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In Peshawar, warning signs for Afghan peace

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Camelia Entekhabi-Fard
Publication Date 13 May 2002
Cite as EurasiaNet, In Peshawar, warning signs for Afghan peace, 13 May 2002, available at: [accessed 2 December 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Camelia Entekhabi-Fard 5/13/02

On a tour of Peshawar, Pakistan, our expert guide Shiraz showed us where many Taliban leaders had gone after the US-led coalition drove them from power in Afghanistan. "This is Rahim's house, one of the Taliban leaders who escaped after the fall of their government and shaved his beard," said Shiraz, nephew to Sami Al-Haq, the famed head of the "Hagqaniah" seminary. Afghanistan was the Taliban's seat of power, but the movement's alma alta was Hagqaniah.

The madrassa, or school, is the stuff of legend, and traveling with a relative of Sami Al-Haq opens many doors. "This one here is a mansion belonging to an Arab fighter who was with Taliban," Shiraz continued matter-of-factly. A few bearded men with shotguns slung on their shoulders were protecting the compound and there were no signs of Pakistan security forces. While travelling with a reporter from the Financial Times, I asked to be taken to the house to interview the occupants but was told that it would be out of the question under the circumstances.

With the fall of the fundamentalist regime in Kabul, many militant fighters seem to have simply moved to Pakistan. Peshawar, a border town on the Pakistani side, serves as the main artery between the two countries; for decades, people, weapons, goods and drugs have flowed through here. EurasiaNet came here to ask the Taliban's elder statesman and his supporters what they think about the new currents of Islamic radicalism as they flow from Afghanistan toward the southeast. Whether Osama bin Laden or any other al Qaeda leaders are hiding near the border, there is reason to suspect that the concentration of radicals near Peshawar could threaten Afghanistan's interim government.

Publicly, the new Afghan leaders dismiss any possible threats from these quarters in neighboring countries. But interviews with these officials left no doubt that the government in Kabul is seriously concerned about threats to their national security from across the Pakistani border. Some of these threats may come from familiar rivals who have regrouped in Pakistan; others may come from new madrassa graduates. A trip across the border shows that these threats will be hard to map and harder to control.

This danger has become immediate several times this spring. On April 8, when Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim visited Jalalabad, a bomb went off, killing four people and injuring at least 16 others. [For more information, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Jalalabad is 40 miles from the Pakistani border. General Hazrat Ali, the strongman who serves as its governor, told EurasiaNet that he blamed one of his former deputies, a man named Rahim (unrelated to the escaped Taliban leader), for the assassination attempt. The man, Ali said, subsequently escaped to Pakistan, where he had long been in contact with confederates; the case remains unresolved. "We had encircled him but he managed to slip away to Pakistan," said Ali.

In another incident, two rockets landed at Jalalabad's airport on May 9, having flown from the surrounding mountains. This time no one was killed or injured, but Afghan nervousness rose. "We know that these ex-Talibs are regrouping in Pakistan and will try to carry out sabotage actions in the following weeks. The idea is to undermine the Loya Jirga [grand legislative council] process that starts on June 10," said a source at the Defense Ministry.

If agents on the Pakistani side want to sow confusion, they are working under favorable conditions. The distinction between various Pashto-speaking tribes that live on either side is hard to draw by culture or lifestyle. There are also legions of Pakistani fundamentalists that are probably ready to support potential saboteurs. Madrassas like Hagqaniah have enrolled untold numbers of students and taught them a militant brand of Islam. And as our tour underscored, these madrassas enjoy a high degree of prestige.

Hagqaniah, which sits a 50-minute drive from Peshawar on the road to Islamabad, has in many ways set the model for all other fundamentalist madrassas – and has a hold on young imaginations that urges defiance toward the idea of peace. It draws from thousands of applicants around the world. When I talked with students, I developed with the impression that many considered the Taliban's fall to be a temporary setback. "When the Taliban fell we were all depressed but now we are all feeling strong," said Fazel, 28. "Allah willing, the Jihad will soon pick up again. It could start here in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Kashmir."

As the Taliban and their sympathizers dissipate across the region, they may support different leaders. Some have suggested that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former official who now opposes Afghanistan's interim government, maintains a base in Pakistan and travels in and out of Peshawar. American defense officials have already said that the Central Intelligence Agency tried to kill Hekmatyar this spring for fostering violence. French wire service Agence France-Presse quoted an American official as saying that Hekmatyar and his radical Hizb-i-Islami party had offered rewards for the deaths of US troops in Afghanistan and had attacked forces of the interim government.

Though this operation was botched, it indicates that Afghanistan is drawing more attention from world powers than it did a year ago. Pakistan, which allied with the United States in September 2001, has begun to show signs of turmoil. As US soldiers dig in at Kabul's Bagram Air Force Base, some Western diplomats are keeping their families out of Pakistan and airlines including British Airways and Lufthansa, have stopped their flights from Pakistan. These signs, like a May 8 bus bombing in Karachi that killed 15 French citizens, raise questions about what lessons are coming out of the Taliban's old schools.

While waiting to get my visa from a Pakistan consular centers, a Pakistani diplomat told me: " It's no way the new Afghan government could take root in Afghanistan. Today the Islamic groups are quiet because of [the presence of international forces]. But how many years could [interim authority Chairman Hamid] Karzai manage to keep these forces in Afghanistan? One year? Three years? Afghanistan has deep Islamic roots and the fundamentalists would make a comeback sooner or later." The diplomat warned that the message coming from madrassas differed sharply from the official government line. "Don't just talk to the officials. Talk to ordinary people. Afghans never like to see foreigners in their country." If the extremists in Peshawar are foreigners, they are also familiar and organized enough to threaten stability in the critical weeks before Afghanistan's Loya Jirga.

Editor's Note: Camelia Enkhetabi-Fard is a journalist who specializes in Afghan and Iranian affairs.

Posted May 13, 2002 © Eurasianet

Copyright notice: All EurasiaNet material © Open Society Institute

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