Asia Program

Tread Lightly With Pakistan's Lashkars

By Michael Kugelman, Program Associate, Asia Program

Jul 16, 2009

(This story originally appeared in the Asia Times on Thursday, July 15.)

Last month, the Taliban blew up a mosque in Pakistan's northwest district of Upper Dir, near the Swat Valley. More than 30 people died. In today's Pakistan, such news is depressingly familiar.

What followed, however, is not.

On their elders' orders, more than 1,000 tribesmen grabbed their guns and converged on Taliban fighters, killing several of them. In recent days, these tribal militias, known as lashkars, have captured and killed additional militants.

This affair has drawn considerable attention in Islamabad and Washington. Both capitals point to the lashkars' actions as emblematic of the anti-Taliban sentiment surging through a country long reluctant to acknowledge, much less address, its extremist threat.

Pakistan's military is now admitting past failures to support lashkars, describing them as keys to the army's success, and encouraging them to rise up in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). With the army preparing for a full-scale assault on the tribal region of South Waziristan, Islamabad may be telegraphing a desire to strengthen its links with lashkars there.

That would be a big mistake. Close associations with FATA lashkars pose grave risks, and Islamabad should tread very lightly in its dealings with them. Washington, which has expressed support for engaging lashkars, should lower its expectations.

In recent years, lashkar efforts to combat militancy in the tribal belt have failed miserably. In South Waziristan, lashkars were formed—with Islamabad's support—in 2003 and 2007. Yet today the area is a Taliban stronghold, and anti-Taliban militiamen are scarce. Bajaur and Orakzai, the tribal areas with some of the highest numbers of lashkar fighters, have suffered some of Pakistan's most vicious anti-lashkar violence.

lashkars' few successes have mostly occurred in the settled regions of the North-West Frontier Province (such as Upper Dir), where militias have killed militants outright, driven them out, or compelled them to disarm. lashkars' rare triumphs in FATA have been restricted to areas such as parts of Bajaur—where the Taliban's presence was weak to start with.

From a tactical perspective, the lashkars' struggles have a simple explanation: they are drastically out-numbered and out-armed. So why not assist these undermanned anti-Taliban fighters?

Because more complex factors are at play. FATA's lashkars share the same Pashtun ethnicity with Taliban forces, and are often hesitant to fight their ethnic kin. Also, Washington's use of Predator drones in the tribal areas—a deeply unpopular policy in Pakistan that is tacitly supported by Islamabad—makes lashkar members uneasy about partnerships with Pakistan's government.

Furthermore, lashkars are tribal militias. Fiercely independent, they answer to their elders, never to outside authorities, and depend on their own modest resources. They respond to local, specific grievances, and disband once they have done so. lashkars are irregular militias, not permanent self-defense forces. They specialize in self-initiated, localized missions, and not in ongoing campaigns directed by central authorities against national threats.

For these reasons, Islamabad should exercise extreme caution. The army has little reason to disrupt the Pashtun tribal hierarchy or the modest gains against extremism—as witnessed in Upper Dir—this system may help produce. Additionally, the continued use of drones suggests that lashkars may abruptly reject any largesse from Pakistan and turn its guns on the army.

Indeed, funneling arms and pledging support to Pashtun tribesmen in one of the world's most unstable and militarized regions is a recipe for blowback. Several decades ago, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Pakistani and American guns and money poured into the same tribal areas, spawning some of the very militants sought by Islamabad and Washington today.

Unfortunately, however, Islamabad's policy options are not always so simple. In recent months, the Taliban has slaughtered scores of elders, undermining Pashtun tribal hierarchies and hastening a breakdown of the tribal order. As a result, besieged tribesmen have appealed to the government for help. In these cases, Islamabad is faced with a conundrum: come to their rescue and face the risks, or say no and watch them fail.

In effect, Islamabad should follow this mantra: do not help the lashkars unless asked, and when asked, help them, but only until the immediate objective is attained. Where tribal hierarchies are intact, let the lashkars do their thing and do not interfere. When they beg for assistance, offer arms and other tactical support. Yet when the original threat has been removed, wish the lashkar well and move on.

Additionally, the government should not promise assistance unless it intends to follow through. On several occasions, tribesmen have formed lashkars after promises of backing from the army—only to suffer great losses after the military reneged. Tribesmen from Bajaur to Swat have been left demoralized (or dead), both their homes and their faith in Islamabad destroyed.

Finally, authorities should never take unilateral actions, whether bullying (pressuring lashkars to fight and threatening reprisals if they fail to do so) or downright misguided (such as the decision by North-West Frontier Province officials in February to distribute 30,000 rifles among villagers).

Concurrently, Islamabad—with Washington's help—must bring immediate economic relief to the FATA. The region is largely bereft of services, highly food-insecure and desperately poor—per capita income is less than US$1.50 a day. So instead of handing out 30,000 rifles, provide 30,000 sacks of rice. Strengthening livelihoods, not tribal warriors, is what ultimately reduces the Taliban's appeal.

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