5 years, 5 months ago
The Wall Street Journal recently carried a news item on Pakistan’s turn to tribal militias to help in the fight against the Taliban.
The Pakistani army is backing tribal militias that are rising to battle pro-Taliban groups, a development that the government hopes will turn the tide against insurgents here in the embattled northwest.
Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies say recent antigovernment violence, including last week’s deadly bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, is rooted in Islamist strongholds along the border with Afghanistan, in districts like Bajaur.
The militant groups here — Pakistanis allied with Taliban and al Qaeda guerrillas in Afghanistan — are trying to carve out Islamist enclaves along the border. To fight them, the government has deployed more than 8,000 troops in the Bajaur region. The army says it has killed 1,000 militants in the six weeks since the campaign started. But a steady supply of Islamist guerillas is pouring in from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the fighting shows little sign of abating.
The tribal militias could provide a counterweight. “The tribesmen have risen against the militants. It could be a turning point in our fight against militancy,” says Owais Ghani, governor of North West Frontier Province. The province is “providing them financial as well as moral support,” he says.
Military commanders say the struggle for control of the tribal region is crucial to containing the spread of Islamist militancy to other parts of northwestern Pakistan.
“The threat of Bajaur radiates in all directions and affects the entire region,” said Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan, the commanding officer of the military campaign in the region, last week.
The army-backed militia movement has similarities with the Sunni awakening in Iraq, where U.S.-supported Arab tribesmen turned against al Qaeda fighters, says Tanveer Ahmed Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Institute of Strategic Studies.
Indeed, the U.S. has also been assisting the tribes with money and training, and has been ever since it was determined that the Khyber pass and Torkham Crossing were problematic and could be lost to the Taliban (one of two main supply routes through Pakistan to NATO forces in Afghanistan; the other border crossing is at the southwestern town of Chaman). Shoring up relations with the tribes in Khyber is one reason for Deputy Secretary of State John D Negroponte’s visit to Khyber earlier in the year (although it should be pointed out that out of fear of the Taliban, only six tribal elders showed up at the meeting). The Captain’s Journal predicted over six months ago that interdiction of these supply routes would be one leg of the Taliban strategy against NATO.
But the last statement by Khan is troubling, inasmuch as it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the tribal awakening in Anbar. The Anbar awakening can be succinctly characterized by Abu Ahmed’s experience as the Sheriff of al-Qaim, Iraq.
The 40-year-old is a hero to the 50,000 residents of Al-Qaim for having chased Al-Qaeda from the agricultural centre where houses line the green and blue waters of the Euphrates.
In the main street, with its fruit and vegetable stalls, its workshops and restaurants, men with pistols in their belts approach Abu Ahmed to kiss his cheek and right shoulder in a mark of respect.
It was not always this way.
He tells how one evening in May 2005 he decided that the disciples of Osama bin Laden went too far — they killed his cousin Jamaa Mahal.
“I started shooting in the air and throughout the town bursts of gunfire echoed across the sky. My family understood that the time had come. And we started the war against Al-Qaeda.”
It took three battles in the streets of Al-Qaim — in June, in July and then in November 2005 — to finish off the extremists who had come from Arab countries to fight the Americans.
Abu Ahmed, initially defeated by better equipped forces, had to flee to the desert region of Akashat, around 100 kilometres (60 miles) southwest of Al-Qaim. There he sought help from the US Marines.
“With their help we were able to liberate Al-Qaim,” he said, sitting in his house with its maroon tiled facade.
This alliance between a Sunni tribe and American troops was to be the first, and it give birth to a strategy of other US-paid Sunni fighters ready to mobilise against Al-Qaeda.
It resulted in the Sunni province of Al-Anbar being pacified in two years.
The fundamental difference is that the Pakistani troops have withdrawn from their offensive in Bajaur. Pakistan has made it clear through threats and firing on U.S. troops – causing a stand down of U.S. operations across the Pakistan border – that Pakistan will not tolerate the presence of U.S. forces in spite of its duplicity towards the Taliban and reluctance to engage them in combat.
So by expecting the tribes to stand up to the Taliban and al Qaeda without the presence or protection of the U.S. Marines or even Pakistani forces, we are expecting something that an even more proud and obstinate people, the Anbaris, couldn’t manage on their own. This is why there isn’t any real similarity between the Anbar awakening and the tribal actions in Pakistan. One might surmise what the outcome will be.