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

By Karin Brulliard
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; A01

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.

"That is how the cities have been saved," he said, citing a drop this year in attacks in Peshawar and other northwestern cities. "They relieve the police from working 14 to 18 hours a day."

Indeed, Pakistani media frequently report on the anti-Taliban exploits of laskhars, hundreds of which are estimated to operate.

When the lashkar program began in Pakistan, U.S. officials described the move as a promising sign of Pakistani resistance to the Taliban. But Lt. Col. Michael Shavers, a U.S. military spokesman, said American military assistance to Pakistan does not fund lashkars.

In a report this year to Pakistan's Parliament, a federal minister responsible for the nation's frontier regions, Najmuddin Khan, said the government is "providing full monetary, material and moral support to these lashkars," according to Pakistani news reports. In interviews, however, security officials acknowledged that the program was never systematized and that arms, training and payment were given only on a case-by-case basis.

To many tribesmen who stood up to the Taliban, the inconsistent support amounts to betrayal. In the village of Bazad Khel, adjacent to Matanai, lashkar leader Fahim ur Rehman said authorities have given his 600-member force "not even a knife" in two years, despite initial promises of support.

Even so, Rehman's men have fought alongside Pakistani forces in nearby Khyber, he said, and have methodically tracked down militants who once menaced the area with kidnappings, killings and attacks on police. On a recent day, Rehman showed off lists of captured militants and cellphone photos of the bodies of insurgents killed by his forces.

But Pakistani authorities often released the militants after they were turned over, he said. Insurgents, meanwhile, have bombed Rehman's home and offices several times, killing dozens and causing his automotive and real estate businesses to falter, he said. After spending about $400,000 of his money on the lashkar, Rehman said, he is selling his vehicles and stopping patrols.

"If the police did their job, they could stop militancy," Rehman said, a pistol on his right thigh as he drove through the teeming village that is under his watch. "Instead, they ask people like me to do it."

'Government Taliban'

Human rights activists say the lashkars inhabit a disturbing gray area. Though they are not formally trained in law enforcement, they are, in practice, encouraged to kill and capture suspected militants. In one recent incident, a tribal militia torched 13 houses of alleged insurgents in the Bajaur tribal area.

Pakistan's top human rights lawyer has criticized lashkars, as has Amnesty International, which referred to them as "government Taliban." Some security officials echo that concern.

"We have not really supported that concept, because someday they may come to haunt you," said Lt. Gen. Asif Yasin Malik, the Peshawar-based army commander for troops in Pakistan's northwest.

To some observers, the lashkars symbolize the overarching problem of Pakistan's outdated tribal system. Under British-era rules, tribes in the area have relative independence and are responsible for their security. In recent years, that autonomy has made the area fertile ground for the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which poorly armed tribal groups can hardly match, said Pakistani researcher Imtiaz Gul.

"Basically, you need police," said Gul, author of "The Most Dangerous Place," a book about Pakistan's tribal areas. "What would help would be to integrate these areas into the mainland."

But police are weak even in parts of the northwest outside the tribal areas, such as Matanai. Here, Noor Malik's band of men roam about his garden brandishing rifles and wearing vests packed with ammunition, insisting they are determined to keep the peace.

Malik and a co-commander, Dilawar Khan, boasted that they have rejected Taliban offers of $500,000 to disband their lashkar. Now, they said, that is the price on each of their heads.

But they expressed disgust with what they said was a lack of support from Pakistani authorities, who, Malik said, gave them 30 AK-47s and some ammunition but little else.

"Poor people join the militants and get vehicles, guns, control and influence," Khan said. "On the other hand, in fighting them, people like us are growing weaker."

Special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.

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