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Pakistani Taliban returning home get cold shoulder

Pakistani Taliban returning home get cold shoulder

Author: Juan O. Tamayo
Publication: Knight Ridder Newspapers
Date: December 11, 2001

Pishin, Pakistan - The roughly 200 Taliban fighters who have come home to the apple-growing oasis of Pishin on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan are not getting the hero's welcome they might have expected when they set off across the border to fight the holy war. "People blame them for the destruction of Afghanistan," said shopkeeper Mohammed Akhram.

The U.S. bombing campaign against the Taliban, who were harboring terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, detonated massive and often violent anti-American protests across the Muslim world. But as the Taliban militia collapsed with stunning swiftness it has become plain that people here have little patience with losers.

That is a remarkable reversal, especially for a hamlet that looked on with pride not long ago as some of its youths, filled with Muslim zeal, went off to join the Taliban.

Now police are keeping an eye on Taliban who returned in defeat. Villagers no longer listen to their views on religious issues. Only their madrassas, the Islamic seminaries long accused of turning out zealots, welcome them. Even they are under new pressure.

Sales of bin Laden posters trailed off, and anti-American demonstrations around Pakistan have dwindled to small crowds of diehards usually outnumbered by police.

If Pishin is anything to judge by, defeat has so discredited the Taliban among their hometown neighbors that they will find it difficult to continue promoting their politics or their puritanical brand of Islam.

Pishin is a relatively prosperous agricultural district of 300,000 people, a drab brown town and dozens of mudbrick hamlets spread around an oasis in the Baluchistan desert, 40 miles from the border with Afghanistan.

People here are all Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and second largest in Pakistan. Tens of thousands are refugees from the many Afghan wars.

Over the years hundreds of youths educated in local madrassas routinely went to Afghanistan to help the Taliban - a movement born in 1994 in the neighboring province of Kandahar - battle first the mujahedeen warlords and later the northern alliance, which is dominated by Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara minorities.

About 200 have now returned home, according to Pishin journalist Saadullah Taarim, shaving the long beards and taking off the black or white turbans that marked the Taliban and for a while became the fashion even among Pishin teen-agers too young to join the fighting.

A few remain defiant.

"We are not defeated. We were and are waiting to face the American ground troops," said Jan Mohammed, 24, a chubby Taliban machine gunner who was visiting his alma matter, the Key to Knowledge madrassa, for what he said was a home leave approved by his commanders after five months of combat duty.

Neighbors are showing little sympathy.

"The people are not happy with them. Due to these Taliban the whole of Afghanistan is facing a catastrophic situation," said taxi driver Shaista Khan. "Now they have no support among the people."

Relatives of Pishin Taliban killed or missing in Afghanistan are angry with madrassa leaders because they have not returned the bodies of their loved ones, said village elder Niamatullah Khan, 56, stroking his white 4- inch beard.

"We have three missing in 30 families here, and nowhere to put the flags," Khan said of the colorful streamers that Afghan Muslims leave on their relatives' graves as signs that they have not been forgotten.

Even Afghans in the no-name refugee camps that dot the oasis, once strongholds of the Taliban, say they no longer obey the Taliban's admonitions against playing music and flying kites as violations of Islamic customs.

"Because before they had a government in Afghanistan, they were all powerful. They even used to harass the people in the camp," said Abdul Malik Kakar, a 44-year- old bus driver.

"Now their role is passive. They have kept themselves in their homes, and they do not do business with the people of the camps," he said as he stared at a young man in his bus whom he later identified as a Taliban.

"These are the people who for the sake of one person have destroyed the whole of Afghanistan," he added, loudly enough for everyone around him to hear him.

"These people have no roots in society now," said Inayatullah Qaisarnai, deputy Pishin district director, adding that local police and tribal constabularies are watching the Taliban closely.

"We have received instruction from our superiors that if anyone creates a mishap in society or disturbs in any other way, we should deal with them with an iron hand," he said. "We will give no concession to anyone."

That goes also for the madrassas, long seen as graduating only semi-literate but zealous village mosque leaders and stalwarts for Pakistan's half-dozen radical Islamic political parties.

Mullah Humayoun's Rebirth of Knowledge Madrassa charges students, mostly poor village boys, $16 for a year's tuition, room and board, and $10 for tuition alone. It teaches only the Koran, Islamic law and philosophy - no math, no science.

Its "library" is a wooden cupboard stuffed with maybe 20 well-worn texts and lots of booklets printed by Jamiat- Ulama Islamia, the party that Humayoun supports and whose striped white and black flag flies over the madrassa.

"Osama is a hero of Islam," the bearded Humayoun, wearing a silky black turban and a crisp white knee-length shirt and baggy pants, told a Western visitor after he denied that his school imparts a radical version of Islam to its students.

Last week, the government began drafting a law that would require madrassas to obtain clearances from security authorities and open their financial books to outside inspectors.

Schools would be required to teach modern subjects such as math, history and science, and inspectors would check whether the religious classes are teaching radical or more widely accepted versions of Islam, said a senior Interior Ministry official who has seen the draft law.

"We want to make sure that they can teach Islam, but not extremism," the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said in a telephone interview from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.

Back in Pishin, residents said a test of the Taliban's and madrassas' acceptance among their neighbors will come Dec. 22, when the schools reopen after nine weeks of vacation around the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that coincided with the Taliban militia's collapse in Afghanistan.

"I will not send my son Najib back there," said farmer Rahmantullah, 49, his blue knee-length shirt filthy with the dirt of his tiny melon patch.

"Najib came home last year talking big about the Taliban and Islam. But he's only 15. What does he know? And next year he will be old enough to join the fighters," said Rahmantullah. "I will keep him here on the farm."
 


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