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Pakistan tests civilian militias to keep Taliban out of Swat Valley

The ranks of lashkars have grown to 8,000, according to local leaders, since the Army retook the valley in June. Some residents worry about militarizing the population.

By Issam AhmedCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 17, 2009

Members of a local militia working to keep the Taliban out of the Swat Valley listen to their commander speak in Piochar, Pakistan, on Sept.14.

Naveed Ali/AP

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Tontana Bandai, Swat, Pakistan

For Tilawat Shah, a middle-aged farmer in a village on the remote western border of Pakistan's Swat Valley, the dark days of Taliban rule must never be forgotten. "They coerced people into giving them money and shelter, they put guns to the heads of our elders, they cut down our trees, blew up schools, and killed anyone who got in their way," he recalls.

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In an effort to keep the Taliban out after a three-month Army offensive ended the militants' two-year rule here, Mr. Shah and some 8,000 other villagers have taken up arms and joined military-sponsored militias, or lashkars.

The civilian fighting forces have cropped up across Pakistan's northwest before to try to keep the Taliban away, often with disappointing results, because they are weaker than the militants and lack backing from the military. Now, the Army is reviving the idea in Swat, and promising to provide the assistance needed.

Two weeks ago, a posse of Taliban fighters that entered a mosque during Ramadan was repelled by the local lashkar, who shot three of them dead and forced the rest to flee. One local villager was also injured, and, in a sign of growing cooperation between the militias and the Army, was whisked by soldiers to a military hospital.

On Monday, military officials presented the latest lashkar in front of the media in the town of Piochar – the former base of operations for Swat Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah.

The first lashkar since the military retook Swat in June was formed in August, and plans are now afoot to ensure that every union council – roughly equal to every village – in the Swat Valley eventually boasts its own, according to Swat military spokesman Major Mushtaq Khan. "The military is going village to village, speaking with elders and encouraging them to form their own lashkars and unite with existing ones," he says.

Current estimates by local leaders put the number of fighters at more than 8,000, a figure some tribal elders claim will at least double by the end of November.

Lashkars' troubled record

The idea of sponsoring the traditional tribal security structure is nothing new. During the era of British rule, the system was used to quell the subcontinent's Wild West frontier. The lashkars sponsored in recent years by the Pakistani government, however, usually fizzled in the face of a marauding, well-organized, and well-supplied Taliban that effectively outgunned and demoralized local opposition.

A recent case in point was the murder of anti-Taliban leader Pir Samiullah in December 2008. His body was exhumed by the Taliban to be hung up in the main market square of Mingora as a warning to others who would resist.

The much-touted Salarzai lashkar in Bajaur, one of Pakistan's tribal areas, initially succeeded in missions against the Taliban, during the summer of 2008. But it suffered greatly following the killing of its leader and is now much less active, according to Rahimullah Yusufzai, the Peshawar bureau chief of The News, an English daily.

Lashkars have been a "limited success," Mr. Yusufzai says. "They could be temporarily used in some areas where the Taliban are weak or heavily resented, like in Swat. But at the end of the day, the villagers need to do their work; they can't be armed every night."

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