Pakistani anti-Taliban militias offer lessons for U.S. in Afghanistan

Map shows location of suicide bombings in Pakistan.
By Karin Brulliard
Tuesday, December 7, 2010

MATANAI, PAKISTAN - In this village within miles of the Afghan border, Noor Malik is struggling to keep his pro-government tribal militia alive.

In the fall, a suicide bombing at a cattle market killed 21 people, among them Malik's father, founder of the Adezai tribe's militia. Two recent blasts killed five tribesmen and crippled others. Taliban rockets have obliterated sections of the family compound, near the northwestern city of Peshawar.

"We are at the top of the militants' lists," said Malik, a baby-faced 25-year-old who inherited control of the area's leading anti-Taliban force. "We cannot go out to do anything."

U.S. military officials hail the formation of village security forces in Afghanistan as a potential game-changer in a stumbling war, citing the relative success of similar units in Iraq. But Pakistan may be the better comparison, because tribes on either side of the border share a common Pashtun heritage. Here a two-year-old effort serves as a cautionary tale about tribal defense groups in a region where insurgents are deeply entrenched and state institutions are weak.

Tribal militias, called lashkars, have degraded the Taliban's influence in many parts of Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal belt and elsewhere across the nation's northwest. But in many others places, the militias have buckled because of insufficient government support and have faced accusations of abuse. Most of all, experts and lashkar members say, they have provided the Taliban with an enticing target.

Since October 2008, the Taliban has resolutely deployed suicide bombers and assassins against Pakistan's tribal militias and has taken special aim at elders such as Malik's father, Abdul Malik, an erstwhile Taliban ally. His grave, topped with flags and glittery ornaments, lies off a dirt road in Matanai.

The latest attack occurred Monday, when twin bombings in the tribal area of Mohmand killed at least 50 people and injured 120, officials said. Militia members from the Khwezai area of Mohmand had come to the local government office Monday to collect stipends when the building was attacked. The Khwezai militia is considered among the most effective in the tribal areas.

"We have clearly conveyed to the lashkar people . . . to stop their activities, but they did not listen," said Abdul Wali, the Pakistani Taliban's leader in Mohmand. "They are American stooges because they are supporting the government."

In 2008, Pakistan's army and police began encouraging tribal elders to form lashkars, in some cases offering rations, arms, ammunition and payment. In interviews, lashkar chiefs said they agreed because Taliban abductions and assassinations in their areas had begun to threaten their clans' local influence and because they considered expanding militancy a threat to the nation.

Parallels with neighbor

Pakistan's lashkar programs are not identical to the U.S. and Afghan efforts to organize village defense forces in Afghanistan. There, U.S. military officials insist, the groups will be paid, monitored and registered by the government and backed up by Afghan security forces.

But the basic idea is the same: Proponents say the Pashtun tribes of the rugged Afghanistan-Pakistan border region best know the area and its inhabitants, have a stake in securing their villages and are skilled with weapons.

And, as in rural Afghanistan, supporters note, there are few other options in the remote, lawless hamlets of Pakistan's tribal belt, where there are no federal police. That lashkars are targeted is a sign of their success, said Naveed Malik, who recently retired as the top police official in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where he pioneered the use of lashkars as a homegrown Taliban waged an insurgency against the government in 2008.

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