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Where Taliban go to find warm beds and recruits

By Scott Baldauf, Owais Tohid / December 11, 2003



KAMALZAI, PAKISTAN

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.

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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."

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.

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