Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Nehru’s circumcision, cultural sensitivity and leadership skills

'The Mahsud [main tribe in South Waziristan and key part of the today's Pakistani Taliban movement] jirga [council of elders] assembled that day [1946] on the Residency lawn to hear what [Nehru] had to say,' recalls Hodson. 'To my astonishment Nehru rose to his feet (it was customary for holders of jirgas to sit with tribesmen squatting on the ground in front of the chairs) and advanced with his arms in the air as though he were addressing a political rally in Allahabad. When his voice reached a crescendo, he announced that he had come to free the tribes from the slavery of British imperialism. At that the entire jirga rose in anger and (tribal elder) Mehr Dil advanced on Nehru with raised umbrella saying "We are not slaves," and tried to strike him, adding, "Come here again and we will circumcise you." The proceedings then broke up in disorder and the Mahsud's raged out of the camp.
(Major) Robin Hodson, Story and Gallantry as quoted by Jules Stewart in The Khyber Rifles.
Nehru forgot one of the first lessons of leadership – adapting leadership style to differing situations. The formula which works among Anglophile Indian parliamentarians will not produce the same results among free spirited Pathan tribesmen.
A view of the khyber Pass which links Pakistan with landlocked Afghanistan

British imperialists learnt the hard way that the Pathans are a unique people. By the end of the Empire, the British had developed a grudging respect for the Pathans. The way enemies respect each other on the battlefield.
The British 'sirkar' realized that the Pathans cannot be subdued militarily alone, cash incentives work much better.
As the Americans grapple with their involvement in Afghanistan, history provides some clues to resolving the current situation. After eight years in Afghanistan, the Americans have little to show for their efforts. If anything, they have only succeeded in widening the scope of a Pathan tribal insurgency into Pakistan.
I refer to the matter as mainly a Pathan tribal matter. Even a cursory reading of history shows the Pathans and the Balochis take their freedoms more seriously, unlike the more sedentary peoples east of the Indus River.
(People who continually compare Pakistan and India will be wise to examine the historical exigencies, including industrial base, educational standards, mileage of roads and railroads, etc. of the two geographies at independence in 1947 before forming any definitive conclusions about the state of the two nations.)
An 1890 photograph of members of the Khyber Rifles. The Khyber Rifles are a paramilitary force raised in the late 1800s and reponsible for the security of the Khyber Pass

While there are many 'myths' about the Pathan character most are based on historical tendencies observed across many centuries. Pathans do not forget. Revenge is written into the tribal code – hence the desire by tribal jirgas to sort out matters amicably before tribal feuds get out of hand and span generations.
There is a reason the British government, and its successor state Pakistan, maintained a hands-off policy with the tribal areas. The risk-reward metric in attempting to maintain central control of the region is heavily skewed against Islamabad. Only the loyalty of the tribes ensures tranquillity in the settled areas of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, including its administrative capital of Peshawar.
Peshawar was a frequent target of attacks during the British raj. Martial law in Peshawar was a reasonably regular occurrence. The British also regularly used air power to subdue 'unruly' Pathan tribesmen.
To the Pathans it makes little difference that the Pakistan Army is primarily Muslim. To the tribes, they are outsiders trying to settle in tribal land and change their traditional lifestyle.
Paramilitaries, like the Frontier Constabulary manned by tribal people themselves, are only a temporary solution. Even the most disciplined fighting force gets war weary and tribal soldiers are no exception, especially when they are susceptible to sympathies for the people who they are fighting.

Back to Afghanistan where the Americans have installed a Tajik Northern Alliance governing regime since 2002, the remnants of Ahmed Shah Masood's band of warriors. The Pathans, despite being a plurality in the country, have been excluded from all levers of power.
Without the active support of the Afghan Pathans, peace will remain elusive to Afghanistan. Yes, Kabul city can be secured but at what cost? Likewise, Pakistan's major military offensives into the tribal areas are a temporary (and weak) fix.
After eight years of unrest slowly spreading outwards from Kabul, it may be the right time to negotiate a power sharing agreement. US military power can provide the backbone to ensure that certain principles are non-negotiable, i.e. female emancipation including the right of women to work. At a time when sovereign bailouts are in vogue, how long can the Western world continue to fund expensive overseas wars?
A view of the Mohabat Khan Mosque in Peshawar

Unless the US believes that the Taliban insurgency can be defeated militarily with Mullah Omar signing a humiliating Instrument of Surrender on behalf of a fragmented Taliban movement, non-military alternatives must be considered.
The Pathan is not one to be trifled with, speak with respect and he will become a friend for life.
Our dealings with the Pathans was a gentleman's game, you know. No matter how poor a Pathan was, he may meet the King of England or the Viceroy of India, but he'd look him straight in the eye and shake hands with him as if to say I'm as good a man as you are.
Colonial British Army Officer.

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