Loyalties to Taliban strong along Pakistan's border

Opposition growing to nation's pledge to aid United States

Terrorism Strikes America

September 23, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QUETTA, Pakistan - At this oasis town near the Afghan border, the lines between Pakistan and Afghanistan blur together like the waves of heat rippling off the desert floor.

More than half the population is ethnic Afghan. It shares a language - Pashtun - and tastes in food and an adaptation to an unforgiving landscape with the people to the west, in Afghanistan. The populations straddling this mountainous border are as nearly alike as Americans and Mexicans living on opposite sides of the Rio Grande - except they also share support for Islamic fundamentalism.

Pakistan's leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has pledged to help the United States in a war against terrorism, and opposition is brewing in areas where Afghan influence is strong. Indeed, loyalties remain in flux. Musharraf and the United States are the talk of Quetta's markets, where cars share the roads with horse-drawn carts.

"Although we are living here, Afghanistan is our motherland," said Syed Faiz Mohammad, a rope vendor who fled to Pakistan two decades ago during the Soviet invasion, "and we will defend it at any cost."

Musharraf got a taste last week of what might lie in store as merchants closed their shops to observe a strike called to protest the government's support for the United States. Several thousand people converged Friday on Quetta's Markazi Jamia mosque to rally in favor of accused terrorist Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime that has sheltered him.

Men with long black beards and wearing turbans, flowing shirts and baggy pants listened as religious leaders criticized the United States. Their speeches combined the themes of Islamic brotherhood and anti-imperialism.

"Will you sell yourself for dollars?" the leader of a Muslim anti-blasphemy group asked through a tinny speaker hanging in front of the whitewashed mosque.

"No!" yelled men sitting on rooftops or pressed against the mosque's windows.

"Afghanistan, Pakistan, there is no difference," yelled another speaker. "We are all Muslims."

Quetta, a city of 1.2 million people, is famous for its fruit orchards and for smuggling. It lies close to a Pakistani air force base, and local residents speculate that it could be used by the United States for raids against the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, across the border.

Beginning with the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have crossed the border into this province, Baluchistan, and brought a culture that has taken root.

Round Afghan bread has replaced thin Baluch bread in the bakeries. Locals estimate that half the products sold in the shops - from soap to car parts - are smuggled from Afghanistan. Afghans have also brought with them Kalashnikov rifles and made them the weapon of choice.

"Before 1979, no one knew this weapon," said Mansoor Akbar Kundi, an associate professor of political science at the University of Baluchistan in Quetta and a one-time resident of the United States. "Every Tom, Dick and Harry now owns one."

Baluchistan has been traversed by invaders from Alexander the Great to the British but may be most marked by the Taliban. About 40 percent of the province's 3 million people support the Taliban cause to some degree, Kundi estimated. They include Muslim fundamentalists, left-wing students and the poor in a province where one in five lacks a job.

Some people have said they plan to join Afghanistan in a holy war against America. But much of that support, according to Kundi, is changeable. Only 25 percent of the people in Baluchistan can read, and many rely on Islamic clerics for news.

"Our people don't know anything," Kundi said. "When Saddam [Hussein] invaded Kuwait, they condemned it. Then when America invaded, everyone was naming their son `Saddam.' "

Quetta's Chamber of Commerce is a few miles from the Jamia mosque. It's where businessmen come to seek help for customs problems and to talk about politics. And the tone is virtually the opposite of what is being said outside the mosque.

Most of the businessmen at the Chamber's office yesterday shared the Pashtun culture with the Taliban but utterly opposed the Taliban regime's policies. They were interested not in a holy war but in the economic impact U.S. military action could have.

Qutub Kahn and his business partners, for example, have paid more than $600,00 for timber from tree cutters in Afghanistan. After the terrorist attacks in the United States, the Pakistani government sealed the border crossing, cutting off most trade. The timber shipments sit on the other side.

"If the border is closed for two or three more weeks," Khan said, "my business will collapse."

The businessmen, eating cookies and sipping tea with milk, discounted the power of religious groups and expressed doubt about the boasts of people who say they will join a holy war.

"None of these people will go to the border area and fight; this is rubbish," said Sardar Mohammad Ali Jogezai, a fruit farmer and exporter said to be one of the city's wealthiest men. "One rocket from an F-16 and they will all run away."

People here seem less concerned with local Islamic radicals than Afghans who might cross the border. One motivation for the government's closing the border was the fear that the Taliban would send terrorists to avenge Pakistan's support of the United States.

Some businessmen said they had faith the police would prevail: "Maybe many terrorists will come," Jogezai said, "but I think our security is very tight and we can control it."

Kahn, the timber merchant, sounded less confident: "If there is lawlessness, no one will be secure."

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