For Pakistan's Frontier Constabulary, Tribe Matters

Originally published on May 23, 2012 11:46 am

Above Irshad Alam's desk is a wooden plaque that lists all of the officers who previously held his post.

Alam commands the Frontier Constabulary troops at the Shabqadar Fort in Pakistan's northwest tribal region. His men are paramilitary troops whose duties fall somewhere between the role of the police and the role of the army. Their ranks are drawn from local tribes to help keep the peace among them.

Though this area of Pakistan has known long periods of peace, local uprisings have frequently tested outside rule. British colonial officers first organized the Frontier Constabulary in the 1920s. That's why the list above Irshad's desk begins in 1922, with the name "Major Urskine" hand-painted in white.

District Officer Alam's name is 71st on the list.

In May, something happened to Alam's men that still unsettles him.

Hundreds of new constabulary recruits had just graduated from basic training at Shabqadar Fort. Granted leave, they streamed out of the front gate for rides home. That's when a man on a motorcycle detonated a bomb, killing more than a dozen. As comrades and others converged on the wounded to help, a suicide bomber entered the fray and detonated a second set of explosives.

Irshad says the dead and wounded were "lying there just like sheep and goats."

Later, a Taliban group in Pakistan said the attack was payback for the death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

"Why are our children being killed?" Alam asked us when we met with him at Shabqadar Fort. "No Muslim or Pashtun can do these attacks."

But it's true: Area tribesmen are carrying out many of these attacks. People from the same tribes that send young men to the Frontier Constabulary also send young men to the insurgency.

Alam's own children are growing up around the killing in Pakistan's latest war. As they learn the traditions and bonds of his family's Gigyani tribe, they are also slowly inheriting the burdens of a conflict that is testing ancient tribal loyalties.

Alam wants his sons, all younger than 10, to join the constabulary one day.

They — and the rest of Pakistan's tribal sons — will have to decide for themselves which side to fight for.

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