Oct 24, 2008

World - Pakistan tribal militias walk tightrope in Taliban fight

Jane Perlez and Pir Zubair Shah

Thursday, October 23, 2008
PESHAWAR, Pakistan: Two tribal elders lay stretched out in an orthopedic ward here last week, their plastered limbs and winces of pain grim evidence of the slaughter they survived when a suicide bomber blew himself up in the midst of their tribal gathering.

These wounded men, and many others in the hospital, were supposed to be the backbone of a Pakistani government effort to take on the Taliban, and its backers, Al Qaeda, with armies of traditional tribesmen working in consultation with the Pakistani military.

The tribal militias, known as lashkars, have quickly become a crucial tool of Pakistan's strategy in the tribal belt, where the army has been fighting the Taliban for more than two months in what army generals acknowledge is a tougher and more protracted slog than they anticipated. And, indeed, the lashkars' early efforts have been far from promising.

As the strength of the militants in the tribal areas grows, and as the war across the border in Afghanistan worsens, the Pakistanis are casting about for new tactics. The emergence of the lashkars is a sign of the tribesmen's rising frustration with the ruthlessness of the Taliban, but also of their traditional desire to run their own affairs and keep the Pakistani Army at bay, Pakistani officers and law enforcement officials say.

Some in Washington have pointed to the emergence of the lashkars as a hopeful parallel to the largely successful Sunni Awakening movement in Iraq, which drew on tribes' frustration with militant jihadis to build an alliance with American troops that helped lessen violence in Iraq. But there are significant differences, a senior American government official acknowledged. In Anbar Province, he said, the Iraqi tribes "woke up to millions of dollars in government assistance, and the support of the Third Infantry division." But the support by the Pakistani Army and civilian government for the tribal militias has been "episodic" and so far "unsustained," he said. In addition, tribal structures in Pakistan have been weakened in recent years by the Taliban, unlike the situation in Iraq.

The tribesmen, armed with antiquated weaponry from the 1980s Afghan war, are facing better equipped, highly motivated Taliban who have intimidated and crushed some of the militia.

In the last two months, the Taliban have burned the homes of tribal leaders and assassinated others who have dared to participate in the resistance. They have pulled tribesmen suspected of backing the militia out of buses and cars and used suicide bombers against them as they did in Orakzai, the place where the wounded in the Peshawar hospital were attacked.

"We wanted to form a lashkar," said Abdul Rehman, 50, a tribal leader of the Orakzai area, as he lay on his crumpled bed in the Lady Reading hospital. "We were pressured by the government to take action because they warned: 'If you don't take action you will be bombed.' " The lack of consistent Pakistani Army and government support has left some tribesmen feeling betrayed. About 1,000 tribesmen were meeting on Oct. 10 and had just decided to form a lashkar, when the suicide bomber, armed with perfect intelligence for a pre-emptive strike, killed more than 100 tribesmen, and wounded many more.

The next day, government forces struck back in Orakzai but helicopter gunships hit more civilians than militants, forcing a large number of people to leave the area and providing space for the militants to occupy, residents of the area said.

The Pakistani military is counting on the tribal militia to work as localized forces and to pick up some of the burden of the heavy fighting that is now concentrated in the Bajaur part of the tribal belt. "We're concentrating on the hard core, the lashkars are cleansing their areas, taking people out in their areas," said one general.

But in the last four years as the Taliban have deliberately targeted pro-government tribal elders, killing as many as 500 of them, and have attracted uneducated tribal youth with the lure of good money and stature.

Even in the best of times, there are basic unwritten rules about the tribal militia in Pakistan that limit their impact.

The Pakistani military, for example, can lend moral support but not initiate a tribal militia, the generals said. The lashkars come with their own weapons, food, and ammunition. They have their own fixed area of responsibility, and are not permanent.

Indeed great care is taken to make sure the lashkars do not become a threat to the military itself. "We do not want a lashkar to become an offensive force," said one of the generals, who spoke frankly about the lashkars on condition of anonymity. For that reason, the military was willing to lend fire support artillery and helicopters but would not give the militias heavy weapons, he said.

Beyond those rules of the game, the Pakistani Army and government have not been able to inculcate the lashkars with the needed confidence, said Khalid Aziz, a former chief secretary of the North-West Frontier Province.

"You put these people up front and you will get them chewed up," Aziz said. "If you deploy the lashkar on an ad hoc basis they can be an embarrassment."

The lashkars' fragility has been most clearly demonstrated in the Charmang area of Bajaur, a stronghold of the Taliban in the foothills of the mountains that border Afghanistan where the Taliban have been in control for several years, building supply lines and bases.

The Taliban have ruled civilian life in Charmang, imposing taxes, issuing permits for businesses and handing out their form of justice.

Taj Mohammed, 20, a college student in Bajaur who is now a refugee on the outskirts of Peshawar, said that based on promises from the government that they would receive proper backing, his father and some other elders had formed a lashkar in the village of Hilal Khel.

Immediately, he said, the Taliban brought in 600 reinforcements from Afghanistan under the command of Zia ur-Rehman, a well known Afghan Taliban leader.

"This weakened the resolve of the elders," Mohammed said.

Then, the Taliban sowed terror by kidnapping and executing four tribal leaders of the lashkar, leaving their bodies on the roadside, the throats slit.

After the beheadings, there was fighting between the lashkar and the militants, Mohammed said. The Taliban, he said, had "very sophisticated weapons" including rocket launchers and heavy guns. His father had a Kalashnikov.

"The Taliban came to my father as a leader of the lashkar and said, "We will slaughter you."

The Taliban torched houses in several of Charmang's villages, he said, an act that is considered a particular humiliation.

After the four executions, many of the leaders of the lashkar fled and others surrendered. The Taliban burned dozens of houses in four villages, particularly in Babara. A request by the lashkar for help from the military did not materialize, and unlike the lashkar, the military took no casualties in the episode, said Fazl-e Sadiq, a schoolteacher from Charmang who is also a refugee in the Peshawar area. "The villagers became very demoralized," he said.

Mohammed said his father, Mohammed Gul, was betrayed by the elders of the Hanafia Khel tribe, and he fled for his life. "He tried very hard," Mohammed said of his father.

"Now he is in a safe place from the Taliban."

Among the houses that the Taliban burned was his family homestead, built 15 years ago at great expense, he said. "My home is very beautiful, my home is very clean, a big house with 12 rooms," he said in broken English. Thirty members of his extended family, including his wife and 6-month-old daughter, lived there.

"Except for my one clothes, and my one hat," he had little left, he said pointing to a refugee tent with a couple of mattresses but nothing else.

In one area of Bajaur, known as Salarzai, the recently formed tribal militia have proved a success.

But that was largely because the Taliban have never had strong roots there, and the ancient tribal hierarchy of rich landlords presiding over large properties remains intact, tribesmen from Bajaur said.

The people of Salarzai were strongly motivated to keep the Taliban at bay, said Jalal Uddin, the son of one of the prominent local elders. "I felt overjoyed when I was riding with the lashkar because it meant the old tribal system was working," Uddin said.

In a reversal of the pattern elsewhere, the lashkar in Salarzai had recently burned about 20 houses belonging to the militants in the village of Baanda, the only place in Salarzai where the militants have strength, according to Sahibzada Bahahuddin, a journalist in Khar, the capital of Bajaur.

But, so far, the such successes are rare in the rest of the tribal region.

In the longer term, the defeat of the lashkar in Charmang would make the situation much more difficult for the government, Mohammed said. His father felt betrayed, and he doubted his father would take on such a role again. It was now up to the government to win the war on its own, he said.

As he stood at the flap of his tent, cradling his tiny daughter, Soomia, Mohammed said despite the let-down by the government, he wanted nothing more than to return to his lands in Charmang.

"But we must have peace in the area," he said. "When the Taliban are weakened and the roads are safe we will rebuild. All this depends on the government."

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