Pakistani government forcing tribes to fight Taliban

Map of the tribal areas and the Northwest Frontier Province. The government signed peace agreements in the red agencies/ districts (the military said Shangla was under Taliban control in October); purple districts are under de facto Taliban control; yellow regions are under Taliban influence.

The Taliban continue to ruthlessly attack the Bajaur tribes that are organizing against the extremists as Pakistan’s practice of compelling the tribes to fight the Taliban may destabilize the region further.

The latest strike, which appears to be a suicide attack, took place in a mosque during prayers in the Mamond region in Bajaur.

Nine people were killed, including the leader of a “national” lashkar, or tribal militia, and several more were wounded, The Associated Press of Pakistan reported.

Today’s attack follows a gun battle in Bajaur on Nov. 17, after a Taliban force estimated at 150 strong attacked a tribal leader’s home in the Damadola region in Bajaur. The assault was led by none other than Faqir Mohammed, the leader of the Taliban in Bajaur.

The Taliban killed four “elders” of the Mamond tribe and three tribal fighters. Eight tribal leaders were captured, including the leader of the anti-Taliban militia, but three eventually escaped. One of the tribal leaders identified Faqir as being among the Taliban force.

The captured tribal leaders will be tried by a Taliban shura, or council, Taliban spokesman Mullah Omar told Dawn. “They would be punished for killing a Taliban “commander” so that no other tribe would dare to raise an anti-militant lashkar,” the news agency reported.

The Taliban have targeted Bajaur tribes looking to back the government, even while the military is active in some of the regions. Scores of tribal leaders have been found murdered, some are found beheaded.

The Salarzai tribal in Bajaur has been hit hard over the past several months. Tribal leaders claim to have raised more than 10,000 fighters to form a lashkar, or tribal militia. The Salarzai have been burning the homes of Taliban members and providing security for the region.

Twenty-two members of the Salarzai tribe were killed, including the leader of the militia, and more than 45 were wounded after a suicide bomber detonated in the middle of a tribal meeting on Nov. 6.

The Pakistani military has been battling the Taliban in Bajaur since August. The tribal area is a known command and control hub for al Qaeda’s operations in northeastern Afghanistan. The military has relied on airstrikes and artillery barrages to dislodge the Taliban from fortified positions.

Pakistan’s counterinsurgency plan alienates the tribes

Pakistan’s strategy to counter the Taliban with tribal fighters is flawed in several ways, several US military and intelligence official who wish to remain anonymous told The Long War Journal. The tribal groups are disorganized and often do not want to work in conjunction with the military. But even more troubling, the Pakistani military has forced many the tribes in Bajaur and elsewhere to turn on the Taliban.

“Some tribal leaders say they have little choice but to fight their brothers, cousins and neighbors,” The Washington Post reported on Nov. 11 after touring the carnage in Bajaur. “The Pakistani military, they say, has threatened to bomb their villages if they do not battle the Taliban.” The Pakistani military has followed through on these threats on several occasions.

These ultimatums to the tribes have occurred beyond Bajaur. In Khyber, the military “sent a notice to local tribal elders in Jamrud warning that in case of a failure to expel Taliban from their areas, they would have to face the consequences under the FCR [Frontier Crimes Regulations],” Daily Times reported. The Frontier Crimes Regulations is a set of antiquated laws dating back to 1848 that govern Pakistan’s tribal areas. The law allows the military to practice collective punishment on the tribes if they fail to live up to agreements.

The military has also threatened to destroy homes of the tribes in the Mohmand tribal agency if they fail to expel the Taliban. “We warn the Mohmand tribes to sever ties with Tehreek-e-Taliban’s Abdul Wali group as the government is planning action against the group,” the Mohmand Agency administration warned the population in pamphlets, according to a report in Daily Times. “Get all elements of Abdul Wali group out of your homes, otherwise they will be targeted by helicopters and jet bombers.”

US officials interviewed by The Long War Journal say that Pakistan’s counterinsurgency strategy is a recipe for disaster. “Pakistan’s practice of compelling the tribes is counter to the successful Awakening movement in Iraq which rose up to fight al Qaeda in Anbar province on their own accord,” a senior US military officer said. “An “awakening” ultimately has to originate with the people, the tribes. In Pakistan, most of the tribes are ambivalent or supportive to the Taliban, and are hostile to the government.”

Compelling the tribes to fight may actually sabotage Pakistan’s attempts to defeat the Taliban. “Tribal leaders are furious at having their homes leveled in airstrike and massive artillery barrages,” a senior US official said.

“This strategy of compelling the tribes to fight against their will, at gunpoint, may show — and in Afghanistan has — some short term gains with denying al Qaeda safe havens and keeping them on the run,” the official said. Attacks in Afghanistan’s neighboring province of Kunar are down significantly as US and Pakistani forces are coordinating operations to tackle Taliban and al Qaeda fighters transiting the Kunar-Bajaur border region.

“But in the long run, Pakistan is alienating the people they are supposed to be protecting. Unless Pakistan is willing to conduct a ruthless, protracted campaign against its own people, like the Russians did in Chechnya, destroying everything and everyone in its path, this will fail,” the official said. “And I see no indication Pakistan has the political will to go the way of the Russians in Chechnya.”

US military officers are stunned at the lack of understanding of counterinsurgency in the Pakistani military after seven years of fighting in the tribal areas. “[The Pakistanis] have learned nothing. They need to turn this around, and fast,” a US military officer who was involved with the formation of the Iraqi Awakening said. The officer was concerned these actions would cause the tribes to turn on the government in the long run.

“The potential for blowback in the tribal areas and beyond is enormous,” said the officer. “We could never have made the Anbar tribes to fight al Qaeda. It was never about guns, money, or power. The Anbar tribes fought for survival. The Pakistani tribes will fight for survival too, but in this case, they likely will see the government as the oppressor.”

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 11/20/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  • Rhyno327/lrs says:

    P-stan is on the brink of collapse. Tribal loyalty trumps any gov. loyalty. They will turn on the gov. and the t-ban will become stronger. This will get messier, the US and the few allies we have better be prepared.

  • Lancers says:

    I’m confused. Is the US opinion to let the tribes get decimated by the Taliban alone so that they can fight for survival at some point in the future?
    I think the use of money and overall US support to the Anbar tribes is being underplayed. The Paks due to lack of US resources are using the stick rather than carrot approach.

  • TMP says:

    I’m not buying this “U.S. Mil Officals” take on the situation – Reality is the Taliban are not being as brutal on the Pastuns living in these Pak border regions (being a problem, yes, but not the brutal killers that AQ was being in Iraq – Zawahiri knows better).
    So with that being said, it is clear these Pasthun / Pakis…are not simply going to expel the Taliban / AQ elements from there “safe” lands….
    Well, we need those people dead. We want the Pak Gov’t to do more to see to it. So the hard reality is with no other real options….putting PAIN on these Pastun Pakis is the only option (of somewhat bad ones). But it will work.
    And the reality is we want HVT / AQ elements DEAD. Provide that and all this stops. We’ve given 7 years to these Pastuns to understand. If they can’t. Then come hell or high water we need to put PAIN in that region until it is so….
    And stop all the mental circle-jerking about why we can’t accomplish XYZ.

  • Rhyno327/lrs says:

    The situation in Iraq is different from this one. Coz one strategy worked one place does not mean it will work here. We have given the P-stani Gov. 10BILLION. Enough. You give $ to the tribes, they love you one week, they may not the next. The blowback from the P-stani’s tactics can further destabilize the country. I don’t care about them one way or the other, so if they threaten the Pashtun tribes to “fight the T-ban or you get bombed” be prepared for the consequences. The ISI has more to do with our inability to kill OBL&Zawahiri than ANYONE. The US needs to keep the pressure on, and hopefully one day soon manned aircraft will be dropping bombs everywhere those rats congregate.


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