Click map for full view. Taliban presence, in the Islamabad region. Information on Taliban presence obtained from open source and derived by The Long War Journal based on the presence of Taliban shadow governments, levels of fighting, and reports from the region. Map created by Bill Raymond for The Long War Journal. Last updated: April 24, 2009.
The Taliban assassinated a tribal leader who organized resistance to the Taliban in the northwestern district of Shangla.
Yesterday, more than 50 Taliban fighters assaulted the home of Khalil Rehman, a tribal leader who raised a Lashkar, or local militia, to battle the Taliban in the isolated district that borders Swat and Buner. Rehman’s son and two others were also wounded in the assault. Two Taliban fighters were killed after police and other security forces responded to the attack, Daily Times reported.
The Taliban has established bases in Shangla, Mansehra, Haripur, Battagram, Mardan, Malakand, and Swabi after the military launched operations to clear the Taliban in neighboring Swat, Buner, and Dir. Taliban units ranging from 50 to 150 fighters fanned out through the districts with no resistance from the military, which claimed it established blocking positions to prevent the Taliban from retreating from the battlefield and bleeding into bordering districts.
The Taliban moved into Shangla in April after cementing control in Swat and Buner. More than 70 Taliban fighters occupied a hospital while others fanned out and took over control of government buildings and an emerald mine.
In May, the Taliban established checkpoints in Chakesar, a vital region that links Shangla to districts to the east. The Shangla tribes threatened to oust the Taliban and raised a lashkar. But the tribes said they did not want the assistance of the government.
“We told the Taliban that the local people would have to fight them if they intruded into the Chakesar area,” a tribal leader told The News in May. “We made it clear that the people of Chakesar don’t want security forces in their area and would have to deal with the militants on their own.”
In June, the military and locals in Shangla claimed the Taliban retreated into Mansehra after the military launched an operation and ejected the Taliban form the emerald mine.
Taliban continues to systematically annihilate tribal opposition
The assassination of Shangla’s anti-Taliban tribal leader is part of the Taliban’s strategy to destroy any tribal resistance.
The Taliban have viciously responded to efforts by tribal leaders to oppose the spread of extremism in the tribal areas. Tribal opposition has been violently attacked and defeated in Peshawar, Dir, Arakzai, Khyber, and Swat. Suicide bombers have struck at tribal meetings held at mosques, schools, hotels, and homes.
The Taliban perfected this strategy in North and South Waziristan. Tribal leaders who opposed the Taliban were brutally liquidated. The Taliban would execute the leaders and dump their bodies on the roadside with notes pinned to their chests branding them as “US spies” and traitors. The bodies are often mutilated and beheaded.
The Taliban have made very public examples of local leaders who have dared to resist. Last December, the Swat Taliban executed a local tribal leader named Pir Samiullah, then returned to the village to dig up his body and hang it in the town square. The villagers were warned not to remove his body or they would face the same fate [see LWJ report, Video: Taliban execute Swat tribal leader].
Samiullah’s tribe had been the showcase for Pakistan’s “awakening,” the indigenous tribal uprising against the Taliban modeled after Iraq’s Sunni resistance to al Qaeda and allied jihadi groups. After Samiullah’s death and desecration, the Swat tribal resistance collapsed.
Last month, the Taliban also executed Zainuddin Mehsud, a South Waziristan Taliban leader who sided with the government against Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. Within weeks of denouncing Baitullah as an apostate, Zainuddin was murdered by his bodyguard.
Taliban is better organized than tribal opposition
Last fall, the Pakistani government and the military encouraged tribal leaders to raise lashkars to oppose the spread of the Taliban. Since the beginning of 2008, Pakistani tribes have organized lashkars 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, but ultimately have failed to halt the Taliban advance.
“The Taliban is more vicious, more motivated, and more capable than the tribes,” a US military officer who closely follows the situation in northwestern Pakistan told The Long War Journal. “Time and time again, the Taliban has ruthlessly crushed any resistance. It doesn’t matter if it is the tribes, the police, the Frontier Corps, or the Army, the Taliban continues to gain ground.”
Problems with manpower, training, geography, coordination between the tribes, and lack of support from the military and government plague the tribal efforts to oppose the Taliban.
The Pakistani tribes are operating as distinct, local fighting forces with no central coordination, while the Taliban can coordinate their activities across the northwest and even from inside eastern Afghanistan. The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan [Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP], Baitullah Mehsud’s unified Taliban command, was established to share manpower and resources and to coordinate activities.
“The tribes are limited by geography, the TTP is not,” a senior US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal in September 2008 [see LWJ report: Pakistan engages the tribes in effort to fight the Taliban]. “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.”
One such tactical success that appears to be developing into a strategic failure is the tribal resistance in Upper Dir. A tribal lashkar is battling the Taliban after a suicide bomber leveled a mosque in a remote town and killed more than 50 worshipers.
The Dir lashkar, which is estimated to have several thousand fighters, has been unable to oust a Taliban force of 200-300 fighters holed up in the mountains.
The lashkar refused the help of the military after several villages in the region were shelled. The Dir lashkar is “losing steam,” a Pakistani official told The Long War Journal in mid-July.
Tribes unwilling to cooperate with the military
The problems with Pakistan’s tribal resistance 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 News last fall. This sentiment was echoed by the Shangla tribes in May, as well as in Dir, Buner, and elsewhere in northwestern Pakistan.
The tribes fear that 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. Similar sentiments were expressed by Buner tribal leaders earlier this week. This attitude prevents the military from providing the needed security to oppose massed Taliban attacks.
The military offensives against the Taliban in Swat, Dir, and Buner have achieved some success in dislodging and driving out Taliban forces from the region. But the military must remain long after the end of the fighting to secure the regions; reestablish the local police forces, which have been plagued by desertions; and support tribal groups willing to stand up to the Taliban.
And the military must continue the attack against the Taliban in their strongholds of Waziristan, Mohmand, Bajaur, Khyber, Kurram, and Arakzai. As long as the Taliban are able to regroup, they will retain the ability to attack the tribes and retake ground the military has left.
For more information on problems with Pakistan’s “Awakening,” see: The Pakistan Problem, and the wrong solution from Nov. 21, 2007.