Britain’s Grim Key to India

Intrepid Journalist-Explorer Visits Afghanistan and Explains Its People and Its Strategic Value.

LOWELL THOMAS April 15 1925

Britain’s Grim Key to India

Intrepid Journalist-Explorer Visits Afghanistan and Explains Its People and Its Strategic Value.

LOWELL THOMAS April 15 1925

Britain’s Grim Key to India

Intrepid Journalist-Explorer Visits Afghanistan and Explains Its People and Its Strategic Value.


THE name “Afghanistan” on the printed page immediately conjures to the mind of the average reader a bleak, hilly country, swarming with wiry, fierce little tribesmen who like nothing better than to lie in the crevasses of their beloved hills, and take pot shots at venturesome strangers. Nor is this picture inaccurate, according to Lowell Thomas, who gives a vivid description in Asia of a trip made jy himself and his camera-colleague, Harry Chase, through that grim, forbidden territory which lies between British India and Russia. By various diplomatic channels, British, Indian and American, he had tried unsuccessfully to get permission to make the trip, when unexpectedly an invitation to visit Afghanistan came from the Amir through the American Charge d’ Affaires at Teheran in Persia. Mr. Thomas gees on to say:

I decided to follow a natural geographical route to Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, and visit Baluchistan, Waziristan and the Independent Territory on the way to Peshawar and the Khyber Pass. After traveling north from Bombay through Rajputana, we crossed the Sind desert by train and ascended the mountains by way of the Bolán Pass to Quetta, the most important military centre for the forces holding British Baluchistan, and one of the strongest strategical positions in the world.

When you first reach Waziristan, you ask why Great Britain bothers about holding this desert region. For thirty years the British have been bickering with the frontier tribes. Respite and lulls there have been; there has never been peace. “Back to the Indus” has been a popular cry among Indian pacifist agitators as well as among certain factions of the British themselves, since the World War, although, among others, who are more aggressive, advance to the cartographic line supposed to indicate the borders of Afghanistan has been the watchword. This latter policy is the one that keeps the Afghans from becoming too enthusiastically pro-British. Both policies are dangerous. The British in India cannot easily relinquish what tribal territory they have seized in this part of Asia; and India cannot well afford to have the frontier army withdrawn and considerable numbers of Indians left to be disemboweled by the raiding Mahsuds, Waziris and Afridis, as they surely would be if the troops retired behind the Indus. Nor can the British initiate any forward movement that would precipitate another and fourth Afghan war and lead into Central Asiatic adventures that daunted even the redoubtable Great Moguls. The British can afford neither to get on nor to get out.

As for ourselves, now that we are away from it all, we thank God that we are thousands of miles away from Waziristan, with its wolflike inhabitants, its appalling barrenness, its hellish temperatures, its cities filled with dust and dirt, disease and sudden death. As we view it from afar, it comes back to us as the very navel of bedevilment. Surely the men who guard such plague-spots on Britain’s “far-flung battle-line” deserve much gratitude from stay-at-home Englishmen— more, indeed, than they are likely to get.

We stayed in Dera Ismail Khan just long enough to be nearly eaten alive by mosquitoes and other less audible inhabitants of the town and to make our peace with the gaurt-looking, heatstricken officers of the headquarters staff. Then we started across the bad lands, gradually making our way to Tank, Bannu, Kohat, Peshawar, through the Khyber Pass to Landi Kotal and into Afghanistan proper. The cars in which we traveled looked as hoary with age as the Eocene mountains that were the principal feature of the topography. Shortly after we had left behind the rose gardens of the bungalows at headquarters in Dera Ismail Khan, our right front tire blew off and disappeared up a nullah. Later we were obliged to instal a “Stepney” on the left rear rim and developed in consequence a swinging movement like that of a Delhi dancing-girl in the mazes of the nautch.

Our trail was punctuated by disabled Fords and Crossleys. Thirteen different cars relayed us from the Indus to the Khyber, every one of them ready to fly into bits when we entered it, a derelict when we left it. Scores of times we were stranded and obliged to roast in the desert heat while a bhang-drugged Sikh or mad Moslem driver fiddled ineffectually with the carburetor. In the end it was usually necessary for Harry Chase to tie things together with his camera-straps until we chugged into the nearest military depot.

Forty-five miles across the desert was the city of Tank, which is pronounced “Tonk” for the same reason apparently that the English call half-penny, “haypny,” and Saint John, “Sin-jin.”

Tank is in the Mahsud country. You perhaps have never heard of the Mahsuds, unless you are British and have lost a relative at their hands. Rudyard Kipling in all probability was thinking of their territory when he wrote :

“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,

And the women come out to cut up what remains,

Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains

An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.”

If you were to roam the world from the Arctic gold-fields of Kotzebue Sound to the pearl-fisheries of Thursday Island, you could find no men more worthy of the title “desperado” than the Pathans who live among these jagged, saw-tooth mountains of the Afghan frontier. They obey neither God nor man. Their only law is the law of the rifle and the knife. More elusive than the robber bands of Albania, more daring than the Moros of Mindanao, more cunning than the Yaquis of Sonora, even more savage than the Mongol bandits of Chinese Tibet are these brigand sons of Benjamin, who say they can trace their descent to the tribes carried away from Palestine by Nebuchadnezzar.

Two things has the Almighty done to this people. First, he has writ their character on their brows, and second, he has woven the strands of discord into the web of their nature. Had He not done so, the English would not to-day be masters of India. The Pathans can be loyal to a man, but not to an ideal. In fact, they have no ideals; hence the rule of the Pathan in India lasted only so long as there was an emperor strong enough to secure it by personal ascendency. Under a good leader, however, small parties are able to organize with striking effect.

As host and conversationalist, the Pathan is equaled only by the Frenchman, whom he resembles in many respects, including his love of family and his jealousy as a husband. Naturally the expression of these sentiments is a little crude in the case of the Pathan, but there

was a decidedly Gallic spirit in the striking gesture of the indignant husband who cut off his wife’s head because she had been stared at by another man, and then threw it over ftie wall of his rival’s house, saying, “You may have her face since you like it so much; it’s no use to me!”

Running all the way round the native quarter of Tank is a mud wall some fifteen to twenty feet high and several feet thick. Every yard of it is within sight of a sentry. Native police are also stationed at intervals throughout the bazar on balconies and roofs. But in spite of all this the Mahsuds continue their raids on the town. The day before we left Tank we watched an exciting demonstration of their tactics.

The ponderous gates at the south entrance to the city were closed and barred. Suddenly the muffled heads of some Mahsud raiders appeared over the wall. Pulling themselves up, they crept stealthily along until they reached the small courtyard of the shop of a Hindu merchant. A camel kneeled beside some grain-bags, tranquilly chewing his cud. Near by, a scrawny pariah dog, curled, nose to tail, slept fitfully. Behind bolts of cloth, bags of dried peas and skeins of yarn, slept the unsuspecting merchant and his wife and daughters, stretched out on their charpais, or string-beds.

Down dropped a couple of Mahsuds, quite noiselessly, and unsheathed their knives. Others took up positions on the roof, with rifles pointed toward the street. The first two raiders hurld themselves with gleaming knives upon the sleeping merchant. The remainder of the party rushed into the shop and seized whatever they could find, cash-box, grain-bag, account-books, wife, daughters, everything, including the camel, which had struggled indignantly to its feet and was blaspheming from the bottom of its throat. Then, in another moment, the whole gang was out in the street, followed by the party who had been firing from the roof.

And now came the hue and cry. Police and townsfolk swarmed through the bazar. It was all just as it had happened to them a hundred times and more before, with this difference, that the other raids had taken place in the glare of burning houses and to the accompaniment of the screams of the dying, instead of in the sunlight. For Captain Wodehouse, of the Frontier Police, had helped us stage this particular raid, so that Chase, from a neighboring roof, might train the lens of his motion-picture camera on the scene of action, for the ultimate benefit of London, Paris, New York and Chicago.

After the show Wodehouse collected his Mahsud ruffians together, distributed our bakshish and gave orders for the dispersal of the crowds that had collected. There were no casualties, except in the case of a veiled lady who had fainted from excitement, but was revived by her husband with severe pinches.

No casualties, but alas, the very next afternoon there was a real raid some ten miles off. Captain Wodehouse was called out with a patrol of eleven men, and in the evening while we were on our way deeper into the heart of the Mahsud country, to the Ahnai Tangi, he was mortally wounded. May he rest in peace. We feel

that the scenes he helped us to portray bear witness in a small way to the valuable service that he, prince of good fellows and gallant soldier, gave in the wilds of Waziristan. Thanks to officers like Captain Wodehouse and his famous predecessors of the Afghan frontier, such as John Nicholson and Lord Roberts, and thanks to “Tommy Atkins” and his Indian comrades in arms, the inhabitants of the rich plains of Hindustan are able to enjoy a peace and a prosperity rarely experienced by their ancestors.

From Tank we motor on along the military highway that leads to the last British outpost. The Mehsud villages we pass remind us somewhat of the medieval strongholds of Europe. They are surrounded by walls. In fact each family has its own high-walled enclosure, with a square tower at one corner ; for when these people are not fighting an outside enemy, they are usually involved in bitter bloodfeuds among themselves. Oftentimes a man will sit up in his tower for weeks or months, or even for a year, and have his meals brought there and sleep there, with his Martini between his knees, peering out through a slit, waiting for1 an opportunity to shoot his enemy who lives’ across the street! We remain under canvas at Jándola and hear, during the small hours, the occasional “plonk” of a sniper’s bullet and see, from under the tent flap, the glare of Verey lights.

And so the war goes on, as it has gone on for fifty years and more. The British soldier-—and his Indian comrade—continue to sweat up sultry hillsides and toil along with the daily convoys, living a life more solitary than that of the keeper of a sultan’s harem, with none of the distractions enjoyed by that official, a life more ascetic than a priest’s, with none of his spiritual consolations, a life more dangerous than a rum-runner’s, with no excitement save the fear of sudden death. It is only an “idea” that keeps the troops at their work—the idea of duty.

Of late, however, there has been a strong movement for peace and arbitration in the villages of the Independent Territory, in which the tribesmen obey neither the Viceroy of India nor the Amir of Afghanistan. It is realized that blood feuds waste the productive strength of a tribe, and the village elders do their best to settle quarrels amicably. Their methods are even sterner than the Mosaic law of revenge; for instance, an offending family often has its homestead burnt, several of its members killed and the survivors condemned to pay a fine that may amount to a thousand rupees. Punishments so terrific, which are by no means uncommon, serve to instil a wholesome respect for the council of village elders. The councils of enemy villages not infrequently have peace conferences, which are about as successful as those of the West. Sometimes they achieve definite results. There is at present a military holiday of one year between Khui and Jinakor, and the Adam Khels can go to and fro between Peshawar and their homes without bringing out a party of skirmishers.

The Afridis, and in fact all AfghanPathan peoples, abhor stupidity, indecision and hair-splitting (except in theological controversy) and will follow only a leader with courage and dash. Warm hearted to those they love, they are brutally cruel to their enemies. Impulsive to a fault, they will wait patiently for years in order to get revenge. They are hospitable, yet canny, and excessively conceited, but feel a humble resignation to the will of Allah.

The finest of the Pathans, from a moral and a physical point of view (intellectually they have unknown possibilities), are the mountaineers who inhabit the unadministered zone between Afghanistan and India. Although these men raid down into India wheneverthe spirit moves them, no outsider can cross into their tribal territory, where the only law is that of the knife and the rifle. Here they live their own lives, sans schools, sans police, sans law-courts, sans taxes, free from the chains of civilization and enjoying to the full the blessings of barbarism.

But not all Pathans are brigands. Some of them stoke the tramps of the eastern trade, others take tongas to Kashmir, or camels to Australia, or smuggle kut, a fragrant root used as medicine, from Tibet and Kashmirto India. But wherever they rove, and whether they end with a fortune or with a felon’s gyves, their hearts are always in their hills, and thither they return.