For the past 10 years, Taliban and al-Qa`ida militants have been highly active in Pakistan’s northwest region. As these fighters expanded their presence in Pakistan after 2001, civilians increasingly became victim to Taliban violence. Beginning in 2007, tribal leaders in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KP) resumed organizing militias, known as lashkars, to counter the Taliban and their al-Qa`ida supporters.[1] The Pakistani government encouraged the establishment of these anti-Taliban lashkars following the military’s failure to rein in the Taliban and other militant groups on its own.

The Taliban responded to the formation of lashkars by deploying suicide bombers to assassinate tribal leaders and to inflict massive casualties on lashkar members during tribal gatherings. Today, lashkars have become increasingly frustrated with what they perceive as an inadequate amount of Pakistani government assistance, such as a failure to supply more ammunition, food, vehicles, and money. The government’s relationship with the lashkars is quickly deteriorating, and there are growing concerns that lashkars in both FATA and KP could disband. If this were to occur, it is likely that many lashkar members would resort to criminality, while others would join the Taliban’s ranks. Even more concerning, at least one lashkar leader actually threatened to use his militia to fight against the government on the side of the Taliban.

This article provides a recent history of lashkar formation in Pakistan, and warns that the government’s support of these militias poses future risks for Pakistan by creating powerful, armed tribal forces that could eventually threaten the writ of the state in the country’s northwest region.

A Recent History of Lashkars
The practice of forming lashkars to enforce jirga decisions is an old and popular custom among Pashtun tribes.[2] It has played a vital role in ensuring peace in FATA where the writ of the government is weak. Similar enforcement mechanisms also exist in Pakistan’s settled areas of KP.[3] The formation of lashkars in KP is rare, however, due to the presence of the police and other law enforcement agencies that serve to settle disputes and enforce the law. In both FATA and KP, lashkars were never designed to be permanent fighting forces. Instead, they were formed to resolve a dispute, and then disbanded after the dispute was settled.

After Taliban and al-Qa`ida fighters fled into Pakistan in late 2001, the jirga tribal system was thrown into disarray, and lashkar formation was temporarily halted.[4] It quickly became clear that any tribal leader or member who spoke against the Taliban was killed. Indeed, the Taliban and its al-Qa`ida allies murdered tribal elders with regularity, labeling dissenters as spies or pro-government agents. All three pillars of the tribal system—the jirga, hujra, and mosque—were attacked, leaving no room for the lashkars to exist. While the exact numbers are not known, it is estimated that some 700-900 tribal elders and other notables were assassinated between 2002 and 2010 in the tribal areas.[5] For the Taliban and al-Qa`ida, murdering tribal leaders was central to destroying tribal unity and eliminating competing centers of authority.

Yet in 2007, the government encouraged the formation of tribal lashkars to combat Taliban influence. This was the first time in history that the Pakistani government actively supported the formation of lashkars.[6] Unfortunately, the results of this initiative have been devastating for many villages in Pakistan’s tribal and settled areas, with scores of militia members and civilians slaughtered by Taliban suicide bombers.

The latest of these attacks occurred in Adezai village, a town of 7,000 people located 12 miles southeast of Peshawar in KP. On March 9, 2011, a suicide bomber attacked members of the lashkar while they were at a funeral, killing 37 people.[7] The same lashkar was victim of a Taliban attack in November 2009, when a suicide bomber assassinated the Adezai lashkar’s leader, Abdul Malik. The Adezai lashkar is just one example of the Taliban’s targeting campaign. Militants have targeted lashkar leaders and members in nearly every village and town that has formed a militia to combat the Taliban.

Lashkars as Permanent Fighting Forces
Besides the problem of lashkars being no match for the more powerful Taliban, the formation of lashkars is militarizing society in the tribal areas. Many lashkar members are involved in long-standing family feuds, or have a history of criminal activity such as engaging in car theft or kidnap-for-ransom. With the government encouraging the formation of lashkars, it is indirectly allowing some militias to engage in more criminal activity with the inadvertent sanction of the state. There are reports that some lashkars, having the license to prohibit weapons in cities and villages, have begun to extort civilians under the guise of providing them security. In some areas, well-known gangsters and other criminals have joined lashkars to avoid arrest by law enforcement, or to be protected from rival groups. In Adezai and Bazidkhel, for example, some lashkar volunteers have reportedly asked affluent citizens for protection money.

When questioned about the presence of criminals in lashkars, the former inspector general of police in KP, Malik Naveed Khan, admitted that some lashkar leaders and volunteers were indeed involved in criminal activity.[8] He added, however, that the Taliban were a bigger threat than the criminals and that the government has chosen to work with the “lesser evil.”[9] Asked whether he could see lashkars as a potential threat to the peace and security of the region, Khan said that the lashkars “are not as dangerous as the Taliban because the government keeps their records and has information about their families and villages.”[10]

Despite Naveed Khan’s assurances, there is reason for alarm. In recent months, lashkar leaders have started to speak negatively about the government, with some groups threatening to join the Taliban if the government fails to provide more assistance in the form of weapons and other aid. The current leader of the Adezai lashkar, for example, threatened the government on March 9, saying that he and his men would join the Taliban if they did not receive more ammunition.[11] He also threatened to disband the militia. Even if the Adezai lashkar leader’s threat to join the Taliban was posturing, if he were to simply disband the militia it is likely that many members—who are now trained and armed—would be more inclined to find daily sustenance through criminal activity or joining a Taliban faction. The Adezai lashkar is not alone. After the Taliban attacked the Shalbandai village lashkar in Buner District in 2008, the villagers threatened to disband the militia.[12] The constant Taliban attacks further exacerbate lashkar members’ anger at the government for its perceived inaction.

There are a number of reasons why government support is not more forthcoming. It appears that government leaders may be withholding support for some lashkars based on the political affiliation of its tribal chief. Some also argue that elements within Pakistan’s intelligence agencies do not want to see the Taliban defeated at this stage—presumably because intelligence sources may see the Afghanistan-focused Taliban as a potential strategic asset—which may also be why they are not providing more support to the lashkars. Farhat Taj, a well-known columnist for Pakistan’s Daily Times, argued that the government in KP privately admitted that they were under pressure from the security agencies not to support the lashkars.[13] “Popular jirga-backed lashkars are an anomaly in the ISI scheme of things for strategic depth in Afghanistan,” argued Taj.[14]

Pakistan’s government now faces a major decision: whether to continue to support lashkars, or to disband them. Both options have negative repercussions. Continuing support, while not necessarily problematic in the near-term, could strengthen the lashkars to the extent that they could pose a future threat to the government. Withdrawing support, on the other hand, would result in lashkars disbanding, which would drive armed lashkar members into criminal activity or into the ranks of the Taliban. Clearly, if the government is eventually going to disband these militias, it will want to do so before the militias become more powerful and further entrenched.

If some lashkars decide to join the ranks of the Taliban, and the two agree on power-sharing arrangements in an area, it would clearly mark a severe setback for the government. This outcome is certainly possible. Abdul Malik, the Adezai lashkar leader who was assassinated in November 2009, was a Taliban commander before he switched sides to become a lashkar leader. The same is likely true among lashkar cadre.

Pakistan’s current strategy of encouraging lashkars to fight the Taliban is fraught with danger. Arming civilians to fight the Taliban could push Pakistan toward more instability and further bloodshed. Lashkars, in general, are not prepared to fight the Taliban. Moreover, the Taliban not only strike at lashkar cadre, but also target civilians in the villages where lashkars are formed. Taliban attacks can actually push civilians further away from the government, especially when civilians perceive that the government is withholding adequate amounts of support for lashkars.

Instead of arming civilians for war, Pakistan’s government should focus on spreading its security blanket outward—such as by spending a larger portion of the aid it receives from the United States on strengthening law enforcement mechanisms in the tribal areas. It should also focus on meeting the needs of civilians in the tribal areas by providing education, health care, jobs and other steps to reduce poverty. Most Taliban fighters come from tribal regions where jobs are scarce, public schools are non-existent, and most of the inhabitants live in poverty.

Besides the toll that lashkars have on Pakistan’s civilian population, the even greater concern is that encouraging and arming tribal militias will backfire if these newly-minted fighters turn against the state. Indeed, it was not that long ago that Pakistan armed militias so that they could fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Today, many of those same militants now belong to the Pakistani Taliban, actively fighting their former sponsors in Islamabad. Encouraging and arming lashkars could also backfire in the future, sowing new seeds of instability in the troubled Pakistani state.

Daud Khattak is the Acting Director with RFE/RL’s Mashaal Radio in Prague, Czech Republic. Besides working in Afghanistan as Editor at Pajhwok Afghan News from 2005-2008, Mr. Khattak worked with Pakistani English daily newspapers covering the situation in KP and FATA. He also worked for Sunday Times London and contributed articles to the Christian Science Monitor. In 2010, his paper on the situation in Swat, “The Battle for Pakistan: Swat Valley,” was published by the New America Foundation.

[1] Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province, is considered the “settled areas” of Pakistan’s tribal regions. The districts within KP are under the control of the provincial government, and Pakistan’s police and courts operate within the territory. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas, on the other hand, do not have regular police and courts. Instead, FATA is governed by a colonial-era law called the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR). Due to the severity of punishments under the FCR, it is often called draconian and criticized by civilians in FATA and human rights bodies. A government official, called the political agent, is responsible for implementing the law in FATA—each agency has a separate political agent. The political agent is the representative of the KP governor, who is the representative of the president of Pakistan.

[2] A jirga is an assembly of tribal elders where disputes are resolved. For example, a tribal jirga will decide issues such as family feuds, or other problems relating to the tribe. Both parties in the dispute are bound by the jirga’s decision.

[3] Lashkars in the settled areas were until recently known as cheegha. Cheegha or chagha means a “cry.” Usually, a village elder or tribal leader will call people together to face a particular problem or threat. Due to the recent popularity of the term “lashkar,” cheegha militias are now also called lashkars.

[4] Hujra is a community guest house in the Pashtun system where they welcome guests as well as gather to discuss key issues and make decisions. The political agent is a government officer responsible for maintaining peace in a specific area with the support of the tribal elders.

[5] Syed Irfan Ashraf, “New Strategy of Soft Targets,” Dawn, December 14, 2010.

[6] The government did, however, raise lashkars to fight in Kashmir in 1948, but the circumstances were different. In 1948, the government of Pakistan covertly pushed the tribesmen, know for their fighting skills, to go and fight Indian forces in Kashmir. This was an invading army of tribesmen and could be considered a kind of lashkar. Nevertheless, before 2007 the government never supported the formation of lashkars. Lashkars would be formed and disbanded by tribal elders, not by the government.

[7] Ali Hazrat Bacha, “Suicide Attack on Funeral Prayer Leaves 43 Dead, 52 Injured,” Dawn, March 10, 2011.

[8] Malik Naveed Khan was the key figure in organizing anti-Taliban lashkars on the outskirts of Peshawar.

[9] Personal interview, Malik Naveed Khan, March 2011.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Javed Aziz Khan, “Adezai Lashkar to Go On if Supported by Govt,” The News International, March 14, 2011.

[12] They eventually did disband the militia in April 2009 when the Taliban marched into Swat.

[13] Farhat Taj, “Adezai and the ANP,” Daily Times, March 12, 2011.

[14] Ibid.

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