FOOD FOR THOUGHT FOR INDIA’S POLICYMAKERS: Think before you leap with the US
A warning on terror from Frontier Frank
Waziristan is America’s new front line in the war against the Taliban. The last British officer to have served there, now 81, tells it cannot be tamed by force alone
Few places on earth are as remote and hostile as Waziristan, part of the Pakistani tribal belt that the Pentagon now sees as the new front line in the war on terror. When the Americans started dropping bombs and sending commandos into the area last month, few westerners had heard of it. But to one retired insurance manager living by the sea in West Sussex, the name brought back vivid memories.
At almost 82, Frank Leeson is the last surviving British officer to have served in Waziristan. After years of quiet retirement with Gloria, his wife of 50 years, he suddenly finds himself in demand. Since Michael Hayden, director of the CIA, recently described the tribal areas as “a clear and present danger to Afghanistan, to Pakistan and to the West”, western officials have been hotfooting it to Leeson’s door to hear his tales.
In the crowded study of his chintz-curtained home in Ferring, he sits surrounded by books on the frontier tribes and black-and-white photographs that show him as a fresh-faced young man in shorts alongside ferocious Waziri tribesmen in elaborate turbans. “These are probably the grandfathers of the Taliban of today,” he says.
When he was just 19, Leeson found himself commanding the Khassadars, a tribal force of 1,000 Waziris. Their task was to keep the roads of North Waziristan safe for trade and British Army convoys during a long-running insurgency led by a religious hermit turned militant known as the Fakir of Ipi. “He was the Bin Laden of his day,” says Leeson. “He led us British a merry dance but we never caught him.”
Neatly written diaries recount his two years among one of the most ferocious tribes of the Frontier. His days were spent trying to organise his tribesmen into a disciplined force; in the evenings, when he was the only Briton in a mudwalled fort, he listened to Mozart piano concertos on a gramophone.
Modern British forces make much of how they try to learn about the culture before going out to Afghanistan. But their deployments are just six months compared with Leeson’s two years. While they generally spend downtime watching DVDs and reading thrillers, Leeson spent much of his spare time studying the local clan system and drawing intricate diagrams of their rifles. He learnt fluent Pashto and is probably the only man in Ferring who knows how to greet a Waziri: “Staraya ma shai” (May you never be tired).
Today he follows events avidly, spotting uneasy parallels with his own time and wondering what has been learnt. “I’m shattered, hearing the news and knowing all those places,” he says. “The Muslims I knew then were quite different, before the mujaheddin and the mad-rasahs. It was very tolerant. But it’s a perfect hiding place for terrorists, riddled with valleys and caves.”
As Leeson points out, Waziristan was the scene of Britain’s longest 20th-century antiinsurgency campaign, with fighting going on for 11 years from 1936-47. The Fakir of Ipi was never caught, even though in 1936-7 alone more than 40,000 troops were sent in and £1.5m was spent on ammunition and bombs.
“It was the forgotten front of the second world war,” says Leeson. Constantly on the move, hiding in the caves and mountains straddling the border with Afghanistan, the Fakir of Ipi – who died in 1960 – carried out a wave of terrorist attacks that killed thousands of villagers and 1,000 troops. Having managed to unite warring tribes such as the Wazirs and the Mehsuds, he was protected by fiercely loyal bodyguards and ran an effective intelligence network. He was helped with funds and arms by the Germans and Italians.
“It’s the worst mountain warfare country imaginable for a conventional army,” says Leeson. “Steep precipices, narrow winding valleys, every vantage point commanded by another and numerous refuges and escape routes.”
The son of an organist and choir-master in Bournemouth, Leeson was called up in 1944 and sent to India for officer training in Banga-lore – eventually becoming a lieutenant in the Sikh Regiment. In 1946 there was a call for qualified officers to volunteer for a special mission in Waziristan. A common expression in the army was “the only good Wazir is a dead Wazir”. They apparently spent their time killing each other, stealing cattle and sending raiding parties into British territory.
But to the 19-year-old Leeson it all sounded exciting. So in November 1946 he set off on the “Heatstroke Express” for the 250-mile rail journey to Bannu, then travelled on by bus. Leeson’s first night as one of four British officers commanding the Khassadars was spent in a fort at Miranshah, the capital of North Waziristan. Today the town is the headquarters of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the Taliban commander; just 10 days ago a US missile strike killed 12 people there.
When Leeson arrived, the hills at the far end of the valley were the headquarters of the elusive Ipi. After a soak in a zinc bath, the newcomer was taken to the officers’ mess.
“It was explained to me that the job of the British was to control, not govern, the tribes,” he recalls. This was done through a combination of carrot and stick. Allowances were paid to local elders or maliks, who put forward a number from each of their subtribes to be Khassadars. “We’re supposed to trust them but we can’t,” Leeson was told – a similar sentiment to the remarks uttered by the troops working with the Afghan police in Helmand today.
The next day, information came in that the Fakir had organised a small army to invade the town of Spinwam and punish tribesmen for allowing through an infidels’ convoy. A jirga of tribal elders was convened with the aim of convincing them to stand up to Ipi’s men – with the promise of Leeson’s Khassadars as reinforcements.
Leeson described the elders as “tough, shifty-faced men”. Later he wrote: “It’s not easy to like the Wazir. He takes a lot of knowing. He loves fighting but hates to be a soldier. He loves music but has profound contempt for the musician.”
Spinwam was where Leeson was to be stationed and his route there the next day gave a good sense of what the British were up against. The road was littered with mangled steel and concrete remains – every bridge had been blown up by Ipi. Everyone Leeson passed was armed. The houses were all forts with thick mudwalls and a watchtower, from which men could see enemies approach.
At the fort in Spinwam he was met with sweet tea and cream biscuits and was introduced to his Khassadar bodyguards, “a picturesque gang of rascals with hooked noses”. His job of trying to inject discipline into their ranks was “a thankless task”.
The idea behind the Khassadar system – set up in 1921 – was to make the tribes responsible for securing their own areas and to distract young men from brigandry by giving them full-time employment. “The problem was that by 1946 the Frontier legion had deteriorated to such an extent that many did little or no duty in return for their pay and had come to regard the money as a bribe against active hostility to the government,” says Leeson.
“It had become like a family business where if a Khassadar died or resigned, his job – and rank – was passed to a son.” Leeson’s task was not helped by lack of funds for uniform and equipment. Khassadars had to provide their own ammunition – but, as he discovered, the impressive bandoliers they wore across their chests were often full of empty cartridges.
Every morning he held what were known as malikats – when Khassadars came in with complaints or petitions asking for time off to gather crops, attend weddings or funerals or finish off a blood feud. “The Pathan loves to embroider his stories,” says Leeson, laughing. Yet he grew to admire them, describing them as having “eyes full of manliness, laughter and the devil”.
He also learnt that nothing interfered with the Pathan code of honour, which is based on three principles: hospitality, protection and retaliation. “A man who has killed the brother of another need only go to his house to be treated as an honoured guest,” he said. It is this tradition of providing refuge even to those who have committed a crime that may have led Osama Bin Laden to choose the area as a hiding place.
Although improvised explosive devices did not exist in Leeson’s day, ambushes of British convoys were frequent. When he did travel, it was in an anonymous red lorry and he wore local dress.
Whenever there was trouble from a tribe, his Khassadars would be sent out with British forces to do a round-up. He would not inform the men until just before leaving as some might have been from the same tribe and would tip off the village. Then the British would hang back as they sent the Khassadars in.
“For political reasons, it was wiser to keep British officers out of the homes of possible hostiles, so we let their fellow tribesmen do the unpleasant task of turning them over to government,” he says.
It must have been a lonely life for a 19-year-old, listening to records and waiting for the post from home every fortnight, but Leeson remembers it fondly: “I particularly liked getting the illustrated magazines in the mail and showing them to my bodyguards. They couldn’t imagine a place where the ordinary man in the street doesn’t carry a rifle.”
More than 60 years later, his mind often drifts back to Waziristan. “I never imagined it would be in the news all these years on,” he says. “It’s very odd to see those familiar barren hills on TV.” He has now turned his diaries into a privately published memoir, Frontier Legion, and with the help of his grand-children has made a Power-Point presentation of his maps and photographs to show visitors.
He believes the Americans should learn a lesson from the British experience. “Using force alone is not the way,” he says. The Pakistani government is hoping the West is listening. Asif Zardari, the country’s new president and the widower of Bena-zir Bhutto, flew into London on Tuesday and met Gordon Brown and Dav-id Miliband, the foreign secretary.
Wajid Shamsul Hassan, Pakistan’s high commissioner in London, afterwards described the meeting as “more than excellent”. He said: “The British with all their history in that region know that these bombings and intrusions don’t help us but help the very people we’re supposed to be fighting.”
My brother is in the Army and they are based in Helmand. What he says sounds very similar to Mr. Frank Leeson’s experience. He writes pages of what had went through and how they are trying their best to make peace with tribes, and he says the people are the most honest but dangerous.
Nick, ON, CA
Nick Mark , Toronto , Canada
Jeff, 75% U have quoted is a gross overestimation. Could u plz provide the source of info.If you see political history of Pakistan, all parties(combined) demanding a constitution based on sharia have never got >5% of casted votes. The parties advocating modern democracy have always prevailed
it will be interesting to see how west handles this very dangerous area.so far they have not been able to do any substantial progress in afghanistan.For those making comment i would recomend to learn a bit more about the area and the tribal system.To me frank was right then & today
umair chaudhry, brampton, canada
I would assure you the US is aware of the culture. How it will be approached will be quite different from the historical British approach.
If the Pakistan Government responds, then they are ahead of the game. Iran was never second on OBL’s list.
Mike, santa fe, NM,
‘Every problem, considered closely enough, contains it’s solution’
I forgot the Brits like Des Browne want to call surrender “negotiations” – it sounds so much better that way. Never mind that 75 percent of the Pakistani public call for strict Sharia, never mind that Al-Qaeda has nuclear Pakistan as a new base, never mind that the Taliban seek a global caliphate.
Jeffrey, DC, USA
Jeffrey who said surrender? Are all you yank’s slow in the head? This man is merely saying lesson’s need to be learnt American army think’s it can go gung -ho wherever it wants look at the Paistani army they are suffering heavy losses everyday even they can’t handle the sitaution.
Tim, London, United Kingdom
What we read about now is only coverage on attempt to kill OBL before presidential elections in the US. US military and CIA could kill him every time since 9/11 2001. But they deliberately did not do it in order to earn as much as possible taxpayers’ money. At the result of unsuccessful wars, America received worst financial crisis.
Dmitry, Moscow, Russia
The article is not suggesting that the US surerrender in the war on terror. The message of the article is that lessons can be learnt, knowing the “enemy” is key.
As this article shows dealing with insurgants is a far from easy task that requires more than just a gung ho approach.
Car, Eastbourne, UK
Quite pathetic that your best argument to get U.S. to surrender on Jihad has to come from a person who remembers Pakistan from 60+ years ago. Bravo London Times – in terms of fantastic leaps of logic you have truly outdone yourself this time. Perhaps you should go back to focusing on OBL’s poems.
Jeffrey, DC, USA
It’s highly doubtful that the US armed forces will ever appreciate the nuance of Frank’s memoirs and guidance.
The Afghans saw off the Brits and the Soviets. I doubt the brainless Yanks will fare much better. And if Iraq is the blueprint then there truly is no hope.