Two tribal elders lay stretched out in an orthopedic ward here last week, their plastered limbs and winces of pain grim evidence of the slaughter they survived when a suicide bomber blew himself up in the midst of their tribal gathering.
These wounded men, and many others in the hospital, were supposed to be the backbone of a Pakistani government effort to take on the Taliban, and its backers, al-Qaida, with armies of traditional tribesmen working in consultation with the Pakistani military.
The tribal militias, known as lashkars, have quickly become a crucial tool of Pakistan’s strategy in the tribal belt, where the army has been fighting the Taliban for more than two months in what army generals acknowledge is a tougher and more protracted slog than they had anticipated. And, indeed, the lashkars’ early efforts have been far from promising.
As the strength of the militants in the tribal areas grows, and as the war across the border in Afghanistan worsens, the Pakistanis are casting about for new tactics. The emergence of the lashkars is a sign of the tribesmen’s rising frustration with the ruthlessness of the Taliban, but also of their traditional desire to run their own affairs and keep the Pakistani army at bay, Pakistani officers and law enforcement officials say.
Some in Washington have pointed to the emergence of the lashkars as a hopeful parallel to the largely successful Sunni Awakening movement in Iraq, which drew on tribes’ frustration with militant jihadis to build an alliance with U.S. troops that helped lessen violence in Iraq. But there are significant differences, a senior U.S. government official acknowledged. In Anbar province, he said, the Iraqi tribes “woke up to millions of dollars in government assistance, and the support of the 3rd Infantry Division.”