September 30-October 06, 2011

by Zia Ur Rehman

Under fire for opposing the Taliban, tribal lashkars look up to the state for help. Weapons in civilian hands may solve some of the government’s problems, but may also create new ones

At least 45 people were killed in the September 15 suicide attack that targeted members of an anti-Taliban lashkar (militia) at a funeral in Jandol area of Dir district. On September 3, Taliban abducted 25 children from the Mamoond town in Bajaur Agency where the locals had made a lashkar. At least 56 people were killed and 123 injured in a suicide attack on a mosque during Friday prayers in Jamrud area of Khyber Agency on August 19. Most of those killed were members of the Kukikhel tribal lashkar. At least 20 members of anti-Taliban lashkars have been killed in various attacks in Khyber and Bajaur in the last two weeks.

“We will target the weddings and funerals of anyone involved in pro-government activities or raising lashkars against us,” warned Sirajuddin, spokesman of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Malakand division.

After several failed attempts to stem the rising militancy in the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the government is encouraging tribesmen to form their own militias to fight the Taliban. Over the past few years, tribes have organised lashkars in Bajaur, Peshawar, Dir, Buner, Lakki Marwat, Khyber Agency and other areas with support from the government.

In some parts of the region, the tribes have fought off the Taliban and now conduct armed patrols. Houses of Taliban members and supporters were burned down. The Taliban responded by deploying suicide bombers to assassinate tribal leaders and to inflict massive casualties on lashkar members during tribal jirgas (councils) or funerals. Hundreds of people have been killed in such attacks in the last few years.

Lashkars have long been part of the Pashtun society in the tribal regions. Typically, they hunt down outlaws, address family feuds that go out of control, or even challenge the government on particular policies. Pakistan’s tribal areas are governed by the notorious Frontier Crimes Regulation- a set of rules introduced during the British Raj in 1901. The jirga makes decisions on local matters and uses lashkars to implement them.

But the laskhars raised to fight the trained, resourceful and unapologetic Taliban are no traditional tribal militias. The increasing brutality of the Taliban, who abduct and murder the locals and burn down schools, has compelled the tribes to respond with an indigenous armed movement against them.

“The government is benefiting from such lashkars in its fight against the Taliban in Swat, Buner, Dir and Peshawar areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” said a provincial minister who belongs to Swat. “Therefore, the government supports them.”

But some tribal elders see things differently. They believe the government has failed to protect the tribesmen from the atrocities of the Taliban, after which the tribes raised lashkars to protect themselves.

Security experts believe the government’s decision to support a centuries-old tribal tradition that encourages civilians to take up arms could eventually lead to a civil war in the tribal areas.

In March this year, a powerful anti-Taliban militia in Peshawar threatened to stop cooperating with state authorities after a deadly suicide bombing on a funeral killed 37 people.

Dilawar Khan, head of a lashkhar in Matani area of Peshawar, has long demanded more money and weapons from the government. He says the government encouraged them to rise up against the militants, but did not give them the support they needed. “We are still relying on our own old-fashioned guns against the sophisticated weapons of Taliban and Al Qaeda,” said Khan.

“Tribal lashkars are typically under-resourced, ill-trained and vulnerable to suicide attacks and targeted killings. They cannot fight with the trained, well-organised and better-armed militant groups with global links and agendas,” said Idrees Kamal, a leader of Aman Tehrik, a provincial civil society alliance. He said the locals were fighting the Taliban without support, salaries of benefits. The government, he said, should pay the lashkars the same compensation as police or paramilitary forces.

“We have been witnessing a horrible backlash from the Taliban”, Kamal said. “They are bombing our lashkars, but our weddings, funerals, and jirgas, and beheading our families.”

Political analyst fear anti-Taliban lashkars would increase violence and sow the seeds of unending tribal feuds which could in turn spiral out of control. “Organising private militias may have serious consequences for the state,” said Muhammad Qasim, a Peshawar-based journalist. “Too much power and weapons in civilian hands has risks,” he said. It can lead to warlordism, creating a new set of problems to replace those posed by the Taliban.”

The writer is a journalist and a researcher who works on militancy and human rights.