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The Taliban Past and Present


Hugh Beattie, The Open University

Following the overthrow of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in November 2001, thousands of Afghan Taliban and members of Al-Qaeda escaped across the border into Pakistan, many to Waziristan, where a number of them settled. Waziristan belongs to what are called the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas or FATA (part of what the colonial British used to call the North-West Frontier), to the east of which lies the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.


Since the early 2000s, in common with much of the rest of this border region, Waziristan has seen the development of a serious insurgency. The British Empire also encountered major difficulties in trying to control it, and a comparison between the current situation and events during the time of the Raj, particularly during the years from about 1890 to 1914 reveals some important continuities. [1]

The Taliban

Although the use of the term Taliban to refer to a specific religious-cum-political grouping or movement dates from the 1990s,the taliban are not a recent creation. Taliban, from the Arabic talib (student) with the Persian plural ending – an, were men studying in madrasahs or seminaries of which there were and are a large number in this border region. In the later 19th century men referred to as taliban were found in considerable numbers all the way along this frontier and in Afghanistan. They were an important feature of the social landscape, often itinerant and dependent on various forms of charity. One British report at the time referred to them as:

‘half students, half secular priests, [who] swarm in the mosques leading an idle life and ever ready to incite their clansmen to mischief. They are ignorant and fanatical in an extreme degree’[2]


In the later 19th century Waziristan was more or less independent; the majority of its inhabitants were Pashtuns (or Pathans) speaking the Pashtu language, and were largely Sunni Muslims. They belonged to one of four important ‘tribal’ groupings – Bhittanis, Dawars, Mahsuds (or Mehsuds), and Wazirs - groups formed on the basis of what was believed to be shared patrilineal descent from a common ancestor. There were more influential men referred to as maliks (from the Arabic word for ‘king’ or ‘prince’), but particularly among the Mahsuds they did not have much power, and there were no real leaders or chiefs. There were also various categories of men with religious authority of one kind or another, but they did not in the mid-19th century generally play a major political role.[3]

Mullah Paiwandah – King of the Taliban

After 1849 when they annexed the Punjab and extended their rule to Waziristan’s eastern border, the British mostly left the region alone and it remained independent.But towards the end of the 1880s, alarmed again by what they felt was a growing threat from Russia, they adopted a more interventionist approach. They demarcated a border between what were supposed to be British and Afghan spheres of influence, and attempted to establish a degree of control over the people living on the British side. In Waziristan they created the North and South Waziristan Agencies, each with a British Political Agent, established two garrisons of regular troops and raised two militias. The rank and file were recruited locally, while the officers were British. To increase their influence, the British also tried to use the maliks to manage the rest of the tribe, paying them allowances to do so.

All this meant considerable British interference, and played into the hands of a religious leader, Muhiy-ud-Din, a Mahsud. Known by the British as the Mullah Paiwandah, he came from a settlement called Marobi in the centre of Waziristan, and had attended a madrasah in Bannu, a town in British territory. ‘A large handsome man of dignified and respectable bearing’, the Mullah resisted these British efforts to extend their influence into Waziristan in various ways.[4]

Sometimes he posed as a friend, kindly offering to help the British handle his intractable fellow-countrymen and women. But he also used violence, though he did not often take part in violent activities himself, preferring to encourage others to do so on his behalf. This is where the local taliban came in. In fact the Mullah was sometimes referred to as badshah-i-taliban, king of the taliban.[5]

At Marobi, where the Mullah had a mosque, he maintained a traditional Sufi langar (kitchen or dining-room). Around him he collected a following of taliban who were fed in the langar and presumably slept in the mosque. Money for food and the upkeep of the mosque came partly from a tithe he was able to levy from some of the Mahsuds. Funds also came from his followers’ raiding along the Waziristan border. One way the Mullah obtained weapons for them was by presenting himself to the Afghan government in Kabul as someone they could use against the British, and they gave him money, guns and ammunition.

The plundering and raiding that the Mullah encouraged therefore had a political aspect. Although people feared the raiders they also admired them for the way they challenged the British and the maliks and often their public regarded them not as criminals so much as ‘avengers or … resistance fighters’.[6]

The Mullah also used his followers to intimidate the maliks. One problem with trying to use the maliks to increase British influence over the Mahsuds, and paying them for taking on this role, was that it made them very unpopular with the rest of the tribe. In 1893, for example, two Mahsuds murdered a cavalryman from a British Indian regiment, and in response to British demands the maliks surrendered the killers. In turn, with the Mullah Paiwandah’s encouragement, other Mahsuds killed the maliks who had been responsible for the surrender.[7]

Suicide attacks

At times the Mullah also encouraged the assassination of British officials, in 1899 for instance the Mullah’s followers tried to kill the British Political Agent at Wana, and the Mullah began to encourage what the British referred to as ‘fanatical outrages’, attacks on British officials which were almost certain to end in the attackers’ deaths. He promised that any of his followers who died in such attacks would enjoy heavenly rewards.[8]

One of the most notorious attacks occurred during the night of September 19th 1904. Earlier that day a young Mahsud recruit to the South Waziristan Militia, named Kabul and stationed at the Sarwakai outpost, bought some clothes and coloured handkerchiefs from the Militia shop, explaining that he was going on holiday next day. ‘These preparations and adornments were not uncommon in the case of fanatics contemplating outrages’, a British official later commented.[9] That night Kabul dressed in his new clothes and blackened his eyes with antimony. At 2 o’clock the next morning he shot and killed Captain Bowring, the Political Agent, as he lay sleeping on the roof of the post. He then took up a position in the keep and fired on anyone else he could see. After some hours he was wounded, captured, tried and executed.[10] The Mullah Paiwandah later declared that Kabul had become a ‘Lord in Heaven’.[11]

Another attack took place a few months later at the same outpost. During the evening of February 10 1905 a young Mahsud militiaman, named Sabir, burst into the British officers’ mess carrying his rifle with the bayonet fixed. The Militia commandant, Richard Harman, tried to disarm him, was stabbed through the heart, and died shortly aferwards. Sabir was only 18; described in one report as ‘an ignorant impressionable lad’, it seems he was motivated as much as by his wish to do something more daring than Kabul, and be remembered in the songs that the Mahsuds sung about their heroes, as by his religious beliefs.[12] He was tried and executed and his body was secretly buried in a place where there was no chance that a shrine (ziarat) could be set up over the grave and become a focus for resistance.[13] In October 1905 came another successful attack on a British officer, though of a different kind; this time a deserter from the North Waziristan Militia named Gullajan lay in wait outside the cantonment at Bannu and shot and killed Captain Donaldson. He was tried and executed.[14]

The Mullah Paiwandah continued to encourage ‘fanatical emissaries’. One would-be attacker, Gulband, was arrested and interrogated before he was able to kill anyone. He explained that the Mullah had promised him that if he died in the attempt, he would, like the previous three men, live in paradise, ‘tended lovingly by the houris’.[15] Should he return alive the Mullah undertook to find him a wife, and look after him.

Though they were certainly not identical, attacks with similar features occurred in a number of areas of both South and East Asia during the colonial period – in the Muslim-majority areas of the Philippines, in Atjeh (in Sumatra), and in Malabar in south-western India. They were frequent enough in the Punjab for the British to introduce the Punjab Murderous Outrages Act in 1867. This permitted captured assassins to be put to death immediately, without going through the normal judicial process. Sometimes their corpses were burned too and the ashes scattered so that their graves should not become shrines.

Wherever they occurred, the attacks almost always took a ritualised form. The exact details varied from place to place, but the basic features seem to have been giving away one’s property, and then before the attack bathing, dressing in one’s best clothes and for married men divorcing their wives. It was also very important to obtain the blessing of someone with religious authority – as the historian Stephen Dale puts it, ‘it was the blessing of the holy man which transformed both murder and suicide into sanctified acts’.[16]

So, looking back to the historical Taliban, we see that the principal leader of resistance to the British attempt to extend their influence into Waziristan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the Mullah Paiwandah, and among the tactics he used were apparent friendship and cooperation, as well as intimidation and violence, including inciting attacks on British officers and officials which were almost certain to end in the attackers’ deaths. Some of these attacks were carried out by young men in their teens, others by older men. They seem to have been inspired by a mixture of motives. Undoubtedly they wanted to express their opposition to the British presence in their homeland. Sometimes they wanted to demonstrate their courage and uphold the reputation of the particular group to which they belonged, and hoped to leave behind a name for their bravery. If the contemporary British reports are to be believed, beliefs about the sexual satisfactions that they would enjoy in paradise also played a part. Dale suggests that psychological and sociological factors have to be taken into account in order to understand which individuals might take part in suicidal attacks. But at the same time, he suggests, it would be wrong to see all the attacks as having been carried out by ‘psychologically aberrant or sociologically marginal individuals … for ultimately they were religious acts and were thought to serve the interests of the community’.[17] Arguably this was the case in Waziristan too.

The contemporary position

Turning to the late 20th/early 21st century, already before 9/11 Taliban-style groups had begun to form in several districts on the Pakistan side of the border with Afghanistan. Many Al-Qaeda fighters fled to Waziristan after the ejection of the Afghan Taliban in the autumn of 2001. This, together with not always very effective or judicious intervention by the Pakistani military, encouraged the growth of a movement of resistance there. In 2007 the Tehrik-i-Taliban-i-Pakistan or TTP, the ‘movement of the religious students of Pakistan’, was set up. It has been blamed for the assassination of the PPP leader Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 as well as many other attacks.

There are, of course, many differences between the early 20th century Taliban and the current movement. For example, unlike the Mullah Paiwandah, the leaders of the TTP are mostly not mullahs themselves (though many of them have attended madrasahs). The international connections, and the sense of being part of a wider jihadist movement, seem more important now than they were in the early 20th century.[18] The socio-economic and demographic picture looks rather different too – many members of the tribal groups from which the TTP’s supporters come now live away from their homeland, in the Mahsud case particularly in Karachi. They are much more integrated into the economy of what is now Pakistan than they were during the British period. Related to this is the fact that economic inequality appears to have grown; a minority have become quite wealthy, while the majority remains in poverty. In religious terms more ‘orthodox’ and puritanical Deobandi and Ahl-i-Hadith approaches have tended to supplant Sufi-influenced ones.[19]

On the other hand, the parallels seem quite striking too. Among the most important appear to be, firstly, a similar objection to outside interference. Most Pakistani soldiers and administrators are Punjabi; it seems that they are often resented almost as much as were the British, and that in Waziristan as elsewhere along the frontier there is a sense of being under attack by non-Pashtuns.[20] This is coupled with a feeling that the Pakistani administration has been corrupt, ineffective, and unrepresentative (until 1996 only the maliks could vote in elections, and until 2009 political parties were not allowed to organise in FATA). Moreover the Islamic aspect of the resistance is very important. In the 1940s and 1950s some of its inhabitants called for FATA to become part of a separate Pashtun state (Pashtunistan). The TTP, however, presents itself as a religious movement, not a Pashtun nationalist movement fighting against a Punjabi-dominated state.

Among other continuities or parallels are the fact that religious students still play an important role, and there are many cross-border links with Afghanistan. The Haqqani network for instance, which is one of the principal groups involved in the current insurgency in Afghanistan, is based in Miranshah in north Waziristan. Reportedly many of its fighters are also madrasah students.[21] Moreover, just as during the British period, the present difficulties appear to reflect internal tensions, including class-based ones. As we have seen the British tried to control Waziristan partly by paying allowances to maliks. After 1947, the government of Pakistan continued with this policy. However, since 2001 many maliks have been murdered by fellow-tribesmen (recalling the murder of maliks by the Mullah Paiwandah’s supporters in the 1890s), and the system has completely broken down.[22] Finally, TTP members have carried out robberies and kidnappings for ransom, and looted banks, recalling the earlier robberies and raiding by the Mullah Paiwandah’s followers.[23]


We can find, if not direct ancestors, at least forerunners of the Pakistani (and Afghan) Taliban in the later 19th century, as well as parallels between recent and contemporary events and some of the developments during the British period – in particular resistance to the state and its expression in religious terms, and willingness to use suicide attacks. This militancy past and present is not the result simply of religious extremism, manipulation by external forces, or personal ambition. For a fuller understanding of the contemporary TTP insurgency we need to look at other influences, including ethnicity, economics, and local and national politics and international rivalries. The same is likely to be true of other contemporary Islamist insurgencies such as those of al-Shabab in Somalia, and Boko Haram in Borno in north-eastern Nigeria.


Further reading:


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Dr Hugh Beattie, and not of Dr Beattie is a Lecturer at the Open University. He has done field research in Afghanistan and archival research on the North-West Frontier in Pakistan and the area of Waziristan in particular. He is currently working on religious leadership and conflict in this region. The author of ‘Imperial Frontier: Tribe and State in Waziristan’ (2002, London: Routledge Curzon), his new book ‘Empire and Tribe in the Afghan Frontier Region: Custom, Conflict and British Strategy in Waziristan until 1947’ (London: I.B. Tauris) is due to appear in 2014.


[1] This map is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Attribution: Hbtila at en.wikipedia.

[2] See for example Lepel Griffin, Punjab Frontier Memorandum, No. 150, P1216 India Foreign Proceedings February 1878, British Library (BL).

[3] H. Beattie (2002) Imperial Frontier: Tribe and State in Waziristan, London: Routledge Curzon), Chapter 1.

[4]  Wana Political Diary w/e 31.5.1902, L/P&S/7/149, BL.

[5] See e.g. L. Baha (1978) North West Frontier Province Administration under British Rule 1901-1919, Islamabad: National Commission on Historical and Cultural Research, p.35.

[6] See the following for the distinction: E. Hobsbawm (2000) Bandits, London: Abacus, 2000, p.20.

[7] H. Beattie (2013) ‘Custom and Conflict in Waziristan: Some British Views’, p.213, in B.D. Hopkins and M. Marsden (eds) Beyond Swat  History Society and Economy Along the Afghanistan-Pakistan Frontier, London: Hurst, pp.209-220.

[8] Wana Political Diary w/e 11.5.1907, encl. no. 68, Register No. 1756, in L/P&S/10/43, BL.

[9] Chief Commissioner, North-West Frontier Province (CC N-WFP) to Government of India Foreign Department (GOI FD), No. 1228-P, 10.10.1904,  Reg. No. 498, L/P&S/10/42, BL.

[10] ibid.

[11] Political Agent (PA) Wana, Memo., in CC N-WFP to GOI FD, No. 359, 5.7.1907, Reg. No. 1756, L/P&S/10/43, BL.

[12] CC N-WFP to GOI FD, No. 418P, 14.3.1905, Reg. No. 803, L/P&S/10/42, BL.

[13] Ibid.

[14]  Enclosure 1 in GOI FD to Secretary of State for India, No. 21, 22.2.1906, Reg. No. 513, L/P&S/10/42, BL.

[15] Appendix 3 in PA Wana to CC N-WFP, No. 759, 25.9.1907, Reg. No. 2063, L/P&S/10/43, BL.

[16] S. Dale (1980) Islamic Society on the South Asian Frontier The Mappilas of Malabar, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.119.

[17] S. Dale (1988) ‘Religious Suicide in Islamic Asia: Anticolonial Terrorism in India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 32, No. 1 (March), pp.37-59, p.53.

[18] A. Giustozzi (2007) Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan, London: Hurst, p.13.

[19] S. Haroon (2007) Frontier of Faith Islam in the Indo-Afghan Borderland, London: Hurst.

[20]  H. Abbas (2013) ‘The Political Landscape of the Taliban Insurgency in Pakistan’, p.73, in P. Bergen with K. Tiedemann, Talibanistan Negotiating the Borders Between Terror, Politics, and Religion, Oxford/New York, Oxford University Press, pp, 262-88).

[21] A. Gopal, M Khan Mahsud, B. Fishman (2013) ‘The Taliban in North Waziristan’, p. 136, in op. cit., pp.128-163.

[22] M. Khan Mahsud (2013) ‘The Taliban in South Waziristan’, p.168, in op. cit., pp.164-201.

[23] op. cit., p.181.






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