Pakistani tribesmen are raising armies to battle al-Qaida and Taliban militants close to the Afghan border — a movement encouraged by the military and hailed as a sign its offensive there is succeeding.
The often ramshackle forces lend force to the campaign in the lawless and mountainous northwest region, but analysts question their effectiveness against a well-armed, well-trained and increasingly brutal insurgency.
The extremists are increasingly targeting the tribal militias, an indication they believe the private armies to be a threat.
On Sunday, two tribesmen were killed during an army-backed offensive against insurgents in the Bajur tribal region. Government official Jamil Khan said helicopter gunships shelled militants' bunkers, killing at least 10 people. Fifteen more suspected militants were killed in separate clashes, he said.
On Friday, a suicide bomber killed more than 50 tribesmen gathering to form an army. Eight pro-government tribesmen have been beheaded in recent days.
Government exploiting local resentment
By encouraging the private armies, or "lashkars," the government is exploiting local resentment against foreign and Pakistani extremists in the area, considered a likely hiding place for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders.
"These Taliban call themselves Muslims, but they have been involved in all kinds of crimes," said Malik Mohmmand Habib, a leader of the Salarzai tribe, one of the largest of at least five tribes who have formed lashkars in recent weeks. "We want them out of our area."
Habib claims there are up to 15,000 men in his lashkar. Similar figures have been given by other leaders of private armies but those claims could not be independently verified. Analysts caution tribesmen are likely exaggerating, perhaps by as much as 50 percent.
The lashkars have drawn comparisons with government-backed militia in Iraq — the so-called awakening councils — that have been credited with beating back the insurgency there.
But the lashkars are less organized and the tribesmen use their own, often aging, weapons. The government does not admit to funding the armies, but analysts suspect the leaders at least receive money.
It is also unclear how much front-line fighting the lashkars are involved in. They have been photographed on patrol with military units and reportedly have been involved in several clashes, but their main task appears to be holding areas the army has cleared of insurgents.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas praised the formation of the private armies, but gave few details of how they operate.
Unhappy with militants in their areas
Shuja Nawaz, a prominent Pakistani security analyst, said the tribesmen are joining the fight against the insurgents because they are unhappy with the presence of the militants in their region. He stressed the government must quickly build roads, schools and undertake other development projects in the tribal areas to cement the successes.
"It is a continuation of the British colonial tradition of paying off the tribes," said Nawaz, adding that historically such deals to buy loyalty often broke down.
Militants in the border region are blamed for surging violence against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, leading to fears that the war there is unwinnable seven years after the Taliban was ousted.
They are also behind an increasingly virulent campaign of suicide attacks on Western, civilian and military targets within Pakistan that threatens to destabilize the nuclear-armed country.
Pakistan's broadly secular, pro-U.S. government is trying to channel public anger at those attacks, including the Sept. 20 blast at the Marriott hotel in the capital, Islamabad, into support for its fight against terrorism.
Seeking to overcome a common perception that the fight is America's war, the government often holds up the emergence of the tribal armies as proof that locals are behind the campaign.
That task has become increasingly complicated by suspected U.S. missile strikes within Pakistani territory that are believed to have killed more than 100 people, mostly alleged militants.
Latest casualties don't include al-Qaida fighters
The latest barrage, reported Sunday, in Pakistan's northwest killed five people, none of whom was believed to be a foreign al-Qaida fighter, officials said.
Some fear the lashkars could become a problem in the future with the private armies turning on each other or on the state itself.
"You are creating a very polarized society that doesn't auger well for the stability of the area," said Rustam Shah Mohmand, former ambassador to Afghanistan and political commentator. "I think this leads to a very, very confusing situation as far as law and order is concerned."
Since last year, the militants have taken over large swaths of the tribal region, a 10,425 square mile (27,000 square kilometer) patch of rugged land where the government has never had much control.
Responding to U.S. pressure, the army launched a major offensive in early August in the Bajur tribal region, where it claims to have killed more than 1,000 militants.
Despite that operation, U.S. officials and others in the region allege that elements within Pakistan's army and spy agency are supporting the militants, in part because they believe the country's strategic interests are best served by an unstable Afghanistan.