Will Iraq playbook work in Pakistan?

One tribal leader vows to raise a force of 600 to help fight an Al Qaeda-linked tribe in Waziristan.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    On guard: A Pakistani soldier watches for Taliban fighters near the border with Afghanistan.
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Pitting Sunni tribes against Al Qaeda-allied tribes has worked in Iraq. Will it work against the Taliban in Pakistan?

Pakistan's troubled tribal belt is emerging as the latest test bed of this counterterrorism strategy.

On Monday, fresh fighting broke out near the Afghan border town of Ghalanai. Pakistani security forces killed 23 Taliban fighters and lost seven of their own men, Reuters reported.

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In September of 2006, Pakistan's government brokered a controversial truce deal in which it released Pakistani militants in return for pledges that they support the government in fighting against Al Qaeda and foreign militants, such as Uzbeks. The dividends of that deal have been slow to materialize.

But last week, Maulvi Nazir, a pro-government Taliban commander, vowed to raise a militia to fight Baitullah Mehsud, a wanted Taliban commander who the Pakistani government blames for the Dec. 27 assassination of Benazir Bhutto and for the bulk of suicide attacks that have left some 800 dead in the past year.

The two militia leaders, who operate near the city of Wana in South Wazirstan, are already enemies. The Pakistani government is relying on that enmity to accomplish what Pakistan's military has failed to do: rid the area of foreign militants linked to Al Qaeda and capture or kill Mr. Mehsud.

While the plan worked in Iraq, some Pakistani analysts warn that it could backfire in Pakistan. In the long run, militias raised to fight against Al Qaeda today could turn against the government tomorrow.

"I think it's a very misguided step. It might work for the time being in Iraq, but it won't work here. You can buy [the militants'] loyalty for some time. But it's not a long-term solution," says Rahimullah Yusufzai, a journalist and political analyst in Peshawar.

In March, Pakistan's military hailed Nazir's militia when it launched an attack against the Uzbek forces of Mehsud, killing as many as 100. Some analysts now expect the Pakistani military to provide cash and weapons to the Nazir's new militia, although the military has not announced any such plans.

The new plan comes as Washington is openly considering direct intervention in Pakistan's tribal belt, considered a staging ground that has allowed militants to launch their deadliest spate of attacks in Pakistan's history.

"[The Federally Administered Tribal Areas – FATA] continues to be of grave concern to us, both in the near term and in the long term," Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a Pentagon briefing last Friday. "It's having a significant impact, not just in Afghanistan.... There are concerns now about how much they've turned inwards, literally, inside Pakistan."

Some US officials say that the problem is bad enough that it could warrant inserting Special Forces on the ground in Pakistan's tribal belt. That move remains controversial for the operational risk it poses to American troops and because of the possible diplomatic fallout. President Pervez Musharraf has resisted even the suggestion of such a plan, saying the US military would "regret" any such insertion.

Other plans have called for more direct US support of tribal factions against Al Qaeda.

Even Nazir is an unlikely ally. Young and battle-hardened, he endorses the same radical Islamist ideology as the militants he's promised to fight, and has pledged his allegiance to Mullah Omar, the Taliban's founding spiritual leader.

But Nazir is also violently opposed to Mehsud, who hails from a rival clan, the Mehsuds. The two men parted ways last year when Nazir forcefully evicted hundreds of Uzbek militants under Mehsud's command. While Mehsud openly favors Uzbek militants, the Ahmadzai Wazir's – Nazir's tribe – have seen the foreign militants as a scourge that has brought unwanted bloodshed to Waziristan.

The new Nazir militia, promised to number 600, is expected to be more defensive than offensive, analysts say, protecting areas outside Wana from Mehsud's forces. Mr. Yusufzai says the new deal is a sign of how desperate the military has become: "[Nazir] wants Taliban-style rule. [Giving him money and arms] "will destabilize the whole area.."

Others counter that the security situation in FATA demands a new approach. "This is the situation, that we have to deal with the lesser of two evils," says Brig. (ret.) Mahmood Shad, the former secretary of security for FATA. "As compared to Baitullah Mehsud, [Nazir] can be considered [the] lesser evil."

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