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Pakistani Pashtun Tribe Rises Up Against Extremists

A tribal elder looks out over fields in the Tirah Valley, which sits astride NATO's supply line to Afghanistan.
A tribal elder looks out over fields in the Tirah Valley, which sits astride NATO's supply line to Afghanistan.
What does it take for a Pashtun tribe in Pakistan to rise up against an extremist militia? The case of the Zakhakhel tribe in the Khyber Tribal Agency may provide an answer.

This month, the tribe came to blows with the fundamentalist Lashkar-e Islam group it has long accommodated in its home area of the Tirah Valley, which sits astride NATO's supply line to Afghanistan.

Lashkar-e Islam militants, who are loosely allied with the Taliban, frequently attack and loot trucks carrying fuel and other goods to NATO, making passage through the valley unsafe.

By latest count, the fighting, which began on April 1, has killed at least 30 people and injured another 100. According to the most recent reports, Zakhakhel fighters have pushed Lashkar-e Islam out of the area around Bazaar Zakhakhel and have weakened, but not evicted the militia in other parts of the valley.

The fighting has created a new exodus of civilians from the area. Local authorities at checkpoints along the main road leading south from the valley report dozens of families crossing each day.

Gul Wali Khan, an officer at the Ali Masjid Lala Kandaw border post, tells RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that people have been on the move since April 8. "Every day from 30 to 35 families pass by this checkpoint, they carry their home utensils," he says. "The fighting is going on, only people are coming out from Tirah."

Tirah Valley residents flee the fighting between Zakhakhel and Lashkar-e Islam.

The families are fleeing to relatives or to internally displaced persons camps that already for years have sheltered people from earlier unrest in Tirah Valley. Over the past three years, an estimated 4,500 families have fled the valley to camps in Jalozai and elsewhere in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where they live with international assistance.

Taking On The Militants

Cycles of unrest and displacement in FATA are hardly new. But what makes the latest round in Tirah Valley noteworthy is the fact that the tribe appears to be revolting against the Taliban-allied militia without outside prompting or assistance.

The tribe's volunteer force, armed with light and heavy weapons, spontaneously took on what, until now, has been the widely feared force led by Mangal Bagh. The reasons it's doing so appear to have little to do with either ideological conviction or the war on terror. Instead, they are an illustration of how power politics works at the ground level in the FATA and how alliances are made and broken.

Lashkar-e Islam arrived in the high and fertile Tirah Valley, which is a hub for crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan, about six years ago. The militia was founded by Mufti Munir Shakir, who was banished from the community in 2005 by a tribal jirga for fomenting unrest along ideological and sectarian lines. Shakir had established a pirate FM radio to promote his radical religious beliefs.

When Lashkar-e Islam returned to the valley, it was under Shakir's right-hand man, Mangal Bagh, who quickly proved himself both immensely ambitious and ruthless. Bagh, who previously had worked as a driver's helper on trucks transporting goods between the Khyber area and Karachi, embraced radical Islam, got weapons, and set about carving out a fiefdom in Tirah Valley that soon rivaled that of any traditional tribal leader.

How Bagh did so was by methodically targeting for assassination all the members of the jirga that had earlier expelled the militia's founder, Shakir. He used suicide bombers and, to stoke fear, introduced the Khyber region to beheadings.

Over the past three years, an estimated 4,500 families have fled the valley to camps in Jalozai and elsewhere in the tribal areas.

The fact that the Khyber district, unlike many other parts of the FATA, had no previous involvement with the Afghan war and the Afghan Taliban made little difference. He recruited less on the basis of ideology than by playing on tribal rivalries and offering alliances to disgruntled parties. His rise to power followed the time-honored Central Asian formula for warlords while cloaking itself in the purist language of radical Islam.

Many rival powers in the Tirah Valley, including the Zakhakhel tribe, found it easier to accommodate Bagh than to defy him. The Zakhakhel joined with Bagh against another militant group, the Ansar-ul-Islam, whose founder Qari Mehboob is a Koranic reader who first gained a following by prescribing verses as cures for illness. Mehboob, banned by the same jirga in 2005 for sowing discord, has proved as tenacious as Bagh in carving out his own fiefdom and the fighting between his Ansar-ul-Islam and Bagh's Lashkar-e Islam have killed hundreds over the past several years.

Pushing To Hard

But if Bagh has now made a mistake in his rise to power, it may be that he has been too voracious even for tribal leaders ready to deal with him.

Like the other militant groups, Lashkar-e Islam, which is believed to number some 10,000 to 15,000 fighters, levies tribute from all those within reach. One tribal elder, who spoke on condition of anonymity, recently described to Radio Mashaal how onerous the tribute demands can be.

"To raise funds, militant groups use various methods in Tirah," he said. "Sometimes they levy Zakat and Usher [religious taxes payable in cash], sometimes collected from the whole village each month, sometimes collected per home."

The elder added: "For people who own agriculture land in the valley but live in Peshawar, the militant groups demand 50 percent of the land and at the end of the year they keep half of the crop. If somebody can't afford a monthly payment or doesn't have land, then the militant groups demand he joins the fight personally and if he can't go then he has to hire somebody to fight for the militants instead of him."

Beyond these demands, Bagh also let his fighters kidnap tribal leaders with whom they quarreled. It was the kidnapping of two leaders of the Zakhakhel tribe over the past several months that appears to have pushed the tribe into open conflict with Lashkar-e Islam and the bloodletting this month.

The most recent of the two kidnappings was that of a tribal elder and cleric, Maulana Mohammad Hashim, from Bazaar Zakhakhel on March 21. The cleric, who was killed the following day, had preached a Friday sermon against militancy. His abduction came just a month and a half after another Zakhakhel leader, Ghuncha Gul, who had been a commander in the Lashkar-e Islam force, was never seen again after quarreling with Manghal Bagh.

A Pakistani Army unit deploys into the Tirah Valley. Whose side the army will take is a crucial question.

Looking For Allies

Whether the Zakhakhel can now maintain their offensive against Lashkar-e Islam remains to be seen. A lot of the formula for success of any power struggle in the tribal areas is being able to count on a powerful ally to enter the fray and force an enemy to admit defeat or make favorable peace concessions.

In the tribal areas, that role in any fight against extremists should ostensibly be the Pakistani Army. But in the fighting so far between the Zakhakhel and Lashkar-e Islam, the few reports of Pakistani forces taking action have been confusing.

One tribal elder told Radio Mashaal this week that a Pakistani helicopter had flown over the Zakhakhel force's front line at night and dropped explosives on their position.

An attempt by Radio Mashaal this week to clarify the Pakistani Army's role in the conflict elicited a response of "No comment" from spokesman Athar Abass of Inter Services Public Relations, which handles media affairs for the Pakistani military.

Meanwhile, Bagh's rivals, the Ansar-ul-Islam, have also entered the fighting in the apparent hope of making gains against his forces. Ansar-ul-Islam is also reported to have made alliance offerings to the Zakhakhel, as both find themselves fighting the same enemy.

What new power balance will emerge in the wake of the fighting is still being decided. But for those hoping to see a rollback of extremists in Khyber Tribal Agency, where Bagh has been attacking and looting trucks carrying NATO supplies to Afghanistan for years, only one outcome would be encouraging.

That outcome would be a new alliance between Islamabad and the tribe that rose against the militants. It would not be an alliance by default instead between the same tribe and yet another extremist group.

The Khyber district, unlike many other parts of the tribal areas, had no previous involvement with the Afghan war and the Afghan Taliban.

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