Lashkars, private militias and militants
13 July, 2010
By Rahimullah Yusufzai
The desperate American idea of raising village militias to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan is reportedly being opposed by President Hamid Karzai at a time when Pakistan is suffering from the consequences of this policy.
The brutal bombings in Ekkaghund town in the tribal region of Mohmand Agency on July 9 in which 106 people, mostly civilians, were killed was a consequence of the initiative sponsored by the Pakistan government and the military to mobilise the tribes to take on the Taliban militants. The attack was a botched Taliban attempt to target the Utmankhel tribal jirga from the Ambar area in Mohmand Agency where the militants had met tough resistance and suffered considerable losses at the hands of the local lashkar, or armed force, ironically referred to as amn, or peace, committee.
The Taliban spokesman, Ikramullah Mohmand, for Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Mohmand Agency chapter, while claiming responsibility for the attack made it clear that the Utmankhel jirga elders from Ambar were the target of the suicide bombings. The Taliban normally don`t make such claims when market-places are bombed and many civilians are killed and injured, but in this case the TTP accepted responsibility for the attack and at the same time expressed regrets over the civilian deaths. This was something rare, though there is no way any repentance on the part of the Taliban would satisfy the bereaved families or change public opinion about the horrible Ekkaghund bombings that turned a bustling rural town into a graveyard.
With the exception of Malik Sahibzada Utmankhel who had been instrumental in raising the anti-Taliban lashkar in his native Prang Ghar area, all the jirga members and the government officials holding a meeting at the time of the attack in the compound of the assistant political agent`s offices survived the twin bombings. The suicide bombers, apparently two in number as one rode a motorcycle to escort the other driving an explosives-packed vehicle, failed to enter the government compound after colliding with a passenger van. The devastating blasts caused death and destruction on a massive scale as tribespeople living in Ekkaghund town and selling and buying in the bazaar were caught in the explosions.
The government-backed lashkars of tribal and village communities have sometimes been effective in tackling the Taliban militants in parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), but the cost of this initiative in terms of human and material losses has been unusually high. The lashkars in Dhog Darra in Upper Dir district, Salarzai area in Bajaur Agency and Ambar in Mohmand Agency have been notably effective even though the tribes involved in the effort suffered huge losses and are still required to be battle-ready all the time. At times, the support promised by the government didn`t materialise. Many tribal elders often wonder for how long they would have to mobilise their young men to take on an enemy as determined as the Taliban.
Some of them complain that they were forced by the authorities to raise lashkars and fight the militants. In their view, they were being asked to do something that the government and its security forces have been largely unable to accomplish.
Blood-feuds have been the bane of the Pashtun society, which must be the most heavily-armed in the world, but the kind of feuds triggered by the enmities involving the Taliban militants and the lashkars are unparalleled. The militants, ruthless and revengeful, have retaliated with a vengeance through suicide bombers to attack jirgas while in session, kill pro-government tribal chiefs and intimidate the common people.
Though exact figures aren`t available, more than 250 tribal elders lost their lives in the tribal areas because they defied the militants or continued to interact with government and military officials despite being warned. Some of the major TTP attacks on jirgas included the one in Darra Adamkhel in March 2008 when more than 40 tribal elders were killed in a suicide bombing and another targeting the Salarzai jirga in Bajaur that caused the deaths of 22 tribal chieftains in November 2008. The biggest loss of tribal elders and commoners was in Khadezai area in Orakzai Agency in the same year when a Taliban suicide bomber mowed down a lashkar being raised to fight the militants and killed around 140 people.
The lashkars, comprising men of the same Pashtun stock harbouring strong feelings of honour and revenge, have been equally vindictive. Revenge killings are now the order of the day as militants and their facilitators are hunted down, their houses are demolished and their families are banished from ancestral villages. The Taliban are being paid back in the same coin and punishment meted out to them is justified on the ground that they did the same to their opponents while in control of places like Swat, Bajaur, Darra Adamkhel and Bara.
In neighbouring Afghanistan, the private militias coming to the aid of the military are as old as the three-decade-old Afghan conflict. Afghan communist rulers under the guidance of the Soviet Red Army raised such militias, including the one led by a former factory worker Abdul Rasheed Dostum, to fight the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s. The Dostum militia or Gilum Jam as it was commonly called comprised Uzbek and Turkmen fighters who not only tried to keep the mujahideen out of their own neighbourhoods in northern Afghanistan but also served as mercenaries deployed in Pashtun-populated areas. Dostum and commamders of other militias lacked ideology and principles and joined whoever was willing to pay the price.
A Japan-funded disarmament and demobilisatio