The activities of Pakistani and Al-Qa'ida militants within the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region since late 2001 has prompted the question of whether Britain's experience in administering the volatile tribal agencies of the North-West Frontier Province during the period of colonial rule holds any instructive 'lessons' for contemporary practitioners. Specifically, does the know-how acquired on the part of the Government of India (GOI) over the six decades between 1877-1947, of building working relationships with the numerous Pashtun tribes that inhabited the region, as well its response to the numerous armed uprisings on the part of those tribes, provide any concrete, instructive benefit to contemporary policy-makers? The answer, in short, is that the British colonial experience does indeed provide some food for thought in this regard. However, it does so in a negative sense; in other words it tends to highlight a number of fractures and failures that modern policy-makers might bid to avoid.
Differing Strategic Realities
The issue of contemporary relevance is of course complicated by the fact that, as always, there are few if any discrete 'lessons' from history; it is rare for the prevailing strategic, political and cultural conditions of one era to be replicated in another. In stark contrast to today, British colonial policy-makers enjoyed control of much of the sub-continent, access to comparatively vast human resources, an aura of permanence, the credibility provided by overwhelming military strength and an administrative infrastructure that provided the necessary apparatus for tribal interaction. But the greatest difference between the British colonial experience of the North-West Frontier to that of today lies in the fundamentally differing strategic picture. Whereas the activities of Al-Qa'ida and Pakistani militants within the present day Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) has significant strategic implications both regionally and internationally, for British India, despite the logic of conventional wisdom, the tribal agencies of the North-West Frontier mattered relatively little in any conventional strategic sense. And the importance of this to the question posed lies in the fact that strategic appreciations decided tribal policies which in turn dictated the methods used; methods which contemporary policy-makers now examine for potential utility.
Colonial View of the North-West Frontier
How exactly then did the tribal areas of the Afghan-Indian border figure in British strategic appreciations? Despite well publicised concerns, on the part of the military especially, as to a Russian invasion of British India through the North-West Frontier, thus dictating firm control over the tribal lands of that region, the threat of a physical Russian invasion was to all intents and purposes a chimera, albeit one which policy-makers, dealing in the realm of potentialities as they were, had to account for. Rather, the true threat to British India was perceived to lie within India itself; a popular uprising that would have the potential, directly or indirectly, to make the British position there untenable. Russia might still pose a threat insofar that an advance to the borders of British India could inspire dissidents within to challenge British rule, hence two interventions in Afghanistan by Britain in 1839-42 and 1878-81 respectively designed to forestall such an advance. But if the threat to British India came from an 'internal enemy' comprised of some 300 million Indians rather than via actual physical invasion through the North-West Frontier, and if the tribes themselves posed no existential threat to British India, (despite several large scale armed uprisings on their part) then it becomes clear as to how British policy-makers over time began to view the volatile tribal regions of the North-West Frontier not so much a threat to India's defence, but as a very real drain on its resources, an appreciation that would be central to shaping the British response to tribal matters.
Fundamentally, the tribes of the North-West Frontier Province posed a danger not so much through their military capability but their potential, over time, to absorb scarce military and fiscal resources for little perceptible return in terms of control or adjustment of their behaviour. As time progressed therefore, particularly post 1900, there developed an essentially laissez faire policy of administration. The government became unwilling to expend resources on a barren and largely uninhabitable backwater - the reverse of today's strategic appreciation of the region - with the result that development policies were curtailed and the Indian army's role in tribal affairs was limited to coercion and little else. Relations between the tribes and the GOI were managed almost exclusively by combination of a small cadre of political agents, a system of Government service through native militia and Khassadar units and the payment of allowances to guarantee good behaviour. In return for this light administrative 'touch', the tribal agencies remained largely autonomous and free from the paraphernalia of colonial rule - courts, police and taxation. Despite outbreaks of violence, some huge in scale such as in 1897, 1919-21 and 1936-7, the system worked relatively well and if the accusation could be levelled at the British that they never exerted any real control over the tribal areas, the response would simply have been that, firstly, control was unnecessary and that secondly, the financial implications of trying to achieve such a state of affairs would have been entirely counterproductive with respect to India as a whole.
Of course, the British were able to develop some sophisticated techniques designed to facilitate a degree of influence within the tribal agencies. The use of political agents, a small number of specialists often ex-military and fluent in Pashtu, in order to manage relations with those tribes inhabiting the individual agencies, availed the British of an unobtrusive but relatively effective method of keeping the lines of communication open between the authorities and tribal groupings. These individuals disbursed allowances to tribal leaders, handled requests on the part of tribesmen, requested the apprehension and punishment of miscreants on behalf of the authorities, commanded local Khassadar units and kept the Government apprised of tribal sentiments and potential disturbances. When required, they would also act as political advisors to those military commanders tasked with mounting punitive raids into tribal areas. Good 'politicals' were of immense value to the Government and, if blessed with the requisite experience, stamina and personality could exert influence far out of proportion either to the cost of their employment or their numbers involved. The military, too, developed a certain degree of expertise in this particularly testing environment. Over the duration of the British presence on the Frontier, the Indian Army, by virtue of its repeated exposure to tribal Lashkars and the difficult terrain, became pre-eminent in the practice of mountain warfare. Its mixture of native and British units generally proved equal to anything that even the most combative of tribes, such as the Afridis, Wazirs or Mahsuds, could produce.
Weaknesses in the British Colonial Model
However, the combination of skilful 'political' and professional, learned military hid a number of weaknesses, both conceptual and physical, in the British approach. To begin with, the beau ideal of the vastly experienced, all knowing political agent was in many cases precisely that; an ideal rather than a reality. Limited time in post, suspicions on the part of policy-makers and the military as to his true loyalty - tribe or Government - and a reluctance on the part of that Government to become engaged in any meaningful sense with the indigenous tribes robbed the political agent of much of his potential utility as an instrument of progressive policy. An often highly fractious civil-military relationship further complicated matters. The aforementioned suspicion of the political's true loyalties was frequently writ large in the minds of military officers, while in return the political considered his military counterparts to be often entirely ignorant of the nuances and delicacies of Government-tribal relations.
The latter point is an interesting one, for it challenges the popular assumption that Imperial militaries, and those of Britain in particular, were characterised by an institutional grasp of their environment - people, customs and language especially. On the Frontier, however, it is dubious as to whether the military at large devoted any real attentions to its surroundings save for tactical and operational considerations. Despite the fact that battalions might spend years on the Frontier, Officers and men displayed apparently limited inclination to learn about the tribal society within which they moved and while the Pashtun may have been admired as a warrior, there appeared to be scant regard for his system of government or his culture as a whole. Certainly, while many officers and men spoke Urdu and Hindustani, the number of those able to speak Pashtu was limited and observers were sometimes struck by the limitations in the military's grasp of tribal affairs, one going so far as to comment that, '[T]he average Army officer knows practically nothing about the tribal area, the people who inhabit it, their language and the way that they are controlled'. Of course, there were those within the military who displayed a firm grasp of such matters but to be fair, any institutional aversion to a deeper understanding of the tribal environment was in many ways simply a product of the Army's role. Tasked with national defence rather than influence building, only really entering the tribal areas in a punitive or preventative role, and often perceiving skirmishes as ideal training opportunities, there was little encouragement for the military to pay heed to the tribes unless actually fighting them.
Continuity and Change
The fundamental point, however, was not necessarily that British methods were possessed of inherent weaknesses. Any system of administration in an environment as testing as the North-West Frontier was and is bound to have its weaknesses exposed, as the contemporary Pakistani experience has illustrated. Rather, the point to be made is that those weaknesses had little effect in real terms because the British were afforded the luxury of being able, over time, to marginalise the tribal areas within their own strategic considerations. They could afford to persevere with a 'hands off' system of control and administration that was fully acknowledged to be faulty and lacking in imagination but which sufficed in the face of institutional conservatism; a state of affairs that one would presumably wish to avoid today.
This conservatism prevailed subsequent to the British departure from India. Post 1947, utilising the same basic structures of colonial administration - political agents, native militias and allowances reinforcing the basic concept of tribal autonomy - and similarly afforded the luxury of a laissez faire approach to frontier matters, the Pakistani Government was rewarded with stability within the tribal agencies. However, the flood of radical elements into that region during the Afghan-Soviet war since 1980, a trend that has only accelerated since the coalition invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, and the increasingly ambitious political agenda of certain of those elements has only highlighted the weaknesses of what is to all intents and purposes the British colonial system, in the face of a radically changed strategic environment.