Love of Taliban in Pakistan's Southwest

An old white mosque straddles the dusty border between southern Pakistan and Afghanistan (news - web sites), less than two kilometers (one mile) from here. Worshippers can enter from the Afghan side and step out into Pakistan, unchecked.

This sacred slipway is just one example of the porousness of the 1,200 kilometer (744 mile) frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s vast southwest province Baluchistan—a frontier which Afghan officials say is criss-crossed at will by resurgent Taliban forces and their al-Qaeda allies waging a bloody guerrilla campaign inside Afghanistan.

Afghan leaders charge the militants are finding support among Pashtun tribes in Baluchistan border areas and the tribal belt further north, allowing them to regroup and stage hit-and-run attacks in Afghanistan.

In tribal-dominated Baluchistan, it is hard to tell who is a Taliban fighter and who is a simple merchant conducting cross-border trade, as tribesmen’s ancestors have done for centuries.

“After 9/11 Taliban trimmed their beards, changed their turbans and stopped carrying arms,” said a senior security official based in the provincial capital Quetta, 100 kilometers (62 miles) southwest of here.

“Now it is nearly impossible to pinpoint who is Afghan Taliban and who is a Pakistani Pashtun tribesman.”

Border guards struggle to check documents in a two-way sea of pedestrian and vehicular traffic surging through an official crossing.

“They don’t have tails that we can identify them by. We do not have the capacity to check every Pashtun and interrogate him,” the official said, citing additional fears of alienating locals.

The border district of Chaman faces Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province, where the Taliban movement first took hold in 1994 after sprouting from Islamic seminaries in Baluchistan.

They are the kind of seminaries Afghan President Hamid Karzai is campaigning to have shut down. Karzai says too many of them breed fundamentalism and produce recruits ripe for the neo-Taliban forces.

“Some months ago some Afghan Taliban were taking students from seminaries to prepare them to fight in Afghanistan,” a Quetta-based intelligence official told AFP.

“Long Live Mullah Omar Mujahid (warrior),” declares a sign above the entrance to the Darul Aloom Islamia seminary in Quetta, using the affectionate local term for the Taliban’s elusive one-eyed leader.

“Mullah Omar Mujahid and Osama bin Laden are chased by the Americans because they are true Muslims,” its principal, firebrand cleric Maulvi Jan Mohammad told AFP.

“They are not terrorists. They are pious Muslims.”

Afghan diplomats in Quetta allege that students from schools like Mohammad’s are taking part in the cross-border guerrilla raids.

“We have information that Taliban studying in Islamic seminaries in Quetta and Chaman are involved in these attacks,” deputy consul general Abdul Haleem Daqiq told AFP.

Security officials admit that after US-led forces smashed the ultra-orthodox militia’s regime two years ago, many Taliban returned to Baluchistan and widespread sympathy.

“Taliban are Pashtuns and above all they are true Muslims and they are fighting for the cause of Muslims,” said Abdul Ghani, a vendor in Chaman’s bazaar.

Graffiti splashed throughout Baluchistan’s marketplaces echo his sentiments.

“We are with you bin Laden, Mullah Omar Mujahid, heroes of Islam,” is scrawled across one wall.

Border force colonel Abdul Basit Rana, in charge of a 240 kilometer (150 mile) stretch of the border, says “large-scale infiltration” is no longer possible.

“In the past two months we have erected mud walls, barbed wire, installed search lights and imposed shoot-on-sight orders ...,” Rana said.

But informers say up to 25,000 Afghan supporters of the Taliban are still spread throughout Baluchistan.

“They are in refugee camps, in markets, working as labourers, vendors, living in private homes and seminaries,” a local intelligence official told AFP.

However he believed most of the estimated 1,000 hardcore fighters had returned to Afghanistan.

A waiter at a Quetta hotel prays they will revive their regime.

“The Taliban will come back, and Allah (God) will help. I hope we live to see them return to power and establish a state which is truly Islamic.”

Published Tuesday, October 7th, 2003 - 09:30am GMT
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