The Taliban continue to target the tribes that are attempting to organize in the Northwest Frontier Province and the lawless tribal areas. Taliban forces in Swat attacked a tribe that has organized against the extremists in the Matta region.
At least seven tribal members and three Taliban fighters, including local commanders, were killed in the clash. The Taliban took more than sixty members of the tribe hostage.
The anti-Taliban tribe is led by Pir Samiullah. He claimed to have organized a lashkar, or tribal militia, of more than 10,000 tribesmen in October to oppose the Taliban and protect the 20 villages in the Matta region.
The Taliban have threatened to kill all captured government officials in Swat. It is unclear if this includes anti-Taliban tribal leaders.
The Pakistani government has been courting the tribes to support the efforts to take on the Taliban in the tribal areas and in the settled districts of the Northwest Frontier Province. Tribal lashkars have been formed in Peshawar, Swat, Dir, Buner, Bajaur, Khyber, and Arakzai.
The clashes between the local tribes and the Taliban in Swat highlight Pakistan’s problems with its tribal strategy. The tribes that have backed the government are marginal players, and there is no overall organization or support from the major tribal leaders or the Pakistani government, a senior US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal.
Samiullah’s tribe highlights this point: it is part of the Gujjar community and not a member of the dominant Pashtun tribal confederations that support the Taliban. This serves to isolate them from support once the military withdraws from the region.
The Pakistani tribes are operating as distinct, local fighting forces, while the Taliban can coordinate their activities across the northwest and inside eastern Afghanistan.
“The tribes are limited by geography, the TTP [the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan] is not,” a senior official told The Long War Journal on Sept. 29. “Moreover, the Taliban out-number and out-gun them by more than 20 to 1. The tribes may achieve tactics success in some areas, but likely will fail to achieve strategic success.”
“These tribes are like islands in a sea of Taliban,” a US military officer told The Long War Journal. “The leaders will be butchered once the Army pulls out of Swat.”
The Taliban have ruthlessly targeted tribes looking to back the government even while the military is active in some of the regions. Hundreds of tribal leaders have been found murdered and sometimes beheaded.
The Taliban have also attacked tribal leaders and jirgas as they organized against the extremists. Several tribes in Kohat attempted to organize against the Taliban in January 2008. A suicide attack on a tribal leader’s meeting in early March killed 40 and wounded more than 40. Several senior tribal leaders were killed, and the organized resistance to the Taliban faltered.
On Sept. 10, the Taliban attacked a mosque filled with Ramadan worshippers in Dir in northwestern Pakistan, killing 25 and wounding more than 50. The attack came just one month after local tribes began to organize against the extremist group.
On Oct. 10, a suicide bomber struck at a meeting of Ali Zai tribal leaders, killing 55 and wounding more than 100. The attack occurred as the tribal leaders were in the middle of a meeting to discuss the formation of a militia to secure the region.
Background on the fighting in Swat
Pakistani forces have been fighting forces aligned with Mullah Fazlullah, a radical cleric of the outlawed Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM – the Movement for the Implementation of Mohammad’s Sharia Law). Fazlullah wields considerable power in Swat.
The TNSM is known as the “Pakistani Taliban” and is the group behind the ideological inspiration for the Afghan Taliban. The TNSM sent more than 10,000 fighters into Afghanistan to fight US forces during Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001.
Fazlullah merged with Baitullah Mehsud’s Tehrik-e-Taliban, or the movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, in December 2007.
Fazlullah has successfully organized anti-polio and anti-girls schools campaigns throughout the region. The Swat region has been a safe haven and training ground for the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda.
The military began operations to clear the Taliban in Swat and neighboring Shangla in November 2007 after Fazlullah’s forces overran the district. The military claimed it would clear the Taliban from Swat by mid-December 2007.
After a half a year of brutal fighting, the government negotiated a peace accord with Fazlullah in May 2008. Fighting restarted in July 2008. The government said the operation would be completed by September. In a recent briefing to Parliament, a senior Pakistani general admitted Swat and Shangla are under Taliban control.
Hundreds of Pakistani soldiers and policemen have been killed in fighting in Swat since January 2007. The military has not provided numbers of soldiers killed or captured this year. The Taliban have destroyed more 125 schools in Swat in the past year.
Swat was once Pakistan’s vacation paradise, rich with golf courses, hiking trails, a ski resort, and archeological sites. The fighting has destroyed Swat’s tourist industry. Fazlullah’s forces have burned down the ski lodge and bombed the lifts.
The military is also fighting a difficult battle in tribal agency of Bajaur, where the Taliban rule. The government refused to take action in the Taliban strongholds of North and South Waziristan, where peace agreements have recently been signed with local Taliban leaders.
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