Pakistan needs all the help it can get from militias

PESHAWAR, Pakistan Thu Jun 23, 2011 4:25am EDT

Members of the local Lashka (tribal militia-men), hold their weapons while dancing in a show-of-force in Khar, the main town in Bajaur Agency, located in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghanistan border March 2, 2010. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Members of the local Lashka (tribal militia-men), hold their weapons while dancing in a show-of-force in Khar, the main town in Bajaur Agency, located in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghanistan border March 2, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Adrees Latif

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PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Dilawar Khan often gets phone calls that would fill others with dread -- threats from the Pakistani Taliban to behead him. He gives his usual response: Not if he kills them first.

Khan, leader of a Pashtun tribal militia, joined forces with Pakistani security forces in 2008 to help them battle a rising tide of militancy.

He has lost 82 fighters and barely survived numerous assassination attempts but still stands up to militants bent on toppling the government.

But like other militia leaders, Khan feels abandoned by the state, which promised him funding and moral support, and he even speaks of switching sides.

"It feels like the government just threw us in the ocean to fend for ourselves," said Khan, a round-faced, stern-looking man wearing traditional baggy trousers and tunic.

Pakistan can't afford to lose friends like Khan.

It has come under enormous U.S. pressure step up its fight against groups like the Taliban and al Qaeda since Osama bin Laden was found and killed in Pakistan last month.

Islamabad may have to succumb to U.S. demands to open a risky new front against militants in North Waziristan to confront dangerous groups who cross the border to attack American troops in Afghanistan.

Pakistan is accused of backing some of the most dangerous groups, rather than confronting them, allegations it denies.

Pakistan's army has failed to subdue Islamist militants despite a series of offensives against their strongholds in the unruly ethnic Pashtun lands along the Afghan border.

That's why the government began encouraging Pashtun tribesmen like Khan to revive traditional militias to take on the Taliban and rally their communities behind the state.

Under a centuries-old tradition, tribes raise militias, or lashkars, in their semi-autonomous regions to fight criminal gangs and enforce their tribal codes.

MANY SACRIFICES, FEW REWARDS

The drive has had limited success after the Taliban hit back by killing hundreds of tribal leaders and silencing others.

Critics say Pakistan lacks the resolve and resources to make the lashkars a success. Pakistani officials say the government does its best to support the lashkars.

Khan's plight is typical.

He runs a lashkar of 200 men, armed with AK-47 assault rifles and some rocket-propelled grenades, charged with protecting a group of farming villages in Adezai, about an hour's drive from the city of Peshawar.

His warriors have made many sacrifices standing up to the Taliban. They left their jobs to operate the lashkar full time.

Each fighter's extended family has to pay salaries, buy food, petrol and clothes, a heavy drain on the poor community.

While Khan's frustrations grow, the unpredictable Taliban remain as determined as ever to wipe out his force.

About 150 of them attack at a time, sometimes every five days, or they wait five months, keeping Adezai on edge. The onslaughts can last for hours.

Khan's morale sunk to a low in March when a teenage Taliban suicide bomber attacked a funeral procession for the relative of a lashkar leader in a nearby village, killing 37 people.

"Out of anger I announced to my people that I will join the Taliban," said Khan, a father of seven.

His nearby bodyguards are twitchy, aware that the Taliban have come very close to killing Khan -- in one attack they rocketed his bedroom while he and his family were asleep inside.

Khan's fury has eased but he stills sees the government as an unreliable partner.

"Why would anyone else want to form a lashkar around here. It's not worth it," said Khan, 39, whose brother, also a militia leader, was hunted down and shot dead by the Taliban.

Despite such complaints and the pitfalls of the lashkar system, Pakistan is trying to persuade tribal elders to take up arms in North Waziristan -- a sanctuary for some of the world's most notorious militant groups -- instead of meeting repeated U.S. demands to launch an offensive there.

But authorities are unlikely to win over more elders, especially at a time when the Taliban are stepping up attacks on militiamen.

"We are not going to raise a lashkar even if the government asked us to," said Malik Din Torikhel, an elder in North Waziristan. "Look what militants are doing in other areas. We don't want to be shot dead or butchered."

(Additional reporting by Haji Mujtaba in North Waziristan and Kamran Haider in Islamabad; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Robert Birsel)

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