The Indian Army by 1914 had approximately 7500 independent Pukhtun soldiers, serving across forty regiments. They saw the world through their own passionately tribal eyes–as Afridi, the tribe of Tirah in the north of the tribal areas which provided a third of the Indian Army’s independent Pukhtun; as Mahsud, a major tribe of Waziristan in the south yielding 1300 recruits; or as Mohmand, Orakzai and others of territories which like Tirah and Waziristan were in the exclusive possession of their particular tribe. So self-assertive were these tribesmen that each man was a law unto himself, rendering their value as imperial soldiers highly ambiguous. As the Mahsud would say in their soft Pushtu dialect with a knowing shrug and a smile, ‘we are very untrust-worthy people’.
All the independent Pukhtun tribes lived by their ancient and egalitarian tribal code ‘Pukhtunwali’, meaning the way of the Pukhtun. Each individual closely observed its mores of honour, hospitality, rivalry, revenge and courage, giving rise to feuds in which retribution for insults was exacted personally to maintain pride. The feuds were typically between families of the same tribe over zar, zan or zamin–gold, women or land–and they were often settled in cold blood by both men and women. Feuding was exceptionally dangerous by the early 1900s because around 100,000 Pukhtun men had become the proud owners of their own European modern rifle.
The tribal areas had no ban on owning guns as British India did, and many tribesmen bought their rifles on the local arms market from cartels operating out of Europe that smuggled the weapons through Oman, Iran and the Afghan province of Helmand; others bought their rifles from Australia, or stole them from the Army in India. Murder by rifle was so common a feuding fate for men, women and children that the tribesmen who feuded the most, above all the Afridi, had come to live not in Punjabi-style villages but in spread-out homestead-forts topped with multi-storey towers, their gun-slits rising above gardens of roses and apricot trees. The tribal areas were a smouldering bed of resistance to the bordering Indian Empire. Their mullahs, the literate holy men learned in the Koran who commanded great respect as the authorities on the tribes’ rough and ready brand of Islam, continually preached against the British. They spoke of them as an existential Christian threat to Pukhtun independence, warning of imperial intentions to annex the tribal areas and impose western-style laws that would spell the end for Pukhtunwali as they knew it, collapsing their tribal universe. From time to time the mullahs called for jihad against the Christian imperialists at their door, stoking anti-British tribal feelings into flame in order to gather lashkars (war parties of between 20 and 300 men) to serve Islam as mujahideen, or holy warriors. The lashkars then broke into British India’s adjacent North-West Frontier Province to raid towns and villages, or ambush Army in India camps and patrols.
Tensions between the independent Pukhtun and the Indian Empire led to no fewer than sixty-six separate Army in India invasions of the tribal areas between 1849 and 1908. The invasions were known as small wars, and lasted weeks or months until a truce was brokered and the Indian forces withdrew. The invasions were never to conquer or annex, but to punish particular tribes for jihadist incursions into British India. The tribes bitterly opposed the invasions, fighting back with an absolute refusal to accept defeat–a tenet of Pukhtunwali, whose defence was their highest honour and motivation.
By the early 1900s, the Afridi and the Mahsud had fought the British the most and were particularly adept defenders of their homelands of Tirah and Waziristan with their modern rifles. In one Anglo-Afridi small war of 1897–8, deep in Tirah’s mountains and ravines, tireless Afridi lashkars inflicted a series of minor tactical disasters on the British Army. They outmanoeuvred and annihilated detachments of the Northamptonshire Regiment and Yorkshire Light Infantry, taking no mercy on some of the wounded Tommies. They stripped them naked and mutilated them as marks not just of their rage at the invaders, whom they utterly rejected as outsiders with no place in their tribal world, but of Pukhtunwali’s permanence too. ‘The Hague Convention,’ wrote the British officer Hugh Nevill in 1912, referring to the international law of the day on humane treatment of enemy wounded and surrendered, ‘is to them not even a name.’
In the Anglo-Afridi war of 1897–8, over 500 British soldiers fell to rifle fire–a third of them were killed and a few had limbs blown off by large-calibre sniper bullets. Indeed, some British battalions had to be withdrawn early from Tirah, exhausted by the intensity of the mountain fighting and flummoxed by the Afridi lashkars. To Winston Churchill, serving with the Tirah Expeditionary Force in 1898 as a young British Army officer, the campaign amounted to a ‘fruitless errand… To enter the mountains and attack an Afridi is to jump into water to catch a fish.’
09 February 2019
Each Pukhtun 'a law unto himself'
From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 64-67: