The Pakistani military recently hustled journalists through tiny villages in Bajaur, a tribal area along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, where the Pakistani Army is encouraging villagers to form local militias, called lashkars, to join the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
At the same time that authorities are encouraging the lashkars to join the fight against Islamist militants, they’ve asked Afghan refugees to leave camps in the tribal areas and return home.
While a formal reason has not be given, security forces suspect that Taliban supporters are hidden in the camps.
What’s going on here?
An armchair general might deduce that the Pakistani government is hoping that they can foment tribal anger into a popular uprising similar to the Sunni Awakening in Iraq.
For those of you new to the story, we’re winning the war in Iraq. A significant part of that success — we’ll leave it for historians to argue how much — is due to a change in coalition counterinsurgency doctrine that was the result of some very smart men looking at what has worked in the past in other parts of the world, and adapting a solution that fit.
Another significant event contribution to progress in Iraq occurred when Sunni sheiks in al-Anbar province got very tired of al-Qaeda’s senseless brutality towards their tribes, and decided that the best way to express their distaste was through the barrel of a gun.
Though the Sunni uprising in Iraq — the “Awakening” — helped turn the tide in a war that was on the verge of failure, what made the turn stick were the partnerships that developed between Sunni tribes and coalition and Iraqi forces.
Sunni tribes provided intelligence to coalition and Iraqi forces, coalition forces dismantled terrorist cells (sometimes violently), and then tribal militias kept watch for attempts at re-infiltration as Iraqi forces came up to speed and gained trust as they provided security. At the same time, the coalition paid the Sunni tribesmen. Many, if not most of them, were part of the Sunni insurgency who had been shooting at U.S. and Iraqi forces and setting bombs just months earlier. Their employment encouraged them to stick to the straight and narrow.
From time to time, al-Qaeda struck back and attempted to make examples of isolated tribes that were part of the Awakening by attacking and overwhelming them.
Insurgents in Iraq quickly learned that massed assaults against isolated tribes worked… until a member of the tribe made a phone call to the nearest coalition quick reaction force (QRF). When the cavalry arrived with Apaches in tow, the insurgents were almost always overwhelmed, taking heavy losses. Sunni tribes in al-Anbar began to trust coalition and Iraqi forces, Sunni tribes in other provinces began to follow suit, and the rest is history.
The Pakistani government would like to see the same scenario play out in Pakistan. But their hopes of a Pakistani Awakening is going to fail in the tribal areas.
In an effort to answer that question, Pajamas Media interviewed Bill Roggio, managing editor of the Long War Journal, a news resource dedicated exclusively to news and analysis of the War on Terror. In October 2007, Roggio wrote “Crunch Time in Pakistan” for Pajamas Media, arguing that only a concerted effort led by the Pakistani government could dislodge the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the tribal regions of Pakistan. A year later, he has also covered the recent push to engage the lashkars against the Taliban.
Pajamas Media (PJM): First, reading your article, it seems that unless the Pakistani government can find a way to coordinate the local lashkars into a larger, more regional force with some sort of unifying command, then the Taliban can simply choose to mass forces at the times and places of their choosing to overwhelm lashkars one by one. Is that a correct reading?
Roggio: Correct. I would also add that without the Pakistani military to provide backup (think QRF) these individual tribes and their lashkars will be easy prey. The lashkars will not be mobilized forever, by the way, these are temporary militias.
PJM: Does that indicate that those who have written articles trying to equate the recent focus on lashkars in Pakistan with the Sunni Awakening movements in Iraq are just not aware of the differences between the cultures in these two countries? For example, the Sunni tribes in Iraq were willing to work with other Sunni tribes, and U.S. and Iraqi security forces. We’re not seeing any evidence of that in Pakistan, are we?
Roggio: I agree. I would add the Taliban have solid support among many of the tribes. The dynamics are very different between the two countries. In Iraq, AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] was foreign. In Pakistan, AQ and the Taliban were born in the tribal areas.
PJM: Do you think it is possible that the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency] may be backing the lashkars in public, knowing they will fail, while still providing significant and real backing for the Taliban behind the scenes?
Roggio: Absolutely. Nothing that happens with the ISI’s involvement can be trusted at this point in time. And when the Taliban decides to take revenge, the odds are good the ISI will provide the intel on who in the tribes to target.
PJM: Can the lashkars have a lasting effect without more fully integrating among themselves and working with the Pakistani military?
Roggio: I agree. The Awakening survived al-Qaeda’s onslaught because it worked closely with the U.S. and Iraqi security forces. The Pakistani tribes do not appear to be interested in the Pak Army maintaining a presence in their tribal areas.
While the Pakistani government would like to imagine that an al-Anbar-type Awakening movement might help create a turning point in the tribal regions along the Afghan border, the reality is that they have little chance of succeeding without far more support than the population has any interest in providing.
The Pakistani government is losing the war against the Taliban in the tribal regions. A suicide bomber just killed 50 militiamen forming up for an assault, and other tribesmen have been beheaded. It is only a matter of time before a heavily-armed Taliban decides to make an example of a lashkars and the tribal villages that support it.
Whether the Pakistani government can maintain control of their country if the lashkars withdraw from the fight remains to be seen.