Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Lashkars

Pakistan has announced that they will begin arming anti-Taliban militias in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Western Pakistan, in the hopes that members of these militias can help control the Taliban that infiltrates Afghanistan seemingly at will:

Pakistan plans to arm tens of thousands of anti-Taliban tribal fighters in its western border region in hopes -- shared by the U.S. military -- that the nascent militias can replicate the tribal "Awakening" movement that proved decisive in the battle against al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The militias, called lashkars, will receive Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifles and other small arms, a purchase arranged during a visit to Beijing this month by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistani officials said.

U.S. military officials warn, however, that expanding the movement will be more difficult than it proved in Iraq, where the Awakening began in 2006 among Sunni tribes in Anbar province. Unlike the Iraqi tribes, the FATA Pakistanis are poorly armed with aging rifles and little else -- although the provision of new, Chinese-made AK-47s and other small arms will increase their firepower.

Extremist groups are widespread throughout the poverty-stricken region and are entrenched in social and economic structures; many of the tribes receive regular financial support from al-Qaeda in exchange for providing sanctuary, a senior U.S. military official said.

Most important, the extent to which the program is perceived to be coordinated with U.S. aims in western Pakistan is likely to help determine its effectiveness. In Iraq, tribal security forces readily accepted an alliance with the U.S. military as well as direct U.S. payment for their services. U.S. officials see neither as likely in the FATA.

The FATA has long been an area largely ungoverned by the government of Pakistan, and is an area of frequent competition and conflict between competing tribes and militias. The Lashkars, essentially tribal home-made militas, have been in conflict with Al Qaeda and the Taliban to a greater or lesser degree for quite some time. The problem of course is that the same tribes that produce these militias are also largely supportive of the Taliban, leading one to wonder exactly how much actual fighting between the group is going on here (at least that isn't related in some way to inter-tribal conflict.) Of course, it's possible that conflict will break out between various warring groups that might be impossible to control. And this move is a far cry from the Awakenings movement we've witnessed in Iraq. Until very recently the U.S. military was essentially paying the Sunni insurgents to fight Al Qaeda and not them. The situation would be comparable in Pakistan were Pakistan paying members of the Taliban to fight Al Qaeda. They're not. They're paying what appear to be rival militias, who may or may not be supported by tribal members, and the Taliban occupies a position of authority in the FATA that is well beyond what Al Qaeda in Iraq possessed; indeed, conflict between the Taliban and competing militias might look a lot more like civil war, and less like the tribes turning on the Taliban.

UPDATE: The NY Times, with more on the uncertain prospects of success for this new strategy.

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