- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2008


Pakistani tribesmen are raising armies to battle al Qaeda and Taliban militants close to the Afghan border - a movement encouraged by the military and hailed as a sign its offensive there is succeeding.

The often ramshackle militias lend force to the campaign in the lawless and mountainous region, but analysts question their effectiveness against a well-armed, well-trained and increasingly brutal insurgency.

The extremists are increasingly targeting the militias, an indication they regard them to be a threat.

On Sunday, two tribesmen were killed during an army-backed offensive against insurgents in the Bajur tribal region. Government official Jamil Khan said helicopter gunships shelled militants’ bunkers, killing at least 10 people. Fifteen more suspected militants were killed in separate clashes, he said.

On Friday, a suicide bomber killed more than 50 tribesmen gathering to form an army. Eight pro-government tribesmen have been beheaded in recent days.

By encouraging the private armies, or “lashkars,” the government is exploiting local resentment against foreign and Pakistani extremists in the area, considered a likely hiding place for Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders.

“These Taliban call themselves Muslims, but they have been involved in all kinds of crimes,” said Malik Mohmmand Habib, a leader of the Salarzai tribe, one of the largest of at least five tribes that have formed lashkars in recent weeks. “We want them out of our area.”

Mr. Habib claims up to 15,000 men in his lashkar. Similar figures have been given by other leaders of private armies, but those claims could not be independently verified. Analysts caution that tribesmen are likely exaggerating.

The lashkars have drawn comparisons with government-backed militias in Iraq - the so-called “awakening councils” - that have been credited with beating back the insurgency there.

But the lashkars are less organized and the tribesmen use their own, often aging, weapons. The government does not admit to funding the armies, but analysts suspect the leaders at least receive money.

It is also unclear how much front-line fighting lashkars are involved. They have been photographed on patrol with military units and have reportedly been involved in several clashes, but their main task appears to be holding areas cleared of insurgents by the army.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas praised the formation of the armies, but gave few details of how they operate.

Shuja Nawaz, a prominent Pakistani security analyst, said the tribesmen were rising up because they were genuinely unhappy with the presence of the militants, but stressed the government must quickly build roads and schools and undertake other development projects there to cement the successes.

“It is a continuation of the British colonial tradition of paying off the tribes,” said Mr. Nawaz, adding that historically such deals to buy loyalty often broke down.

Militants in the border region are blamed for surging violence against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, leading to fears the war there is unwinnable seven years after the Taliban was ousted.

They are also behind an increasingly virulent campaign of suicide attacks on Western, civilian and military targets within Pakistan that threatens to destabilize the nuclear-armed country.

Pakistan’s broadly secular, pro-U.S. government is trying to channel public anger at those attacks, including the Sept. 20 blast at the Marriott hotel, into support for its antiterror fight.

That task has become increasingly complicated by suspected U.S. missile strikes within Pakistani territory that are thought to have killed more than 100 people, mostly reputed militants.

The latest barrage, reported Sunday, in Pakistan’s northwest killed five people; None was thought to be foreign al Qaeda fighters, officials said.

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