Pakistan’s Use of Tribal Militias to Target Taliban Yields Mixed Results

U.S. officials have urged Pakistan to follow a model used in Iraq, but the parallels are limited.

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PESHAWAR, Pakistan—Tribal militias in Pakistan's lawless backcountry are taking up arms to confront a Taliban insurgency that now roils on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Early comparisons have been made to the so-called "Anbar Awakening" in Iraq, where Sunni tribesmen bankrolled by U.S. forces rallied to oust Al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters from their neighborhoods. In Pakistan, the Pashtun militias, known as lashkars, are being encouraged—and in some cases armed—by a fledgling government faced with heavy U.S. pressure to reclaim borderlands that have evolved from a Taliban rear base into a new battle front.

So far, success has come in pieces.

In late August, a tribal militia struck back and killed six militants who had destroyed a police station and left eight policemen dead in the Buner district of North-West Frontier Province. In nearby Bajaur agency, an area believed to host al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Salarzai tribe has formed a 4,000-strong lashkar to confront Taliban elements as the military wages a massive bombardment campaign. Dozens of militants have disarmed. Holdouts have had their bases burned or been forced to flee.

Yet the parallel with Iraq is not an accurate one, according to tribal experts. For starters, the militias lack the millions of dollars in funding given to groups in Iraq, not to mention the advanced U.S. firepower that backed them up.

Mahmood Shah, a retired general who oversaw security in the tribal areas until 2005, says the militias are a centuries-old part of the fiercely independent local culture, raised to defend their communities, resolve feuds, and hunt down criminals. The resistance to the Taliban and al Qaeda's presence, he says, is a "natural response" to increasing brutality that has cramped tribe members' way of life and drawn the wrath of the Pakistani military.

"The government should stop taking credit for what the lashkars are doing," he warns, or else it will "degrade their legitimacy." In Shah's view, the military's reported plan to provide some tribal groups with Chinese-made AK-47s—an upgrade from the old bolt-action rifles they typically carry—amounts to a second mistake. "You can't take back the guns tomorrow," he says.

For now, the Taliban appears to have most pro-government tribal elders on the defensive. On November 6, a suicide bomber in Bajaur killed 22 and injured 45 tribal elders assembled to decide how they would help the military take on the Taliban. On November 20, a suicide blast at a prayer gathering killed 10 people, including a prominent anti-Taliban leader from Bajaur. The attack came three days after seven other tribal elders from the province were shot dead in a protracted gun battle.

Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan have a similar tradition of raising arbakis, volunteer militias that protect against outside threats. Last week, Gen. David McKiernan, the top commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, recommended giving more power to local councils to enforce security in far-flung areas. However, Pakistani observers are quick to point out that, in the past, this has spawned warlords beyond the Afghan government's control, notably in the brutal civil war of the early 1990's.

The same concerns apply in Pakistan as U.S. officials squeeze Islamabad to do more to stop cross-border infiltrations. "This may achieve some affects in the short term, but in the long run we can't be sure that lashkars won't turn into warring parties with private fiefdoms" that possibly turn against the government, says Munir Orakzai, parliamentary leader for Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Or the militias could turn on each other. While laskhars have formed in areas like Bajaur and Swat where they have some operational military support, they are nonexistent in North and South Waziristan, areas where the government has previously signed truces with the Taliban and, in doing so, undermined the authority of tribal leaders. "We could very well end up with a civil war between the tribes," says Ayaz Amir, a leading columnist for the newspaper Dawn. "It's too early to say yet."