Page last updated at 13:52 GMT, Wednesday, 15 October 2008 14:52 UK

Pakistan's risky militia strategy

By Haroon Rashid
BBC Urdu service, Islamabad

Militant in South Waziristan
The Taleban have dealt ruthlessly with captured militia members

After years of failure, the people in charge of running the "war on terror" in Pakistan's tribal areas are using militias as a new card.

But there remains a strong possibility that this strategy could make a difficult situation even worse.

Some analysts contend that it could lead to all out-war along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

Pakistan has deployed 180,000 highly trained members of its security forces in the tribal areas for the last seven years - but they have been unable to control the few thousand militants who operate there.

So what are the chances that the tribal militias will be able to succeed where the security forces have failed?

Hardened militants

The militias are made up of local tribesmen.


They have no specialised anti-terrorism training and unlike the Taleban they do not possess the latest arms and communications equipment.

It seems a tall order for untrained tribal militias to fight hardened militants who have turned parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan into a guerrilla battlefield.

Pakistani analysts also query why it is necessary to spend billions of dollars - mainly from US funds - on the security forces if it is down to ordinary Pakistani citizens to take on the militants.

If those ordinary citizens have to use generators for electricity, self-drilled wells for water and tribal militias for protection, what is the use of the state?

All this is an acknowledgment of the utter failure of the state to enforce its writ in Pakistan.

But what is even more dangerous is, to cover up its failures, another doomed operation is being conducted which will lead to many more civilian casualties.

Sources say the government has given the tribal militias a free hand against the militants.

The message being conveyed is "go ahead, kill as many militants as you can, no one will ask any questions".


It is not clear as to what help, aside from the "licence to kill", the government will provide to the militias.

Will it give them the latest weapons, and will there be financial rewards? All that remains to be seen.

Anti Taleban villagers
The loyalties of militia members are notoriously fickle

And what happens to all those UN conventions which prohibit states from arming ordinary citizens?

It is easy to conclude that the current experiment is being done without serious thought to the future - or reference to the past.

There is now a strong possibility that the situation will end up producing men like Afghan warlords of old - such as Ahmed Shah Masood, Ismail Khan and Abdur Rasheed Dostum - in the tribal area.

The government might then have to raise other tribal militias to fight the first ones.

It's also argued that tribal society and culture are not compatible with the militia policy.

The "licence to kill" could well be misused by people to settle personal and tribal rivalries - with the government reduced to the role of spectator.

An interesting aspect of the Afghan war against the Soviets took place after their withdrawal from the country.

Ahmed Shah Masood and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the main commanders in Afghanistan, were at loggerheads for the overall leadership of the mujahideen.

But as the hostilities intensified, their field commanders continued to meet to "discuss matters".

These field commanders switched loyalties as the situation on the ground changed and developed.

In some cases, loyalties were not just switched from commander to commander, but to the communist government as well.

'American conspiracy'

Indeed, the issue of shifting loyalties in this region is ancient.

What guarantee is there that the militias will not eventually turn against Pakistan?

They have already stated quite emphatically that if the US interferes in this region, then they will stand united against any such aggression.

At least one US presidential candidate has insisted that the fight against militancy should be carried into Pakistan. But there is a danger that this will serve only to encourage the militias to side with the Taleban.

Militiamen in South Waziristan
Some argue that militias are doing the work of the army

Raising militias in the tribal areas has been used in the past without success.

In 2003, locals marched to the beat of the drum against foreign militants and those who harboured them in Waziristan.

The results, however, were not impressive.

Uzbek militants were only chased out of the area by the pro-government Taleban commander Mullah Nazir in 2007.

After this, US drones began carrying out regular attacks against foreign militants in the tribal region.

So far only the Jamaat-e-Islami party opposes the formation of the militias, calling them an "American conspiracy".

If using US funds to get tribal leaders to move against the Taleban is indeed the main game plan, it holds potentially explosive consequences for the region.

The Taleban have sent a clear message as to their view of the tactic with the recent attack on the tribal council in the Orakzai region, as well as the beheadings of several captured militia leaders.

Whatever the proponents of raising militias do now, they will have to act with extreme caution - it is an area fraught with every kind of danger.

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