SPEAKING FREELY Tread lightly with Pakistan's lashkars
By Michael Kugelman
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Last month, the Taliban blew up a mosque in Pakistan's northwest district of
Upper Dir, near the Swat Valley. More than 30 people died. In today's Pakistan,
such news is depressingly familiar.
What followed, however, is not.
On their elders' orders, more than 1,000 tribesmen grabbed their guns and
converged on Taliban fighters, killing several of them. In
recent days, these tribal militias, known as lashkars, have captured and
killed additional militants.
This affair has drawn considerable attention in Islamabad and Washington. Both
capitals point to the lashkars' actions as emblematic of the
anti-Taliban sentiment surging through a country long reluctant to acknowledge,
much less address, its extremist threat.
Pakistan's military is now admitting past failures to support lashkars,
describing them as keys to the army's success, and encouraging them to rise up
in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). With the army
preparing for a full-scale assault on the tribal region of South Waziristan,
Islamabad may be telegraphing a desire to strengthen its links with lashkars
That would be a big mistake. Close associations with FATA lashkars pose
grave risks, and Islamabad should tread very lightly in its dealings with them.
Washington, which has expressed support for engaging lashkars, should
lower its expectations.
In recent years, lashkar efforts to combat militancy in the tribal belt
have failed miserably. In South Waziristan, lashkars were formed - with
Islamabad's support - in 2003 and 2007. Yet today the area is a Taliban
stronghold, and anti-Taliban militiamen are scarce. Bajaur and Orakzai, the
tribal areas with some of the highest numbers of lashkar fighters, have
suffered some of Pakistan's most vicious anti-lashkar violence.
Lashkars' few successes have mostly occurred in the settled regions of
the North-West Frontier Province (such as Upper Dir), where militias have
killed militants outright, driven them out, or compelled them to disarm. Lashkars'
rare triumphs in FATA have been restricted to areas such as parts of Bajaur -
where the Taliban's presence was weak to start with.
From a tactical perspective, the lashkars' struggles have a simple
explanation: they are drastically out-numbered and out-armed. So why not assist
these undermanned anti-Taliban fighters?
Because more complex factors are at play. FATA's lashkars share the same
Pashtun ethnicity with Taliban forces, and are often hesitant to fight their
ethnic kin. Also, Washington's use of Predator drones in the tribal areas - a
deeply unpopular policy in Pakistan that is tacitly supported by Islamabad -
makes lashkar members uneasy about partnerships with Pakistan's
Furthermore, lashkars are tribal militias. Fiercely independent, they
answer to their elders, never to outside authorities, and depend on their own
modest resources. They respond to local, specific grievances, and disband once
they have done so. Lashkars are irregular militias, not permanent
self-defense forces. They specialize in self-initiated, localized missions, and
not in ongoing campaigns directed by central authorities against national
For these reasons, Islamabad should exercise extreme caution. The army has
little reason to disrupt the Pashtun tribal hierarchy or the modest gains
against extremism - as witnessed in Upper Dir - this system may help produce.
Additionally, the continued use of drones suggests that lashkars may
abruptly reject any largesse from Pakistan and turn its guns on the army.
Indeed, funneling arms and pledging support to Pashtun tribesmen in one of the
world's most unstable and militarized regions is a recipe for blowback. Several
decades ago, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Pakistani and
American guns and money poured into the same tribal areas, spawning some of the
very militants sought by Islamabad and Washington today.
Unfortunately, however, Islamabad's policy options are not always so simple. In
recent months, the Taliban has slaughtered scores of elders, undermining
Pashtun tribal hierarchies and hastening a breakdown of the tribal order. As a
result, besieged tribesmen have appealed to the government for help. In these
cases, Islamabad is faced with a conundrum: come to their rescue and face the
risks, or say no and watch them fail.
In effect, Islamabad should follow this mantra: do not help the lashkars
unless asked, and when asked, help them, but only until the immediate objective
is attained. Where tribal hierarchies are intact, let the lashkars do
their thing and do not interfere. When they beg for assistance, offer arms and
other tactical support. Yet when the original threat has been removed, wish the lashkar
well and move on.
Additionally, the government should not promise assistance unless it intends to
follow through. On several occasions, tribesmen have formed lashkars after
promises of backing from the army - only to suffer great losses after the
military reneged. Tribesmen from Bajaur to Swat have been left demoralized (or
dead), both their homes and their faith in Islamabad destroyed.
Finally, authorities should never take unilateral actions, whether bullying
(pressuring lashkars to fight and threatening reprisals if they fail to
do so) or downright misguided (such as the decision by North-West Frontier
Province officials in February to distribute 30,000 rifles among villagers).
Concurrently, Islamabad - with Washington's help - must bring immediate
economic relief to the FATA. The region is largely bereft of services, highly
food-insecure and desperately poor - per capita income is less than US$1.50 a
day. So instead of handing out 30,000 rifles, provide 30,000 sacks of rice.
Strengthening livelihoods, not tribal warriors, is what ultimately reduces the
Michael Kugelman is program associate with the Asia Program at the
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, where he is
responsible for research and publications on South Asia. He can be reached at