On Friday, Dawn reported that tribesmen near Swat Valley are forming militias, or lashkars, to prevent the Taliban from expanding their influence in the region. Maj. Gen. Sajjad Ghani, who is leading the offensive in the upper part of Swat valley, told the news agency, “They are resolutely defending against the advance of the Taliban. That’s the silver lining that I can see.”
According to news agencies, several people were wounded or killed in a clash between armed villagers and Taliban fighters in Kalam on Thursday. A similar confrontation also occurred in Lower Dir. The Wall Street Journal, in its coverage, reported, “Hundreds of armed residents of Kalam, a picturesque mountain town of about 50,000 people, came out to fight about 50 Taliban fighters who tried to enter, said the town’s deputy mayor, Shamshad Haqqi. He said several militants were killed or captured amid intense fighting.” Haqqi told the Associated Press, “We will not allow Taliban to come here.”
Although the formation of tribal lashkars is significant in bolstering both the military’s offensive and perceptions of support for this war, this is not a new phenomenon. According to the Jamestown Foundation, “The lashkar is a traditional tribal militia, often formed on an ad hoc basis for the accomplishment of a specific purpose...Every tribesman in the lashkar is armed with his own weapon, food and supplies…They are assembled for the resolution of a particular issue and then disbanded. In general, the tribal lashkars have a good track record of bringing peace and order to their wild land, but they twice failed to expel Al Qaeda fighters from the tribal region in 2003 and 2007, when big lashkars with thousands of volunteers were formed in South Waziristan.”
Joshua Foust at the Registan blog, commented further on the role of these local militias, and the government’s system of dealing with them:
That system…has broken down. In just the last year alone, thousands of tribal elders—who would normally organize and exert control and influence—have been beheaded by the Taliban. Since the Taliban is mostly a domestic force, they know exactly who to target to strategically weaken the domestic opposition against them…there were widespread reports of local communities raising Lashkars and begging for government help when they were surrounded and massacred by the Taliban. Islamabad ignored them, and in short order those Lashkars were scattered and fleeing in droves, their volunteers hoping to keep their heads attached to their bodies for the crime of trying to keep the Taliban out.
This time around, noted the Jamestown Foundation, “it [the raising of lashkars] is not just a mere display but a real and genuine indigenous movement against the militants who have created major problems for the local tribes.” While these militias must be supported by the military to prevent a repeat of what we witnessed before, the issue is not cut and dry. Last October the NY Times reported, “there are basic unwritten rules about the tribal militia in Pakistan that limit their impact.” For example, while the military can support these lashkars, they cannot initiate them. Moreover, “Great care is taken to make sure the lashkars do not become a threat to the military itself.” A general who spoke to the Times on condition of anonymity said that while the military was willing to lend supporting fire from artillery and helicopters, they would not give the militias heavy weapons, for fear of them becoming an offensive force.
Therefore, while lashkar developments are “good news” because they manifest a rising tide against the Taliban, their formation should be taken with a grain of salt, both in terms of their actual impact as well as their complex relationship with the Pakistan Army.
In reality, if we are looking to truly supplement the military’s offensive on the ground, both Pakistan’s Frontier Corps and police forces must be bolstered. The FC are vital because they are a localized Pashtun paramilitary force that have more legitimacy and on the ground insight into the region than the Pakistan’s mainly Punjabi military. Several analysts argue that the police can perhaps be the most effective force. RAND’s Christine Fair noted recently, “It’s always police that win insurgencies.” Hassan Abbas, in his report last month, “Police & Law Enforcement Reform in Pakistan,” cited Kelev I. Stepp’s Best Practices in Counterinsurgency, who emphasized the police should be “in the lead” with “the military providing backup support and strengthening the police with diversified training capabilities to help meet the security needs of the at-risk population.” If Pakistan wants to truly counter this militant threat, not just in this offensive but in the long run, overarching initiatives to overhaul and reform our law enforcement are vital.