COMMENT: Chivalry and banditry —Brig Mehboob Qadir - Friday, April 15, 2011

Waziris’ concept of privacy roughly corresponds to the modern day notion of sovereignty. For example, to pass through a Waziri village in a high-strung military truck is to trespass

The people belonging to the tribal belt that girdles Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the west live with an inexplicable mix of chivalry, banditry, personal liberty and tribal customs. It was 1985, I was commanding a unit in Kohat and we were travelling from Thal to Miranshah. I had ordered the regulation armed escort to stay put in Thal Fort. I knew it was irregular and quite risky also, but I had always regarded that such escorts, being cumbersome, normally impede speed and are at risk themselves. We were travelling through wild Waziristan practically bare handed. However, I had quietly slipped a service revolver into the jeep’s dashboard just in case. A few miles out of Thal, we saw a man sitting under a distant tree pointing his Kalashnikov at something directly above. As we got closer, he fired and whatever was left of a poor sparrow floated lifelessly to the ground below. Satisfied with his marksmanship he rolled his sheet, placed it under his head and lay down for a leisurely catnap.

By noon we were passing through a large village, probably called Shawa, spread along the road on both sides as if it had been taken out of Rudyard Kipling’s tales or an old British Raj painting of the volatile frontier. It had all the appearance of a fortified medieval town with thick mud walls, watchtowers, portholes and heavy wooden gates. Not a soul stirred, which was quite extraordinary. An eerie silence enveloped the whole region — it was stunningly quiet. I noticed deep trench like ditches leading from the road to each doorstep, some of them longer than a football field. Later, I learnt that, as the road had belonged to the government, it was considered safe under an old British treaty that still held. The rest of the area was tribal territory and unsafe due to endless blood feuds. Hence the need for protected passage through the ditches to and from the road.

We were negotiating a narrow and hilly tract of road short of Miranshah, when a rifle shot rang out from very close range. Then the second shot and a piece of rock scattered into bits as the bullet hit the rock face inches above the jeep bonnet. I told the driver to stop, climbed out of the jeep and looked straight into the barrel of a rifle pointed at me by a young Waziri a few yards up the opposite slope. There was a short verbal exchange in Pashto between the two of us and then we resumed our journey to Miranshah. It transpired that by firing those ‘near miss’ shots, the Wiziri youngster wanted to find out if we were afraid or not. Admittedly, I countered him by saying that he would also be scared if the same weapon were aimed at him without a fair chance. The boy understood and gave up further confirmation of my valour or fear.

En route, we had stopped for a cup of tea in a sprawling fort manned by scouts. It was a treat in old style hospitality and was altogether overwhelming. The scouts in that fort observed a strange water collection ritual every day at a given time. They had shared the only water spring some distance outside the fort with a neighbouring Waziri village ever since the fort was built in British times. The water filled up in a large but open ground level cemented water tank. Under a treaty concluded between the Waziri villagers and the British, the Waziris were conceded the right to collect water in the early part of the day. The scouts would do so in the afternoon. Fearing treachery, the British thought of a brilliantly inexpensive and simple test. A pair of white swans is officially kept and trained by the fort scouts. As the fort door opens for the water collection party, this pair of swans marches out towards the water tank, leading. Dipping their beaks in the water tank they drink till their pouches fill. The scouts’ party commander would observe them keenly for a few minutes for any signs of poisoning. If found in good health, the party would collect water in their containers and march back into the fort with the swans leading. Proper funds were allocated for the maintenance of this pair of swans, we were told.

The landscape is barren, stony and silent. Quite stealthily, the weight and awe of the majestic environment seeps into one’s being and then you are transported back in time by hundreds of years. The strength and resilience of the Waziris dawns upon you with compelling force filling one’s mind with respect and admiration for these Spartan and fearless fighters and a very hospitable people. They are bandits of the ugliest order by the same token; short tempered, trigger happy and ruthless. Waziris have always been like that. They are a good judge of men and like to talk to the King’s personal emissary rather than a routine messenger when it comes to hard negotiations. To negotiate with them from a position of weakness is asking for an unmitigated disaster. An effort to dictate terms from an unrelenting superior position is asking for failure. These hill men are very well aware of their strategic geographic location vis-à-vis Kabul and have always cashed it expertly throughout history. They naturally became the resistance highway against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and now against the US-led ISAF. It is not possible to defeat them into submission in the classical sense nor can they be wiped out. It is therefore prudent to coexist with them under a strictly enforced political arrangement and then keep all communication channels open.

They hold their privacy, which has to be understood in the broadest possible terms as being very dear to them. An actual or perceived trespass can have grave consequences. Their concept of privacy roughly corresponds to the modern day notion of sovereignty. For example, to pass through a Waziri village in a high-strung military truck is to trespass. To chance upon a female water-filling point is a serious infringement and so on. It may be understood that the Waziri concept of privacy is actually a function of perception more than the action.

The writer is a retired brigadier of the Pakistan Army. He can be reached at

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