x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

March of the lashkars

Last word Nasir Khan joins a civilian police patrol in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province.

Nasir Khan joins a civilian police patrol in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province I hadn't wanted to come to Peshawar. Though I'm proud of my Pashtun heritage and my links to the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), the whirling insecurity in the area - particularly a recent string of bomb blasts - has deterred me from visiting lately. But my sisters-in-law are from the area, and a late-April marriage in one of their families forced me to make an appearance. On the way from the airport to the guest house, my chatty driver, Sadiq Khan, began eagerly talking about his hometown, Badaber, a sleepy place located about 20 kilometres from Peshawar.

In 1985, Badaber gained fame as the site of an armed uprising by Soviet and Afghan captives against the better-equipped and larger units of the Pakistani army and Afghan mujahideen. The prisoners were unable to liberate themselves; after a fiery two-day assault, they were all killed. Sadiq had heard about the incident - known today as the Badaber Uprising - from his father and uncles. When it took place, he was 10 years old and living in Peshawar with members of his extended family. Later, his father would often talk about how terrified the villagers were, how they stayed locked inside their houses the whole time, afraid of getting caught in cross-fire. "There was a wedding in our family in those days, but of course everyone stayed home so the wedding never really took place," he recalled. "My father says my mother never got up from her prayer mat during the uprising."

Today another uprising is taking place in Badaber, Sadiq told me. It happens every night. Come visit and see. I was more than a little sleepy, so I just nodded. Two days later, feeling nauseous from too much exposure to wedding preparations, I called up my sister's driver and planned a trip to Sadiq's town. As the car rolled down the road, the lush gardens and gleaming windows of posh Peshawar Cantonment gave way to the dirt roads and modest houses of Badaber. Dark was descending when we entered the town; as we approached Sadiq's house I noticed groups of young men gathering on street corners. Inside, he served me a simple meal of lentils and bread, but urged me to hurry up: he didn't want to be late. Before we stepped out, he asked me to change into shalwar kameez. Then he handed me a loaded AK 47, picked another one up for himself, and led me outside.

On the street, dozens of men - most of them between 17 and 35 years old - were milling around. A middle-aged man with a Kalashnikov and a neatly cropped beard was trying to organise the group. Slowly we shuffled our way into two parallel lines. The group started marching in unison down the street, the men keeping their eyes open for anything suspicious. These nighttime patrols started in August of last year after Badaber's only girl's school was bombed by Talibans. They police the city every night, but so far they have not seen battle. Other civilian lashkars (militias) elsewhere in the province, however, are larger and more proactive. In Dir, for example, about 1,200 villagers have directly engaged the Taliban in retaliation for a bombing that claimed 38 lives. The Dir lashkar stormed a village where Talibans were hiding and murdered 14 fighters. In Buner, a tribal militia murdered six militants who attacked a police station, leaving eight policemen dead. In Bajaur - the area believed to host al Qa'eda's second-in-command, Ayman al Zawahiri - the Salarzai tribe has formed a 4,000-strong lashkar to combat the Taliban head-on.

In front of me was a young man of certainly no more than 20 years. His beard flowed onto his chest, his emerald eyes reflected anger and distrust, and he carried his gun with the ease most youngsters exhibit with mobile phones. At some point on our walk, we began talking over the thud of heavy boots. His name, he said, was Farooq Khan, and he had once believed the Taliban were in the right. "I thought they were trying to implement Islam in its true spirit and were making sincere efforts to weed out social evils," he told me. "But the ease with which they kill innocents makes me hate them."

In front of Farooq, a man in his late seventies hobbled along with the help of a walking stick. He couldn't keep pace with the rest of the group. When I asked Farooq why he was coming along, he told me that the old man wouldn't listen to anyone who told him to take it easy. He was determined to march every night, and no one could hold him back. Later that night, the old man's son told me: "My father dreams of the day when in Badaber we would no longer live under the threat of the Taliban. And he is eager to do his bit to see this dream come true."

Suddenly the man walking next to me received a phone call; speaking in rapid-fire Pushto, he told the caller to stay where he was. As I watched, a group of five men separated from the rest of the patrol and headed off into the distance. About half an hour later, they returned with another man. Farooq explained that no one is allowed to come home after sunset. "If someone is running late and arrives in this area after sunset, they call a friend and then a group goes off to accompany him home," he said. "Our survival is in watching out for each other."

Though his words were grim, and the rifles made things solemn, I could sense an air of optimism around me; the men were elated to be doing something constructive. As they passed around Thermoses of green tea and coffee, the serious talk of Talibans was occasionally interrupted by jokes and anecdotes. We walked the streets until two in the morning: one group split off to escort another late-comer home, another left to investigate some suspicious sounds.

Earlier this year, the chief minister of the NWFP, Amir Haider Hoti, announced a controversial plan to eventually distribute guns and ammunition to civilian militias. Roaming Badaber with its proud young men, trying to hold my gun correctly and struggling to keep my eyes open as night became morning, I found myself confused as to how I felt about the rise of the lashkar. A month ago, I wrote in these pages about my skepticism regarding exaggerated narratives of Pakistan as a "failed state". But I live in Lahore; out in the NWFP it was hard for me to argue with the citizens of Badaber that Pakistan had failed them. Still, distributing more weapons seems to be a poor - and scary - solution: a state that encourages its citizens to violently police themselves is a state begging to fail forever, or convinced it already has.

Nasir Khan is an advertising executive and freelance journalist in Pakistan.