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Pakistan's 'Wild West' and the British Connection

Pakistan Link, Commentary, Mowahid Hussain Shah Posted: Jul 13, 2009

Unrest in the tribal areas has been a part of British folklore and imagination. Even Winston Churchill made his mark at the end of the 19 th century by writing about his battle-field experiences in the North-West Frontier Province through his first-ever book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force published in 1898. It is to Britain what the Wild West is to America.

Post-Partition cinema reflected those themes with movies like King of the Khyber Rifles (1953), Zarak (1956), The Bandit of Zhobe (1959), and Conduct Unbecoming (1975), depicting British regiments preoccupied in their encounters to contain tribal insurrection. Some were lavish productions. Terence Young, who was director of Zarak, went on to launch the James Bond franchise by directing blockbusters like Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Thunderball.

Today, the legacy of old wars is killing a new generation. When the Soviets took over Afghanistan in December 1979, an isolated Pakistan government in the wake of Zulfiqar Ali Bhuttos hanging in April of that year proved eager to associate itself with the American enterprise in Afghanistan, in which one of the key motivations was to avenge the US humiliation in Vietnam by bleeding the Red Army and to reassert itself in the region after the Iranian revolution which ousted the Shah in January 1979. Not enough thought was given to its domestic blow-back effects.

Slowly, but surely, the problems of Afghanistan started seeping and spilling over into Pakistan. 9/11 accelerated this process. Suicide bombings which hitherto were a cultural anathema in Pakistan have now made the country into a veritable killing zone.

It has been aptly observed: Just as our present is the result of our past, so our future will be the result of our present. Blood is on the road ahead.

During the late 1980s, the British High Commissioner in Islamabad was the affable Dick Fyjis-Walker. His vivacious German-born wife, Gabriele, was a diplomatic force-multiplier. Both cared deeply about Pakistans heritage and history and were particularly enamored by the British past in the Frontier. Little could they have imagined that, 20 years later, their only son, Matthew, after graduating first in 2006 from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and winning the Sword of Honor (the same batch as Prince Harry), would be deployed in Afghanistan for combat.

Time has changed, tone has changed, but some things perhaps have not. Afghans are still getting killed and the British keep dying in Afghanistan.

Writing in the late 19 th century, Nobel Laureate Rudyard Kipling, in his novel Kim, set in the bazaars of Lahore, talked of the Great Game being played between Czarist Russia and Imperial Britain to wrest control of Afghanistan. Though in a different format, the game continues.

Britain has now launched an official inquiry into its involvement in Americas Iraq misadventure which, apart from shrinking UKs stature in the world, also made it a magnet for terror attacks inside and outside Britain. The inquiry is supposed to ascertain the lessons learned. Whether those Iraq lessons are going to be extrapolated into Afghanistan is another matter.

Writing in 2009 in the current issue of British Army Review an official Ministry of Defence publication Major Miller, a British Army officer who served in Afghanistan, states: To date, Operation Herrick (the British code-name for the war in Afghanistan) has been a failure.

Already, the new US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has stated publicly that the US-backed forces must convince people, not kill them in order to make headway in Afghanistan. He further stressed that since 9/11, America has tried to put out this fire with a hammer, and it doesnt work.

What doesnt work is occupation which, by itself, invites radical upsurge. Re-building basic infrastructure may prove less costly than re-fighting 19 th century battles in the 21 st century.

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