In Pakistani Border City, Anger Meets Threats of War
Afghan Refugees Pledge to Defend Country They Fled
By Pamela Constable
_____ Update _____
Pro-Taliban Pakistanis Call for Demonstrations
Reuters at 11:23 AM
LAHORE, PakistanPro-Taliban Pakistani groups called Monday for demonstrations across the country after Friday's Muslim prayers to oppose any U.S. attack on Afghanistan.
"The American attacks are a conspiracy and we should not fall into this trap," Qazi Hussain Ahmed, leader of Jamaat-i-Islami, the country's largest Islamic political party, told a gathering of the heads of all key pro-Taliban groups.
The gathering voted unanimously for a strike across Pakistan on Sept. 21 to protest against widely expected U.S. retaliation on Afghanistan's ruling Taliban for sheltering Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden, who was named the key suspect in last week's terror attacks on the United States.
"We should send a message to the government that if you make a wrong choice you will face the wrath of the people," said Fazlur Rehman of Jamait Ulema Islam, a movement that set up religious schools where many senior members of the Taliban studied.
"And we should also send a message to the U.S. that such an attack... would be a declaration of war on the entire Muslim world," Rehman said.
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 17, 2001; Page A11
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Sept. 16 -- There are four times more Afghans than Pakistanis in this rugged frontier city, 35 miles from the Afghan border. The lingua franca is not Pakistani Urdu, but Afghan Pashto. Many women wear head-to-toe veils, and many men are veterans of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Pistols and assault rifles are sold in open markets.
If war comes again to Afghanistan, which seems increasingly likely as battle lines harden between the United States and the Afghan Taliban movement that harbors terrorism suspect Osama bin Laden, it will almost certainly come here, too.
In Peshawar's conservative madrassahs, the religious academies that spawned the Taliban movement, Islamic clerics are leading a call to arms against the United States and preparing their older students to take up arms in the name of defending Allah and Afghanistan.
"We are not afraid of death. We will defend our country with whatever we have. If the American planes come, even if I have only a stone in my hand, I will throw it at the sky," Saied ul-Rifeen, a religious leader at the Rahatgul madrassah, vowed today as a dozen college-aged religious students nodded in eager agreement.
In the shabby urban refugee camps where two generations of Afghans have sought refuge from conflict and hardship, many people say they disagree with the harsh interpretation of Islam that the Taliban has imposed on most of Afghanistan and do not want to live under it. Even so, some of them say they would rush back to defend their homeland against a U.S. assault.
"The Taliban are good Muslims but bad rulers. They are hard-liners who rule Afghanistan by force. But this is a matter of principle. If the Americans attack, it is our duty to defend our country," said Noor Agha, 35, a carpenter in Kachagurai Camp who fought against the Soviets as a teenager. "Our country has already suffered 23 years of war, and now it seems America wants to destroy it."
A teeming city of 1 million that is home to hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees and numerous rival factions, Peshawar in many ways resembles the dusty cities of Afghanistan. Horse-drawn carts ply its narrow lanes, dilapidated mosques sit on many corners, and pedestrians of both sexes wear the flowing robes of Muslim tradition.
Peshawar has long been strategically linked to events in Afghanistan, serving in the 1980s as a launching pad for the U.S.- and Pakistan-backed Afghan resistance against the occupying Soviet army, and later as a crucial conduit for trade and refugees fleeing the years of civil strife that followed.
Now, as U.S. pressure mounts on Pakistan to cooperate in plans to hunt down bin Laden and possible military strikes against Afghanistan, the ominous repercussions beginning to spread in Peshawar could presage a devastating confrontation between this country's conservative Islamic forces and its modern, secular state.
In the newer, makeshift refugee camps surrounding Peshawar, foreign aid workers with the United Nations and other relief agencies were withdrawn last week as a precaution in case a U.S. attack were launched and foreigners were singled out for retaliation.
At the Khyber Pass, the narrow entryway into Afghanistan less than an hour's drive east, thousands of Afghan families reportedly have been trying to flee into Pakistan in the past few days. Mohammad Omar, the Taliban's reclusive leader, asked the Afghan people in a radio address last week to remain calm and prepare themselves to die "in the way of Allah," a fate many would prefer to escape.
"Everyone back home is asking when the cruise missiles will come," said Manocher, 20, a student who said he had just helped his uncle and cousins flee into Pakistan and plans to return to bring out his parents and other relatives. "My family is lucky because we have travel documents, but many poor people have no way to escape."
The United States has asked Pakistan to seal the border and stop all fuel trade with the Taliban, and for now most new Afghan refugees are being turned back under an agreement between Pakistan and Taliban authorities.
But that official relationship is rapidly crumbling as bilateral tensions mount. The Taliban has threatened to attack Pakistan, once its principal international ally, if it collaborates with the United States. In the past two days, Pakistan has withdrawn its ambassador to Kabul, the Afghan capital, and frozen the assets of known Taliban figures in Pakistan.
If the mounting tensions translate into chaos on the border, with refugees struggling to flee and Taliban militiamen distracted by defense preparations and no longer under orders to cooperate with their Pakistani counterparts, international aid officials warn that a huge wave of Afghans could soon burst through.
Even before last week's attacks on the United States, relations among Afghans in Peshawar were uneasy and riven by political divisions. While many religious leaders here are ardent Taliban supporters, the community is also home to followers of the Northern Alliance, the Afghan opposition force fighting against Taliban rule, and of Zahir Shah, the Afghan king who was deposed in 1973 and now lives in Italy. Some Afghans here expressed deep concern that if military conflict breaks out between the Taliban and U.S. forces, it would unleash uncontrollable political violence in Peshawar, too.
"We are suffering from a suffocating atmosphere because of these religious people. The mullahs have taken the stage here, and there are no other ideological or political leaders who have such close contact with the masses," said Behroz Khan, a journalist of Afghan descent in Peshawar. "If these people are pushed to the wall, it could lead to the dismemberment of Pakistan."
This afternoon, more than 2,000 demonstrators from conservative Islamic groups rallied in the streets of Peshawar, chanting "Long live Osama" and "Down with America." They demanded that the Pakistani government refuse to assist the United States in any military operation against Afghanistan, and they declared they would raise their own army to defend the Taliban.
But others expressed the fearful hope that if a U.S. attack has to come, it will eliminate the Taliban as well as bin Laden, curb the oppressive social and religious influence of pro-Taliban clerics in Peshawar and sweep in a new, moderate government in Kabul, led either by the king or by a broad-based coalition.
"If the Americans attack Afghanistan, I will be very happy," said Abdul Zahid, 50, a former teacher from Kabul who now runs a jewelry shop in Peshawar. "Osama has brought only trouble to our country, and the Taliban have taken away all our values and our education. I worry for my relatives who are still living there, but I think this may be our last chance to bring back peace."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company
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