Tales from disappointed jihadis, itching for a fight
Many foreign Taliban supporters were captured before engaging any US troops.
KHEWA, AFGHANISTAN — They share a medieval prison barracks, a cold stone floor, and an unwavering faith in the importance of defending their religion against America.
They are Pakistani volunteers, numbering about 160, and they are just a few of the thousands of foreigners who came to Afghanistan in hopes of protecting Taliban rule in what they consider to be the world's purest Islamic state.
Typical of the volunteers is Torki Ahmad, a religious student from Karachi, Pakistan, who says he came to Afghanistan just two days after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We want to destroy America. The battle of the Crusades was announced by President Bush, so we are coming to sacrifice ourselves in the cause of Allah," says Mr. Ahmad, in excellent English. He appears too young to grow the full beard typical of Taliban fighters and their supporters. "My only regret is that we haven't found an opportunity to fight against the US soldiers, because they haven't come here yet."
Over the weekend, captured fighters like Ahmad staged an uprising at a detention facility in Mazar-e Sharif that claimed scores of lives, including that of an American adviser. But the hundreds of US Marines who began arriving yesterday near the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan present the most visible target so far for Islamic extremists ready to die for the Taliban cause.
To date, surprisingly few have had the chance.
Many, like these prisoners in Khewa, had no weapons when they were captured by anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces and their ethnic Pashtun allies in eastern Afghanistan. While they still use strong Islamic rhetoric, some were actually planning to head back to Pakistan at the time of their capture.
Others were determined to join the Taliban in the mountains. But in what appears to be a rule of Afghan politics, the most important thing that separates these hardened jihadis (holy warriors) from their Afghan captors is not their religious beliefs or lifestyle, but simply short-term alliances.
"I captured one group on the road between Jalalabad and Kabul," says Sher Afzal, a young soldier on guard duty at Khewa prison. "They said: 'We have come to make jihad against America.' We said: 'You have come too early, the Americans aren't here. You should go make jihad in Kashmir or Pakistan. Why come here?' "
Syad Afzal, another guard at Khewa prison, says he feels sorry for some of the prisoners. "Some belong to Sufi Mohammed, and I feel sad for them," he says, referring to the Pakistani religious leader who recruited thousands in October to fight an expected US-led invasion against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network. "But some Punjabi [Pakistani] people belong to Al Qaeda, and they have been here a long time. I don't feel sorry for them. They should go do their jihad somewhere else."
The bulk of the prisoners in Khewa prison say they were captured days after the fall of Kabul. Most say they have been treated well. Their only complaint is that they have not received water to wash before their daily prayers.
"I am not unhappy. Allah will help us to try again," says Gulab, a young man from Waziristan, a Pakistani border region with strong ethnic ties to the Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group.
Gul Nabi, another jihadi from Waziristan, says he came more than a month ago but never saw any Americans. "I was caught trying to [return] home outside of Jalalabad. It is in the hands of almighty Allah whether I get free."
Farther east, in the former front-line village of Shunbar, life is returning to normal after nearly five years of guerrilla war. Village chief Haji Noor Beg says the Taliban had 300 fighters garrisoned here. Half were Afghans; the rest were foreigners, including Arabs, Chechens, and Pakistanis. "At first, we thought the Taliban were good people, and we surrendered our weapons to them," says Mr. Beg, stroking his henna-colored beard. "But then they started beating people [and] searching their houses for weapons.
"The Taliban wore the outfits of Muslims, and they spoke like Muslims, but their deeds and their foreign supporters were not like real Muslims. They were cruel," he says.
While some Afghan villagers in the eastern provinces say they are confused by a war between Muslim brethren, the farmers in the fertile village of Kasamabad Bisur, near Jalalabad, say they are just relieved the fighting has stopped for now. "The Taliban are local people and the new rulers are also local people, so we have seen no difference between them," says Said Ahmad.