Lashkars: Not The Answer

lashkarNews of Pathan lashkars rising against the Taliban has been bitter-sweet. Images of the armed Pashtun common-man/woman defending the community play smoothly into romanticized stereotypes; tragically, the phenomenon is also deeply troubling, and in keeping with the theme of my previous posts, I would like to explore it from the perspective of state building.

Several months ago, Ayesha Siddiqa wrote in her Dawn column of the perils of organizing non-state forces to perform functions of the state. In the context of this conflict, she wrote that ceding marital responsibility to the lashkars not only disempowers the Pakistani military, but since the army is relatively capable of overpowering the Taliban, it is also unnecessary. However – and she glancingly mentioned this – the lashkars have been organized to give local legitimacy to anti-Taliban operation as much as they have been to provide martial force. While powerful arguments may be made to encourage these lashkars, this surrender of state authority to extra-governmental forces is a bandaid fix with long-term implications.

First, there is the obvious parallel between these lashkars and many of the forces that now constitute the Pakistani Taliban. In addition to the historical unmanageability of those and other analogous militias, there is the greater issue of yielding state sovereignty. Unlike the original Taliban, these are not non-state forces organized to repulse an extra-national enemy – a function primarily of the armed forces; rather, the lashkars are fighting a militia that claims significant indigenous roots. The onus of managing indigenous unrest falls on the civilian government, which can ask for military assistance as it deems necessary; as such, the lashkars have legally wrested both civilian and military force from the state apparatus. This distinction is critical: the maintenance of non-state actors for the purposes of exerting foreign influence has little corollaries for domestic civilian governance; relinquishing civilian and marital responsibilities to non-state actors within national borders, on the other hand, has immediate institutional implications. Further, unlike Iraq, where the US government used allied non-state groups to eliminate hostile ones, the Pakistani government has shown no indication of having a plan to integrate the structures of civilian governance – however informal – that can be expected to form through this experience into the state framework.

The argument in vogue supporting the formation of lashkars emphasizes their exceptional ability to delegitimize local support of the Taliban. In a broad sense, I would agree that the lashkars provide a more populous alternative to the Taliban forces. However, if this is the case, we have greater cause for worry. The civilian government has then vacated political space for the lashkars; the legitimacy of the state itself has been abdicated.

Finally, as Haniya and I have tangentially mentioned earlier in these pages, we (perhaps just me) notice a relationship between the facilitation of non-state structures of governance within communities and the political agency they subsequently enjoy as a cohesive unit. Highlighting tribal loyalties over state ones, allowing tribal organizations space within the state apparatus, empowers parallel systems of control within the borders. The central government has long suffered a lack of legitimacy and acceptance in these areas; ceding state functions to organized non-state forces does not bode well for the future of state writ in the regions. Without a plan to transition legitimacy from the lashkars to civilian institutions, this short-term solution can be expected to engender disastrous consequences.