Jihad: Young Pakistani men hoped to fight Americans but found confusion, retreat and abandonment by the Taliban

Sun Journal

December 8, 2001

TALASH, Pakistan - Mohammed Youssef tried to stop it, first calling the local religious leader on the phone, then following his convoy of young jihad recruits into Afghanistan and confronting him in person. Don't take them, he said. They're just boys. They don't know how to fight. If it gets bad, they don't know how to run.

"I personally talked to Sufi Mohammed twice and requested him not to go to Afghanistan with the large number of young people, all untrained," Youssef, a 55-year-old veteran of the Afghan war with the Soviets, says. "'Don't kill them,' I asked him. But he did not listen to me, and he refused."

After the U.S.-led bombing campaign in Afghanistan began eight weeks ago, young Pakistani men from all over the deeply religious border region were clamoring for the chance to fight with the Taliban. In this
farming village, more than 60 youths joined thousands of others who followed Sufi Mohammed, charismatic founder of the fundamentalist Movement for the Enforcement of the Laws of Muhammad, across the rugged frontier to take up arms.

A few weeks later, the Taliban were in substantial retreat, reports of Pakistani fighters being slaughtered were emerging, and Mohammed slipped quietly back across the border. Of the 60 jihadis who left with him from Talash, fewer than 25 have returned.

"It's a tragedy," says Shansur Rehman, whose 23-year-old son was confirmed dead near Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

The battle fervor that swept this region at the beginning of the war quickly evaporated, as thousands of foreign volunteer fighters - many of them Pakistani - were left in the gun sights while the Taliban slipped
back into their villages.

In these frontier communities, where the mullahs have always had more pull than the government, there is a deepening resentment of the religious leaders who called away so many young men to a certain death.

"They went to Afghanistan to fight Americans, and they ended up fighting their fellow Muslims," says Sher Zameen, whose uncle, a farmer with six children, left for Afghanistan without a gun. He hoped he'd get one when he arrived, Zameen said. Now he is missing.

"In the initial stages, people were emotional, and everyone wanted to go to Afghanistan to fight. But then when people heard about the fall of Mazar-e Sharif, people started feeling sick," says Faizal Hassan, whose
father is missing in Afghanistan. More than 1,500 Taliban fighters were killed in the Northern Alliance's siege of the city and, two weeks later, during a prison revolt.

"Now, people are criticizing Sufi Mohammed," Hassan says. "He ordered his followers to go to Afghanistan without any long-term planning. Without planning, without strategy, they sent laymen to Afghanistan to fight the Americans, and the result now is people are missing."

The intra-Muslim fighting that has occurred over the past several weeks in Afghanistan now threatens to spill into Pakistan. Limited clashes have already broken out between tribes that faced each other in
Afghanistan, and several border communities have for the first time evicted Afghan refugees.

Recriminations are spreading across the country. Commentators alternately blame the government, for allowing thousands of its citizens to take up weapons and cross the border, and the Islamic political parties, whose call for jihad, or holy war, represented a direct challenge to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

"The romanticization of jihad was the gift of small minds to Pakistan," newspaper columnist Muhammad Ali Siddiqi says. "Lacking any real understanding of the intricacies of a modern war, these parties presented to the raw minds of Pakistani boys a jihad that was fun."

The Pakistani government has arrested Sufi Mohammed on charges of possessing illegal weapons. But it has denied reports that it sent planes to evacuate Pakistani fighters from Afghanistan. Those rumors may have been wishful thinking more than anything. The reality, say analysts in Islamabad, is that Pakistan, facing years of sectarian violence at the hands of Islamic extremists, was probably no more eager than the United States to see volunteer jihadis return from Afghanistan.

In Talash, returning fighters gave dispiriting accounts of a war in which they expected to encounter American troops, but instead encountered  confusion, retreat and the gun barrels of fellow Muslims.

Sardar Daud, 20, said he decided to join the fight after listening to appeals from the local mosques. "The religious leaders were giving sermons in the mosques to condemn the [U.S.] attacks and urging people to go to Afghanistan," he says.

Daud says he entered Afghanistan with 700 other Pakistanis and camped for a few days at the border with Mohammed. "He issued some directives. He recited a few verses of the holy Quran to highlight the importance of jihad for Muslims. Then we started moving toward Jalalabad."

But by the time they got there, U.S. airstrikes were hitting the area fiercely, and the Taliban arranged transport the next morning to Kabul. From there, Daud and 1,500 other fighters were taken to the Panjshir

"We took positions. Somebody told me on the front line there is a trench where the Northern Alliance and some foreign troops have taken positions. We planned to attack this position. For one thing, we wanted to
kill those foreign troops. For another, we wanted to get some food, because we were short of food."

The Taliban commander switched sides, and a new commander ordered them to abandon their positions only minutes before U.S. planes started hitting them, Daud says. He and his comrades walked five straight days back to the Pakistan border, and eventually home. Now, he wonders what he accomplished.

"We had an idea that some foreign troops, some American troops and British troops, were in Afghanistan. We wanted to capture some American troops - it would be a great honor for us to capture a U.S. Army man. But when we entered the area, we never saw any foreigners. They were all Muslims. They were all Afghans. And nobody told us about the airstrikes, this carpet bombing."

In the town of Rustam, also along Pakistan's North-West Frontier, 28-year-old Pir Mohammed said he and nine others joined Sufi Mohammed and were outfitted with Kalashnikov rifles, rocket launchers, hand grenades and other light and heavy machine guns.

"We had some missiles also, and small cannons, but due to logistical problems, we couldn't transport them," he says.

The weapons were leftover American supplies from the war with the Soviets, said his friend, Hafez Izhar Ahmed, 20.

Once they got to Jalalabad, those with military training went on to Mazar-e Sharif, while those who didn't stayed behind to learn how to load, unload and fire a weapon. Pir Mohammed stayed on for training but was evacuated to Kabul when the Americans started bombing Jalalabad.

"When we reached Kabul, the Taliban informed us they were conducting a strategic retreat. The Northern Alliance was on the way," he says.

"For every 500 or 600 Pakistanis, there was only one Taliban who gave us information on what we should do," he says. "People were still determined to defend Kabul, but we never saw any Taliban; we had no
information on where to go, whether we should retreat, or where we should retreat to. Thousands of people were there."

Still, Mohammed says, no one despaired. "We left Pakistan to sacrifice our life. Our aim was that. So whatever happened was up to God. We  never expected that we would come back alive to our homes."

Kim Murphy is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Copyright (c) 2001, The Baltimore Sun