State-backed fighters may seem like a good idea to fight insurgents, but the formula has not always worked
The romantic notion of the Pashtun fighting for his homeland against homegrown and foreign extremists was embodied by the lashkars that started to push back in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at a time when good news was desperately hard to come by. These groups of fighters and peace committees were formed to fight the Taliban as early as 2004. Since then, the Fata secretariat estimates that more than 1,400 of them and anti-Taliban elders have been killed for doing just that. The latest casualty was a former Awami National Party MPA, Muhammad Shoaib, in Swabi on July 18 this year. Many of them have, as a result, either fled to Islamabad or left the country given the threat to their lives.
This is, however, one side to the complex story of lashkars. For if history teaches us anything, it is that when states fight terrorists through private militias it has almost always been counterproductive. And while one does not mean to belittle their sacrifices, it is worth highlighting how this mechanism can also come with its own blow back. In the case of some lashkars and peace committees it has come in the shape of abuse of power.
Some committees ended up being headed or populated by men with a history of crime. An elder, Haji Imran Afridi, gives the example of the Adezai peace committee run by a former contract killer, Dilawar Khan, and the Badhbair committee that was led by a man named Fahim Khan who was found to be involved in land grabbing and extortion. These criminals now had legal cover and were provided money, arms and vehicles by the government. “The ones previously reigning through illegal arms had the government’s arms in their hands, which increased their strength manifold,” said another elder, who did not want to be named.
The police came to rely on committees. According to elder Haji Imran Afridi, the Badhbair police station would refer cases to the committee daily. A shopkeeper, who did not want to be named, corroborated this by narrating an incident in which a man who was unable to return a loan found himself facing the peace committee’s wrath after a police complaint was lodged. The police had refered the case to the committee. “[The victim] was with the women and children of his family when [the committee members] dragged him to the main bazaar,” said the shopkeeper. “I, like other shopkeepers, came out of my shop. But no one could dare question them.”
This formula for the dispensation of justice meant that committees were acting as recovery officers and judges at a jirga. “The committees soon started to pressure people by holding jirgas in which their orders would be final,” Afridi says.
Several family members of former goons-turned-committee leaders rode the crest of their power and even entered the political arena by contesting local body elections. The brother of Adezai anti-militant lashkar chief Dilawar Khan, who was later killed, stood from the platform of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. The party’s provincial chief, Amir Muqam, had even attended his corner meetings.“Since the committees were close to police officers and politicians, they tried to enter politics,” explains Afridi, adding that dozens of committee members with bad reputations even won in the last local government polls.
“Peace committees, typically in Pakistan, have been formed by politically motivated individuals to put themselves in the spotlight,” says Khalid Muhammad of the think tank Command Eleven, who hails from Swat himself. “And it’s no surprise that some of the committee members have protected and provided cover for terrorists in their own communities due to the threats made against them if they were to leak information.” Take the example of Muslim Khan, the TTP Swat spokesman, who was hiding in the home of one of the peace committee members in Qambar, he adds.
147 is the number of pro-government tribal elders who have been killed in the tribal areas May 2005 to Nov 2015 (source: South Asia Terrorism Portal)
This problematic behaviour did, however, come to the notice of the authorities eventually. According to one security official, when the committee members started oppressing locals, those at the helm of affairs realized they should be checked before they turned into another Taliban force. Another security official, based in Peshawar, added: “When some of those crossed their limits a ‘safai mohim’ (cleansing drive) had to be kicked off both to get rid of them and to warn others others.”
It does seem to be counter intuitive, however, to have to discipline a force that is supposed to be on your side. “When it comes to dealing with armed groups on its soil, Pakistan stands where it stood post 9/11,” argues Asfandyar Mir, a Chicago-based scholar and counter militancy expert. “The state fights groups that are averse to its ideological project … puts up with those who deploy agreeable symbols and ideas while offering tactical utility within or outside the borders, and neglects the rest.” For him, this violence management strategy is fraught with serious risk of blowback. Remember the case of Abdullah Mehsud who had formed a peace committee against Baitullah Mehsud back in 2004?
According to one view, lashkars and peace committees have at least in many cases minimized the fatalities of the security forces and police and something must be said for that. But as the Swat-based analyst Sardar Ahmed Yousafzai puts it, how productive could they be if they are being targeted themselves?
Peace committees: who, when, how
Swat: In Swat the committees were formed directly by the army after the start of the operation in 2009 and have remained under its supervision. They had no lashkar or active fighting force and were never on the offensive. Instead, they assisted with information sharing. They would not go on patrol unlike the committees in FATA and troubled parts of settled districts. Between 40 and 90 of these members have been killed in the last seven years.
Settled districts: Unlike in Swat, the committees in the settled districts were formed by police (though the security agencies had given clearance for all of them). The committees in the settled but troubled districts of Charsadda, Nowshera, Peshawar, Lakki Marwat, DI Khan and Bannu mostly comprised men with criminal backgrounds or a bad reputation. There was no direct presence of the army, so they were on the frontlines against the Taliban’s attacks. More than 500 of these members, including 97 killed in the Shah Hassan Khel blast on January 1, 2010, have paid with their lives. They were mostly killed by militants but some recently as part of the “Safai Mohim”.
FATA: The peace committees were formed as far back as early 2004. The committees and Amn Lashkars were abolished by former KP governor, Sardar Mehtab Abbasi, in 2015. He replaced the lashkar with jirgas, which were already a part of tribal culture. The committees were indigenously formed by elders and worked according to the tribal hierarchy of governance.
The writer is a Karachi-based journalist