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Pakistan villagers take up guns, sticks against Taliban

With police presence in the Swat Valley still spotty, thousands band together to keep trouble from returning.

October 26, 2009|Alex Rodriguez

KANJU, PAKISTAN — Members of the 40-day-old tribal militia in this Swat Valley village come in all shapes, from all walks of life.

Some struggle to fasten bandoleers around pot bellies; some haven't finished high school. They are doctors and teachers, wealthy landowners and dirt-poor wheat farmers.

Some make their way with Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders, others with only a wooden stick in hand.

What unites them is the memory of the Taliban's brutality, a time when the militant organization took over Kanju and the rest of the Swat Valley. Taliban militants beheaded perceived enemies, flogged women and bombed school buildings.

With most of Swat back in the hands of the government after a military operation that drove the Taliban into hiding, thousands of Pakistanis in towns like Kanju have been banding together to form lashkars, or tribal militias, to help keep trouble from coming back.

Subhan Ali commands 4,000 men who form a lashkar that regularly combs Kanju's dilapidated buildings and surrounding countryside for fleeing Taliban fighters and their sympathizers.

"Most of us don't have weapons," said Ali, 35. "At the start of all this, the Taliban took away a lot of our guns. Then the army came and took more of our guns. Many just have batons, but even that they will use."

Lashkars, for centuries a tool for resolving tribal disputes, are supplying a modern-day grass-roots layer of security to manpower-strapped military and police forces. The militias have formed in regions skirting South Waziristan, where Pakistani troops have launched an all-out offensive to crush the Taliban. In Bannu, just outside South Waziristan, tribesmen formed a lashkar after Taliban militants kidnapped students and teachers while they were being bused home from a local college this summer.

Joining a lashkar, though, can mean becoming an immediate target for the Taliban. In an ambush on the Bannu lashkar last month, militants killed seven militia members, including its chief. In the Swat village of Ser Tiligram, a lashkar leader was injured when militants lured him out of his house and then sprayed him with gunfire.

Despite the risks, villagers in Swat and in the tribal areas know police presence remains spotty.

"When the military finished its operation in Swat, it didn't set up any [police] check posts here," said Mohammed Ibrar, brother of the leader shot in Ser Tiligram. "That's why we formed a lashkar."

Though Pakistani military officials welcome the involvement of lashkars, they are also aware of the potential for them to devolve into warlord-led militias with expanded agendas, including settling scores with rivals or staking out fiefdoms.

"That's our concern, and that's why we don't support them in terms of arms or ammunition," said Pakistani army Col. Akhtar Abbas. "And they're restricted to the towns that they come from."

Pashtun society in this part of South Asia has relied on lashkars to resolve disputes between tribes for hundreds of years.

With the rise of the Taliban in Pakistan's tribal areas along the Afghan border and in Swat, lashkars reemerged to combat the tide of militancy.

Before the Swat offensive, lashkars struggled to achieve any measurable success against the Taliban. Outgunned and outmanned, they were hit hard by Taliban suicide bombings, kidnappings and assassinations of tribal elders leading the militias.

In many cases, lashkars were the only line of defense between villagers and invading militants.

In the Swat village of Durshkhela 15 miles north of the valley's largest city, Mingora, a tribal militia of about 40 men stayed to defend the village after local police abandoned it a year ago.

Taliban militants wielding automatic rifles and rocket launchers carried out dozens of raids, but they were turned back each time, said Abdul Ghaffar Khan, 63, a retired army colonel and commander of the Durshkhela lashkar.

"Almost every week they attacked," said Khan, sitting in a patio walled in with sandbags. "All the time, we were waiting for the bullets to come. But if we hadn't stayed, everything here would have been destroyed. Not just my village, but the whole area."

With the military offensive in Swat now over, Khan has a militia of 1,000 men who team up with soldiers to search for militants in the forested hillsides surrounding Durshkhela. In a recent 10-day span, the lashkar arrested 30 people and killed one suspected militant, Khan said.

Lashkar leaders say militias are sprouting up across northwestern Pakistan largely because locals doubt that the military will ensure their long-term security.

Offensives have been waged before in the northwest, but the military has a poor track record for keeping the Taliban from resurfacing once the fighting is over.

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