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Jihad's Lost Battalions Mourned by Pakistani Kin

Jihad's Lost Battalions Mourned by Pakistani Kin

Author: John F. Burns
Publication: The New York Times
Date: December 10, 2001

Wat Valley, Pakistan, Dec. 4 - From this lush valley alone, a sinuous reach of sugar cane fields and citrus groves that runs a morning's drive north of the old frontier city of Peshawar, villagers say 10,000 to 15,000 men marched off to Afghanistan to fight America in October, and 2,000 to 3,000 have not returned.

Defeat in the war against America has been bitter in this lovely corner of northwest Pakistan.

It has roused angry voices among thousands of Pashtun tribesmen who volunteered to fight with the Taliban, and bitter grief among families whose fathers, brothers and sons - some as old as 75, some as young as 13, many with old breech-loading rifles, muskets and pistols, and running shoes for boots - have not returned.

Precise figures on the numbers of volunteers, or jihadis, as they known among Islamic militants, are impossible to find.

If anybody knows how many went, and how many may have died, it is the Islamic militant leaders who ignited religious passions with cries of "Jihad!" - or holy war - then dispatched legions of untrained men and boys across the border to face the terrors of American B-52 bombers and Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Like their kind down the ages, the militant leaders mostly stayed home, or crossed the frontier only long enough to declare themselves holy warriors before hastening back.

Many of those firebrands are in detention now, prisoners of a Pakistani government that has taken the debacle of the jihadis as an opportunity to tighten its crackdown on the militant groups so as to sever their hold on millions of the country's poor and illiterate.

In any event, those leaders - elderly men grown rich and pampered from their preachings, men who saw to it that their own sons and grandsons stayed out of the war - have powerful reasons now to disguise the extent of the miseries they caused.

While their deputies storm up and down the valley, calling meetings after Friday Prayers to heap venom on America, many tribe members blame the disaster on the militant leaders, saying they sent the valley's sons to their deaths, then did nothing to help the families left behind.

That has left the accounting to survivors and relatives of the missing. The figures they give, in village after village, checking lists of those who went and those have not come back, are woeful.

Talk to any jihadi who made it back, and he will list the names of those who are missing. "There is Ehsanullah, from Dara Ramora," one man said, his eyes filling with tears. "Then there's Salim, from Chakdara. And there's another Salim. He lived a little out from Chakdara. The ones who died were mostly young. They were 18 to 20 years old."

Some who made it back make a brave face of it, saying it was a glorious chance to "fight in the path of Allah" and vowing to "make jihad" again if asked, especially if the enemy is America.

Men like Bakht Wali - the name is a pseudonym, chosen after Islamic leaders threatened to kill followers caught talking to Western reporters - even say, without much conviction, that they wish they had fallen to the American bombs and missiles, earning the reverential title of shahid, or martyr, bestowed on any Muslim who dies fighting for the faith.

Could these really have been the favored ones, a visitor asked his host, a man who gave his age as 47 but looked 10 to 15 years older, with a sun-wizened face and a proud, jutting salt-and-pepper beard at least six inches long, like the Taliban?

Bakht Wali smiled as he sat on a bed of woven rattan in the courtyard of a farmer's mud-walled home in Chakdara, perhaps because he knew his answer might sound false, after discussing the miserable deaths some of those who went with him into Afghanistan almost certainly met.

"In the sight of Allah, the ones who died are the lucky ones," he said, "because they died fighting for his cause. And from my point of view too, they are the lucky ones, because they have gone to Paradise now, with all the pleasures they have been promised in the Koran.

"Now they will have girls, and wine, and music, and all the things forbidden to them here on earth. Now they will be happy, as we who remain can never be here on earth."

Only later did the visitor learn that this man's pseudonym meant "man of sacred fortune" in Pashto, the language of 20 million to 30 million Pashtuns who straddle the Pakistan- Afghanistan border - the ethnic group that made up an overwhelming majority of the Taliban, and of the volunteer legions who rushed from Pakistan to fight beside them.

Adopted after much bantering with his friends, the name suggested that they, at least, considered him fortunate not to have been killed.

The fundamentalist form of Islam espoused by the militant leaders, and turned into state policy by the Taliban, is a powerful weapon in these parts, made more so by poverty.

According to the families of the missing jihadis, few of them had ever had a job, and those who had rarely earned more than the equivalent of $1.20 for a day of backbreaking work in the fields, and that only in the planting and harvesting seasons.

Those men, in districts like Malakand, Mohmand and Dir, were cannon fodder to the militants, even if they sang the praises of Allah and the Taliban as they marched to war.

Bakht Wali, like many others, did not expect to return. After attending a rally called by Sufi Muhammad, an octogenarian militant leader whose will is paramount in the Swat Valley, Bakht Wali, the father of eight children, aged 1 to 21, wrote a will, gave it to his wife and listed debts to other villagers that should be paid if he died. And who would have looked after his family, had he been killed?

"My conviction is that God looks after everybody," he said, again without much conviction. "I suppose they would have been looked after by my relations." Notably, in the light of the abandonment of other families, he made no mention of the militant groups.

What awaited Sufi Muhammad's jihadis across the frontier would be hard to square with anybody's vision of a path to Paradise. At best, as those who returned described it, there were days of camaraderie in training camps set up at remote villages inside Pakistan, places where the younger men, at least, were shown the workings of Kalashnikov rifles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, the Taliban's basic armory. For the older men, and the boys, though, there was little but talking and running menial errands.

Afterward, there was the frontier crossing, sometimes on foot across mountain paths, sometimes in trucks that halted at Pakistani border posts long enough for the men to register their names, villages and weapons with Pakistan's frontier constabulary.

It is to those posts that families of the missing go, day after day, hoping their loved ones will show up on the ever-shortening lists of those re-entering Pakistan. With the Taliban now routed from every city in Afghanistan, hope dwindles by the day.

Once in Afghanistan, many of the jihadis found themselves unwanted.

The fittest and best-trained were hived off and sent quickly to the front lines, which until the Taliban's sudden collapse in late November, defined the war. Trenches there faced the mustering forces of the Northern Alliance, and American bombs, north of Kabul and outside Mazar-i- Sharif, Herat and Kunduz, cities north and west of the Hindu Kush mountain range that divides Afghanistan. These were the men, mostly, who never came back.

But others, like Bakht Wali, endured weeks of aimless waiting and wandering, unwanted and even resented by the Taliban, who seem to have considered the untrained Pakistanis a drain on their time and their resources, especially the limited supplies of food.

Bakht Wali's group, originally about 130 men, all from Chakdara, moved from the eastern city of Jalalabad to Kabul, the capital, where they were quartered in an abandoned building on the outskirts until 40 of the fittest men were chosen by the Taliban to go to the front lines.

For three weeks the closest Bakht Wali's group came to the enemy were the vapor trails in the skies above Kabul left by B-52's heading for the Taliban front lines further north. Then, suddenly, they were moved to an old mud-walled fort outside the town of Tagab Bazaar, about 50 miles northeast of Kabul.

Outflanked, the Pakistanis in the fort found themselves under heavy rifle, rocket and mortar fire from Northern Alliance troops, with nobody to command them.

The Taliban, as they did at Kabul and at Mazar-i-Sharif, had pulled out under cover of darkness, not telling the Pakistanis. Alone, muddled and frightened, the Pakistanis talked among themselves about resisting, then surrendered by the light of a crescent moon.

For them, abandoned by Afghans they had gone to help, the jihad was over without a shot fired, their pitiful old rifles, muskets and pistols seized by alliance soldiers, their wallets and even their sweaters and shoes stolen.

They were many days from home, with no telephones, no food, many of them now barefoot. But they were alive, and they had learned some lessons about the Taliban, about abandoned loyalties and about the uncertainties of faith.

"When the attack on the fort came," Bakht Wali said, "the Taliban were not there. We didn't know the area. We knew nothing. We were alone."

What then, he was asked, did the Pakistanis make of the Taliban's promise to fight to the death beside them? "Well," he said, "not every Taliban is a bad person. There are good men among them. But our strong complaint is they never told us we should retreat."

To Bakht Wali's group, the conclusion as they made their way back to Pakistan, clambering aboard trucks heading for the border, was that the alliance troops, if not better than the Taliban, were at least no worse.

"They're all Afghans," he said. "The only difference is in the beards and the turbans."

But further north, where the 40 younger men from the group had been sent, around Taliban entrenchments at Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz, things were different. So far, none of those men have made it back to Chakdara, and the likelihood is that none ever will.

Here in the Swat Valley, it is the Islamic militant leaders who seem likely to have to answer for those men who have not come back. Sufi Muhammad, like most of the other top militant leaders, is in jail now, sentenced last week to three years' imprisonment on charges of inciting the Pakistani Army to revolt.

In his absence, his lieutenants are still preaching hellfire against America up and down the valley and still raising money, though not for the families grieving for jihadis who have not come home.

"The people who went to Afghanistan were not soldiers," said Syed Zaffar Saghir, a disillusioned activist for Sufi Muhammad's group who "made jihad" against Soviet forces in Afghanistan but stayed behind this time. "Just having a gun does not make you a warrior.

"So a lot of innocent people have died, and Sufi Muhammad and other religious leaders are responsible for this. They sent people who had no training whatsoever to war, and then they stayed back in Pakistan. They are still alive, while so many others have died."

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