Where Taliban go to find warm beds and recruits

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With a bitter winter chill and the largest US ground offensive in nearly two years afoot in Afghanistan, Taliban commander Maulvi Pardes Akhund and his fighters are cheered by the warm reception and accommodations in a refugee camp for Afghans here.

Mr. Akhund's band, and others like them, have come to Pakistan's sprawling Balochistan Province for a bit of R&R and to recruit new blood for the Islamic militia's fight in Afghanistan. Recruitment is going well, Akhund says, with 10 new fighters joining the ranks this week, and donations from local people pouring in.

"We fought bravely against the Americans during the summer," says Akhund. "We lived in caves, planned our attacks against infidel forces [Americans], and hardly slept. So all of us need some rest in the winter."

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While Islamabad says it is doing everything it can to rein in the Taliban movement, a coalition of extremist religious parties controls the provincial government and around 300,000 Afghan refugees still live here. That makes it simple for the resurgent militia to blend in and difficult for the Army to crack down.

"Balochistan has always been, and is still, a second home to the Taliban," says a Pakistan-based Western diplomat. "It has served as second headquarters after Kandahar during the Taliban's rule and now it is providing a new lease on life to its guerrilla warfare against the US and its western allies."

"The more they gain ground in Balochistan, the more their movement will get strengthened," the diplomat adds. "They can easily channel their financial support and regain their ideological support."

No small haven

Encompassing 43 percent of Pakistan's territory, Balochistan's expanse and location make it an ideal place for the Taliban to regroup. The province is a gateway to southern Afghanistan provinces like Kandahar and the opium-producing province of Helmand.

The Al Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee (ATSC) of the UN, which is currently on a visit to Pakistan, says it believes that Taliban have entered Pakistan in significant numbers, posing as refugees in camps along the border. The seven-member ATSC team reportedly told Pakistani officials of a growing need to share information about those arrested in Pakistan for their links with Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The committee members also suggested that bank accounts of all pro-Taliban and Al Qaeda organizations should be frozen to halt their activities.

Sources in religious circles here say the Taliban fighters are still getting financial support from the banned Al-Rasheed and Al-Akhtar Trust, which worked in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime, and other welfare organizations, besides collecting huge amount of donations from rich and influential traders in Karachi. Many of these traders donate to the Taliban on a monthly basis.

Afghanistan's mirror image

In Balochistan itself, Taliban fighters enjoy vocal support from the ruling alliance of religious extremist parties, and they can easily mingle with Afghan refugees, mostly ethnic Pashtuns, settled here during the last two decades of turmoil in Afghanistan. Many, but not all, take shelter in madrassahs, or religious seminaries.

In refugee camps like Gidri Jungle, the scene is virtually indistinguishable from Afghanistan just a few hours drive to the north. Men wear Taliban-style salwar kameez and turbans, while women remain hidden in their homes or under all- covering veils. Pro-Taliban graffiti, written in Pashto, can be easily seen and refugees say some hard-liners hoist the Taliban white flags on rooftops in neighborhoods in rural areas.

But on a more tangible level, the Taliban influence feels like a defense of Islamic and Pashtun cultural values.

"From our village only, people donated 1.7 million rupees [around $30,000], and two truckloads of blankets, warm clothes, and medicines were dispatched for the Taliban," says Abdus Salam, a local villager in Killi Karbala. "People support the Taliban not only because they are Muslims, but when they were in power people here could travel across the border easily, as there was peace and security."

The local supporters of the Taliban operate in teams with specific tasks. One such sympathizer, Mir Waiz, receives the injured and sick fighters and takes them to "supportive" doctors. He also raises funds for their medicines. Others are dispatched to find shelters and homes, collect donations, and arrange transport.

Militants as media moguls

Taliban sources say their influence is increasing so much in Balochistan that they clandestinely publish a magazine and a newspaper in Pashto from Balochistan. Former Taliban leader, Mullah Muttaqi, is said to be its editor-in-chief.

According to these sources, the top 10 Taliban commanders visit Balochistan and its capital city of Quetta. The one-legged military head of the Taliban forces, Mullah Dadullah, sources say, has visited the province several times for the reorganization and regrouping of the Taliban, and has stayed at a madrassah run by a prominent pro-Taliban extremist leader.

For lower-level commanders like Akhund, life revolves around the battlefield.

"I am with Mullah Omar since his eye was martyred against the Russians and I will remain with him till my death," says Akhund. "I carry his message to wage jihad in the name of Allah against the Americans."

President Hamid Karzai recently said Mullah Omar was seen at a mosque in Quetta, a claim denied by Pakistani officials. Akhund says that his own meetings with Mullah Omar took place near the border on Afghanistan soil.

"The last time I met him was two or three month ago," says Akhund. "He looked changed. He has slightly trimmed his beard and was surrounded by around 15 armed motorbike riders. He himself rides an Iranian motorcycle and doesn't stay in one place for more than a day."

No satellite phones

Mullah Omar usually maintains contact with Taliban commanders through written orders.

"We obey the orders of Mullah Omar and the commands of Mullah Dadullah," says Akhund. "Every commander visits Mullah Dadullah after every two weeks. He has disguised himself as a cleric at a mosque in Afghanistan, where he delivers lectures and discusses military actions with commanders."

The fighters on the ground have learned to be extra cautious of the possible US attacks.

"We don't use satellite phones or wireless sets," says Akhund. "We convey our messages through trusted men. Usually we use only two code words - for help and when to run away from enemies."

A claim of Afghan support

Fortunately, he adds, the Afghan people themselves are giving increasing support to the Taliban.

"From every 10 families, seven to nine families support us," says Akhund. "They provide food to us, give shelter and inform as in advance of any danger. So we don't become target."

A former Taliban leader, who is now hiding in Balochistan, says, "Things are changing. Karzai is losing his control in Afghanistan. Initially we used to hide from our own shadows in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but now we can easily mingle with the locals who extend us all sorts of support."

Indeed, this Taliban leader felt comfortable enough to arrange his own flight schedule at the Quetta branch of Pakistan International Airlines.

Mohammad Jalil (not his real name) is an example of the sort of local support that Taliban now enjoy. Now on a visit to his family in Balochistan, Mr. Jalil regularly works as a cook for a high-ranking Afghan military commander in Kandahar. He passes whatever information he can to his Taliban comrades.

"I work with the government, but I pass secrets to the Mujahideen, sometimes verbally and sometimes by writing it," he says proudly. "Our job is to save Jihadis from the attacks of infidels," He usually passes the information to cohorts at a local hotel in Kandahar.

"We help Taliban because they are fighting for Islam," Jalil says. "It is a dangerous job but our lives belong to Allah and his cause. We don't work for Taliban for any reward or money but they help us and our family whenever we are in need."

The Taliban say they don't purchase weapons from Balochistan as there are plenty in Afghanistan itself.

"Weapons are everywhere since the Soviet days in Afghanistan," says Akhund. "We can fight for another 15 years. We have Kalashnikovs, grenades, rocket-propelled grenades, and explosives. We have all kind of weapons. The only thing we don't have is something to counter B-52s."

Needed: warriors, not guns

As an experienced commander, he says he needs more warriors in Afghanistan. Soon he is going back to Helmand province with new guerrillas to fight against the US forces.

But the chilly winds of Afghanistan worry Akhund and other guerrilla fighters.

"Winter restricts our movement so we might have to scale down our military attacks, so we try to intensify political efforts against the infidels and defeat the loya jirga," says on former Taliban leader in Quetta. "But we are also working hard to reorganize and regroup through winter because we want our cause to blossom in spring."

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