Pakistan Turns to Tribal Militias

Regional Fighters Help Army in Effort Against Islamists

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BAJAUR, Pakistan -- 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 army is backing tribal militias in the fight against Pakistani militant groups allied with Taliban and al Qaeda guerrillas.] Reuters

Pakistan's army is backing tribal militias in the fight against Pakistani militant groups allied with Taliban and al Qaeda guerrillas.

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.

But some analysts worry the emergence of the militias could escalate fighting in the border region into a mini-civil war, pitting pro- and anti-Taliban Pakistanis against one another.

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In the past few weeks, militias have emerged in the Kurram and Khyber tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, as well as in the Dir district in North West Frontier Province, according to residents and officials. Initially, the Lashkars, as the militias are known, were organized as indigenous resistance groups without help from local government administrations, but now both the military and the provincial government support them.

Malik Munasib Khan, the white-bearded chieftain of the Salarzai tribe, leads one of the largest new militias. Sporting a white skullcap and toting an old Soviet-made Kalashnikov rifle, Mr. Khan exhorts villagers to fight the estimated 4,000 militants who have moved into the Bajaur district over the past year.

"They are killing our people and destroying our land," he told hundreds of men gathered at a dusty market surrounded by mud houses in the village of Raghagan last Friday.

The tribesmen -- armed with machine guns and rocket launchers, some dating from the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s -- responded with shouts of "Allahu akbar!" or "God is great."

The Salarzai militia claims to have 4,000 armed fighters under its control, a figure the Pakistani military says it believes is accurate. Militia leaders say they have driven Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda fighters and other militants out of their region, torching their homes and installations.

Initially, some in the Salarzai tribe -- one of five main tribes in the Bajaur district -- had been sympathetic to the Islamists, who had promised to restore law and order to the loosely governed semiautonomous tribal area. But many rebelled after the militants tried to impose a harsh system of Islamic rule on the local population.

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