`AFGHANISTAN does not matter. It is Islam,'' declared the tall Saudi youth who called himself Abu al-Kakar. Mr. Kakar, who was flanked by a dozen Arabs, scarcely hid his contempt for the Western kafir (infidel) before him. The men, all apparently in their teens or early 20s, wore Palestinian-style scarves around their heads and Kalashnikov rifles over their shoulders.
``We are here because of Allah. The Afghans are our brothers of Islam, but we are here to fight all our enemies - Americans, Russians, Israelis,'' Mr. Kakar said in good English, the product, it later emerged, of time spent in the United States.
His discourse was peppered with Koranic sayings as he explained why he, and possibly several thousand other militant Arab Muslims, had come to Afghanistan to fight in the ``jihad.''
``We are here to release our brothers from East and West. We have to show them the true Islam. Many are uneducated and do not know the true path. This is our duty in the service of Allah, the all-merciful,'' Kakar said.
He was asked whether the mujahideen (Afghan guerrillas) really needed the assistance of Arab combatants in their war against Soviet forces and now the communist Kabul regime. The ``jihad'' did not necessarily need them, Kakar acknowledged. ``But we need the jihad.''
Islamic militants from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other nations have been coming to join the mujahideen ever since Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. But most of these foreign Muslims had traveled to Afghanistan on their own initiative, not as part of organized political or religious groups.
Since the mid-1980s, however, there has been a marked increase in the involvement of militant Arab Muslims - most of whom adhere to Wahhabism, a strictly puritan sect of Islam that originated on the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century.
``Basically, the Afghan jihad suits their purposes. It's the only one they've got. In fact, it's the first real jihad since the Middle Ages,'' says a Western diplomat in Peshawar, Pakistan, where the Afghan resistance is based.
The political fortunes of the Wahhabi have been linked to Saudi Arabia's ruling al-Saud family for nearly 200 years, but Western diplomats say they know very little about who actually funds Wahhabi activity in Afghanistan. Arab diplomats deny any connection with the Wahhabi, as do Pakistani officials.
ACCORDING to some guerrilla and other sources, Arab determination to create a ``new Islamic man'' among the Afghans has begun to cause serious divisions within the resistance. The rift could provoke violent confrontations between the Arab-backed extremists and other Afghan groups, including some of the so-called fundamentalist groups.
Some Afghan fundamentalists, notably Hekmatyar Gulbuddin's Hezb-i-Islami, have long received Arab support but are at loggerheads with the Wahhabi for political reasons. Other Afghans, given their traditionally independent nature, simply resent being told what to do by outsiders, Muslims or not.
The Arab Wahhabi, observers say, are seeking to dominate the jihad and impose their will on the Afghans through intense proselytization and ``buying off'' mujahideen with money, guns, uniforms, and other support.
``It is very clear what they are doing,'' says Abdul Haq, a leading guerrilla commander. ``They give you everything you need and when you don't do what they want, they cut off the aid.''
According to diplomats and other analysts, Arab extremist groups have gained considerable influence in border regions.
But indications are that many Afghans join the Wahhabi ``for cash rather than ideological reasons,'' says a European diplomat.
This appeared to be the case in Nangrahar, Kunar, Paktia, and other provinces: Most of the Afghans who had embraced Wahhabism did not appear to take it seriously. ``The Arabs have besiaw paise'' - much money, one guerrilla laughed.
Among the pro-Wahhabi groups, the largest is Ittihad-i-Islami (Islamic Unity), led by Prof. Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. It would retain little Afghan support without its Arab backing, observers claim. The same goes for the Jamaat Ulduwaat, a local Wahhabi party.
Wahhabi-allied mujahideen, who are paid the equivalent of $50 a month, are usually easily recognizable by their lavish equipment and camouflage fatigues. Most also pray in the Wahhabi fashion, which contrasts with the Afghan manner.
Weighing the lasting impact of the Wahhabis, some analysts maintain that Afghans can only be ``rented,'' never completely ``bought'' or won over. So the influence of Arab extremists will wane once their support is no longer needed, they say.
Others are not so sure.
``We could face some severe problems in the months ahead unless something is done about them now,'' said one West European diplomat. ``We are very worried.''
Arab extremists are reportedly trying to turn the Afghans against non-Muslim foreigners, whom they see as a threat to their proselytizing. More recently, some Arabs have threatened to kill visiting Westerners.
Earlier this month, Arab extremists shot at an International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in eastern Nangrahar. No one was injured. This reporter and an American television crew were menaced by Wahhabi Arabs further to the north. And, earlier, a French photographer was beaten up, purportedly by three Black Muslims from New York.
``It is really frightening to meet these people. They are the sort of fanatics who blow up planes and plant bombs in airports,'' says American cameraman Tom Woods, who had a confrontation with Wahhabis.
SUCH behavior is arousing concern and anger among Afghans. The Arabs treat their customs, hospitality, and Islamic practices with arrogance and disdain, some Afghans say.
``It sometimes amazes me that the Afghans have [tolerated] such attitudes for so long,'' says a West European aid worker. ``Money speaks loudly but it is not in the Afghan character to take this sort of thing lying down.''
Commander Haq predicts that ``something is going to happen. And it is best that it happens sooner rather than later, so that Afghans realize how dangerous these Arab Wahhabi are.''
Last week, angry delegates at the resistance council in Rawalpindi reportedly hijacked the microphone at a nearby mosque, and called for throwing the Wahhabi out of Afghanistan.
Western diplomats question why Pakistan and moderate Arab governments allow Muslim extremists to cross into Afghanistan for what amounts to ``practical terrorist training.''
``When this war is over, there are going be a lot of extremists with first-hand guerrilla war experience,'' says a senior diplomat. ``Is that what Saudi Arabia or Egypt really want?''
There are hints that a Pakistani crackdown against the Wahhabi is in the offing, international aid sources say. Last week, several Arab extremists were turned back at the border by Pakistani frontier scouts. There are also indications that military action may be taken inside Afghanistan by guerrilla groups to disarm or kill the Arab Wahhabi.