PESHAWAR: When Wahab disappeared from his home in Afghanistan to sign on for jihad, it was in neighbouring Pakistan that he got his training.
The 20-year-old was recruited by childhood friends and was taken to a militant outpost in Parachinar, on Pakistan’s rugged mountainous border with Afghanistan. There, he underwent training, preparing to fight alongside the Afghan Taliban, a relative told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals from militants and government security agents.
While analysts say Pakistan’s leverage is often overstated, it does permit the Taliban leadership on its territory and its wounded warriors receive treatment in Pakistani hospitals. Their children are in school in Pakistan and some among them own property. Some among Pakistan’s politicians have rebranded the insurgents as “the new, civilized Taliban.”
Ismail Khan, a powerful US-allied warlord, who is trying to defend his territory of Herat in western Afghanistan from a Taliban onslaught, told local media recently the war raging in his homeland was the fault of Pakistan.
“I can say openly to Afghans that this war, it isn’t between Taliban and the Afghan Government. It is Pakistan’s war against the Afghan nation,” he said. “The Taliban are their resource and are working as a servant.”
Pakistan has tried unsuccessfully to convince Afghans they don’t want a Taliban government back in Afghanistan. They say the days of Pakistan seeing Afghanistan as a client state, to provide so-called “strategic depth” against its hostile neighbor India, is a thing of the past.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has told every public and private forum that Pakistan wants peace in Afghanistan, has no favorites in the battle and is deeply opposed to a military takeover by the Taliban.
Still, Afghans are unconvinced. Even the international community is skeptical. The United Nations last week rebuffed Pakistan’s request to address a special meeting on Afghanistan to again give its side.
The criticism is fueled by images of slain Taliban fighters being buried in Pakistan at funerals attended by hundreds, waving the group’s flags. Last year, Prime Minister Khan called Osama bin Laden a martyr in a speech to Parliament, seen as a nod to militants.
When the Taliban were battling Afghan security forces in an assault on the Afghan border town Spin Boldak, wounded insurgents were treated at Pakistani hospitals in Chaman. The Taliban took the town and still hold it.
A doctor in Chaman told the AP he treated dozens of wounded Taliban. Several were transferred to hospitals in the Pakistani city of Quetta for further treatment, he said. Quetta is also where several in the Taliban leadership reportedly live, as well as in the Arabian Sea port city of Karachi. The doctor spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
In thousands of madrassas, or religious schools, around Pakistan, some students are inspired to jihad in Afghanistan, according to analysts as well as Pakistani and international rights groups.
Their recruitment largely goes on unhindered, interrupted occasionally when a local news story reports bodies of fighters returning from Afghanistan.
Last month, Pakistani authorities sealed the Darul-Aloom-Ahya-ul Islam madrassa outside Peshawar after the body of the cleric’s nephew returned home to a hero’s burial. The madrassa had operated freely for decades, even as the cleric admitted he sent his students to fight in Afghanistan.
One of Wahab’s cousins, Salman, went from a madrassa in Pakistan to join the Pakistani Taliban several years ago. Wahab was inspired to join the militants by propaganda videos purporting to show atrocities against Muslims by foreign troops. He ran away from his home in Afghanistan’s border regions earlier this year, but his family was able to track him down in Pakistan and bring him home before he became a fighter, his relative said.
In mosques and on the streets in Pakistan’s northwest Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province, militants preach jihad and raise money, the relative said, though they are less aggressive in recruiting because of Pakistani military operations in the area in recent years.
Still, Amir Rana, executive director of the independent Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, said that unless Pakistani authorities adopt a “zero tolerance” for jihadis, the country will forever face international criticism and suspicion. “Justifying it has to stop,” he said.
In response to AP’s request for comment, a senior security official acknowledged that sympathies for extremists exist in conservative Pakistan. He said it began with a U.S.-backed program to motivate Afghans to fight the Soviets in the 1980s, which glorified jihad and portrayed the occupying troops as “godless communists.” He said Pakistan is firm it doesn’t want a Taliban-only government in Kabul, saying it would fan extremism.
Two security officials denied that jihadi groups in the border region receive any official help. They said a nearly completed fence being built by Pakistan along the long border with Afghanistan will stop the smuggling of fighters across. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment.
Pakistan has its own concerns, accusing Afghanistan of harboring militants opposed to the Islamabad government. Pakistani security officials say their country’s rival India is allowed by Kabul’s intelligence agency to stage covert attacks against Pakistan using militants in Afghanistan. In the last six months, they say more than 200 Pakistani military personnel have been killed by insurgents crossing the border,
The border, known as the Durand Line, speaks to the deeply troubled relationship between the two neighbors. To this day, Afghan leaders do not recognize the Durand Line and claim some Pakistani areas dominated by ethnic Pashtuns as Afghan territory, Pashtuns on both sides of the border share tribal links, and Afghan Pashtuns form the backbone of the Taliban.
Analysts say Islamabad has fueled extremist sentiment and worked with militants when it was in its interests. It was during the long fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency developed deep ties with many of the most radical of Afghans, including the notorious Haqqani group, arguably the strongest faction among the Afghan Taliban.
“Islamabad does wield extensive leverage over the Taliban,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center. “But the Taliban, which is fighting a war it believes it’s winning, has the luxury of resisting Pakistani entreaties to ease violence and commit to talks.”
“For the Taliban, the calculus is simple: Why quit when you’re ahead?”