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.”

Those tribes that have finally mobilized against the Taliban have done so only after an intense military operation. In Dera Adam Khel, Swat, and Bajaur—all places where the army is bombarding militant strongholds—residents have formed lashkars. In North and South Waziristan, where Musharraf signed peace deals with the Taliban, they have not. The Taliban have reacted violently to the lashkars. Suicide bombers have targeted tribal councils where lashkars were coalescing. Last March, more than 40 people died in one such attack, and in October, another bomber detonated himself and killed more than 80.

Lashkars in the tribal regions face a significantly greater challenge than did the Sunni tribes in Anbar. Al-Qaeda had undermined tribal authority in Anbar for not even three years when the tribes fought back. The Pashtun tribes of northwestern Pakistan have been undermined for three decades, ever since the arrival of thousands of foreigners in the 1980s for the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. And in Pakistan and Afghanistan, ferocity in battle has gradually become more important than respect for tribal pedigree. The murder of several hundred maliks in recent years is a case in point. Consider, too, how a man like Baitullah Mehsud came to control his tribe in South Waziristan. Mehsud is in his early 30s, a gym rat-turned-Taliban commander, with a reputation for fighting. Platoons of eager suicide bombers swear their loyalty to him, and now the elders of the Mehsud tribe do, too.

No lashkar will achieve swift and decisive victory over the Talibs. But as more and more tribesmen turn against the militants, the comfort zone for Osama bin Laden and top al-Qaeda leaders in the tribal areas since 2001 could shrink. And the lashkars could distract the Taliban from fighting U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the strategy could create even more serious problems later. The medium- and long-term effects of the “Awakening” in Iraq are unclear. After all, Anbar’s Sunni tribes are fickle: they switched from al-Qaeda to the United States in a matter of months. Why not switch sides again? New tactics should be treated with caution. The tribal areas are, after all, already rife with weapons and gangs. Men walk to the grocery store with AK-47s slung over their shoulders. Taking sides will have consequences.

And there’s another reason to be wary of comparing Pakistan's tribal areas and Anbar: there are no U.S. soldiers in Pakistan to buttress the embattled tribes. We've seen what happens when posses are left to fight over a lawless space. You get mujahideen factionalism, as in Afghanistan's protracted civil war in the early- and mid-1990s. Eventually, a force bigger and badder than anyone—Mullah Omar’s Taliban—swept in on the beds of Toyota pickups to subdue warring clans, eradicate highways bandits, and establish peace. The Taliban are already partisans in the current struggle in the tribal areas. I would hate to see what bigger, badder militia is waiting to top them.