Pakhtunkhwa Times

"No Sign until the Burst of Fire: Understanding the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier"

Posted in Pakhtunkhwa News by ppfcanada on January 29, 2009

“No Sign until the Burst of Fire: Understanding the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier”

Journal Article, International Security, volume 32, issue 4, pages 41-77

Spring 2008

Authors: Thomas H. Johnson, M. Chris Mason

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Quarterly Journal: International Security


The Pakistan-Afghanistan border area has become the most dangerous frontier on earth, and the most challenging for the United States’ national security interests. Critically, the portion of the border region that is home to extremist groups such the Taliban and al-Qaida coincides almost exactly with the area overwhelmingly dominated by the Pashtun tribes. The implications of this salient fact—that most of Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s violent religious extremism, and with it much of the United States’ counterterrorism challenge, are contained within a single ethnolinguistic group—have unfortunately not been fully grasped by a governmental policy community that has long downplayed cultural dynamics. The threat to long-term U.S. security interests in this area is neither an economic problem, nor a religious problem, nor a generic “tribal” problem. It is a unique cultural problem. In both southern Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan, rather than seeking to “extend the reach of the central government,” which simply foments insurgency among a proto-insurgent people, the United States and the international community should be doing everything in their means to empower the tribal elders and restore balance to a tribal/cultural system that has been disintegrating since the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.


By 1932, British troops had been waging war of varying intensity with a group of intractable tribes along and beyond the northwestern frontier of India for nearly a century. That year, in summarizing a typical skirmish, one British veteran noted laconically, “Probably no sign till the burst of fire, and then the swift rush with knives, the stripping of the dead, and the unhurried mutilation of the infidels.” It was a savage, cruel, and peculiar kind of mountain warfare, frequently driven by religious zealotry on the tribal side, and it was singularly unforgiving of tactical error, momentary inattention, or cultural ignorance. It still is. The Pakistan-Afghanistan border region has experienced turbulence for centuries. Today a portion of it constitutes a significant threat to U.S. national security interests. The unique underlying factors that create this threat are little understood by most policymakers in Washington.

This region, which is almost certainly home to both Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has once again become a locus for a regenerating al-Qaida network. The July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on terrorist threats to the United States — an intelligence product known to analysts as the mildest common denominator everyone can agree on — corroborates this assessment. The NIE states that al-Qaida, with uninterrupted funding from radical Saudi Arabian Wahabist sources, not only has rebuilt its command structure in the border region, but has continued to recruit and train operatives to infiltrate the United States and other Western countries.

The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is 1,640 miles long, much of it spanning terrain so remote and so mountainous that it is virtually inaccessible. For Pakistan, instability extends beyond both endpoints. To the east, the border with China along “the roof of the world” runs 325 miles and separates Pakistan from China’s discontented Uighur Muslim minority in Sinkiang Province, a land once known as the independent Khanate of Kashgaria. Far to the west, Pakistan shares a 565-mile border with Iran, home on both sides to restless Baluchis and drug smugglers. Stretched on a map of the United States, the Pakistan-Afghanistan border would run from New York City to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Even in ancient times, the vast area that lies along this border served as both barrier and gateway and was a refuge for insurgents, smugglers, and bandits.

A portion of this border area continues to be home to a host of militant groups bent on exporting jihad. Foremost among them is the Taliban. Since retreating from Afghanistan following the U.S. invasion in October 2001, thousands of Taliban fighters and virtually the entire intact Taliban senior leadership shura (religious council) have found sanctuary in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) at the center of the border, as well as in parts of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan to the west and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) to the east and south. These areas coincide almost exactly with the area of Pakistan overwhelmingly dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group. The Taliban and the other Islamic extremist insurgent elements operating on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border are almost exclusively Pashtuns, with a sprinkling of radicals from nonborder ethnicities. The implications of this salient fact — that most of Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s violent religious extremism, and with it much of the United States’ counterterrorism challenge, are centered within a single ethnolinguistic group — have not been fully grasped by a governmental policy community that has long downplayed cultural dynamics.

This article explores the reasons why religious and political extremism in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region ends neatly at the borders of the Pashtun lands. It begins with a brief overview of the geography and typography of the border, followed by a condensed study of the key ethnographic and cultural factors. An understanding of the tribal and social framework of the border, particularly its alternative forms of governance, is critical to the subsequent discussion of the current instability and radicalization. In addition to religion, tribal mores that predate Islam shape insurgent behavior and should inform all aspects of engagement on both sides of the border. The article concludes with an examination of the history and the unintended consequences of border politics, and offers policy recommendations to begin to reverse the ongoing slide into Talibanization.

* IS3204_pp041-077_Johnson_Mason.pdf (1.5 MB PDF)

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