Frontier of Fear: Confronting the Taliban on Pakistan’s Border by D.L. Gosling

A review by Reginald Massey

Frontier of fearThe North West Frontier of India was always known as a restive region and it was in the capital city of Peshawar that the Church Missionary Society founded a high school in 1855 and named it after Sir Herbert Edwardes, a soldier-administrator who was deeply involved with the work of the Society. The students, often the sons of Frontier chiefs, took to cricket with enthusiasm and became ideal public school boys. Much later the school became a college level institution and is even today regarded with respect by the people and government of Pakistan.

In the early seventies the scotch swigging Oxford educated feudal lord Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who called himself a Socialist, started nationalising Christian educational foundations in Pakistan. And thereby hangs a sorry tale with bureaucrats and powerful figures of Bhutto’s political party interfering with colleges such as Edwardes. Bhutto was later hanged by the dictator General Zia who encouraged Islamic fundamentalism and Pakistan is now paying a heavy price for Zia’s zealotry. Zia, incidentally, was a graduate of St. Stephen’s, Delhi, which is a sister college of Edwardes. During Zia’s regime even army officers had a say in the administration of Edwardes.

The Khan Brothers, Dr Khan Sahib and his younger brother Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (the ‘Frontier Gandhi’) were opposed to the Two-Nation theory on the basis of which Pakistan was created. Both were educated at Edwardes. Hence Edwardes was treated with some suspicion. Many regarded it as a nest of anti-Pakistan sedition and when a British academic named Gosling who had worked in India for many years took over as Principal he was subjected to careful scrutiny.

Frontier of Fear: Confronting the Taliban on Pakistan’s Border (The Radcliffe Press, London and New York: ISBN 978-1-78453-468-4) is authored by David L. Gosling, a Fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge. A physicist, he taught at St. Stephen’s in Delhi, where he met my old friend and colleague Brijraj Singh (St. John’s Agra, Oxford and Yale). From 2006 till 2010 the Rev. Dr Gosling was Principal of Edwardes College and this book is his first-hand account of the conditions, problems and triumphs of Edwardes in a country where, in spite of the Taliban attacks and massacres the light of learning and thirst for education has not been extinguished.

Written by a man who obviously admires the Pathans, also known as Pashtuns, this book brilliantly reveals the psychology of the people of North-Western Pakistan. It should be required reading for diplomats and foreign policy experts who have to deal with Pakistan. Gosling’s style is reader friendly and engaging. His life was often threatened and running a college which admitted women students was not at all easy. In fact, Edwardes was the first college in the entire region that admitted women. There were pressures from parents, provincial governors, politicians and even generals. In a society where pulling rank is the norm he had to watch his step. The Taliban had rampaged into an army public school and slaughtered the sons of army officers. What might they do to a college where young  men and women were actually attending lectures in the same room, which, according to the Talibanic dispensation is haram, or un-Islamic.

I could not help smiling when reading about the college’s frantic attempts to find a red carpet to welcome the Prince of Wales.  As it happened Charles and his Camilla could not come. Their visit to Peshawar was cancelled because of the infamous ‘Bajaur incident’ when a shell fired by the Pakistan army killed 85 teenage boys studying the Koran in a madrassa or Muslim religious school. Later some claimed that it was an unmanned American drone that bombed the school.

The most difficult time was when applicants came to join the college. Gosling was bombarded with telephone calls and Emails from generals, top bureaucrats and politicians to admit a variety of relatives such as ‘my son’, ‘my nephew’, ‘my beloved niece’. The devices employed ranged from the devious to veiled threats.

Then Gosling discovered that large sums of money were missing from the college provident and pension funds as well as the college saving account. The police and the provincial governor were informed and thus started the laborious and drawn out criminal investigation which was tiring and time consuming. South Asia is notorious for its delaying tactics where the police and the courts are concerned. In 2010 he was relieved of his duties and returned to Britain. In spite of his stressful time on the frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan nowhere in the book does Gosling display an antipathy towards Pakistan.  He made many friends there and his former students are in constant touch with him.

RReggie Masseyeginald Massey has been writing a regular Book Page for CONFLUENCE for years. His poetry and prose on a variety of subjects have been widely published.  Most of his books are available from Amazon UK.