By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
At least 56 persons were killed and 123 injured in a suicide attack during the Friday prayers at Jamia Masjid Madina in the Ghundai area of Jamrud tehsil (revenue unit) of Khyber Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), on August 19, 2011. According to locals, a young boy aged about 15 or 16 years, had entered the mosque through a window and blown himself up in the main hall during prayers. Officials confirmed that the blast was a suicide attack.
On August 20, 2011, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was carried out in retaliation for local resistance against the outfit. TTP’s Tariq Afridi group spokesman, Muhammad Talha, released a statement asserting that the attack was directed against the Kukikhel tribe, whose members had killed four TTP fighters in Tirah Valley in Khyber Agency on August 16. He also claimed that the tribesmen had demolished the houses of TTP members and warned that more ‘action’ would be taken against the members of Kukikhel tribe if they continued to resist to the TTP in Tirah Valley. The Tirah Valley is part of the primary NATO supply route, and consequently a prize target for the TTP.
Kukikhel tribesmen had therefore raised a lashkar (tribal militia) in June 2010, to force militants out of the area. Just a few days before the August 19, 2011, suicide bombing, some TTP cadres who entered the area had been forced to leave by the tribal elders. The teenage suicide bomber at the Jamia Masjid Madina, before detonating himself, reportedly shouted, “Who will throw me out of the area now?”
The latest attack is just one in a series of assaults by the terrorists targeting lashkar members. A senior member of the Chamarkand Peace Committee, Malik Afsar Khan and his son were shot dead by unidentified militants in Chamarkand tehsil of Bajaur Agency on August 17, 2011. On August 15, Baizai Peace Committee chief, Malik Sultan Kodakhel, and three volunteers suffered injuries when militants ambushed their car near Lakhkar Kalli in the Baizai tehsil (revenue unit) of Mohmand Agency. On August 12, unidentified militants killed a senior member of a lashkar, Malik Jan Afridi, of Bara tehsil in Khyber Agency. On August 11, five persons, including three women and two children, were killed and one minor was injured in a landmine explosion in the house of lashkar ‘commander’ Shah Jee in Zaka Khel village of Tirah Valley. Earlier, on March 10, 2011, a TTP suicide bomb attack on a funeral held by a tribal militia killed at least 34 people and injured more than 40 in the village of Adezai, about 15 miles south of the city of Peshawar.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal(SATP), at least 195 lashkar members have been killed and 199 others injured in 53 extremist attacks since 2005. In addition, at least 93 tribal elders have also been killed in 62 incidents during this period. Further, 126 lashkar members were abducted by the militants.
Significantly, when the state was finding it difficult to fight the terrorists in tribal areas, it called for help from the tribal people. On November 27, 2008, Mukhtar A. Khan, a Pashtun journalist, had noted that, after successive failed attempts to tackle the rising militancy in FATA and adjoining Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), the Government began to encourage local tribal people to stand up against the militants and flush them out of their regions. Lakki Marwat was the first District in KP to raise a volunteer militia on November 26, 2008, with the objective of evicting extremists from the area.
Numerous incidents of lashkar resistance to the extremists have come to light. Most recently, after the August 19 attack, an unnamed tribal elder in Jamrud area disclosed that TTP militants had come to the mosque a week earlier to recruit new members. Local residents refused to join them and declared they would not support the TTP or the Lashkar-e-Islam (LI), another militant group operating in the Khyber Agency. Another unnamed tribal elder added, “Militants wanted to make their centre in the Rajgal area in the remote Tirah Valley of the Khyber Agency, which is controlled by the Kukikhel tribes.” Their attempt was thwarted.
Unsurprisingly, lashkar leaders and members are at the very top of the TTP hit list. After the December 6, 2010, suicide attack in Mohmand Agency, which killed 35 lashkar members, the TTP ‘chief’ of the Mohmand Chapter, Umer Khalid, threatened death to anyone who organised or joined a lashkar against the TTP. 12 Government officials and journalists were also killed in the attack.
Despite the dangers the lashkar faces and the services they provide to the Security Forces (SFs), the Government’s apathy, neglect and abdication of responsibility remain inexplicable. Significantly, the leader of Adezai Qaumi lashkar operating in the suburban areas of Peshawar in KP, Haji Dilawar Khan, on August 18, 2011, alleged:
Elders of the area had formed the lashkar on the directives of Government. But Government didn’t materialise its promises (sic) to support them. These volunteers sacrificed their lives to defend their motherland and hundreds of their colleagues were injured by militants but they have not been paid proper compensation so far. Militants will get strengthened in the suburban areas of provincial metropolis Peshawar as Government has intentionally stopped supporting our volunteers and left them at the mercy of militants.
On March 3, 2011, Haji Khan had claimed that the Government was not providing the militia promised ammunition and rations, and had set a deadline of one week for the Government to respond. He had then argued that the Government was pursuing “an ambiguous policy” towards the TTP and accused local legislators of supporting the terrorist formation. “The local MPA [Member of the Provincial Assembly] and MNA [Member of the National Assembly] of the Awami National Party do not support the volunteers of the lashkar against the Taliban [TTP], as they don’t belong to their Party,” Haji Khan alleged. Again, on March 10, after the Adezai suicide attack he stated, “What wrong have we done? We’re getting neither bullets nor guns. When we demand bullets, the authorities ask us how many Taliban fighters we have killed. I want to ask the Government, how many Taliban fighters have they killed?” He warned that his lashkar would abandon its fight against the TTP if the Government failed to adequately equip his men.
In a display of extraordinary callousness reflecting the Government’s opportunism, KP Minister for Local Government and Rural Development, Bashir Ahmad Bilour, declared, on March 20, 2011, that the lashkars were no longer useful. Earlier, on March 10, Bilour disclosed that the Government had ‘suspended support’ to the Adezai lashkar, because its members had allegedly been using their firearms to carry out kidnappings.
The state’s reliance in its counter-insurgency campaigns on armed militia is, in the first instance, a strategy fraught with risks; opportunistic support to such armed groupings is, however, infinitely worse, exposing vulnerable populations to extremist vendettas, and even driving them into the extremist fold, when state support is diluted or withdrawn. Political ambivalence towards the terrorist formations – despite the tremendous harm they have already inflicted on Pakistan – remains the principal source of vacillating policies that deepen the risks to both the population and the nation. The Pakistani state and its agencies have, for far too long, abdicated their responsibility to check the growth of Islamist terrorist formations, and have fitfully relied on people’s militia to bear a burden that should rightly fall on state agencies alone. Abandoning the lashkars after exposing them to unacceptable risk reflects a level of cynicism and folly that can only further undermine the state’s authority across the tribal regions of KP and FATA.
Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management