Dispatch November 2008

The Tribal Fallacy

Why the counterinsurgency tactics that seem to have worked so well in Iraq could backfire in Pakistan

Last year, in the town of Dera Ismail Khan, near South Waziristan, a Pakistani friend of mine joined a gang—a “peace force,” he called it, but it sounded like a gang to me. The Taliban, flushed from Afghanistan into Pakistan's tribal areas, had begun to spread out of the tribal areas, and to terrorize residents and attack police stations in places like Dera Ismail Khan. Until gangs (or lashkars) like my friend’s formed, not even the police dared to stand against the Taliban. Now, just a year later, posses and tribal militias are the backbone of Pakistan’s aggressive new counterinsurgency campaign. The use of the lashkars hopes to mimic the Anbar Awakening in Iraq, where Sunni tribes left the insurgency and banded together with the U.S. military to drive out al-Qaeda. But will feuding gangs accomplish American security goals, or create even nastier problems down the road?

The Pakistani government has flirted with divide-and-conquer tactics in the past by taking sides in internecine squabbles in the tribal areas. But rather than siding with tribes against the Taliban, Pakistan often tries to play one Taliban faction off another. It distinguishes between “good” and “bad” Taliban: the “good” ones focus on fighting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and the "bad" ones target Pakistani troops and politicians. Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan are both "bad." In April 2007, a mini-civil war in South Waziristan pitted “good” Taliban fighters from the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe, under the command of Maulvi Nazir, against several hundred “bad” Uzbek militants belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and to al-Qaeda. The Uzbeks had killed scores of Pakistani tribal chiefs. When the fighting began, the Pakistani army sided with the Taliban and provided helicopter- and artillery-fire. The ranking general later told me that he ordered soldiers to strip off their uniforms, don a shalwar kameez, and lead the "good" Taliban to victory. (The incident, while encouraging, highlighted the degree to which Washington and Islamabad’s security priorities are mismatched. Among the rash of recent drone attacks in the tribal areas, several missiles have targeted "good" Talib Maulvi Nazir and his associates in South Waziristan.)

Meanwhile, the Pakistanis have had little success enlisting ordinary tribesmen to rebel against the Taliban. Their failure should be worrying. Without the support of ordinary tribesmen in Iraq, the Anbar Awakening and the defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq would have been unthinkable. The same holds true in northwestern Pakistan. Yet the Pashtun tribes have been understandably reluctant to join the government. During Musharraf's regime, sporadic, overhyped military offensives failed to dislodge the Taliban, and any malik, or tribal chief, suspected of sympathizing with the government was branded a spy and slaughtered. Khalid Aziz, a former political agent in North Waziristan, told me that, in the past, “If a malik or his family was attacked, we used to do everything to redeem the malik’s honor. The current administration has unfortunately disowned these policies.”

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