Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Waziristan (III): Insights into the nature of the formidable Pashtun foe

The British learned early on the price of underestimating their foe, who rarely allowed a tactical error to go unpunished, writes Andrew Roe in his very useful book, Waging War in Waziristan. In one major triumph, in 1901, tribesman took over a British outpost. "The success of this attack," Roe states, "was in part due ...

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

The British learned early on the price of underestimating their foe, who rarely allowed a tactical error to go unpunished, writes Andrew Roe in his very useful book, Waging War in Waziristan.

In one major triumph, in 1901, tribesman took over a British outpost. "The success of this attack," Roe states, "was in part due to a number of tribesmen disguised as shepherds who for a number of weeks prior to the attack observed carefully the habits and weaknesses of the garrison."

Think that IEDs are new somehow? In April 1938, "50 home-made bombs were laid on roads and railway lines," and even on military parade grounds.   

The British learned early on the price of underestimating their foe, who rarely allowed a tactical error to go unpunished, writes Andrew Roe in his very useful book, Waging War in Waziristan.

In one major triumph, in 1901, tribesman took over a British outpost. "The success of this attack," Roe states, "was in part due to a number of tribesmen disguised as shepherds who for a number of weeks prior to the attack observed carefully the habits and weaknesses of the garrison."

Think that IEDs are new somehow? In April 1938, "50 home-made bombs were laid on roads and railway lines," and even on military parade grounds.   

Another interesting fact: Historically, Waziri villages have been located near cave complexes, in part because in winter the caves are warmer than their houses. (Tom: I remember being in a cave in Germany Valley, West Virginia, where American Indian tribes had done the same — 55 degrees inside with a fire for light and warmth sure beat zero and windy in the mountains outside.) I also didn’t know that the area was far more forested in the 19th century, but that a lot of trees were cut down, leading to erosion, loss of topsoil, and a drier climate — not unlike today’s Haiti. 

I was also intrigued by an observation Roe mined about the personality difference between the two major tribes in Waziristan: "The Wazirs had been compared to a leopard, a loner, cunning and dangerous; the Mahsud to a wolf, most to be feared in a pack, with a pack mentality, single-mindedness, and persistence." (One of the benefits of this book is that he quotes memoirs and studies liberally.)

The best way to reach out to the tribes was through medical aid, especially to reach the fencesitters in the middle. When one tribe requested a female doctor, they remarked that she didn’t need to bring instruments or drugs, as they still had the ones they had stolen in 1919. 

But generally I found the book more illuminating about the British than about the tribes.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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