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.

Naveed Ali/AP
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.

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.

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."

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.

"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."

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