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Volunteer Militias Are No Solution For Pakistan’s Taliban Problem

Villagers , their clothes stained with the blood of victims, rest after helping with rescue efforts following a suicide bombing near a mosque in the semi-tribal village of Darra, Pakistan
Villagers , their clothes stained with the blood of victims, rest after helping with rescue efforts following a suicide bombing near a mosque in the semi-tribal village of Darra, Pakistan
The people of Pakistan are arguably the most unfortunate people on Earth, victims of decades of government policies that often seem targeted against them. The November 5 violence in the semi-tribal town of Darra Adam Khel (called Darra for short), about 40 kilometers south of Peshawar, is just the latest example. More than 80 people were killed when a suicide bomber struck a mosque and an elder's guest house. About 70 people were injured. The purported reason for the attack was in-fighting among rival militant groups.

A Taliban formation headed by Tariq Afridi claimed responsibility for the attack, which targeted alleged supports of the rival Momin group. According to the official government nomenclature, Afridi's group is part of the antigovernment “bad Taliban,” while the Momin group is pro-government "good Taliban."

Nonetheless, most of the Darra victims were innocent bystanders.

A similar attack in the same town on March 2, 2008, killed 40 leading elders from many local tribes and sub-tribes, who had gathered to discuss a peace plan based on the withdrawal of the army and the expulsion of the Taliban from their area. Once known primarily for its unlicensed arms production, Darra has supposedly been under the control of the security forces since 2008. However, clearly, the militants continue to operate there with impunity.

Trapped Between Army And Extremists

Since the beginning of its so-called war on the Taliban, the main government tactic has been to send army troops into an area and compel the local to form "lashkars" (volunteer militias) to fight the Taliban and other militants. Local tribespeople, finding themselves trapped between the army and the extremists, usually agree to organize the lashkars, which then become the militants' main target and bear the brunt of the brutal fighting against the Taliban. In July, a suicide bomber targeted a jirga in the Mohmand tribal agency, killing 55 people, many of whom were anti-Taliban lashkar fighters.

There have also been numerous attacks targeting unarmed locals simply because they were forced by the state to endorse the idea of lashkars. Such attacks have been registered in Bunir district, Dir Upper district, and the tribal districts of Orakzai, Bajaur, Kurram, and Khyber.

In short, instead of protecting citizens, the state and its security agencies are pushing them to the forefront of the danger in the fight against extremism, and they are dying by the hundreds and thousands as a result.

Morphing Of The Traditional Lashkar

Lashkars are part of the region's tribal customs and culture. But they were never intended to fight regular wars, much less guerilla insurgencies where everything is confused, and even locals have difficulty telling friend from foe. Instead, lashkars have traditionally been organized on the village or sub-tribal level for short periods of time to help elders resolve a dispute. Normally, they lasted only a few days and were under the control of respected local elders.

But the situation in the tribal areas is now completely different. Lashkars are being asked to function on a semi-permanent basis against groups of gangsters and mercenaries, some of whom are protected by powerful figures among the authorities. The state, instead of declaring all-out war against all rogues elements, is signing peace agreements with selected groups, dividing the militants into "good" and "bad." But on the ground in the villages, even the "good" militants are walking around with weapons and presenting a constant threat to local civilians.

At the same time, although the army and paramilitary forces have been present in and around Darra for more than two years, they have failed to clear the area of the few hundred (by most estimates) militants, who openly defy the state and continue killing innocent locals. Why are civilians being asked to take up arms and fight the armed gangs that some in power are reportedly supporting in order to achieve some sort of strategic edge in Afghanistan or to settle scores with archrival India?

In addition, does it make sense to be arming civilians at a time when Pakistan is on the verge of civil war and the tribal areas -- which have been systematically decapitated by militant attacks targeting tribal elders and other authority figures -- are moving increasingly toward militarization and violence?

Arming civilians can only accelerate the descent into lawlessness and mob violence. It can only promote the tendency toward warlordism, as the Pakistani authorities must realize from their own experience in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. This policy will only produce more bloodbaths such as those we have already seen in Mohmand, Bajaur, and Darra.

Daud Khattak is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL