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Meet the Pasthuns

Mired in the Tracks of Alexander the Great

by MILT BEARDEN

There is a lake near Webster, Massachusetts called Chargoggaggoggmanchaugagoggchaubunagungamaug. Translated from the original Nipmuck, it lays down this thoughtful code for keeping the peace: "You fish on your side, I fish on my side, nobody fishes in the middle."

Halfway around the globe, there is a place called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, seven so-called tribal "agencies" along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan where about six million of the most independent humans on the planet live on 27,000 square kilometers of rugged and inhospitable terrain.

They are the Pashtuns, and they have lived on their lands without interruption or major migration for about 20,000 years. They know their neighborhood very well, and their men have been armed to the teeth since the first bow was strung. Their ancient code involves a commitment to hospitality, revenge and the honor of the tribe. They are invariably described as your "best friend or worst enemy." The Pashtuns’ sense of territoriality bears some resemblance to the Nipmuck tribe of Massachusetts; when outsiders venture into the middle of their lands on fishing expeditions or to exert authority, very bad things happen.

In the 4th century B.C., Alexander the Great fell afoul of Pashtun tribesmen in today’s Malakand Agency, where he took an arrow in the leg and almost lost his life. Two millennia later the founder of the Mogul empire, Babur, described the tribesmen of the area now known as Waziristan as unmanageable; his main complaint seemed to center on his inability to get them to pay their taxes by handing over their sheep, let alone stop to attacking his armies. A couple of hundred years later, in the middle of the 19th century, the British experienced disaster after disaster as they tried to bring the same Pashtun tribes to heel, particularly in the agencies of North and South Waziristan. In 1893, after half a century of jockeying for position with Imperial Russia in the "Great Game," the British administrator of the northwest of Queen Victoria’s Indian Empire, Sir Mortimer Durand, demarcated the border between India–now Pakistan–and Afghanistan. The Durand line, as it is still known to foreigners–the Pashtuns call it "zero line" and completely ignore it–separated the tribes on both sides of the line into 26 agencies, each with its own laws and tribal councils. It was this area that became the buffer between the British and Russian Empires, an agreed-upon "middle of the lake." The tribes were then left mostly to themselves for about 80 years.

The Soviet adventure in Afghanistan began on a snowy Christmas Eve in 1979, and took a decade to cycle through, ending in exactly the same fashion as all the other foreign enterprises in that land–with failure. It was in the territories to the west of zero line, in the lands of the Wazirs, the Mahsuds, and the Ahmadzais, that the Soviets repeatedly failed in their attempts to establish their authority. They took some of their heaviest casualties not many kilometers to the west of South Waziristan and Wana Fort where the current drama now seems to be winding down after two confused weeks.

This time it is the Pakistani Army and its local levies, the paramilitary Frontier Corps, who have ventured into South Waziristan. To the west of zero line, American forces lie in wait for the quarry to be driven into their gun sights. The Pakistani operation has been described as an attempt to route an enemy alternately depicted as Islamic militants, foreign terrorists, or "high value" Al Qaeda fighters. Early in the operation it was suggested that Al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was cornered near Wana Fort. Now the word in Pakistan is that Tahir Yaldashev, leader of the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, "may" have been there at the time of the Pakistani assault, but later escaped, possibly wounded.

As the CIA officer overseeing the final years of the war against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan, I served as a 20th century American version of the British East India Company political agent and quartermaster to these same Waziri Ahmadzai tribesmen as they stymied all Soviet efforts to "exert a little authority." Their leader then was Jalaluddin Haqqani, a man of uncommon personal courage, and a deeply nuanced understanding of guerilla tactics. Though his current whereabouts are unknown–some say he died of wounds from a U.S. air attack–Haqqani has transitioned from America’s best friend during the anti-Soviet war to its worst enemy in the current undertaking in Afghanistan. He is at the top of the list of America’s most wanted, and it is his spirit and the Pashtun code of honor that continue to drive the Ahmadzai tribesmen against whom both the Pakistani Army and American forces are lined up.

It will be a tough and unrewarding slog. Like most of the great confrontations launched by outsiders in Waziristan over the last 2,000 years, this one will probably end in ambiguity. There have already been claims of "mission accomplished" by the Pakistani army and the Frontier Corps–after all, they lost up to 60 dead–but there will likely be nothing concrete to point to, aside from claims of having destroyed a militant sanctuary. The much ballyhooed "high value targets" we and our Pakistani allies expected to kill or capture will probably remain unknown and unresolved, and the American Operation "Mountain Storm" across zero line in Afghanistan will probably wind down with an equal lack of clarity. Already there seems to be a sense of relief that everyone will quietly go back to fishing on their sides of the lake.

That’s the way it’s always been in those rugged hills.

MILT BEARDEN was CIA chief in Pakistan from 1986 until the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. He is the co-author with James Risen of "The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB."

This essay originally appeared in the International Herald Tribune.