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Pakistan Plan to Arm Tribal Militias Poses Risks

Pakistan is enlisting local tribal militias in the fight against Islamic militants. A report, first published in an American newspaper article on Thursday, says the government is procuring Chinese-made weapons to arm the militias in the rugged tribal areas of Pakistan. But, as VOA Correspondent Gary Thomas reports, the plan poses some risks.

U.S. official sources say Pakistan is stepping up its campaign to enlist tribal militias in the fight against Islamic militants. But analysts say it is a risky strategy.

Officials say the Pakistan government has been encouraging the militias, known as lashkars, to fight the militants for some time. A report in The Washington Post newspaper on Thursday said that during his recent visit to Beijing, Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari arranged for the procurement of new AK-47 assault rifles and other small arms from China for the lashkars.

U.S. officials would not confirm the arms deal. But they add that the tribal groups are already well-armed and that if Pakistan wants to get more small weapons for the lashkars, China would be the logical source.

Shuja Nawaz, an analyst of Pakistani military affairs, says the government wants to augment the Frontier Corps, which has been bearing the brunt of the fight against militant groups in the border areas.

"At this point, I think it's simply to complement what the Frontier Corps is doing and the Army is doing," Nawaz said. "So it adds to their numbers and it's a political show of force as well."

The Frontier Corps is locally recruited, but is led by regular Pakistani army officers. The lashkars are outside the Pakistani Army chain of command and are led by tribal leaders, known as maliks.

The government has attempted to make peace treaties with tribal groups, many of which have some level of sympathy for al-Qaida and the Taliban. But the deals, which were sharply criticized by the United States, collapsed.

The militants are now encountering some resistance from tribal groups, and the government hopes to exploit the tribal resentment. U.S. officials are hopeful that this will replicate the so-called "awakening" that sparked tribes in Iraq to fight al-Qaida.

Analyst Shuja Nawaz says giving more weapons to the lashkars could benefit the government of President Zardari. But, he warns, it could backfire.

"Over the short run, and if it's properly controlled, it might work," said Nawaz. "Over the long run, it creates the possibility of creating yet another group that may or may not stay on the government's side, particularly if they become better armed and trained. They could become a kind of a local warlord situation."

Asked about the plan, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the United States is taking a wait-and-see attitude.

"I don't have all the details as to how the Pakistanis have designed their new initiative, but I think that they've probably learned a lot from the last time around," she said. "And maybe this one will be better. We hope so. But we're going to keep an eye on it."

The Washington Post reports that the newly appointed head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, is scheduled to meet with his CIA counterpart, General Michael Hayden, in Washington in the next few days.