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.
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.
Still, despite significantly reducing the Taliban’s influence from what it was three years ago, attacks from Afghanistan persist.
An illegal Taliban FM radio station run by Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, leader of a Pakistani Taliban umbrella group, routinely names Salarzai leaders as “Wajib-ul-Qatl,” or individuals that should be killed.
It has forced the villagers to become extra vigilant. Strangers are bound to attract attention, lest they be a sniper, suicide bomber, or mine layer. When the time comes to do battle, says Shar Zaman, a wiry tribesmen, they no longer bid their families farewell. “We said our goodbyes when the Taliban came three years ago. Now we just accept that each day could be the last.”
Dabbling in Politics
The fighters’ aversion to Islamist extremism extends beyond the battlefield to the question of how society should be run. Few among them, for instance, hold respect for Pakistan’s multitude of religious parties who advocate cutting deals with militants, or even Imran Khan, a politician and former cricketer kicking up a stir in urban areas of Pakistan for his staunch anti-American line.
His fellow Pashtuns who fight the Taliban on the frontlines aren’t impressed.
“Imran Khan never condemns suicide bombers, and he has never come to Bajaur. All he wants to do is make peace with the Taliban and we consider him a coward,” says Shahabuddin Khan, to a murmur of general agreement at the jirga or tribal conference attended by some 50 men and boys.
As for US drone attacks, many here support them because, as resident Muhammad Jamil says, “they hit the real militants.” However, a recent Pew poll found 97 percent of Pakistanis oppose the use of the drones, which they generally view as a violation of the country’s airspace.
To be sure, since Shahabuddin Khan's lashkar began battling the Taliban, it hasn’t been easy. The lashkar has lost more than 140 elders, including two of Shahabuddin Khan’s own brothers and an uncle.
“We have carried so many corpses we are no longer afraid. We have come out and will fight while there is strength in our bodies,” says Shahabuddin Khan.
Experts caution about getting too excited about the potential of lashkars to change public opinion. According to a senior Pakistan Army officer stationed in the area, who was not authorized to give his name, “The common people are more likely to follow whoever has the upper hand. Their main concern is surviving."