History Matters

by Joshua Foust on 5/21/2008 · 2 comments

It is important to remember that not all cultures view history progressively: it is not a universal human constant that the past is past and the future is in the future, and they are distinct and can change. It is a growing constant here, that understanding the history of the region beyond September 11, 2001 matters a lot when trying to figure out what is happening. Which is why I’m confused CFR’s Daniel Markey, who normally is an astute observer of Pakistan, doesn’t seem to see beyond 2004.

The Pakistanis are making deals with tribal leaders again. Islamabad now appears to be in the final stages of protracted negotiations with leaders of the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan, one of seven semiautonomous areas along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan… Above all, Washington cannot let an imperfect deal get in the way of an all-too-rare shot at arresting or eliminating top al Qaeda leaders who have found safe haven in the rugged terrain of the Pakistani-Afghan frontier.

While I would never make the argument that every player in these regions is 100% informed of the history there, I would argue that the basic social relationships in play, especially between the tribal periphery and the central government, tend to follow the same basic rules and patterns: back at least to the 1920’s, Pashtuns of the Mehsud tribe—yes, the same one that birthed Baitullah Mehsud—were ambushing and knifing British soldiers in the FATA. When I examined the historical roots of tribal conflict in Pakistan a definite cycle emerged. While this cycle has certainly sped up in recent years, the only fundamental difference in the new cycles was that the Pakistani government was focusing on the al-Qaeda types—foreigners, it should be repeated—rather than the tribal elders who were enabling them.

While Markey chalks this up to “learning from its mistakes,” there was no reason for these mistakes to have been made—there is a long history of moderately expansionist tribal violence in the FATA, and a long history of negotiating with those leaders after a period of heavy fighting to get it back under control of sorts. As one example that this latest round of violence and negotiations is considered normal by the residents of FATA, consider that the roads have never left government control—even while the fighting raged, then subsided, the roads were government territory and the towns were tribal property. They both know the rules of the game, in other words. Charles Chenevix Trench wrote how this game was played:

But when it was over, when the Political Agent has imposed his fine [of confiscated rifles] and the kidnapped hostages had gone home, [tribals] would happily discuss with Scout Officers the mistakes either side had made, in the spirit of friendly teams after a football match. They would torture and kill the wounded and mutilate the dead — yet afterwards come to a tikala — a feast — and would tell the Political Agent he was their father and mother… after a Scouts battle, the enemy wounded would be brought trustingly into the Civil hospital at Razmak to be stitched up — or even into the Souts’ fort to the Scouts’ own hospital. [Source]

There is nothing new under the sun.

Further, Markey’s insistence that Washington violate the cease-fire if they think they can nab a Taliban leader is also problematic in light of recent history: at least once, during the hit on Nek Muhammed in 2004, those strikes have badly backfired into a new round of fighting that required a new round of negotiation—this time with Baitullah Mehsud. In other words, Mehsud, who has managed to turn himself into the new Faqir of Ipi, was made prominent by the U.S. thinking single decapitation strikes work on non-hierarchical tribal networks. They don’t.

All that being said, Markey is mostly right in what he advocates. But I think the alarm can be toned down a great deal if this kind of process—the central government signing agreements with the FATA tribal elders—is placed in a more historical process. This looms so large because they have made us pay attention by proving they can strike us. So let us pay attention, but with understanding.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Rabia May 22, 2008 at 6:15 pm

I really agree with you that Markey’s statement — that the US shouldn’t let a peace deal get in the way of a strike on an al-Qaeda/Taliban leader — is not a wise one.

Michael Hancock May 22, 2008 at 9:38 pm

I agree even more with the sentiment that History Matters. It’s one of the hallmarks of a ‘fundamentalist’ movement, whether Christian, Islamic, Jewish, or otherwise that the Past is generally better than the Present, and that the Future is not something we should expect to be much better than the Present.

I think that nothing could be further from the truth, and I hope that we can do more in our world today to prove – through History Lessons and Future-centric policies – that moving from the Past to the Future is a progressive and good change. Maybe I’m too optimistic, but there you have it.

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