Phantom Militias

Don’t believe everything you read about Pakistan’s tribal conflicts

Verifiable stories out of northwestern Pakistan are difficult to come by: the entire region exists in what Rosanne Klass once called “a smattering of romantic fact so closely mixed with romantic fiction that it would be difficult to disentangle the two.” The few western reporters to return from the area speak of its danger, its excitement, and the battles between Pakistan’s army and the tribal insurgents who are stoking violence both there and in Afghanistan.

But is that really happening? Dexter Filkins wrote in The New York Times Magazine several weeks ago that, in fact, the much-touted Pakistani offensive against the tribal areas was a crock, a show put on for Pakistan’s American overlords.

There is reason to be skeptical. The much-touted Waziristan War in 2007, which was supposedly between some Uzbek militants and competing factions of Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda, with a complex interweaving of alliances that no press account really explained well, probably didn’t happen. David Hoffman, the President of Internews, an expert on Central and South Asia with decades of experience in both Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, wrote convincingly of why the stories of fighting should not be believed, noting, among many other reasons, that despite reports of dozens of dead Uzbeks, no one ever saw any bodies or casualties in the hospitals.

This past August, during one of the many rounds of fighting in the Swat Valley area of northwest Pakistan, the press was reporting contradictory accounts of what was going on—so much so that it’s doubtful any fighting there was really as severe as the Pakistani government was selling it. The coverage was so vague, and cited only official sources, that readers wouldn’t know what the fighting was about, how it played out, who was involved, and who got hurt.

It started with the Associated Press reporting on Wednesday, July 30, that militants had attacked a police outpost just outside Mingora, the primary town in the region, and the government claiming it had killed twenty-five militants. Riaz Khan, the AP correspondent, noted that journalists were unable to independently confirm casualties because the military would not allow reporters into the area. So by Thursday the 31st, when Essa Khankhel reported in the Pakistani newspaper The Nation that the military had begun allowing journalists into Mingora, it seemed like an important breakthrough. Khankhel reported an alarming number of civilian casualties in the raid’s aftermath: twenty-six people overall, but only ten of whom were alleged militants.

The Daily Times, another Pakistani paper, reported that by Friday August 1st a total of sixty-three militants had died in the fighting. By Sunday, nine “security personnel” (whatever that means) had died, but so had another fifteen militants—leading Reuters by Monday, August 4th to claim that the Pakistani government had killed ninety-four militants. This was the official number insisted upon by government officials; body counts based on daily reporting (most of which was itself based on official Pakistani government sources) only accounted for some eighty-five dead militants, and upwards of twenty-five dead civilians (no one really keeps official count of civilians).

So we are flooded with news but get no information. When all that’s on hand are official sources, and when those sources are notoriously unreliable, it’s hard to know what to believe. It doesn’t mean these things didn’t happen, just that we can’t be sure they happened the way the government describes it.

So when a “senior government official” proclaims twenty dead after a U.S. missile strike in the Federal Areas, it’s best to adopt a certain measure of skepticism. When reporters can actually get at the locals, a different picture often emerges. For instance, while the Pakistani government likes to flaunt its new use of Lashkars, or tribal militias, in combating the Taliban, actual Lashkar commanders complain about how counterproductive the government really is.

Which is really just a complicated way of saying you shouldn’t believe everything you read.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Joshua Foust is a military consultant. He is a contributor to PBS Need to Know, a contributing editor at Current Intelligence, and blogs about Central Asia and the Caucasus at