Pakistani tribesmen organize private armies to fight Taliban

After weeks of fighting between the Pakistan Army and militants, the declaration of a month-long cease-fire may give the Taliban time to regroup.

Pakistan's Taliban might be getting stronger, wreaking havoc along the country's border with Afghanistan, but they are also growing wildly unpopular, inciting their own tribesmen to turn against them.

In the latest of a series of incidents, a lashkar, or private army comprised of Pakistani tribesmen, torched the houses of Taliban commanders in Bajaur, near the Afghan border, vowing to fight them until they are expelled, the Daily Times, a Pakistani newspaper, reports.

Tribesmen in Bajaur Agency's Salarzai tehsil on Sunday formed a private army (lashkar) of around 30,000 people against the local Taliban. A local jirga decided to form the lashkar in the wake of the increasing presence of the local Taliban in the area. The lashkar torched 14 houses, including the house of a local Taliban commander. Tribal elder Malik Munsib Khan, who heads the lashkar, said tribesmen would continue their struggle until the Taliban were expelled from the area, adding that anyone found sheltering Taliban militants would be fined one million [rupees] and his house would be torched. The tribesmen also torched two important centres of the Taliban in the area and gained control of most of the tehsil.

Dawn, another English-language daily in Pakistan, cited the lashkar at a much lower number.

The tribe has raised a lashkar of more than 4,000 volunteers. Malik Munasib Khan, who is leading uprising against the militants, said that the houses destroyed by the volunteers included one of militant leader Naimatullah, who had occupied several government schools and converted them into seminaries.

The development comes in the midst of the Pakistan Army's bombardment campaign, which has been unfolding for weeks in the tribal agency of Bajaur, a militant stronghold where some top commanders of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden, are believed to be hiding. The bombardment, which has left some 400 militants dead according to The New York Times, highlights the rising power of the Taliban some seven years after they were first ousted from power in Afghanistan. But it also showcases why the Taliban are highly unpopular: Some 200,000 people have been displaced because of fighting, while dozens of citizens have been killed in clashes between the militants and military.

The Bajaur lashkar might be the largest of its kind, but it is not the only such force to have turned against the Taliban, according to recent reports. The News, a leading Pakistani daily, reported two weeks ago that several such lashkars have arisen throughout the North West Frontier Province, where the Taliban are increasing their hold.

In an unprecedented development, an armed lashkar in Buner district recently hunted down and killed six militants allegedly involved in killing cops in Kingargali. The operation shows that the people of Buner, Dir Upper and Dir Lower have stood up against the Taliban militants sneaking into these hitherto peaceful areas after Bajaur and Swat military operations.
A grand jirga of the elders of Maidan area in Lower Dir district's headquarters, Timergara, asked more than 150 foreign fighters and their tribal Taliban supporters to leave the area or face strong action from the local people.
A similar jirga in Barawal, a town of Dir Upper district, sharing border with Afghanistan, warned the militants to stay away from the area or they would take up arms against them.
The Buner incident took place on Khel Mountain in Shalbandai when hundreds of local people picked up arms, locally called 'Appa,' on information of the presence of the Taliban militants, who had brutally killed eight policemen in Kingargali last Friday.
The armed lashkar of 200 locals threw a cordon around the militants and asked them to surrender but the Taliban challenged it. The official sources told The News that the militants' refusal triggered a gunfight and they hurled hand grenades at the lashkar, prompting a retaliatory action from local armed men, which resulted in the killing of all the six militants.

Khalid Aziz, a Pakistani security expert, writes on his blog A Voice from Peshawar that these are important developments.

Today, the tribesmen are holding jirgas in Salarzai and other places against the militants. They have forced the militants to evacuate their areas since they are accused of bringing pain to the residents of Bajaur.... Thus a situation has arisen where the ascendency of the radicals has seen challenges for the first time by the communities with only marginal government assistance.

It is unclear what impact, if any, the lashkars will have on the fighting. But many fear that they will lose backing and momentum now that the central government has called for a one-month cease-fire with the militants in observance of Ramadan, the Muslim month of religious fasting, reports The New York Times.

On Saturday night, the Pakistani government declared a cease-fire in the area for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins here on Wednesday.
The cease-fire prompted concerns that whatever gains had been made against militants in the region would be squandered. Khalid Aziz, a former chief secretary of the North-West Frontier Province, said the Taliban would use the opportunity to regroup.
"Some communities have risen up against the militants, and the government has to capitalize on this, has to prop them up," he said. "They haven't done it."
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