`Arab-Afghans' facing bitter defeat

Trapped in Kunduz and unwanted at home, fighters seek a way out

War On Terrorism

The World

November 20, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

Down a narrow, dusty road in the village of Hijrat Kale in northwestern Pakistan lies the final resting place of more than 30 foreign soldiers who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

They had traveled from the Arab and Muslim world to help defeat the Russians, only to end up beneath mud mounds miles from home.

Today, some of their spiritual descendants - a second generation of "Arab-Afghans" - are reportedly trapped with their Taliban compatriots in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz trying to avoid the same fate. Pounded by U.S. bombers and surrounded by the opposition Northern Alliance, the Arab-Afghans have nowhere to go.

Kunduz may become a bitter defeat for the Arab-Afghans, an international Islamic fighting force that first emerged in the mid-1980s as the product of a joint covert venture between Saudi, Pakistani and American intelligence agencies.

Saudi charities and Islamic radicals recruited them to fight a holy war against the Soviet Union, which had invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Pakistani embassies throughout the Middle East issued visas for all prospective soldiers, no questions asked.

The CIA, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars financing the war, was delighted to have the help. The foreign forces supplemented the Afghan rebels, known as the mujahedeen. They also provided legitimacy to the notion that the Afghan struggle was a religious battle against the Soviet Union and not just an anti-Communist, proxy war managed by the United States.

Recruits arrived in Islamabad, then traveled to the border city of Peshawar, where exiled Afghan political parties operated.

Though estimates vary, between 1982 and 1992 as many as 35,000 Muslims from 43 countries fought in Afghanistan, according to journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia.

Recruits hailed from Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Algeria, Kuwait, China, Egypt and Uzbekistan. Among them was a Saudi student named Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden used some of the fortune of his father, a Yemeni construction tycoon, to help fund the war.

"Osama was one of their brilliant finds," said retired Brig. Mohammed Yusuf, who funneled weapons from the CIA to the mujahedeen in the mid-1980s when he oversaw Afghan policy for the Pakistani intelligence service. "I remember [CIA operatives] used to laugh at the fact that he was spending his own money doing their job."

The CIA, however, apparently failed to foresee the problems that a large force of well-trained Islamic fighters might cause. When the Soviet army retreated in 1989, the United States considered its mission accomplished and lost interest in Afghan affairs.

Some Arab-Afghans fought on in Afghanistan to defeat the Soviet puppet government. Others headed home or elsewhere and put their skills to use.

Some went on to fight in Chechnya against the Russians and in Bosnia-Herzegovina against the Bosnian Serbs. In Algeria, they helped spark a four-year insurgency.

Soon, they turned on their former benefactor, the United States. After the Persian Gulf war, many militant Muslims were furious with the continued presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's most holy shrines, Mecca and Medina. In 1993, Afghan-trained terrorists engineered the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York.

By this time, a second generation of Islamic militants had begun arriving in Afghanistan to learn terrorist tactics in preparation for a global holy war. The rise of the Taliban in 1994 attracted more recruits. Among them were thousands of Pakistani students from religious schools.

The Pakistani government continued to encourage the training of militants, in part because the camps produced Muslim soldiers to fight India in the disputed mountain region of Kashmir.

Bin Laden, who had left Afghanistan in the early 1990s, returned in 1996. He continued to recruit as he had in the 1980s. In 1997, he took over the Arab-Afghan forces, though the Pakistanis remained under separate command.

After the Taliban took control of most of the country, bin Laden forged a friendship with their leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. Arab-Afghans joined the Taliban forces and are widely regarded as among their fiercest fighters.

While Afghans sometimes switch sides and cut deals, as they have in the past week during the Taliban's rapid retreat, the Arabs have proved to be fervent ideologues.

"The Afghans usually don't like to charge," said Olivier Roy, a political scientist in Paris who has studied Afghanistan for three decades. "They fight in positions, they negotiate, but very rarely do they go in with a bayonet against the enemy.

"The Arabs do that. They were used as a first wave to attack posts or to fight in minefields. They are fanatics."

The Taliban are cornered in Kunduz and Kandahar. The Arab-Afghans there are rapidly running out of room. The Northern Alliance and many Afghans view them as murderous interlopers. Their home countries don't want them because of their penchant for fomenting violence.

If the Taliban retreat from Kandahar into the southern Afghan mountains, the Arabs-Afghans there may join them and try to wage a guerrilla war. Those in Kunduz, though, are in a far tighter spot.

"They will be killed or mediation could help them to get out alive," said Roy. "But the problem is, what to do after that."

Wire services contributed to this article.

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