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'This war is not our war, I didn't want my son to fight in Kabul'

'This war is not our war, I didn't want my son to fight in Kabul'

Author: Susan B. Glasser
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: December 3, 2001

In the courtyard of a home high on a Pakistani mountaintop, a congregation of village men has arrived to congratulate Azaker Abbasi on the death of his son. They shake his hand, they smile. Abbasi's son, Zia ul-Haq, has died a martyr, they say, in the faraway north of Afghanistan.

The phone call came on Monday. Zia had died on November 17 in Mazar-e-Sharif. His family doesn't know where or how. They don't know where he is buried. He was 23. ''I was happy,'' said his mother, Shaheen Akhter, with no sign of emotion. ''He was right in what he did. He did it for Allah.''

To the south, on the edge of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, in the Hattar village, another mother recounted a similar tale. ''I feel happy that he was martyred,'' Iqbal said as she cried big wet tears that spotted her brown head scarf. Her son, Rashid Sultan, ran away in October to join the Taliban's jihad against America. He died on November 7 in Mazar-e-Sharif. All he left was a letter to his relatives, telling them what he could not admit in person. ''God is my friend, and I am going toward him,'' he wrote. Jaish-i-Muhammad is the organisation that sent both Rashid and Zia to their deaths in Afghanistan, according to their families.

All across Pakistan, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of families whose sons left to fight a holy war officially opposed by their government. Senior government officials estimate that as many as 8,000 Pakistani citizens are dead or missing in Afghanistan, casualties of an unacknowledged army that did battle for the Taliban even as Pakistan joined the US-led coalition. With the Taliban's collapse in recent weeks, Pakistan has been unhappily riveted by the plight of its own warriors but uncertain what to do about it. Many were apparently killed in the prison uprising in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif last week. Many others are believed to be trapped in the southern city of Kandahar, the Taliban's last stronghold. Already this month, officials said, 2,000 Pakistani families in border areas have appealed to the government for help in locating their missing sons and fathers. But there is no public mourning for the dead, and those who make it back alive face the threat of imprisonment.

The government of General Pervez Musharraf has threatened to arrest and charge fighters returning from Afghanistan. Some religious leaders who led their students to join the jihad have already been jailed. And the government has vowed to crack down further on militant Islamic groups that recruited and sent Pakistanis to Afghanistan.

At the same time, Musharraf has not been able to disavow completely the thousands of Pakistani jihadis. He has publicly appealed for humane treatment of Pakistanis taken prisoners by the Northern Alliance and has privately lobbied - so far unsuccessfully - for the United Nations or another international group to take charge of those who surrender. Musharraf's dilemma reflects the ambivalence of Pakistani society, which remains sharply divided over his decision to abandon support of the Taliban after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US. And as fighters trickle back across the border, some have recounted their disillusionment and their uncertainty about why they risked their lives for a cause that pits Muslims against one another as much as against the US.

Some militant Islamic groups here have started to reconsider their support for the jihad in Afghanistan. ''Our teachers have categorically stated that jihad can only be launched against an infidel army occupying an Islamic state, and Afghanistan never fit that criteria,'' said Qari Salim Jan, 21, a member of the Lashkar-i-Taiba. ''Afghanistan is essentially an intra-Afghan Muslim battle with an infidel army perched up in the skies.''

But critics on both sides blame the government for tacitly encouraging young men like Zia and Rashid to receive military training in Afghanistan right up until September. Even pro-Western liberals fear that Pakistan has now abandoned such young men to Northern Alliance warlords who may massacre them. Some militant groups say they will continue to recruit soldiers.

In Birrot, however, Zia's family is not entirely convinced. Despite the handshakes, the smiles and the outward confidence of Zia's mother, Zia's father recalled his own doubts about this jihad and his many efforts to persuade his son not to fight.

''I didn't want him to go,'' said Azaker. ''He wasn't equipped to fight. This war is not our war. But I could not change his mind. He did what he wanted to do.'' (LA Times-Washington Post)

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