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Pakistan’s anti-Taliban support risky

- The Washington Times - Monday, November 10, 2008

PESHAWAR, Pakistan | Pakistan's support of local militias to help fight Taliban and al Qaeda militants operating from its tribal areas is a sign of desperation that could backfire and lead to more attacks on U.S. and Pakistani forces or civil war in the borderlands, influential tribal elders, U.S. officials and analysts on the region say.

The militias, known as lashkars, are composed of ethnic Pashtun tribesmen angry over the presence of militant groups that have imposed harsh laws and used border areas to stage attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pakistani authorities have tried to co-opt the lashkars as part of an offensive launched in August to wipe out insurgent safe havens. Near-daily bombings and gunbattles have, by the Pakistani army's count, forced 200,000 people to flee their homes.

While near-term gains may have been made, those familiar with the region say that the initiative disregards tribal mores and could stoke blood feuds and create private armies beyond the state's control.

"The message sent by this approach is that the usual military tactics and political accords have not worked," said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a leading authority on tribal affairs. "It looks like a matter of desperation."

Results so far have been mixed.

In the Bajaur tribal region Thursday, a suicide bomber killed 22 tribal elders and injured 50. A group affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban movement claimed responsibility.

In Swat District, a scenic area and former tourism hub, 62 people accused of being involved in a plot to form a lashkar were abducted Oct. 30 by Taliban militants. All were freed, but militants later killed 12 members of the local jirga, or council, that had originally proposed forming a militia.

Elsewhere, a handful of local Taliban groups have surrendered to tribal elders and pledged to not shelter foreign militants.

The lashkar strategy has been compared to the so-called "Sunni Awakening" in Iraq, in which U.S.-backed Sunni Muslim tribesmen evicted jihadist militants from their neighborhoods.

But skeptics say the parallel is wrong for several reasons.

Mehmood Shah, a retired general who served as chief of security in the tribal areas until 2005, said lashkars represent an integral part of Pashtun tribal culture. Unlike what happened in Iraq, they would be forming "with or without government support," he said.

Traditionally comprised of 40 to 50 men, the militias resolve tribal disputes or fight outsiders seen to pose a threat. In Bajaur agency, a Taliban stronghold in the North West Frontier Province, three lashkars totaling as many as 14,000 fighters have been established.

However, Mr. Yusufzai said, they are poorly trained and under-armed - often farmers with nothing more than old rifles - yet still expected to battle insurgents flush with drug profits and increasingly targeting tribal elders.

Wali Khan, 22, from Charmang in Bajaur agency, said an anti-Taliban lashkar that formed in his village early last month but ran out of ammunition after three days of fighting. The Taliban later took revenge, he said, and "slaughtered" several of his tribal elders.

He fled with his family and has settled with about 7,000 other Bajaur refugees at a tent camp on the edge of Peshawar.

Bruce Riedel, a veteran South Asia analyst for the CIA and author of a new book, "The Search for al Qaeda," said, "The good news is that Pakistan finally seems to be awakening to the threat posed by al Qaeda, the Taliban and other militants."

But "playing the tribes card is difficult and tricky," Mr. Riedel said. "People have been looking for a moderate Taliban for 10 years without any success."

He said the tribal leadership needs more than guns - "tangible economic steps to undermine the extremists appeal."

Malik Khan Mar Jan, a tribal leader from North Waziristan who heads a council of tribal elders, also called for economic incentives.

Today, per capita income in the tribal areas stands at $500 a year, or less than $1.50 per day.

This demands that the government reach out to locally elected leaders who are in touch with the needs of the community, Mr. Jan said.

For the time being, he said, no lashkars will be formed in North Waziristan.

Taliban forces headed by Jalaluddin Haqqani and Hafiz Gul Bahadar have "absolute" command in that area, he said, and their grip is reinforced by poverty, isolation and the U.S. drone attacks that have killed dozens of civilians.

On Oct. 31, two more air strikes near Mr. Jan's hometown of Miranshah killed 37 people, including foreign militants.

Some U.S. officials are concerned that weapons provided to lashkars may wind up in insurgent hands.

"There is no reason to believe that the weapons would not land in the hands of the enemy to be used against U.S. forces in Afghanistan or Pakistani military personnel fighting militants in the tribal areas," said a Defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"Lashkars have to be understood for what they are right now," said Sherry Rehman, Pakistan's minister of information, told The Washington Times. "These are not bands of mujahedeen. They are part of the culture of the area. But they are not a permanent self-defense entity."

So far, the Pakistani policy seems largely to have turned the lashkars into tempting targets for al Qaeda and the Taliban.

On Oct. 10, hundreds of tribesmen assembled in Orakzai agency for a jirga of tribal elders when a suicide truck bomber struck, killing at least 60 people and wounding scores more.

The lashkar had destroyed four militant hide-outs. The blast occurred moments after elders issued a fine against tribesmen accused of cooperating with the Taliban, exposing a dangerous rift in the community.

Tribal elder Malik Abdul Raheem lost three relatives and his left leg was shattered.

Pakistan has long employed political agents to administer each of its seven tribal agencies. Mr. Raheem, interviewed recently in a Peshawar hospital, said one came forward three months ago with an ultimatum: Help us fight the Taliban or suffer the consequences of a military onslaught.

Since the bombing, he said, the government has not delivered on its promise to give his tribe, the Alikhel, funding and better weapons.

Either way, he said, the Taliban collaborators belonging to a rival tribe that he suspects was behind the bombing will be held responsible.

"We may suffer more losses, but we will go for revenge because this is our culture," he said.

Mr. Jan, the tribal leader from North Waziristan, said another tribal tradition - the authority of jirgas - offers the only hope for halting the cycle of violence in the region.

"The latest policy is destined to plunge the tribal areas into civil war, of that I have no doubt," he said. "[Pashtun] vengeance is like that of a camel; it does not end."

Sara A. Carter contributed to this story from Washington.