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.
(Page 2 of 2)
Rifaat Hussain, an analyst at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, agrees that lashkars can be effective only in places where the Taliban are already weak. Though the project may work in Swat, he says, the military should think twice about trying to extend it into Pakistan's tribal agencies, where the Taliban are more entrenched.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"It's a very interesting experiment. But if it works in Swat, this can't be replicated anywhere else, because the guys that they were pitted against were way too powerful – the murder of Qari Zainuddin [a rival who sprang up against the late Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud] was a case in point."
Totana Bandai was until recently a key base for Taliban insurgents. Lying to the west of the River Swat and bordering the district of Dir, its picturesque stepped green hills, lush open fields, and neat rows of houses became the backdrop to pitched battles during the last military operation. Insurgents occupied homes abandoned by locals in the village's main street, and today, every second or third house and shop in the village's main street is bombed out, riddled with bullet and shelling holes, or both.
At a lashkar meeting in a farmhouse, Ajmir Khan, a lashkar leader from a neighboring village who led the clash against the Taliban, notes that "when the Taliban first came, they were greeted here because they talked about Islam and implementing sharia [Islamic law], which people supported." That initial trust dissolved by May, when the Taliban refused to lay down arms despite concessions by the government to allow new Islamic courts.
The government has in the past been criticized for initially backing, but ultimately failing to fully support, the lashkars. The Army says this time will be a whole-hearted joint effort, and has set up a cordon around Saifullah Khan's farmhouse. A cache of new rifles and dozens of crates stenciled "BOMBS" in English are stashed in the backyard.
Army hunting the Taliban
The closer cooperation comes at a time when the Army is apparently making strides in securing Swat. On Thursday, the military claimed it killed 10 militants in a pre-dawn raid in northern Swat. On Wednesday, the military announced it had captured Sher Mohammad Qasab, the so-called chief of the Taliban's beheading squad in Swat, along with 16 other militants during a search operation in the Charbagh area. Also on Wednesday, the military media claims 37 other militants were forced to lay down their arms.
Last Friday, the Army announced the capture of Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan and commander Mahmood Khan and five other commanders, while on Monday interior ministry Rehman Malik declared that Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah was now "encircled" and his capture imminent.
News of progress is, however, tempered by reports of military sponsored mass-killings of Taliban fighters. The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says its sources point to state-sponsored extrajudicial killings and have called for a parliamentary inquiry.
In recent weeks several mass graves have been dug up and the bodies of prominent Taliban commanders placed on display in Mingora. The Army says the deaths were either the result of locals settling personal scores or the Taliban killing the weak among them to prevent their capture.
Some residents, such as Ziauddin Yusufzai, a private-school principal, believe further militarizing the people of rural Swat may backfire. "Creating these private militias may work in the short-run, but what if they later turn on each other to settle personal scores?" he says. "If the Army could clear and hold a town of 400,000 like Mingora, I don't understand why the villages are so difficult."