October Issue 2008
The Tribes Fight Back
The Mullagori tribe is small and weak compared to other Pashtun tribes, such as the Afridis and the Shinwaris, living in the strategically located Khyber Agency bordering Afghanistan and Peshawar. But it took the lead in challenging Taliban militants who had set up base in their area and formed a lashkar, or an armed tribal force, to evict them.
The Mullagori lashkar, which according to different accounts comprised more than 3,000 armed men, laid siege to the bases and training camps set up by Taliban militants near the central Shagai village, and forced them to surrender or flee the area. A few militants were injured and before long, the villages inhabited by the Mullagori tribe had been rid of militants. A Mullagori tribesman who had given refuge to the militants was punished by demolishing his house.
Perhaps inspired by the Mullagoris and with offers of support from the government, the Kalakhel sub-tribe of the Afridis inhabiting Bara in Khyber Agency, too held a jirga. They raised a 300-member strong lashkar and pledged not to allow militants fleeing the military operation in the adjoining semi-tribal area of Darra Adamkhel to seek refuge among them. The Kalakhel tribal elders decided to demolish the house of any tribesman who harboured the militants and imposed a hefty fine of Rs.5 million.
Not to be left behind, the large Zakhakhel sub-tribe of the Afridis also announced it would raise its own lashkar after Eid-ul-Fitr and take a decision about denying sanctuary to militants in its area. The Zakhakhels are spread over a vast area and its members live beside the important Khyber Pass that links Pakistan with Afghanistan via the Torkham border. This road serves as the main supply route for US-led Nato forces. The militants’ activities in Khyber Agency have raised fears about the disruption of NATO supplies, 80% of which pass through Pakistan and include everything from fuel and food to weapons. Militants often attack and sometimes hijack trucks, containers and tankers passing through the Khyber Pass in southern NWFP districts. A rise in their attacks could threaten the lifeline of almost 75,000 foreign soldiers in Afghanistan.
These lashkars have been raised in Khyber Agency alone, and this is a tribal agency where Taliban militants aren’t present in strength. In fact, non-Taliban militants affiliated with armed Islamic groups such as Mangal Bagh’s Lashkar-i-Islam, the late Haji Namdar Khan’s Amr Bil-Maruf-Wa-Nahi-Anil-Munkar (Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) and Qazi Mahboobul Haq’s Ansar-ul-Islam have a much stronger presence in Khyber Agency, particularly in the Bara sub-division. But the feverish lashkar-raising in the Khyber tribal region is an indication of the government’s determined push to mobilise the tribes, in a bid to sideline the militants and secure the strategic Khyber Pass highway. The tribes too, are keen to raise lashkars due to the realisation that their hitherto peaceful areas could become a battleground and eventually force the Pakistan Army, or even the US military, to launch operations there.
The idea of raising such tribal lashkars and denying refuge to militants is also catching on in the rest of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and in the settled districts of NWFP. The government is actively encouraging and supporting the tribes to rise up against the Taliban and evict them from their areas. The NWFP Governor Owais Ahmad Ghani and Chief Minister Ameer Haider Hoti, along with political agents of tribal agencies, police officials in the district and intelligence agencies personnel at large, are all pleased with this development. They all believe, and rightly so, that mobilisation of the people, whether in tribal areas or districts, is the way to isolate the militants and deny them sanctuary.
Arguably, the elders and people of Lakki Marwat district were the first in the NWFP to raise a lashkar and force the Taliban militants to surrender. Former lawmaker and PML-N leader Anwar Kamal Marwat, one of the motivating factors behind the raising of the lashkar, recalled how they sent messages to known militants to end their activities in the limits of Lakki Marwat or face the consequences. “There was no resistance from the militants. They just melted away, giving up their activities or shifting out of our district. They knew it would be futile resisting the whole tribe and the large lashkar,” he said.
Police officials also praise people in Hangu for resisting the militants in their district. However, a military crackdown had to be launched to evict the Taliban fighters from Hangu after their unprovoked attack on a convoy of the lightly-armed paramilitary Frontier Constabulary in which 16 servicemen were killed. The Taliban had acted after the arrest of some of their colleagues, including a sub-commander, Rafiuddin, who was stated to be close to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) head, Baitullah Mahsud. Taliban fighters were eventually pushed out of Hangu into the adjacent Orakzai tribal agency, but by then, they had captured a significant number of FC militiamen, cops and other government employees and used the hostages for a deal on swapping prisoners.
The most noteworthy anti-Taliban uprising to date took place in Buner, formerly part of the Swat state ruled by the Wali of Swat until its merger with Pakistan in 1969. Villagers in Buner were outraged by a night-time attack by Taliban fighters on a remote police post in mountainous Kingargalli village, in which eight policemen were killed. Soon villagers volunteered to join squads to patrol the area and defend their villages. After having spotted suspicious Taliban presence in one village, the armed volunteers challenged them to surrender or face death. The six militants, led by Taliban commander for Mardan, Kamran Khan, chose to put up a fight and were all killed. Though some Taliban fighters are still active in Buner district and have been attacking police stations, their back appears to have been broken after losing their commander. The Taliban strategy to mount attacks in Buner and Shangla districts in a bid to ease military pressure on their comrades in the adjoining Swat district seems to have failed.
The Salarzai tribe in Bajaur Agency, where the Pakistan Army and Pakistan Air Force launched a full-fledged military operation on August 6, also did the unthinkable in a place infested by Taliban by raising a lashkar to evict the militants. The lashkar also demolished houses of the militants who were led by Maulana Niamatullah, and were proud to refer to themselves as Karwan-i-Niamatullah. Though certain villages in the Salarzai area are still under Taliban influence, the military is operating against them by using jet-fighters and gunship helicopters to pound their hideouts.
The provocation for the Salarzais to raise their lashkar was provided by Taliban militants, who killed two tribal elders and a cleric for holding a meeting with political authorities in Bajaur’s headquarters, Khar, in violation of their decree. The political administration, together with the military, is backing the Salarzai jirga and the lashkar, and efforts are now being made to replicate the model among the Utmankhel and Tarklani tribes in Bajaur. However, it is uncertain that these lashkars can be sustained in view of past experience with inconsistent government policies.
Besides, the threat of retaliatory Taliban strikes and suicide bombings against the pro-government tribal elders is ever-present and it seems they aren’t well-protected. The militants have killed more than 250 tribal elders in FATA until now and there aren’t many left in the Taliban-controlled areas such as South Waziristan and North Waziristan, to challenge the Taliban or speak in favour of the government.
Villagers around Peshawar have also being mobilised to form village defence committees to patrol their areas. There were plans to raise a 600-member lashkar in the Badaber and Matani areas, which are lawless and close to Darra Adamkhel, the gun-manufacturing town, where militants have challenged the government’s writ and fought pitched battles with the military. The Taliban in Darra Adamkhel also operate in district Peshawar and are being held responsible for some of the suicide bombings and the destruction of electricity towers in and around the Frontier metropolis. They also rendered the busy highway linking Peshawar with Kohat and the rest of southern NWFP unsafe by attacking troops deployed at the Kohat Tunnel situated in Darra Adamkhel. The blockage added to the sufferings of thousands of people who needed to travel via this road to reach their destinations. Due to the blockage, they had to traverse longer routes passing through Nizampur area in Nowshera or Attock district in Punjab.
In other districts facing militancy, village and tribal elders are getting together on their own or due to prodding by the police, to form defence committees for patrolling. One such effort met with strong resistance from militants in the Shabqadr area of Charsadda district and opened a new frontline for the military, which sent gunship helicopters to strafe Taliban positions. The peace march organised with police assistance in Shabqadr was attacked by the militants, most having streamed down from Mohmand Agency to foil the event. Families left the affected areas in Shabqadr and other parts of the adjacent Mohmand Agency as fighting spread, but the clashes subsequently subsided. There is, however, uncertainty in the area as people fear Mohmand Agency could go the way of neighbouring Bajaur, where fierce fighting caused the biggest displacement in Pakistan’s history. Up to 400,000 people were dislocated and had to seek refuge in different parts of the NWFP, even as far as Rawalpindi and Karachi.
The government had tried an almost similar policy in the past in South Waziristan by backing Taliban militants and Ahmadzai Wazir tribesmen to evict Uzbek fighters and their local supporters from Wana. The effort was successful, but the Taliban militants became stronger and continued to aid the Taliban across the border, in Afghanistan, also providing shelter to some Arab and other foreign fighters. A similar exercise in Mir Ali in North Waziristan to expel Uzbek militants, affiliated with the Tahir Yuldachev-led Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), didn’t succeed. This time, the idea was to evict both foreign and local militants with the cooperation of village and tribal jirgas and lashkars from all Taliban-infested tribal regions and districts. It is obviously a Herculean task and will need time, patience and adequate resources to succeed.
There is no doubt that Taliban excesses pushed some communities to rise against them. Also, the common people were angered by acts of violence by the Taliban militants in places like Swat, where girls’ schools, bridges and government installations have been destroyed and political opponents intimidated and even killed. Taliban edicts to impose their views on communities were also disliked. The fear of Taliban reprisals and uncertainty about the government and military’s commitment to fighting militancy prevented the communities from challenging the militants. The Taliban are now increasingly being criticised and even challenged in parts of the NWFP, in both, the tribal and settled areas.
However, there is an apprehension that this anti-Taliban campaign could cause further violence and sow the seeds of unending tribal feuds. As the political administration in tribal areas along with the police and district governments actively mobilise communities to take on the militants, it could largely become a battle between pro and anti-government forces. Though top government functionaries have been arguing that the involvement of the political administration and the police was necessary to prevent vigilantes from settling scores and taking revenge, there will always be the fear that this initiative could get out of control. There would be better chances of the success of this effort if the communities were to do their job voluntarily, since militancy and the presence of militants in their areas in any case, endangers peace in their region and adds to their suffering.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.