How Pakistani minutemen are fighting the Taliban 'false Muslims'
Villagers in the border town of Pashat, Pakistan may have turned the tide of public opinion against the Taliban.
When the Taliban descended upon this land of craggy mountains and misty waterfalls, they razed girls schools, kidnapped villagers for ransom money, and killed elders, all under the banner of Islam.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
At first, few resisted. In this deeply conservative corner of Pakistan, the lure of Islamist rhetoric as well as a handsome purse of $350 a month enticed many, and the Taliban soon controlled most of the Bajaur tribal agency.
But three years ago Shahabuddin Khan, a farmer and the leader of the Salarzai tribe, called his men to arms to counter the Taliban, a group he calls “false Muslims.” That show of strength, together with the militants’ partiality for kidnapping and looting, helped shift public opinion here.
“Earlier people were fooled when they [the Taliban] played the Islam card. They carried out suicide attacks in our funeral prayers. They didn’t leave mosques alone. They can’t be Muslims, and the people now realize this,” he says.
Not only are fewer villagers enticed to join the Taliban now, but the militants have been mostly cleared out thanks to the combined efforts of the Salarzai lashkar, or makeshift army of peasants and workers, as well as a series of military offensives by Pakistan’s Army.
For years, Pakistan has turned to lashkars, some of which have a bad track record, as a way to tackle militants without launching destructive and sometimes unpopular military operations. However, the government has failed to back up volunteers.
Indeed, the government has provided little assistance to the Salarzai lashkar: At times the government will compensate villagers $10 for a round of ammunition, or give about $1,000 to a family who has lost a fighter to the Taliban in battle. And some men get a monthly stipend of about $40. However, these types of compensation are best-case-scenarios.
What they lack in equipment, members of the lashkar make up for in determination. “Each man here has used guns since they were children. And fighting is nothing new to us, before the Taliban we had our old rivalries and up to 100 men would be lost in a battle,” says Abdur Rehman, a burly 50-something with a thick white beard who sits among the Jirga circle.
While a core of the lashkar – around 100 men – remain posted on permanent watch, the others tend to their farming duties and are on call. “We can count on up to 10,000 men when the need comes,” says Khan. In many ways this lashkar has proved its longevity, and worth, he says.