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Pakistan outsources part of terror war to militia

They wear their hair and beards long, Taliban style, and support attacks on U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Yet the fighters are tolerated and — many believe — backed by Pakistan because they share a common enemy: the country's most deadly terror network.
Image: A Taliban fighter belonging to a pro-government faction looks to the camera
A Taliban fighter belonging to a pro-government faction looks to the camera at their headquarters in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, on Monday, Sept. 7. Alexandre Meneghini / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

They wear their hair and beards long, Taliban style, and support attacks on U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Yet the fighters are tolerated and — many believe — backed by Pakistan because they share a common enemy: the country's most deadly terror network.

Pro-government militias like this one on the border of the country's lawless tribal regions are an important plank in the campaign against the Pakistani Taliban following the slaying of its chief, Baitullah Mehshud, in a CIA missile strike last month.

They know the enemy and the terrain, need no motivation and their willingness to fight means fewer army casualties. And with the Pakistani Taliban ranks said to be in disarray following the death of their leader, some of their fighters could be persuaded to change sides and join them.

But critics say Pakistan risks creating a monster by linking up with them and other militias. While tribal feuding ensures they are enemies of Baitullah's men for now, they are cut from the same militant cloth he was. Any alliance with the state could be temporary, and one day authorities could find themselves fighting their former proxies.

Espouses militant Islam
The United States, which gives millions of dollars in civilian and military aid to Pakistan each year, will be particularly concerned with the militia in Dera Ismail Khan because it still espouses militant Islam. The group's logo proclaims the need for war in the name of God. The confusion is apparently reflected in the name that some in the town have given the group: "the government Taliban."

Fighters from the Abdullah Mehsud militia met The Associated Press at their headquarters in the city, just outside the Taliban stronghold of Waziristan. On the banks of the River Indus, the town has a large police and military presence.

Abdullah — who was killed by security forces two years ago — and Baitullah are not related. They come from different subtribes of the Mehsud, the major clan in Waziristan.

The fighters operate openly in the city. Toting automatic weapons, they travel the streets in battered pickups and keep a makeshift prison in their headquarters, located in a side street about half a mile (one kilometer) from the town center. They claim to have killed or executed 70 of Baitullah's men over the last year.

"(Baitullah) Mehsud's fighters are killing the common men," said Baz Mohammed, a top commander flanked by heavily armed fighters.

Last July, a Baitullah loyalist assassinated the group's former leader, Qari Zainuddin, as he slept in a room in the headquarters. Mohammed was shot four times in the leg in the attack and now walks with crutches. The attack left two bullet holes in the wall of the room.

"Yes, we will take revenge," Mohammed said. "If we don't, what is the point of our group?"

Reporting team detained
Hours after visiting the headquarters, an Associated Press reporting team was detained by the army for 12 hours at a hotel and its members had their cell phones seized. It was released on condition it left the town and returned to the capital immediately. No formal reason was given for the detention, but a military official in Islamabad later said local authorities — who are on the lookout for foreign terrorists — were concerned about the team's identities.

Mohammed and others said they supported attacks inside Afghanistan, but that attacking the Baitullah group was their priority goal at the moment. U.S. officials say militants based on the Pakistani side of the border are to blame for much of the violence plaguing Afghanistan eight years after the American-led invasion.

"Where people are suffering from oppression, we have to fight. That is God's order," Mohammed said.

They declined to answer when asked whether foreign al-Qaida militants should be given sanctuary in the tribal regions — another major concern of the West, which fears the area remains an international terrorist hub.

Image: Taliban fighters belonging to a pro-government faction chat on the street near their headquarters in Dera Ismail Khan
In this Monday, Sept. 7, 2009 photo, Taliban fighters belonging to a pro-government faction chat on the street near their headquarters in Dera Ismail Khan while a local police truck passes by, Pakistan. The pro-government Taliban faction is supported by the government as both share a common enemy, the Taliban militants serving under the replacement of their chief Baitullah Mehshud, killed during a CIA missile strike last month. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)Alexandre Meneghini / AP

One fighter, Abdullah Haq, said he used to belong to the Pakistani Taliban but left last year in a disagreement over attacks on targets inside Pakistan. On his cell phone, he keeps pictures of captured Baitullah men — including two bound and gagged prisoners he said the group had executed last week after taking them to the tribal regions.

Rooting out deeply entrenched militants from the border regions is a massive task for Pakistan's stretched military, which has tried and failed to defeat the insurgents in Waziristan before. It has been accused in the past of being soft on militants who concentrate their energies on the Afghan side of the border, allowing it to direct resources at those posing a direct threat to Islamabad.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas denied the military had any links with the Abdullah militia and another pro-government group led by Turkistan Bhitani in the nearby town of Tank. Abbas referred questions to the civil administration in the area, whose officials did not make themselves available for telephone interviews.

Still, Abbas acknowledged the fighters were useful in the battle against the Pakistani Taliban, which has carried out scores of attacks across the country over the last 2 1/2 years that have triggered international fears over the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

"If you have to fight the big devil, you welcome anyone in that fight," Abbas said.

Tribal armies springing up elsewhere
Observers say there is little doubt the militias have received or continue to receive support from security agencies, either cash, weapons or logistics. In August, army gunships were deployed to repel a Pakistani Taliban attack on the stronghold of Bhitani, intelligence officers said at the time.

"We have the full support of the government side," said Mohammed, who declined to elaborate on the exact nature of their relationship. "We have a free hand to attack Mehsud's men in this area."

Tribal armies have sprung up in other areas of the northwest, including the Swat Valley, where a military offensive has largely succeeded in driving out the Taliban. But militias there consist mostly of villagers with aging weapons and little battle experience.

In harnessing tribes to fight one another, Pakistan is following the tradition of the region's past British colonial rulers, who bought the loyalties of the tribes in an attempt to pacify the northwest. The armies have drawn comparisons with government-backed militias in Iraq that have been credited with helping beat back the insurgency there.

Mohammed claimed his militia has between 3,000 and 4,000 men, spread out over Waziristan and bordering regions. Even if accurate, that is much less than the approximately 15,000 men the Pakistani Taliban are believed to have in the area.

But he said more of Baitullah's men were joining him now that their leader was dead, a claim that could not be verified but one that analysts said was plausible.

"With their leadership in disarray, the military might well be able to get more tribals on their side," said Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistani military expert at the U.S.-based Atlantic Council.

Questions remain about groups' unity
Exploiting existing divisions between militants in Waziristan is especially important because the military has said it will not launch a large-scale ground offensive there yet out of fears it could unite the insurgents. The army is carrying out targeted air strikes and maintaining a blockade of the region that it says is weakening the enemy, while the United States is pressing ahead with missile strikes like the one that killed Baitullah.

But questions remain about the unity of the groups lined up against the Taliban. Mohammed spoke in scathing terms of Bhitani and said he would not cooperate with him.

Mohammed and the leader of a related militia, Baba Waziristan, said they planned a major offensive after the end of the Islamic fasting month next weekend. Baba said he was working to unite all three in the fight against Baitullah.

"God willing, this task would be accomplished after Ramadan and we will create a big force," Baba said in a telephone interview. "We will use all available tools to eliminate those who are bombing our mosques, attacking public places and killing innocent people."

Syed Fayaz Hussani Bukhari, a respected member of the Shia Muslim community in Dera Ismail Khan, said he feared Pakistani sponsorship of the militia could mean problems in the future.

"This group has been created for a special purpose. Once that has been achieved, what will they do?" he said, explaining he feared the government had given up its authority over the region.