As the Taliban and al Qaeda insurgency rages in northwestern Pakistan, the Pakistani government has stepped up its efforts to engage the local tribes to battle the extremists.
The effort to gain the support of the Pashtu tribes in northwestern Pakistan was highlighted when General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, the Chief of Staff of the Pakistani Army visited the Bajaur tribal agency, where a two-month old offensive against the Taliban is still underway.
Kiyani “expressed his satisfaction that local tribesmen have risen against miscreants and are fully supporting the Army,” Geo TV reported. Miscreant is a term often used by Pakistanis to refer to foreign or al Qaeda fighters. “He reiterated that success in this operation was directly linked with popular support” in the tribal areas and the settled districts of the Northwest Frontier Province.
The current operation against the Taliban in Bajaur has been touted as a critical battle in the fight against the wave of extremism that is threatening to tear Pakistan apart. The military launched the offensive in early August, and has faced stiff resistance against well-trained and dug in Taliban fighters. To help fight the Taliban and its al Qaeda allies, the military and government have turned to Bajaur’s tribes, with some success.
Bajaur long been known to be a hub of al Qaeda and Taliban activity. Faqir Mohammed, the deputy leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, has established a parallel government in the agency and maintains military control of several regions. Al Qaeda has long been known to use Bajaur as a command and control hub for operations in northeastern Afghanistan. Faqir has sheltered senior al Qaeda leaders, including Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second in command.
The Pakistani military has claimed more than 1,000 Taliban killed and more than 2,000 wounded during the current Bajaur operation, while the military has only had 63 soldiers killed and 212 injured. The numbers could not be verified independently. The Pakistani military is known to significantly downplay its own casualties during past operations while inflating enemy casualties.
The military also claims five senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders have been killed, including Faqir’s son and Abu Saeed al Masri. The military reported that Abu Saeed al Masri, who is better known as Abu Mustafa al Yazid, was killed in early August. Yazid is al Qaeda’s senior most commander in Afghanistan. But Yazid is not dead: he has been seen on videotape two times since the Pakistani military made the claim.
The military has given a rosy estimate for clearing the Taliban from Bajaur. “My timeframe for Bajaur is anything from between one-and-a-half to two months to bring about stability,” Major General Tariq Khan, the Frontier Corps commander who is charge of the operation in Bajaur, recently told reporters.
The Pakistani military made similar estimates for the operation in Swat, which was launched in early November 2007. Back then, the military claimed Swat would be cleared of the Taliban by Dec. 15, and the world renowned ski resort would be operational. Fighting in Swat is still ongoing while the ski lodge has been burnt down and the lifts demolished.
Courting the tribes throughout the northwest
Over the past several months, the tribes have organized lashkars, or militias, in regions in Bajaur, Peshawar, Khyber, Swat, Dir, Buner, and Lakki Marwat. The tribes have had some success in driving the Taliban from local areas by conducting patrols and burning down the homes of Taliban fighters and their supporters.
Pakistan has touted its tribal strategy as being crucial to it security plan, but the rise of the Pakistani Taliban and the existing tribal dynamics work against the government.
The idea of using the tribes to fight the Taliban is not new in fight against the Taliban in northwestern Pakistan. The government raised lashkars to fight the Taliban in North and South Waziristan in 2004 and 2005. The Taliban, then led by Nek Mohammed and Abdullah Mehsud, routed the lashkars and fought the Pakistani military to a stalemate. These battles led to the government to negotiate a series of humiliating peace accords in North and South Waziristan, and beyond.
But today, the Pakistani government is engaging the tribes throughout the tribal areas and the greater Northwest Frontier Province and possibly inside Afghanistan.
“The scale and scope of the engagement” with the tribes has increased since the early fighting in Waziristan, a senior US military intelligence source told The Long War Journal, intimating that the tribal engagement spans across the Durand line into Afghanistan. “And the degree to which the enemy has exercised overt control” over large segments of northwestern Pakistan and Afghanistan has also changed to favor the Taliban.
The Pakistani government has to coordinate different strategies for each individual tribe, making the task of tribal engagement difficult. “The dynamics [with each tribe] are very different, as is the strategic situation of each tribe,” the source stated. “The biggest single hurdle is that there is no over-arching body to coordinate tribal resistance In contrast to the TTP [the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan].”
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 Pakistani government claimed the Taliban and al Qaeda are pouring in from Kunar and neighboring provinces in Afghanistan to reinforce the legions fighting in Bajaur.
“The tribes are limited by geography, the TTP is not,” the source stated. “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.”
The problems are complicated by the tribes’ unwillingness to cooperate with the government and the military. “We keep the government away,” a senior tribal leader in Lakki Marwat told Geo TV. The tribes fear cooperation with the government will further turn the Taliban and sympathetic tribes against them. “If we became part of the government they would become an excuse, a liability, a rallying cry against us,” the Lakki Marwat tribal leader said. This attitude prevents the military from providing the needed security to oppose massed Taliban attacks.
Other tribes claim to be equally opposed to the Taliban and US and NATO forces operating across the border in Afghanistan. “For us, the Taliban, NATO and the United States are all equals,” a tribal leader in Bajaur said.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.