subsequent bombardment by Pakistan’s air force of dissident elements in Bajaur pointed to a fragile situation on the frontier. On October 22, 1947, thousands of tribesmen from Mahsud, Mohmand and Afridi tribes advanced on Kashmir ostensibly to liberate their Muslim brethren.

Pakistan’s continuation with colonial arrangement in administrating tribal areas remained something of an enigma until the former USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Thanks to US’s containment of Soviet communism, FATA was transformed from backwater region into launching pad against both the Soviets and their Afghan allies. The rising tide of militant bigotry in FATA after Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan found a temporary outlet with the rise of Taliban in Afghanistan in the early 1990s. After their fall, Taliban relocated to tribal areas. Capitalizing on weak statehood, the militants’ inward push for Islamisation testified to FATA as Pakistan’s Achilles heel.

An end to informal state apparatus — which Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) envisages — and the merger of tribal areas either with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or making of a new province and ending FATA’s launch-pad status are essential for peace at home and abroad.

Farman Kakar

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