‘Vagabond, Wicked and Turbulent’: Afghanistan’s Lawless Border

From the Mughals to the War on Terror, Pashtuns in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands have been described as “lawless.” That emphasis on the rule of law will only increase now that the Taliban have taken over Afghanistan

‘Vagabond, Wicked and Turbulent’: Afghanistan’s Lawless Border
A Pakistani army soldier stands guard on a border terminal in Ghulam Khan, a town in North Waziristan, on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, on January 27, 2019 / Farooq Naeem / AFP via Getty Images

Along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a momentous project is nearing completion. Sixteen hundred miles of fencing, bolstered by sophisticated technologies and 1,000 fortresses, and built at a cost of around $500 million, will harden this border in an effectively unilateral move by Pakistan. Years in the making, this border project has a special urgency after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, bringing together ancient prejudices with new security challenges.

Commentators have called this border fence a necessary if not sufficient measure to curb terrorism and smuggling and to bring “stability” to Pakistan’s former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), today part of the wider Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. We are often reminded that the frontier is “lawless,” even “traditionally” so, as if militancy and contraband spring out of the land itself, unrelated to state policies or market demands. The language of stability and the rule of law will only increase now that the Taliban have taken over Afghanistan.

Recent reporting on the border fence has acknowledged the damage it may wreak on communities, many composed of ethnic Pashtuns. Families will be split, livelihoods endangered. However, fortifying the border is still largely seen as a defensive act. Greater militarization is seen as a source of order in the midst of “lawlessness,” despite rampant human rights abuses by the military and the devastation caused by markers of military presence, like landmines, in the former FATA.

That the Pashtun population is expected to suffer violence and forcible separation in the name of stability is hardly unprecedented. Not far behind the rhetoric of a lawless land lies that of a lawless people, in need of correction by state authority. In the words of journalist Abubakar Siddique, despite having “seen their remote mountain villages, fertile agricultural valleys and bustling cities repeatedly targeted by Soviet MiGs, American ‘daisy cutter’ bombs and al Qaeda suicide bombers,” it is Pashtuns, especially of the frontier regions, who are stereotyped as “culturally disposed to violence and disorder.”

One does not need to look hard for the same patterns in recent discussions in the West. To take an egregious example, in his well-received historical volume “The Khyber Rifles” (2005), journalist Jules Stewart describes the frontier as a “no man’s land” and a “demarcation between civilisation and barbarism”; of the people he says, “The Pathan Muslims are … uneducated and vulnerable to Koran-waving mullahs … highly skilled in the art of stirring up trouble along the Frontier.”

By defining these people as perennially chaotic outlaws, states justified continual violence against them, just as the modern state treats occupation, fortification and killings as contributions to “stability.”

Even as peaceful Pashtun activists and demonstrators are terrorized by arrests, intimidation and bullets, it remains perversely commonplace to label Pashtuns as security risks and potential terrorists. This is not, of course, always the case, but even ostensibly positive portrayals tend to focus on war and violence. The image of hardy, “fiercely independent” warriors affords Pashtuns a kind of noble savagery, but little else. This attitude is not just a product of the war on terror. Casting today’s frontier, and more important its people, as lawless and bellicose has a centuries-long history. Specifically, it was a typical imperial and central state response to societies living outside their political order. By defining these people as perennially chaotic outlaws, states justified continual violence against them, just as the modern state treats occupation, fortification and killings as contributions to “stability.”

British contributions to the idea of the warlike, lawless Pashtun are relatively well known. During a previous expression of peaceful Pashtun political mobilization in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s against British rule, the colonial state, like its counterpart today, was unable to reconcile its image of the Pashtuns as a “martial race” with events on the ground. Winston Churchill had described them as “the savages of the Stone Age,” but when faced with pacifist protest, it was the British Indian government that responded with savage violence, torture and arrest.

The British also created the Frontier Crimes Regulation in 1872, a separate legal system used, with only some adjustment, by Pakistan until just three years ago in the former FATA. The Regulation excluded the region from the rest of the country’s legal system. State officers had sweeping powers, including doling out collective punishment for individuals’ crimes. The rhetoric of a lawless frontier full of lawless people, and the repression that accompanies it, can be traced further back than the British, however. All three of the major empires that ruled over the modern Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions in the early modern period took part: the Mughals (1526-1858), the Durranis (1747-1818) and the Sikhs (1799-1849).

By the time the Mughal Empire was established in 1526, from Kabul to the edges of Bengal in the east of modern India, “Afghans” — historically a complex term, but generally used for Pashto-speaking peoples who would today be called Pashtun — were a long-standing part of regional politics. The empire’s founder, Babur, built his empire after toppling the Afghan Lodi dynasty, based in Delhi. As urbanized elites tend to do with “tribal” outsiders, several medieval Indian authors described Afghans as uncouth, vicious savages. Mughal relations with the Afghans, both those living in the north of India and those of the modern Pakistan-Afghanistan border regions, were not always so antagonistic; however, the impetus to incorporate them into the imperial order was constant.

Mughal conflict with frontier communities began before 1526. Babur made repeated attacks in and around modern Pakistan’s KP province. While he also married and made alliances with Afghan-Pashtun nobility, this was in the interest of cementing his authority. In the reign of his grandson Akbar, the Mughal state launched far larger campaigns in the area. Building on the aggravation of Mughal defeats to Afghans before and during his reign, imperial narratives of the time took an aggressive tone. In the spirit of the older medieval authors, Akbar’s chronicler Abu’l Fazl called the Afghans “brainless,” “vagabond,” “wicked” and “turbulent” people living in a state of “robbery and rebellion.” François Bernier, a French traveler and physician at the court of the later Emperor Aurangzeb, probably reflects some prevailing Mughal views when he writes of the “Augans” as “mountaineers” effectively independent of imperial rule, and of “Patans” (Afghans in India) as an “intractable race.” For a people to be defined by “rebellion” clearly implies a solution: for the ruler to bring them in line, by force. As in today’s Pakistan, state violence is said to bring “stability.

Violence did go hand in hand with cooperation. Like Babur’s marriage alliances, Mughal support of certain Afghans was essentially a tool of expansion. Older Afghan traditions of periodic land redistribution, which avoided the accumulation of power by specific groups, were put under pressure: The empire wanted strong, stable, hereditary elites who depended on imperial patronage. Still, even loyal allies could be dominated. Khushhal Khan Khattak, a famous 17th-century leader and Pashto poet, came from a traditionally loyalist family and served the Mughals for years but found himself imprisoned under unclear circumstances by Aurangzeb.

Embittered, Khattak joined in a series of Afghan-led wars against the Mughals. Khattak’s poetry is replete with invectives against the Mughals and their imperial system. Though not all his Afghan contemporaries would have agreed with him, his verses are a vivid critique of the empire as an oppressive force. Mughal notions of Afghan turbulence and rebelliousness, in opposition to the peaceable tolerance and rightful power of Mughal rule, are turned on their head in a simple verse:

“Holding rank, Khushhal Khattak was a servant / freed from rank, he is an emperor.”

As Mughal control weakened in the 18th century, the modern borderland was taken over by the emergent Durrani dynasty, established at Kandahar in 1747 by Ahmad Shah Durrani. This new dynasty identified itself as Afghan (again in the historical sense) and attempted to organize different Afghan confederations in a central state structure.

As such, the Durrani rulers were more attuned to Afghan-Pashtun norms than the Mughals had been, but, as historian Robert Nichols notes, not necessarily sympathetic to them. Despite an emphasis on Afghan identity, the language, structure and culture of the dynasty were far more embedded in Persianate imperial traditions, just as the Mughals had been.

Pashtuns living on today’s frontier were not living on a political frontier at all under the Durranis, but rather along a crucial transit route at the heart of the new empire. Durrani rulers needed the mountain passes to remain open to facilitate trade and their lucrative campaigns into India, and they considered these communities important providers of military manpower. As such, they were often not taxed, and many received generous land grants and state allowances. Once again, though, these benefits were meant to tie Pashtuns to an imperial system. Ahmad Shah Durrani ordered headcounts of the different tribes to establish the number of levies he could expect: These people’s value as a military resource was often the state’s primary concern.

An important Durrani primary source also shows traces of the sneering, frustrated tone taken by Mughal writings toward the Afghans of modern KP and the former FATA. In the 1809 “Affairs of the Four Afghan Tribes,” written by Mahmud al-Musawi, probably a Durrani representative at Delhi, the author laments that certain tribes live in mountainous, difficult terrain and cannot be easily forced to pay taxes. Although he is complimentary of these Afghans’ bravery and religiosity, he also remarks on the presence of bandits and brigands among them.

George Forster, a British East India Company agent traveling through the region in the 1780s, gives an outsider’s voice to some of these prejudices, reflecting a state-centric distaste for people living outside central control. In his travelogue, he is baffled that the Khyber Pass and its surroundings are so loosely governed, given their proximity to the royal capitals at Kabul and Peshawar, and that the locals freely criticize the Durrani ruler, Timur Shah. These local Pashtuns he considers “lawless,” barely human cave dwellers “like the storied Troglodites [sic] of old,” with a language barely more than animalistic noises. If Timur Shah had more “military spirit,” he claims, the situation might be different — once again, frontier people are singled out for violence to correct their “lawlessness.”

A major, but oft-forgotten, precolonial Indian state was the Sikh kingdom, founded by Ranjit Singh in 1799. Singh’s empire, based in Lahore, more or less established what would become the British Indian northwest frontier as its westernmost border. In 1834, the Lahore government fully annexed the city of Peshawar, today the capital of KP province, as well as the wider frontier region from its Durrani rulers.

On an unprecedented scale, the territory was militarized in the interests of direct state control and reaping more revenues. As usual, the effort to create “order” involved severe violence. Villages could be bombarded and burned for refusing to pay taxes in the new Sikh currency. As many Pashtun landowners fled west to the frontier or beyond, efforts to streamline revenue collection ironically created a perennial deficit and a famine in January 1838.

The frontier’s Pashtun communities were difficult to control directly, so constant raids were launched against them. Annually, if not more often, villages were plundered by a Sikh military that increasingly made use of European arms and technologies. A major new fort was built at Jamrud, near the Khyber Pass, to commemorate conquest and extend state power. European mercenaries in Sikh service, like Peshawar’s Italian governor Paolo Avitabile, contributed to the brutality in the name of stability. At the time of the famine, Avitabile had three alleged thieves quartered after execution and hung their remains from Peshawar’s gates. Another man who had been “throwing oranges from a garden” was mutilated, losing his hand and ear, paraded and then kicked out of the city.

A great deal of information on Sikh governance comes from British sources, who were often keen to paint their predecessors in the region as unfit to rule. When it came to subjugating the population, though, the Sikh system resonated with the future rulers of India. For the explorer Alexander Burnes, Avitabile was a “chevalier” with “splendid style” whose construction of a gallows — “conclusive proof of civilization” — was a better indication of his good governance than his building of new markets and roads. Suppression and pacification of the unruly natives by force was in fact “more merciful” than a gentle hand, he wrote beamingly.

Once again, we see a state determined to bring others into its control. When confronted with resistance or with alternative systems, the state readily used what it considered legitimate violence to bring “peace” to a “lawless” or rebellious land and its people. By framing the indigenous population as naturally violent, abuses against them could be justified with the argument that a different approach would not have been respected or understood. That those peoples needed to be conquered in the first place was, unsurprisingly, taken for granted.

For centuries, state rhetoric about Pashtuns, especially of today’s Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier, has painted the land and its people as unruly and chaotic. From an imperial and state perspective, “lawlessness” was and is best fixed by violence. Extreme, warlike behavior was justified in the name of bringing peace or stability.

British colonial policies and concepts played an immense role in sustaining this language and shaping its modern legacy of violence. This is especially so given their direct continuities in contemporary Pakistan, like the Frontier Crimes Regulation. The story is older than the British, though. Mughal armies of tens of thousands marched against “rebel” Afghans. Both native and European writers lamented that the empires of the era were not forcing them into submission, and in the Sikh period, brutal punishments and frequent military raids were used to bring the region’s “natives” under control.

Today, when we read about the “lawless” borderlands or greater militarization creating “stability” even as state forces kill, kidnap or arrest Pashtun and Baloch activists, journalists and everyday citizens, we see this rhetoric play out yet again. These terms are not neutral: They legitimize state domination and deflect responsibility for the region’s problems away from the state and military and onto a war-ravaged population. Similar language is used far from Pakistan’s western frontier: In May, Benjamin Netanyahu, then prime minister of Israel, described assaults on Palestinians in Jerusalem as a battle “between lawless violence and order.” In our nation-state-dominated world, it can be easy to accept the core logic of this narrative that states bring order to chaos. As the eyes of the world are turned toward Afghanistan, and as the Pakistan-Afghanistan border becomes ever more fortified, though, we should ask ourselves whether the result will be order and peace or merely ordered violence.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy