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Sunday, January 20, 2008

BULLETIN: Home of alleged Bhutto assassins held out against the British.

The arrest of a teenage boy in the assassination plot that killed Benazir Bhutto draws attention once again to the Islamist strongholds in the mountain fastness of Waziristan, Pakistan's lawless borderland on the Afghan frontier. Formally part of Pakistan, Waziristan is in fact autonomous and has provided bases for the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan. In fact, Waziristan bitterly resisted the British for almost 90 years, between 1860 and the partition of Pakistan in 1947.

The arrested fifteen-year-old said he was part of several back-up teams at the ready in case the first attack on Bhutto failed and that the entire operation was overseen by Baitullah Mehsud. Mehsud is the senior Taliban commander in South Waziristan. Effectively ruling the tribal agency, he has been called the 'Emir of Waziristan.'

From ancient times, the region of the Indus river lay at the frontier between invasion from west and central Asia and the southern empires of the Indian subcontinent. West of the Indus, in the remotest part of the rugged borderlands between the two regions, in the Suleiman mountains of Waziristan, the Pashutn tribes would always keep their autonomy in return for nominal support of whatever empire controlled the region.

While India began to fall under British control after 1840, Pakistan, which was mostly Muslim, wasn't formally acquired until the late 19th century. By 1860, the British had moved across and into Waziristan but were being harassed by Mahsud tribesmen. In 1893, the British extended Pakistan into Afghan territory under the control of Pashtun tribesmen by establishing the Durand line as India's border with Afghanistan. In so doing, they took Waziristan, drawing the frontier right through Afghanistan's largest and most powerful ethnic group, the Pashtuns. The effect was ultimately to strengthen a sense of Pashtun nationalism which in future would be exploited by Pakistan or Afghanistan in future rivalries- and by the Taliban against both.

Throughout the 1890s, the British experienced the same problems that Pakistan, Afghanistan and NATO are experiencing with the Taliban today. British political agents who administered North and South Waziristan were faced with Pashtun tribal insurgencies commanded by the great Waziri leader, Mullah Powindah. Due to implacable Waziri resistance and bloody casualty counts on both sides, the British, in 1901, settled for containment rather than control . By 1910 they had adopted the tribal agency system which allowed autonomy for Waziristan, a system of 'rule at arm's length'still used by Pakistan today. British attempts at peacemaking, due to the need for resources during World War One, led to more concerted attacks by Mahsud and Ghazi tribesmen. The British retaliated with aerial bombardment. British attempts to open up Wazizristan with road-building resulted only in further attacks. In one assault in 1920 Waziris and Mahsuds together killed 500 British troops.
Since the period between the wars, little has changed in Waziristan. And after President Musharraf joined Washington's War on Terror, Pakistan has had to pick up where the British left off. The ambivalent political status of the Pashtuns in remote Waziristan and other border areas has strengthened the Afghan Taliban who have their roots among the Pashtuns and have allied themselves with the Pashtun cause.
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