Pakistani tribal militias gather in the Bajaur tribal region on March 2, 2010.
Credit: A. Majeed

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — For three years, the Taliban here has been trying to kill Haji Mutabar Khan, the leader of a volunteer, civilian militia in northwest Pakistan.

Last month they almost got him, in a suicide attack at a hotel near the Afghanistan border, where Khan had been meeting with tribal elders.

Khan’s son died blocking the suicide bomber from entering the hotel. Five other volunteer fighters were wounded from the shrapnel that sprays after a suicide jacket detonates. To get medical assistance, three of them were driven on a hazardous two-hour journey to a helipad. There, even though they are technically civilians, an army helicopter treated them like wounded soldiers, flying them to a military hospital in Peshawar.

The Taliban attack on Khan, and the special treatment that the Pakistan military provided to his subordinates, is part of a shadow war being fought along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. In this lawless, northwest region, where Islamabad has never exercised much control, the Pakistani military has difficulty operating. So it relies on volunteer groups like Khan’s to fight the local Taliban, which has remained a formidable force, and has even regrouped in recent months, ever since the US withdrew from the Afghan side of the border.

Outside the operating room at the military hospital, Khan’s allies vowed revenge. “It is their last breath,” Nizam ul-Haq, a relative and one of the volunteer fighters, said defiantly.

Khan and other local residents set up their volunteer militia in the Upper Dir district in 2009, after the Taliban killed five police officers there. Soon after, Ul-Haq said he and some 500 other volunteers set fire to more than 200 Taliban houses. In a wave of violence, they destroyed Taliban caves and chased them across the border to Afghanistan.

“It was the end of the game for them,” Haq recalls thinking at the time. And indeed, at the time the Taliban appeared to have suffered a serious blow, especially with military sweeps in other parts of the country — most notoriously in the idyllic former tourist magnet Swat Valley, where an iron-fisted local Taliban had effectively taken over.

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The Pakistani Taliban, however, appears to have found a welcome sanctuary across the border, and is now striking back.

According to the Pakistani Army, an estimated 1,000 members of the Pakistani Taliban have found a new safe haven in Afghanistan. After a lull, the Islamists last year suddenly began attacking Pakistani security forces and villagers across the rugged border. The Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS) in Islamabad reported that the Taliban faction that once held sway in Swat was responsible for at least 31 attacks, killing 44 soldiers and civilians in 2011.

Sirajuddin Ahmad, a local spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, told a local newspaper recently that the game was far from over and that the militants would continuing pursuing Khan’s militia and anyone else aiding Pakistan’s security forces.

“This time [Khan] survived. But how long he will escape? He raised a tribal militia and killed our people and the punishment of his crime is death,” he told the newspaper.

Ul-Haq said the Taliban had been checking ID cards. Anyone from his village would be killed.

Upper Dir has seen militancy before. In 2001, militant leader Sufi Mohammad sent thousands of tribesmen from Upper Dir and neighboring districts to fight against the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. And in 1994, he led a violent movement for the establishment of Sharia, or Islamic law. At that time, about 40 people were killed before the government managed to regain control.

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Because of their deep knowledge of the region, anti-Taliban militias like Khan's are invaluable to the country's military. In turn, they receive assistance from the military and police, although the level of this support varies.

“We get bullets, weapons and other things we need,” Ul-Haq said. “We are the main power of the army, because we know the area better than they do.”

Athar Abbas, a spokesman for the military, said Pakistan had lodged complaints with the Afghan government, accusing it of harboring the militants.

“To the best of our information there has been local support available to them, from government or officials on that side. They have been cleared from our side. They should not be allowed to have sanctuaries on the other side,” he said.

Contributing to the resurgence of the Pakistani militants is the withdrawal of US forces in 2009 and 2010 from several combat outposts in the Afghan provinces of Nuristan and Kunar, which border Upper Dir. Both Afghan militants and Pakistani militants jumped into that security void, analysts say.

Afghanistan, for its part, has also complained that Afghan militants are able to find sanctuary in Pakistan, such as members of the Afghan Taliban and the Afghani Haqqani network, who then launch their own cross-border attacks.

“We have suffered from cross-border infiltration for pretty much the last decade,” scoffed Jawed Ludin, Afghanistan’s deputy foreign minister, during a press conference in Islamabad last year, responding to Pakistan’s complaints.

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With neither the Pakistan or Afghan governments, nor seemingly the United States or NATO, able to thwart the always-moving militants on either side of the border, volunteer militias like Khan’s continue to step into the breach.

“The militants destroyed seven schools in our area, so they badly affected our children. Now our students have no shelter,” said Malak Zafar Khan, the leader of another volunteer group of fighters, which boasts about 1,000 fighters.

Zafar comes from the same district as ul-Haq. Their area, inhabited by conservative tribes, is already underdeveloped. It lacks drinking water, irrigation and health facilities. And literacy rates are low.

“I hope our children will be educated. We want to live a peaceful life,” Zafar said.

The ferocity and frequency of the cross-border attacks have decreased in recent months. But while the militia members hope its a sign of the militants have been weakened, others warn that it could be just because such attacks are more difficult during the winter.

Amir Rana, the director of PIPS, said there is no room for complacency.

“Militants still have their safe havens across the border and we cannot rule out any future attacks inside Pakistan,” he said.

The suicide attack aimed at Khan that killed a close companion and injured his brother, meanwhile, has made ul-Haq more determined than ever.

“I am more than determined to sacrifice myself for my country since I saw this. My blood is for my country. It would definitely make me a martyr.”

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