Pakistani tribesmen organize to fight Taliban insurgents

A tribal elder addresses an anti-Taliban jirga in Wari, in the Dir area, Pakistan, September 2008.
A tribal elder addresses an anti-Taliban jirga in Wari, in the Dir area, Pakistan, September 2008. Saeed Shah / MCT

WARI, Pakistan — A popular resistance movement is emerging in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province to challenge Islamic extremists, who now exercise control over whole districts and maintain a stranglehold over the local population.

The movement in both the province and the lawless tribal territory bordering Afghanistan relies on fierce tribal customs and widespread ownership of guns in the north west of the country, to raise traditional private armies, known as a lashkar, each with the strength of hundreds or several thousand volunteers.

The movement arose after local tribal leaders came to realize decided that the state can't or won't come to their aid as a radical, alien, form of Islam seeks to impose itself on them down the barrel of an AK-47.

There are parallels with the "Sunni Awakening" in Iraq, where tribesmen took on al Qaida militants in Anbar province and elsewhere. While it's in only a few pockets so far in northwest Pakistan, its existence could mark a turning point in Pakistan's battle with violent extremism.

These tribal armies can't stop individual acts of terrorism, such as the suicide bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad last week. But they may be able to stop the development of an extremist mini-state, which would threaten the existence of both nuclear-armed Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan.

The Taliban are heavily armed and entrenched in a line that runs along the Afghan border from South Waziristan, northward through Bajaur and Mohmand, in the federally administered tribal area, and in adjacent "settled" districts in NWFP, including Swat, which are governed by provincial authorities. The lashkars are appearing in many areas, including Bajaur, in the federally administered tribal zone or FATA, and Dir and Buner, which are in the "settled" areas of NWFP.

"There's going to be a civil war. These lashkars are spreading," said Asfandyar Wali Khan, leader of the Awami National Party, which controls the provincial government in NWFP. "It will be the people versus the Taliban."

Dir — a long, narrow valley in NWFP — is sandwiched between Taliban strongholds in Bajaur and Afghanistan to the west and more militants in the valley of Swat to its east.

Last weekend around 200 elders from the Payandakhel tribe met in Wari, a small town in the north of the region. In the dusty front yard of a high school, they held a traditional tribal meeting, or jirga, and made rousing speeches that resulted in a resolution to assemble their own lashkar. Among the decisions was that anyone sheltering Taliban in the area would be severely punished.

"The government forces cannot even save themselves, what good will they be to us? They are just silent spectators," Malik Zarene, a tribal elder, told the crowd. "We will rise for our own defense."

Many of the men at the jirga arrived with machine guns, some dating back to the 1980s Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The meeting was called in response to a scare a few days earlier, when a group of Taliban tried to seize a local school and take 300 children hostage. Without waiting for the authorities to act, tribesmen themselves successfully tackled the assailants.

Those at the jirga said that they'd watched with horror in recent years as extremists pounced on Swat next door, which used to be known as a tourist destination. A full-scale army operation in Swat since November hasn't quelled the insurgency there.

In Dir, the local tribes have demanded that the federal army not deploy, to which it has agreed.

"Once the army comes in, these Taliban fire at the army, and the whole thing escalates," said a senior security official in Dir who can't be named because he isn't authorized to speak to the media. "It is best this is tackled in the traditional way."

There are limits to what the tribal lashgars can do in the near term. Up to now, they've been self-financed and self-armed, because the provincial government says it lacks the means to provide direct support. Also, it'll be difficult to organize lashgars in the tribal areas of north and south Waziristan, where Pakistani Taliban and al Qaida have killed local tribal chiefs and control wide swaths of territory.

In southern Dir, the Sulthankheil tribe raised their anti-Taliban lashkar a month ago in villages around the town of Khall. There, 10,000 locals registered to serve. Every night, 20 armed men patrol each village with orders to shoot any intruders.

"If we had not formed this lashkar, we could soon be like Swat or Waziristan," said Akhunzada Sikandar Hazrat, a Sulthankheil tribal chief. "The police only exist inside their stations. If the people show they are against the Taliban, how can they come here?"

In Bajaur, a hotbed of Taliban and al Qaida fighters, an army operation that began in early August against militants has encouraged the locals to rise up. The Salarzai tribe gathered a 4,000-strong lashkar to chase Taliban out of their part of Bajaur. It was perhaps the first sign of an organized resistance in the tribal belt, which had looked lost to the Taliban. This week, the resistance movement spread to Khyber, another tribal area, where in the Malagori district, a lashkar destroyed militant bases and arrested Taliban.

Initially the Salarzai welcomed the Taliban for its emphasis on strict law and order, but after experiencing life under a particularly savage local commander, they rebelled.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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