The Folly of Lashkars When Pakistan Is Impotent

by Joshua Foust on 5/21/2009 · 10 comments

In Afghanistan, the meme of “tribal militias” is still batted about by the ignorant, who think tribes are cohesive units to be coopted into unified resistance movements. As David Axe, among many others, has noted, they pose significant problems and challenges, ranging from recruitment to retention to just sheer effectiveness (many of those recruited either walk away or sell their weapons to the Taliban).

But Pakistan’s Pashtuns are different. They are much more cohesive—which helped legends like Frederik Barth and even Akbar Ahmed make their names. There is at least an understanding of institutional ties to a central government—Political Agents (as Ahmed was in the 1970s, and Caroe before him), talibs, jirgas, and Lashkars all had if not defined then at least understood roles in setting policy and enforcing judgments.

Lashkars themselves most embody the “community policing” model so many seem to want in Afghanistan. They are hyper-local, answerable to their local community council, and enforce rulings by those councils on people who choose to disobey them. British India, and later Pakistan both had established means of dealing with the Lashkars, and employing them to enforce government rules.

That system, however, has broken down. In just the last year alone, thousands of tribal elders—who would normally organize and exert control and influence—have been beheaded by the Taliban. Since the Taliban is mostly a domestic force, they know exactly who to target to strategically weaken the domestic opposition against them. The last time the Pakistani Army pretended to do something in the FATA (at the time in Bajaur), there were widespread reports of local communities raising Lashkars and begging for government help when they were surrounded and massacred by the Taliban. Islamabad ignored them, and in short order those Lashkars were scattered and fleeing in droves, their volunteers hoping to keep their heads attached to their bodies for the crime of trying to keep the Taliban out.

So while it’s nice news to read about a group of “armed locals” halting a Taliban infiltration into a village in the Swat Valley, it’s also important to keep in mind that there is a long and very well established history in the region of locals resisting Taliban advances, and the government choosing to do nothing when the Taliban systematically murder every single person involved in resistance. If the Pakistani Army is serious about it this time, then maybe these ad hoc Lashkars can accomplish something constructive. But if they’re not—if they operate as they always have, which is to say very ineffectively, then we should expect these armed bands of locals to wind up separated from their heads in very short order.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Sahar Bagh May 21, 2009 at 2:59 pm

Lashkars, as you define them, “…hyper-local, answerable to their local community council, and enforc[ing] rulings by those councils on people who choose to disobey them,” sound more like arbakai. Traditionally, aren’t arbakai the more defensive and geographically constrained militia and lashkar the more offensive tribal levy?

Joshua Foust May 21, 2009 at 3:02 pm

Not necessarily. From my research, you really only find arbakai anymore in Afghanistan (where the terms are used almost interchangeably). In Pakistan, not only have few of the scholars I’ve consulted who study security structures in the NWFP found much evidence for arbakai as we understand them in Loya Paktia, but that locals there refer to Lashkars as the tribal policing force.

However, the distinguishment is very fuzzy. A lot of it depends on who you talk to. But the way I described Lashkars, especially in terms of their relationship with the central authority in Pakistan or British India, is from literature on the subject.

Sahar Bagh May 21, 2009 at 3:17 pm

But the literature on the subject in the Pakistani context is by and large written by outsiders and may just replicate a misnomer. Do the tribes in question differentiate? It’s semantics, I realize, but I’m curious how much the Pathans differ in their customs between Pakistan and this Lloja Paktia place you refer to.

Ian May 21, 2009 at 5:33 pm

Yeah, I kind of agree with Sahar Bagh. I don’t think that there’s a huge difference between arbakai and lashkar, it’s one of many Pashtun/Persian pairs that basically refer to the same thing. Also, I think that technically arbakai/lashkar shouldn’t be running around any old place in NWFP–they should only be appearing in the FATA, since they’re basically unadministered.

There is a huge difference in cultures between, say, Swat, and anywhere in the FATA in terms of the degree of what Ahmad called “encapsulation.” He would never have said that what he called “TAM” (Tribal Area Mohmands) are cohesive as Josh says, not sure where he’s getting that from him. Yes, the settled Mohmands (“SAM”) he studied near Peshawar were probably more cohesive, but that would be expected since they were more detached from traditional Pashtun culture. And I’m trying to remember where Barth talks about lashkar. Also, specific examples of the British *successfully* using lashkars to do something that lasted more than a year would give this concept some case studies to work with; unfortunately I am stumped to come up with one.

Josh can easily help clarify his research claims with some page number refs to Barth, Ahmad, or whomever.

Smalls May 21, 2009 at 6:32 pm

So Islamabad is not supporting these groups because they lack the will power, or can we say its because they don’t want the Taliban to fall apart? Anyway you can explain that a little more (I know its obviously complex)?

Joshua Foust May 21, 2009 at 7:06 pm

Sahar Bagh, you’re right, too. Like I said, the terms are often used interchangeably, in part because you almost never hear of arbakai in Pakistan and it’s rare to hear of lashkars in Pakistan. So there probably is a great deal of semantics involved, I’ve just found it useful to differentiate between the relatively more institutionalized, and even partially formalized, Pakistani lashkars and the relatively less institutionalized, mostly informal, Afghan arbakai.

Ian, for starters, there have been lashkars in the NWFP at least up to the 1940s, when the Khan family managed to make increased integration into the Pakistani state one of the terms under which they’d vote to join Pakistan (this was while the King of Afghanistan was intensely lobbying them to vote for independence). Even then, because the FATA and PATA were technically legally autonomous regions within the NWFP, there were still lashkars in the countryside around Peshawar up into the 1970s. The entire NWFP is not as developed as its few big cities.

As for my comments about Caroe and Ahmed, the terms they use to describe the Pashtuns in their areas are not nearly as chaotic and fractured as, say, Bareifld would use to describe the Eastern Afghan Pashtuns. I was drawing a comparison between the two—things in Pakistan are chaotic, but they are relatively more cohesive, especially in terms of primary identity, than the Eastern Afghan Pashtuns.

Best I know, Barth didn’t discuss Lashkars, since they weren’t his concern. Keiser, however, mentions them in both Swat and Dir in his 1994 study, “Organized Vengeance in a Kohistani Community.”

Whether or not the British ever were successful in utilizing Lashkars is beside the point. Here I am arguing against seeing the creation of a Lashkar as a sign of hope that the Pakistani government will finally get serious and adopt a strategy we want to destroy the Taliban. I’m arguing they won’t, and it won’t matter. I actually think we’re on the same page, just talking past each other.

Smalls, I think it’s a combination of intransigence on the part of the military—whose leadership rejects the idea of the Taliban as an insurgent force—and simple logistics: they don’t really know how. The ISI has experience in coopting small, local movements to strategic effects, but not like this (they can destabilize, not hold or rebuild), and certainly not against their former clients. So it’s more faceted than simply wanting to stabilize the Taliban.

Ian May 21, 2009 at 7:53 pm

We may well be talking past each other. My concern is just that you might give people the impression that A) FATA kinship groups are more cohesive than Afghan ones right on the other side of the Durand line, and B) Lashkars were ever the creations of governments in either Pakistan or Afghanistan, and C) the purpose of lashkars is lawkeeping, or “community policing” as you call it.

I will genuinely be shocked if you can show me evidence of lashkars, real ones, not just people forming posses to get vengeance on people, outside of FATA since 1947. Because lashkars are formed to fight wars.

Joshua Foust May 21, 2009 at 9:39 pm

No, I think we’re in agreement. I was talking in broad strokes, which is always a bad idea when discussing Pashtuns. Lashkars were not created by any government, but both governments in Pakistan have developed official means of interacting with them. And at least in Pakistan, Lashkars have been used for enforcing jirga decisions—Tom Wilhelm at FMSO has spoken before of watching them in action when he’s visited Peshawar.

David M May 22, 2009 at 9:06 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 05/22/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Gulap May 22, 2009 at 9:17 pm

Its really “made” complicated…
When we talk of lashkar in present (not the past.. Sir Olaf C. may have stated things right but are now a bit different in Pakistani part of Pashtunistan) we mean public (could be one tribe could be more) joining together for common cause..specially against aggression. definitions and terms change in different pasrts and “contexts”. I am not an expert of it, clearly, but am aware of what we mean by Lashkar….
Pakistan does not help lashakr…its simple to understand..but kindly give me one good reason pakistan shall help anyone whos against taliban? be that Laskar, US or anyone… you give me one reason and i would dare to put more details…
Good Luck with your research.

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