Sixteen-year-old Akbar Zaid dreams of becoming a teacher. But for now, his summer job involves holding an automatic rifle and hunting down Taliban fighters.
“I’m doing it for peace,” Zaid said, right before he fired several shots in the air with his rifle. Zaid is among hundreds of villagers in northwest Pakistan who’ve volunteered to join private militias, called lashkars. These groups have vowed to help Pakistan’s military in fighting the Taliban. Pakistani military officials credit the lashkars with helping chase the Taliban out of Swat Valley and neighboring districts once infested with the militants. “By nature, they’re very tough,” Pakistani army Major Hasnain Shah said of the lashkars. “They’re sacrificing their lives just to protect their own values and to help us out.” One group, called the Soltan Kheil lashkar, is made up of 500 armed men from the district of Lower Dir. Group members say they protect their villages against Taliban fighters in bordering Swat Valley. Watch more on Pakistan’s campaign against Taliban To reach the group’s headquarters, one hikes up a treacherous a one-lane dirt road that snakes up some of the most magnificent mountains in the world.
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Deafening gunfire greets a CNN correspondent atop the mountain. Most of the men have rifles strapped across their shoulders. Their faces are rugged and chapped. The mountaintop meeting offers a rare look at the militias. Their headquarters are perched near Swat Valley, where the Taliban once destroyed music shops, burned girls schools and beheaded enemies in public squares. If Taliban fighters come near, a World War II Russian-made heavy machine gun awaits them. The old beast of a weapon can take down a chopper more than a mile away. “This is the main passing point,” said Malik Zaib Khan, the leader of the lashkar. “If we left it open, the Taliban can easily go back and forth.” The group test-fires the weapon. It shakes the ground. If the lashkar needs more ammunition, the Pakistani military usually provides it. Military officials say they strategize with militia leaders and provide food and medical care for them. The fighters go without pay and without their families. Aziz ul Rehman said he has not seen his four daughters and two wives in a month. “We’re trying to stop the Taliban and establish peace,” he said. The lashkars have killed and arrested dozens of Taliban fighters, said military officials, who noted the arrests of four Taliban commanders from Upper Dir. “We hate the Taliban,” lashkar leader Khan said. “We hate them a lot. I say it openly.”
Zaid says he hasn’t killed any Taliban fighters during his summer job yet. But the teen’s finger is on the trigger.