Pakistanis fighting the Taliban press for military backup

Villagers in northwestern Dir have 250 militants under siege, but say they need help from security forces to prevail. The military has a poor record of aiding these volunteer militias.

By , Staff writer , Contributor

When villagers rose up against the Taliban in Dir district a month and a half ago, headlines cheered evidence of Pakistanis resisting militancy. But now, tribal elders say they are growing impatient that security forces haven't come to help, even as fresh waves of Taliban threaten to overwhelm their volunteer force.

Some 2,000 villagers in the northwestern district have kept 250 to 300 Taliban fighters under siege, but have failed to overrun the Taliban's defensive position. Over the past four days, Taliban reinforcements have been arriving from Swat and Kohistan, swelling militant ranks to 500, according to one village elder.

The volunteer militia, called a lashkar, initially felt confident enough to refuse help from the Pakistani Army. But lashkar leaders now say they are in dire need of manpower, arms, and ammunition.

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"Now it is getting difficult, and we are threatened, because their number is increasing with each passing day," says Baboo Rahman, an elder with the Dir lashkar. "The lashkar people are also now fed up with continuous fighting, and we request the government should hit [the Taliban] from the air."

Waiting for military backup

For years, Pakistan has turned to lashkars as a means of tackling militants without launching destructive and sometimes unpopular military operations. But the government has a poor record of backing up these volunteers when, more often than not, they are outgunned or targeted for assassination.

In the past year alone, retaliatory strikes against villages forming lashkars have grown: Taliban killed 40 villagers in Buner, 110 at a jirga, or council, in Orakzai Agency, and another 40 at a jirga in Bajaur.

"The military can help if [the villagers] have surrounded the Taliban, and they can indicate to the military 'Here they are' – and the military should go do it," says Mahmood Shah, former governor of the Federally Administered Trial Areas, near Dir. [Editor’s note: The original version misidentified Mahmood Shah.]

Yet rescuing lashkars, including the one in Dir, poses both short-term and long-term dilemmas for security forces.

In the short term, "the Army is operating on a very wide front, and it has its own difficulties with logistics and [finding] the right manpower ratios," says Khalid Aziz, head of the Regional Institute of Policy Research and Training, a think tank in Peshawar.

And in the long run, "security should not be provided by the military, but by the communities," Mr. Aziz continues. "In Dir, unless the security side of community policing is institutionalized with a budget, funds, support, and linkages with military police, this will fall apart."

Farm duties tug at volunteer fighters

The Dir residents formed their lashkar on June 6, after Taliban militants living in the nearby mountains sent a suicide bomber to a mosque in Hayagay village. The attack killed 40 people, including 18 children, who were at Friday prayers. Before the attack, Hayagay residents had been trying to pressure the militants to leave once it became clear they were not the simple Afghan refugees they claimed to be.

Emboldened by their outrage and by the military's routing of the Taliban in nearby Swat and Buner, villagers surrounded the Taliban area and killed 47 militants. They lost three lashkar fighters.

Dispute over Army supplies

The area – which is mountainous and thickly forested – is still under siege from three sides, and the lashkar wants the Pakistan Army to hit the militant hideouts from the air to break the stalemate. Some volunteers in the lashkar, which is intended to be a temporary arrangement, are anxious to get home to harvest crops and look after their businesses.

The Army has provided some heavy guns to the lashkar, along with some skilled men to operate it, but those have also been taken back now, said one elder who wished not to be named.

The Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force under the Army that is in charge of Dir security, denies this. "Everything provided from Day 1 is still with them. Nothing has been withdrawn," says Maj.Fazal Rahman, the spokesman for the Corps.

"We are providing them all sort of moral and material support," he continues. "They [the lashkar members] keep complaining to get more and more from government agencies, and I think we have already given them enough to fight these militants."

Taliban reinforcements arrive

The lashkar leaders say the situation on the ground has changed dramatically in the past three or four days. On Tuesday night, Mutabbar Khan, head of the lashkar, held a meeting with the district administration in Dir to drive this home. The local official assured them of support, saying he wanted the government to come to the villagers' rescue.

Asked Tuesday afternoon if the Frontier Corps would step in to help with airstrikes or a ground invasion, the spokesman did not rule it out.

"At the moment, I can't give the answer to this question," says Major Rahman. "The Frontier Corps is busy in many other places in the operation. If there's a need we may go to those areas."

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