For Pakistan's Tribesmen, A Difficult, Deadly Choice

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- The sign above the bed in the surgical ward at Lady Reading Hospital was simple and discreet: Patient #247, Bomb Blast. Beneath the sign lay a man swaddled from the waist down in dirty bandages. His face was pocked with black scars from a suicide bomb attack on a meeting of tribal elders who had decided to fight the Taliban. The man had been in the hospital for nearly a month but was barely conscious.

In that time, more than 120 tribal leaders who decided to take up arms against the Taliban at the Pakistani government's urging have been killed in suicide bombings. Scores more have been injured in firefights with insurgents. Burned by blasts, wounded by artillery fire and hit by bullets, most have received only first aid from the government. A few have been lucky enough to survive the long ride to the hospital in Peshawar.

Many of the injured tribal leaders at Lady Reading were supposed to form the front line in a government campaign to tame the Taliban insurgency in northwest Pakistan. As the army's efforts to stamp out the insurgency in the rugged areas along the border with Afghanistan have faltered, Pakistani officials have turned to tribal militias to make up ground in an increasingly complex conflict.

But, so far at least, the tribal militias have been no panacea. Instead, the use of the militias, known as lashkars, has set off a debate over whether such a strategy will contribute to a civil war in the northwest that could engulf all of Pakistan. Yet some tribal leaders say they have little choice but to fight their brothers, cousins and neighbors: The Pakistani military, they say, has threatened to bomb their villages if they do not battle the Taliban.

"They are between the devil and the deep sea," said Akhunzada Chitran, a tribal representative from the Bajaur area. "On the one side, there is the Taliban, but on the other side, they are being forced by the government to fight the Taliban or flee or the government will bomb them. It's a very difficult choice to make, but we have made up our minds to take on the Taliban."

The use of tribesmen to fight the Taliban in Pakistan could prove instructive for U.S. and NATO military leaders who are considering similar tactics in neighboring Afghanistan. Top U.S. military officials have pointed to the example set in Iraq, where tribal sheiks turned against al Qaeda in Iraq insurgents, as a potential model. But analysts in Pakistan and Afghanistan have cautioned that such a strategy could inflame, not extinguish, tensions along the troubled border without proper government support.

Feelings of distrust toward the government's strategy are especially high in Bajaur, where, for the past three months, the Pakistani military has pounded suspected insurgent strongholds with artillery fire and air raids. Pakistani military officials say hundreds of fighters have been killed since operations began in August. But they have made little mention of the unknown number of civilians who have also died as a result of the campaign. More than 200,000 people have fled clashes in Bajaur, setting off a humanitarian crisis as the refugees struggle to find food and shelter.

Mohammad Afzal, a tribal elder from Bajaur who was hospitalized after the Pakistani military shelled his village last month, said the bombardment came after he and fellow tribesmen refused to set up a checkpoint to limit the movement of Taliban fighters. "We had a meeting with the government representatives and told them that the checkpoint wasn't necessary because there were no Taliban in our area," Afzal said. "Then a few hours later, the bombing started."

The Pakistani government, meanwhile, has extended only minimal support to lashkars that have chosen to face off against the well-trained and well-armed Taliban, tribal leaders say. "The government is not providing us with arms and ammunition. The nature of their support is that whenever there is a clash, they give air cover or cover by artillery fire," said Chitran, the tribal representative. "Sometimes when there is a suicide blast, they give us medical facilities. But even that is not much. It's usually just first aid, and what they give is very minimal."

Tribesmen who decide to fight face the risk of bloody Taliban reprisals.

In Charmang, a town about 30 miles east of the border with Afghanistan, two tribal leaders were kidnapped and beheaded three weeks ago after organizing 300 to 400 tribesmen into a lashkar to fight the Taliban in Bajaur. Their bodies were tossed into the road for all to see the next day, witnesses said.

"We're in a constant state of panic and fear. We're sandwiched between the government and the Taliban," said Rahimullah, a resident of Charmang who, like many ethnic Pashtuns in the area, uses only one name. "If we support the government openly, then we have to face the wrath of the Taliban."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company