Since 2001, the geo-strategic priorities of the ‘War on Terror’ have prompted renewed attention to the historically significant region of Waziristan. Ironically, given the apparent failure of British attempts to pacify the region in the century after 1849, Waziristan’s colonial history has been picked over by policy-makers, commentators, and scholars for lessons which might be applied to current projects of state-building and counter-insurgency. Unabashedly instrumentalist, these works have reproduced the reductive stereotypes of the colonial sources and helped to entrench partial understandings of the frontier which obscure the dynamic and contingent nature of imperial state-building. This article offers an alternate frame for writing the history of the colonial frontier by re-examining how British officials attempted to constitute colonial authority through their engagements with one of the region’s most powerful groups: the Mahsud Wazirs. Challenging historiographical emphases on oscillating metropolitan strategies, this article maps crucial and largely overlooked continuities in British attempts to pacify the Mahsuds, providing new insights into state-building at the edge of empire and a more nuanced account of how imperial power was engaged, resisted, and deflected by those it sought to control.
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