Taliban teach local enemies a harsh lesson

Execution of a leader warns `peace delegates' against further plotting

War On Terrorism

An Elusive Foe

October 29, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PESHAWAR, Pakistan - For local enemies of the Taliban, last week began with high hopes. Abdul Haq, a charismatic tribal leader and seasoned guerrilla fighter, had just sneaked back into Afghanistan with a handful of followers, vowing to rally thousands to the cause of toppling the regime.

In Peshawar, 600 Afghan chieftains, village elders and former commanders were gathering in a rare show of unity for a peace conference, where they would begin piecing together the country's post-Taliban future.

A week later, such hopes and intentions seem naively presumptuous.

Haq was quickly captured and executed, and his failure was seen here as a stern warning to the 600 "peace delegates" against any further plotting. The only new fighting force to rise up turned out to be a gun-waving caravan of several thousand pro-Taliban Pakistanis that headed for the border 50 miles north of here to join the jihad against the United States.

Obviously, as the Pentagon had already discovered, the Taliban is no pushover. But the enemies who know the Taliban best - former mujahedeen commanders such as Haq and those who attended the peace conference - should have been the last bunch susceptible to underestimating their foe.

One need only venture a few miles east of this city, however, to see why they might have miscalculated.

There, on one side of the highway leading to the Khyber Pass, is the Katchagarhi refugee camp, acre upon acre of sprawling mud huts and swirling filth, a bleak place where children and goats wander past trenches of open sewage and the air is choked with the smoke of cooking fires. It is home to about 70,000 Afghans, some who have been stuck there since the days of the Soviet occupation.

Directly across the highway, past a security station of well-armed guards, is another neighborhood of exiled Afghans, living in luxurious, two-story homes, colonnaded and marbled, with walled lawns and rooftops bristling with antennas. This, until his demise, was the home of Abdul Haq.

Little wonder, perhaps, that he wasn't tuned in to the message in the meaner streets across the way, where nowadays, anyone working on behalf of U.S. interests isn't to be trusted, much less applauded.

"When I look at the sufferings of the Afghan nation, then I think this is good what has happened to Haq," said Haji Abdul Hakim, 54, whose cramped tea shop in a bazaar next to the refugee camp is all that's left of the tea brokerage his family once ran in Kabul.

"The whole trouble when we left [in 1991] was due to the former mujahedeen commanders like him," Hakim said. "Everyone had his own power. He could not even make peace in his own jurisdiction. They were fighting over money and food assistance. The whole nation suffered because of these people. They could have done something for their nation, but they never did. They were never sincere."

As for the Taliban, Hakim said, "the most commendable thing they did was establish peace."

But Haq had little time to listen to those sorts of voices. He has instead been in places such as the United Arab Emirates, the wealthy Persian Gulf state where he succeeded as a businessman, or, lately, in Rome, where he met with Afghanistan's former king, the 86-year-old Mohammad Zahir Shah, who hasn't been in Afghanistan since 1974.

Fluent in English, Haq had also been listening to Americans from Washington, who were counseling him that the time might be ripe to open a second front against the Taliban, to squeeze the regime between it and the Northern Alliance.

It was amid this atmosphere that the delegates gathered at last week's peace conference, with almost every speech making it sound as if the Taliban's rule might collapse at any moment, and that the main task at hand was making sure that everyone was ready to pick up the pieces.

Pir Syed Ahmad Gailani, 67, head of a Sufi sect of Muslims and the organizer of the event, advised Taliban moderates to join his program or be left behind, saying: "Those Taliban who agree to our ideas as regards peace and broad-based government should start the task immediately."

By the time Gailani spoke, Haq had already gone exploring. He set out eight days ago with a mere handful of men.

He wasn't the only such pilgrim to feel that the time was right for organizing revolt beneath the noses of the Taliban. Hamid Qarzai, another tribal leader from an esteemed family, was said by local news reports to be somewhere near Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold, seeing what he could do about raising a revolt. He hasn't been heard from in about a week.

Even when word filtered out that Haq had been captured, few among those who had urged him to action figured that he would be killed.

"I think the Taliban will think twice before messing with him, because if they do that, they're messing with his tribe," said a Western diplomat in the region who closely follows Afghanistan.

Within an hour of that remark came news: The Taliban had executed Haq.

It was a painful lesson, not only for his family but for the leaders who shared his goals and had been talking tough only days earlier.

"The Taliban has used this assassination as a warning," said Ahmed Rashid, a Haq friend and the Pakistani author of Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia. "It is an example to others."

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