How a local militia was raised to fight the Taliban
Along a dirt street lined with kirkar trees and thorny bushes are big mud compounds with fortified rooftops. A thick silence pervades the air, punctuated by the footsteps of a few men who pace with an agile vigilance, their arms caressing the familiar AK-47 rifles slung over their shoulders.
This is Adezai village, where even the rugged landscape appears to be at war with some invisible force.
Until recently, the area was infested with militants challenging the state’s writ, making deadly forays into the village and attacking its 38,000-strong population that survives without water and electricity, cell phone services, or any basic health facilities.
In the bloody clashes that ensued, the villagers were sidelined by the government and had no choice but to take up arms to protect themselves. This was the birth of the Amn Lashkar, the peace militia, where men and boys armed with government-entrusted assault rifles were made to fight the Taliban.
The idea to mobilise the villagers to fight was first floated by KP’s former deputy speaker, Khusdil Khan.
In 2008, when militants destroyed an electricity pylon, a PTCL Exchange office, and girls' schools in Mattani and bordering areas of Peshawar, Kushdil floated the idea on the floor of the Assembly: since the government’s limited security forces could not secure all of KP and Fata, why not rally locals from Adezai to fight?
Khushdil strongly felt a local militia would be able to assist policemen in patrolling the region and proposed the force be galvanised with special focus on the areas between Fata and KP and near the border with Afghanistan.
And so, the Peshawar police began supplying arms to Adezai with the hope of raising a local militia to contain the militants’ advance.
It was destined: by guarding government buildings, schools, hospitals, militia leaders’ houses and power pylons, they became the informal force forming a frontline resistance against militancy.
Dilawar Khan, a known man in Mattani, headed the first lashkar contingent. Dilawar’s house, located in the center of the village behind an expanse of green fields, was the site of several suicide bombings and night attacks — all of which he survived. Unfortunately, many villagers and early lashkar members did not.
Like Dilawar's fellow fighters, other lashkar tales of glory often ended in sadness, and the courage of the fighters was an inevitability of their lack of choice.
“We were forced by the provincial government to raise a lashkar of volunteers,” says Abid Raza, Dilawar’s nephew. He says many villagers were not up for the job.
"There was either death at the hands of the Taliban, or the chance to redeem ourselves by bringing glory to our families."
Abid Raza, ex-lashkar fighter
He feels the government cornered the villagers. Although there were Taliban supporters among the villagers, most feared displacement of their children and families. The villagers were also aware that if they did not take up arms against the Taliban, the security forces would eventually launch their own operation in their villages, resulting in greater bloodshed and destruction.
“There was either death at the hands of the Taliban," Abid explains, “Or the chance to redeem ourselves by bringing glory to our families.”
Since the Taliban had a stronghold over Adezai, the lashkar needed as many men as possible. Abid estimates a total of 3,000 formed the militia — even young boys with no experience of fighting.
“It was not easy,” Abid remembers. “Many of the men had no weapons.”
Despite the dangers and their unpreparedness, the lashkar wore its mantle with sincerity, filling in the gaps resulting from the police’s manpower shortage and collecting vital information about the movement of militant groups.
A total of 120 lashkar men lost have been killed fighting the Taliban since 2008. Abid says most of these were targeted attacks, with the Taliban unleashing a string of suicide and roadside bombs.
Abid shares the story of how his cousin Dildar was killed when a teenage suicide bomber in Mattani blew himself up in a crowded hujra in 2014. That attack left Abid and three of his friends critically injured, but it wasn’t the first one.
“It had become a regular phenomenon after we [the lashkar] were somewhat established,” Abid says. He had already suffered grave injuries in an attack two years earlier at his uncle’s house.
Shoukat Jamal, a mason by profession, says he was also present at that suicide attack. It was 2012, he was an active member of the lashkar, and was taking part in most of their fights.
Shoukat remembers how late it was when Dilawar’s house was attacked. He heard bangs of explosion from the house and instantly rushed over with his weapons. He had no idea how many men were in the house, so he barged in firing indiscriminately.
As Shoukat anticipated, the men responded with heavy weapons. The first 10 minutes of non-stop firing would terrify an ordinary person, but Shoukat knew the Taliban’s men better. “We stood like rocks in these moments to save our village,” he recalls.
When the first sun rays shone, his worst fears were confirmed: the Taliban had not spared anyone. Neither had they left behind any of their own men's bodies. Just pieces of flesh and dried blood.
“No government representative even bothered to ask or inquire about our health,” Abid complains. He remembers how no representative or official showed up to visit the grieving after an explosion or attack.
Instead, their response was always the same: unless the villagers drove the militants out themselves, not much could be done.
By 2011, the laskhar had lost almost 50 men. Several houses and markets had been destroyed. Children had stopped going to school. Agricultural fields were barren and most of the village had shut down since the majority of men had taken up arms around clock.
But despite the losses, the lashkar fighters had managed to clear most of the area of Taliban militants, and together with the local police, had forced militants living in suburban villages to vacate their houses. The lashkar had also thwarted Taliban efforts to set up informal courts.
"Theirs is a tale of quick glory which ends unhappily as those who once fought bravely are now called criminals."
However, the government's indifference was great drawback in this rapidly changing fight . Police forces hardly showed up with timely support whenever there was a clash between the lashkar and the militants, and the lashkar began feeling the government had left it in a lurch.
Politics underscored the divide. Dilawar said the Awami National Party (ANP) led government was maligning his men because they did not belong to his party. Several cases had been registered against volunteers for capturing militants in the area— which is precisely the job that the government had given them.
When the lashkar was formed, it had been promised ration, arms and ammunition. Aside from a few initial rounds of supplies, the commitment never fully materialised. At the time, Dilawar had said many of his volunteers were selling their own property to buy arms.
Angered by the government's indifference, Dilawar threatened to stop supporting the security forces if arms were not supplied and if the malicious campaigns did not end.
Things are better today. There have been 19 months of peace and Adezai villagers are enjoying these months of bliss; once again, there are wedding ceremonies and sports activities.
Lashkars across the province and in Fata were dissolved with the National Action Plan (NAP) announced in the aftermath of the 2014 Army Public School (APS) attack. Many in Adezai rejoiced. Among them were Taliban supporters who disliked the lashkar, but even they were relieved there would be fewer casualties.
CCPO Peshawar Police Chief hails the lashkar as a success and says it played a vital role in regaining government control in the area. After the Taliban left, over 1,200 villagers escorted by police convoys marched through their town as a symbolic act establishing the government’s writ.
“The government’s long-term strategy of curbing terrorism in Adezai has enhanced the local police’s ability to patrol their own jurisdiction," says a security expert in Peshawar who wishes to remain anonymous. "These territories cannot be used as safe havens like before.”
Javed Aziz Khan, who lives in Peshawar, too feels the lashkar was necessary, especially in places bordering Afghanistan and Fata. But while he is proud of the sacrifices lashkar men made, he says they were used by the government which withdrew all moral and financial support from Adezai once the lashkar was dissolved.
Perhaps for this reason, they are looked upon with mistrust by Adezai villagers. "Instead of giving a pen or an education to children, our government militarised them," one villager says.
Another villager goes as far as saying the lashkar comprises local thugs.
“Criminals, land mafia and local gangs have provided manpower for these lashkars,” he says, adding that he feels no empathy for them.
With this fractured legacy, the former lashkar fighters are trying to find a place in society, with most working as daily wage labourers. Several men have taken their families and fled the area, fearful of a Taliban reprisal.
Theirs is a tale of quick glory which ends unhappily as those who once fought bravely are now called criminals.
"Criminals who have made their way into the lashkar have earned us a bad name and dented our credibility," says Javed. Their days of service and glory have been hijacked by men who have co-opted the lashkar for their own motives.
While some say it the lashkar men who have resorted to criminal activities out of desperation, others believe the group has simply been infiltrated. Either way, villagers often associate the lashkar with criminals, explaining that militia men pose a greater threat because of their expert training and their close links with the police.
Whoever these men are, they are demanding money, fuel, vehicles and ammunition even from the police. Some have been accused of taking the law into their own hands by kidnapping and killing people on the smallest suspicion. Others have reportedly been grabbing land from the villagers, abusing their government-given power.
Abid thinks the problem began when it started. “The militia was raised by the government,” he points out. “If there are criminals in the midst, the government recruited them, not us.”
But most of the former lashkar fighters are now jobless. Those who quit their businesses to fight could not resume work. “These men don’t go outside the village much,” Shaoukat says. Abid agrees; many of the lashkar men, including himself, live in constant fear of their lives, especially since the government has banned them from keeping guns.
Abid says he cannot trust anyone; he is gripped with fear every time he chances upon a man with a beard and long hair. His face is known to militants who roam free, and some of his own people support the Taliban. He feels helpless. “I don't even know the face of my enemy.”
Salman Yousafzai is a journalist based in Peshawar. He specialises in crime, terrorism and human-rights stories in Peshawar and Fata, and is the vice president of the Crime and Terrorism Journalist Forum.
Header illustration by Abro
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 8th, 2016