Thursday, October 01, 2009

In Pakistan's Swat valley, volunteers form anti-Taliban militias by Saeed Shah

With government support, thousands of armed volunteers have banded together to form traditional militias against the Taliban in Pakistan's Swat valley, which the army recently wrested back from the hands of extremists.

The militias — known as a "lashkar" — are being organized in individual villages across Swat, a scenic area in Pakistan's North West Frontier province, where the Taliban had unleashed a reign of terror.

The creation of a home-grown security service could bring a measure of stability to Swat, which has a population of about 2 million, but it carries the risk that the armed groups will operate independently and could slip out of state control, setting up a system of warlords.

Some critics say the establishment of lashkars is an indictment of the Pakistani military, which stood by when the Pakistani Taliban established a base in Swat and took complete control of the region.

The Pakistani Taliban, a spinoff of the Afghan extremist movement that's closely linked to al Qaida, developed in lawless tribal areas, then began spreading district by district through the NWFP, which is close to the heart of Pakistan. It was only under severe U.S. pressure that the Pakistani army launched a full-scale operation in April to drive the militants out of Swat, an offensive that won strong praise inside and outside the country.

"It is our duty to kill them, the terrorists. What should we do, kiss them?" said Afzal "Lala" Khan, a former Pakistani Cabinet minister, speaking at his home in the Matta area of Swat, where he held out against the Taliban for two years. He's the only political leader who dared to stay in the valley.

In recent days, Khan raised a lashkar of more than 2,000 men to defend his village and the surrounding locality. An army brigadier general who addressed the lashkar said that each village must organize its own militia, with a man from every household taking part.

"These (lashkars) are no danger to the state. They'll maintain the peace," Khan said. "Our thinkers and column writers worry about what will happen in the future, after decades, but they've got no other solution."

The men in the lashkars — which their leaders often call by the less militaristic name of "village defense committees" — provide their own arms. At the biggest such gathering so far, 10,000 men rallied at the airport just outside Swat's main town of Mingora last week. Many had modern arms, such as Kalashnikovs, but others arrived with old shotguns, rusty pistols and more than one white-bearded man turned up with an ax or even a stick.

The mayor of Swat, Jamal Nasir, who was forced from his home in the Matta area in 2007, formed a 2,500 strong lashkar in recent days for his village, and turned up at the first gathering brandishing an M4 machine gun. Nasir, who'd landed near the top of the Taliban hit list, is now able to resume his duties as mayor but said that rebuilding schools and other damaged infrastructure will have to wait while he organizes the lashkar.

"We waited for three years for the government to come to help us, but we were not rescued," Nasir said. "We don't want to wait for three more years if the Taliban comes back."

Swat was a relatively developed part of Pakistan's otherwise tradition-bound NWFP. The militias didn't exist when the Taliban began their drive for power, so members are having to re-learn the lashkar culture. There are already reports of lashkar members dying in skirmishes with the Taliban, as well as of the militia gunning down extremists.

Many people in Swat appear to support the lashkars, but those with misgivings think that they could end up being used to settle old scores with non-Taliban rivals and that the lashkar leaders, usually the big local landowners, could become de facto warlords. Zia-ud-Din Yusufzai, a school principal in Mingora who had taken a stand against the Taliban, said it was the job of the state to defend citizens.

"Why militarize the whole society? We need books, not guns," Yusufzai said. "The world is progressing ahead. Why should we go back to the caves?"

The army spokesman in Swat, Col. Akhtar Abbas, said that the army coordinated activities with the lashkars to prevent accidental clashes with them, but provided only "moral support."

"The army will only be there for a limited time," said Fazal Karim, the top government official for Swat and surrounding districts. "The police is meant for normal circumstances; they are not trained to confront an insurgency. We are passing through very extraordinary times . . . The lashkars are something very positive. People realized the need to defend themselves against this scale of menace."

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