Northwest Frontier province, Pakistan -- Rahimullah's fingers adeptly clean and reassemble the Kalashnikov rifle
on the dusty mud floor of the small village store. A single bulb swinging from
a wire bounces shadows back and forth across him as he works.
"I am a Taliban. I believe in the movement and in the supreme leader
Mullah Omar," the 25-year-old says to the approving nods of the 20-odd men
gathered round to hear his discourse with the foreign female reporter.
Like four of the others present -- and thousands of other sympathetic
Pakistanis in the past several years -- Rahimullah has traveled repeatedly
to wage part-time jihad on behalf of the fundamentalist Taliban: in 1996, when
they overthrew an earlier Afghan government; in 2001, as the U.S. military was
set to invade; and earlier this year, to help in the guerrilla warfare against
the American occupation.
All three times he crossed the border near the Afghan town of Khost,
where al Qaeda ran its most infamous training camps, and support for the
former government is still very strong.
Approximately 185 men from a small farming village of 3,800 located just
outside Pakistan's unruly tribal lands have volunteered each time, many of
them performing repeat duty. Those remaining behind chip in for the forays
with supplies and money, and promise to tend the fields of the farmers-turned-
Given the jihadis' illegal activities, the reporter was brusquely told
not to ask the name of the village, which is about one hour's drive west of
Peshawar, the capital of Northwest Frontier province.
The fighters travel by vehicle up through the nearby tribal area of North
Waziristan and cross the frontier as near as they can get to Khost.
They used to go straight through the official border crossing, but the
presence of American, Afghan and Pakistani troops hunting al Qaeda and Taliban
men has forced them to detour on foot along ancient mountain trails.
Their most recent foray last spring, however, left them pining for the re-
emergence of a centralized Taliban leadership and the most famous Afghan
guerrilla of all, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the one-eyed spiritual head of the
former government, who has reportedly been in hiding somewhere in central
Afghanistan since late 2001.
"We went to kill Americans," Rahimullah said bluntly. "When we got there,
there was nobody to fight because all the fighting was happening between
Pashtun rivals. It's all politics and infighting."
The Afghan border provinces that have seen the most fighting -- Paktia,
Paktika and Khost -- have been roiled for nearly two years by bloody
rivalries centering around Pashtun warlord Bacha Khan Zadran.
A renegade who initially supported Hamid Karzai's central government in
Kabul, Bacha Khan and his militia have been battling Afghan and U.S. soldiers
-- and extorting money from travelers from Pakistan.
The pilgrimages of Pakistani Pashtun tribesmen to join the seemingly
endless fights in Afghanistan began with the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
The last big cross-border exodus came at the start of the U.S.-led invasion
that followed the events of Sept. 11, 2001. It ended in disaster, with the
deaths and imprisonment of thousands of Pakistanis.
But that has not deterred true believers, said Sohail Anwar, a Pakistani
regional analyst based in Peshawar.
"Yes, there are plenty of tribesmen and even some non-Pashtun Pakistanis
who strongly identify with the Taliban," Anwar said. "For some, it is a
reaffirmation of who they are and what they believe they should be. For others, it is a (way to act out) their deep mistrust of Western influence and control
in the region."
While the number of active Taliban supporters or sympathizers in Pakistan
makes up a small percentage of the country's 140 million people, the issue
poses a quandary for the U.S.-allied government.
President Pervez Musharraf has vowed to battle terrorism, but many
Pakistanis don't apply that label to the Taliban, even though its leaders gave
support and shelter to Osama bin Laden and played host to al Qaeda's terrorist
"Though the government has a clear standard -- no tolerance -- for al
Qaeda, the Taliban is a different matter," said Anwar. "They received support
from this side of the border and are (sheltering) on this side of the border,
but they never attacked anyone outside Afghanistan."
The villagers say they do not harbor foreign militants, sometimes
referred to as Arab Afghans. But they add that if Taliban fighters came
looking for their help, they would respond on a case-by-case basis.
When their stints in Afghanistan -- usually no more than a couple of
months -- are over, the jihadis simply return home to their farms and await
the next call from Taliban operatives inside Afghanistan.
"If Mullah Omar gives the word, I would cross the border the very same
day," Rahimullah said, prompting hoots and hollers of support from the men
As word spreads about the presence of a foreigner, more villagers come to
join the discussion. Only the very elderly and children are without guns, and
all profess the highest admiration for the ousted Taliban regime and the
reclusive Omar, whom they view as both an Islamic and Pashtun role model.
"Mullah Omar was 100 percent right in every aspect, and we all follow him
along the path," said Sadiq Khan, 37.
"He brought peace and security of life, and that is all that matters,"
added Rahimullah, cradling his now-freshly oiled rifle in his lap.
But the men became flustered when asked about the Taliban's banning women
from working, closing down girls' schools and forcing all men to grow beards
on pain of detention.
"Omar wasn't against teaching girls, you are wrong," screamed Jamshid, a
red-faced middle-aged villager whose face seems permanently frozen in a
grimace. "It was even on the BBC that there were girls' schools operating in
When the reporter points out that the schools referred to in the BBC
radio reports were run clandestinely by teachers who were risking their lives,
there was a brief uproar.
"How would you know anything but Western propaganda? You have never even
set foot on Afghan soil! We know better," Jamshid shouted.
He jumped to his feet and swung his rifle menacingly in the foreigner's
direction. Learning that the reporter had indeed been to Afghanistan, he
stomped off, grumbling. "There is no point talking to her," he said. "She will
never understand. None of the foreigners will ever understand, and that makes
them our enemy."
After his outburst, the remaining men adopted an apologetic posture,
serving tea and semi-stale biscuits to the shaken visitors.
Rashid, a 32-year-old jihadi and father of four, said: "Omar might have
been a little too harsh in some respects, but look what he was dealing with.
After 20 years of fighting, they had to be harsh to impose law and order."
The loose alliance of mujahedeen groups that drove out the Soviet Union
in 1989 quickly splintered, plunging Afghanistan into a half-decade of ruinous
internecine warfare. Public anger over the anarchic conditions led to the
formation of the Taliban and their eventual takeover in 1996.
Sadiq allowed that the Taliban might have gone too far in their social
strictures. "There should be the ability to educate your daughters if a father
wants that, and access to female doctors or policewomen," he said. "But there
have to be limits."
Those present said they forgave Omar for any excesses that occurred
during his rule.
"He is a good man, a real fighter, who rose from nothing to stand against
the Soviets and defend his people," said Sadiq. "If he has made mistakes, they
are excused by all of us."
Now there is a new enemy, and it's not al Qaeda.
Hajji Ghulab Khan, 55, an Afghan from the Khost area who regularly
hitches rides or walks into Pakistan, said he was certain that fellow Pashtuns
there were being abused by the latest foreign invader.
"I tell the truth," he said emphatically. "The Americans are taking our
weapons, arresting our tribe members and killing our people. What else
The tribal zones along the Pakistani-Afghan border are inhabited by
fiercely independent peoples who are devoutly religious, hostile to foreigners
and ready to fight. Chronicle Foreign Service correspondent Juliette Terzieff
visited this remote region, where Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network is
believed to be regrouping. For the complete series, go to sfgate.com
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle