Taliban sympathies high in border towns

The Taliban and Al Qaeda are exploiting Afghan frustrations, security officials say

For Maj. Mohammad Daud, the menace of Al Qaeda is not far away. It's just across the Afghan border, in the neighboring town of Chaman, Pakistan.

There, he says, he's seen hundreds of Taliban leaders and foreign fighters of Al Qaeda living in homes, praying in mosques, and preaching to people to prepare for a final battle to end the "American occupation of Afghanistan."

"They don't have weapons, but they come with the Holy Koran, and they say 'You people are burning this book by helping the Americans,' " says Major Daud, operational commander of the new Afghan government's Border Security Forces in Kandahar Province. "This preaching is more dangerous than fighting, because local people are changing their hearts and minds about the Americans."

A significant number of Afghans – especially the conservative Pashtun majority – are finding that they have more in common with the radical Islamic message of Al Qaeda and the Taliban than they do with the pro-Western statements of new Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Local Afghan officials say that Taliban and Al Qaeda members are exploiting Afghans' growing frustration with the slow pace of foreign aid – with the dangerous potential to undermine the new government.

In Kandahar, the provincial governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, has issued an amnesty for most former Taliban fighters. Only the top Taliban leaders, and the foreign Al Qaeda fighters who supported them, need fear arrest.

Border security officials complain that American Special Forces in Kandahar prefer to go after Taliban elements thought to be operating within the province itself. Yet these officials say that most of the action is along the border, particularly in Pakistan. Afghan intelligence agents in Spin Boldak say they have reports that Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) continues to work with the Taliban, which Pakistan supported up until Sept. 11 last year.

"A few days ago, we got reports that Pakistan's ISI gave 300 Kalashnikov rifles to the Taliban so they would go into Afghanistan and create instability," says Juma Gul, a spy for the Afghan Border Security Force.

More glaring evidence of Taliban influence can be found on the streets of the city of Kandahar, where US Special Forces maintain a huge operational base at the airport. At the unfinished mosque in the center of town, a massive structure built by Osama bin Laden, former Taliban stream in for evening prayers. Some pro-Taliban sympathies are quite openly expressed.

"The people of Afghanistan are poor, but the people who built this mosque were foreigners, and the servants of almighty Allah," says Daud Khan, a former Taliban fighter.

Across town at the tomb of Ahmad Shah Baba, the 18th century founder of modern Afghanistan, local Gul Agha says that Afghans are upset by foreign interference. "The Americans have invaded our country, they have destroyed our religion, and they have stirred up differences among the people."

In this border town, an outpost known for smuggling goods into and out of Pakistan, the pro-Taliban sentiment is even stronger. Taxi drivers and hotel owners admit that Taliban come and go as they please and that locals welcome them.

Mohammad Pazir, a manager of a small teashop, says that he would fight against Americans himself if US fighter planes and bombers weren't around.

"If you kill an infidel, and you die in the process, you will go to God without sin," Mr. Pazir says. "So if I am killed while killing an American, my mother will not cry for me. My child will not be an orphan, because he will be a son of a ghazi, a holy fighter, a saint."

All of this sentiment, of course, makes Daud's job much harder.

Already, pro-Taliban supporters in Pakistan have burned his home in the Pakistani tribal area, where federal control is weak. There are even signs that the Taliban are beginning to organize open meetings and protests in the major cities of the tribal belt.

"On Aug. 14 there was a big meeting of Taliban and Arabs in Chaman," says Mahboob Achakzai, an adviser on Pakistani affairs for Border Security Force here. "They declared a fatwa, that war is compulsory for all Muslims to fight against the present government of Afghanistan and their American supporters."

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