Copying US' Iraq formula, Pak decides to arm tribesmen to fight Taliban

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Washington, Oct 23 : Taking a cue from the US military's experience in Iraq where local militias, after being armed, proved decisive in the battle against al-Qaeda, Pakistan is learnt to have planned to arm tribal fighters to take on the local Taliban in NWFP.

Better known as 'lashkars' in Pakistan terminology, the militias will receive Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifles and other small arms. A purchase order was placed during Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's visit to Beijing earlier this month, the Washington Post quoted Pakistani officials as saying.

Since early August, the Pakistani army has launched several offensives in Bajaur, one of seven regions in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and in the nearby Swat Valley. According to Pakistani military assessments, more than 800 insurgents were killed in Bajaur operations during August and September, along with nearly 195 government soldiers and 344 civilians.

Last week, after months of Pakistani delays, about 30 US military trainers were permitted to set up operations north of the region, said a US official said. The trainers will provide counterinsurgency instruction to Pakistani army soldiers, who in turn will train members of the Pakistan paramilitary force - the Frontier Corps.

"We are very encouraged by what we're seeing from the Pakistani military in the tribal regions. Pakistani offensives in the FATA over the past two months are making a difference on the other side of the border where the US forces are fighting in Afghanistan," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell.

Pakistani officials insisted that arming the lashkars was their own idea and that they are paying for it, although the United States has provided more than 10 billion dollars in relatively unrestrained counterterrorism funds to Pakistan's military over the past seven years. "The Americans are not giving us a bloody cent" for the program. This is us, doing it ourselves," claimed one Pakistani official.

"The secret to success in this kind of operation is tea," the official said referring to the need to establish a positive presence in local villages, sit down with tribal leaders over tea and ask them what it would take to make their lives better. Unlike Pakistan's four provinces, the FATA are only nominally controlled by the central government and are largely ruled by tribal elders.

According to the paper, the extent to which the program is perceived to be coordinated with US aims in western Pakistan is likely to help determine its effectiveness. In Iraq, tribal security forces readily accepted an alliance with the U.S. military as well as direct US payment for their services. U.S. officials see neither as likely in the FATA.

Despite the newly aggressive U.S. military posture -- reflected in the Predator attacks as well as Bush's authorization last summer of ground commando raids on extremist targets inside Pakistani territory -- U.S. officials say they are acutely aware of the need to tread carefully with Pakistan.

The emergence in Pakistan of the lashkars, headed by tribal elders who are said to resent the intrusion of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, began in earnest over the summer. So far, three lashkar militias, totaling as many as 14,000 men, have been established in Bajaur, according to Pakistani military estimates. In the FATA region of Orakzai, tribal leaders have amassed an estimated 4,000 indigenous fighters; an additional 7,000 are said to have enlisted in Dir, a tribal region just outside the FATA boundary.

The fighters have skirmished with extremists, at times in coordination with the Pakistani military. They have already begun to pay a price, with at least eight beheadings this month and a suicide bombing in Bajaur two weeks ago that killed more than 50 tribesmen gathered to enlist in a militia.

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