x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Tribes in Pakistan turn against the Taliban

Intensive Pakistani military action in the border areas has emboldened several tribes to turn against Taliban militants.

Pakistani men from tribal forces chant slogans against the Taliban in Raghagan, close to the Pakistani/Afghan border.
Pakistani men from tribal forces chant slogans against the Taliban in Raghagan, close to the Pakistani/Afghan border.

RAGHAGAN, PAKISTAN // Intensive Pakistani military action in the border areas has emboldened several tribes to turn against Taliban militants. The Salarzai tribe in Bajaur, where the military is conducting a bloody campaign against militants, has formed a militia to throw the Taliban out of their area. The operation in Bajaur has caused heavy civilian casualties and forced 300,000 to flee their homes. But the intensity of the fighting has sent out a strong message of the military's determination, and made tribal leaders realise that even staying neutral may invite the wrath of the authorities. On Friday about 400 men brandishing weaponry that ranged from rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs to ancient rifles gathered in the Bajauri town of Raghagan to chant support for the Pakistani government. The Lashkar, or militia, had gathered to meet a group of journalists taken to Bajaur by the military to show that their operation had the support of locals. The Salarzai militia is at the vanguard of several tribes on the Pakistani-Afghan border that have formed militias to keep the Taliban - and hence western-backed military operations against them - out of their areas. Last week they burnt the offices of local Taliban commanders and killed half a dozen fighters. Many people interviewed in the frontier areas said they had suffered enough of the Taliban's summary justice. Many thought that local criminals had adopted the dress of the Taliban. "When the Taliban first came they said they would do public welfare work, that they would give justice and that they were good Muslims. But now their stock is low," said Akhunzada Chattan, a parliamentarian from Bajaur. But Mr Chattan did not offer support for the military operation. "If the military pulls out of the tribal agencies, they could be peaceful," he said. He said that 15 years ago he was part of the Salarzai militia formed to fight jihad against the Soviet presence in neighbouring Afghanistan. Mr Chattan said changes in government policy - first in supporting the Taliban and then withdrawing it - had left tribesmen in a quandary. "Every tribesman is against the Taliban, but they had been made hostage and could not openly come out against it because it had government support. The Taliban killed tribal leaders and were so powerful people thought they had the support of the government," he said. The Taliban attacked his home and destroyed his car, but he said they had not been able to kill his family as they had moved away from the fighting. In the crowd at Raghagan, tribesmen expressed suspicion of all players in the US-led "war on terrorism". "The ISI [Pakistan's powerful military intelligence agency], the Americans and Pakistani government have created a lot of problems and then cannot disentangle themselves," said Mian ul Haq, a teacher from Bajaur. "There is no clarity. We do not know who are our allies and who are our rivals. There is frequent policy change," he added. Mr Chattan wryly noted that the Salarzai - which does not lie directly on the border - had not been used in the past by the government as an area to set up a Taliban infrastructure. "There was no mosque, no madrasa, no militant," he said. However, he said that over the past several years the Taliban had attempted to make inroads there. "There is the perception that the government and the militants are the same," he added. Military officials said tribesmen in other districts of Bajaur were raising militias to expel foreign militants. The next militia expected to be raised may be from the Mamund district even though some Arabs linked to al Qa'eda had family links with the valley. When thousands of al Qa'eda and Taliban militants fled the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the tribes sheltered them, viewing them as successors of the mujahideen who fought the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan in the 1980s. In 2003, Islamabad launched army operations at Washington's behest in the tribal belt, especially the notorious Waziristan area, but civilian deaths helped to radicalise and fire up many more tribesmen against the government. Historically the tribes have been financed - at times from both Kabul and Islamabad, or from abroad, to win over their support along the disputed border that is known as the Durand Line after the colonial administrator responsible for demarcating the boundary between British India and Afghanistan. Following in the tradition of their colonial forebears, Pakistani authorities pay stipends to tribal leaders to enlist their loyalty. In the Khyber, tribal agency authorities have recently paid out bundles of dollars to recruit tribes as their proxies to take on militants. But at times they have proved unreliable and subsequently turned their arsenals on the government. The Pakistani military admitted that there is much tough fighting left to be done in Bajaur. The government still has a long way to go to win over most of the tribes. Harpoon Rashid, a parliamentarian from a conservative religious party, Jamaat-I-Islami, resigned his Bajaur seat in 2006 after a missile strike levelled a madrasa, killing 80 in his constituency. "There are different groups fighting in Bajaur, but people in general are fighting against security forces." He called for the army to show the bodies of the foreign militants who they had claimed to have killed. The government's senior civilian representative in Bajaur, Shafeerullah Khan, said that since he had taken up his post in 2007 he had attempted to tackle militancy through tribal councils, jirgas and peace deals. "These failed because the militants are in charge and not tribal leaders. These people were not powerful enough to resolve the issue themselves and so the military operation must succeed," he said. But the tribesmen, who have traditionally been seen as the guardians of Pakistan's borders against external aggression, also pledged they will fight to the death against US incursions on their soil. In recent weeks, Washington has stepped up missile strikes in Waziristan and launched a controversial ground assault on Pakistani soil. "For us, the Taliban, Nato and the United States are all equals," said Malik Manasib Khan, the leader of the Lashkar. "They should not enter our area, otherwise we will fight them." iwilkinson@thenational.ae