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Taliban Retreat Dampens Islamic Extremist Movement

by Muddassir Rizvi

Key Afghan Ethnic Group Remains Wildcard
(IPS) ISLAMABAD -- Ali Khan is disappointed at the fall of the Taliban militia last week, which allowed the opposition Northern Alliance to simply walk into the Afghan capital Kabul and other Afghan cities and take control of the war-ravaged country.

A Pashtun by race and a former Pakistani naval officer, Ali Khan was considering joining the war in support of what he called his "Pashtun brethren" against the U.S.-led attacks against Afghanistan and any foreign invasion thereafter.

But last week's ouster of the Taliban -- which termed it a strategic retreat -- has changed his opinion about the courage and determination of the students' militia, which he now thinks was blown "out of proportion."

"My heart is still with the Taliban and I worry about their safety, but I, like so many other people, am disappointed at the way they decided to retreat. What was the point of defending if they had to walk out? They could have simply stepped down in the first place to avoid the killing of hundreds of innocent people in the American bombing," Ali Khan said.

Ali is not alone in feeling disappointed. The Taliban retreat has dampened the fervor over the so-called jihad that had gripped Pakistan in the wake of the Sep. 11 terror attacks in the U.S. and subsequent military ambitions of Washington.

"The Taliban retreat is demoralizing for their supporters throughout the Islamic world," said Mauladad, a member of the right-wing Jamaat-i-Islami party, who works as a driver with a non-governmental organization in Islamabad. "I have started to wonder if the Taliban claims of resistance were as hollow as those of (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein," he added.

The quick decline of the Taliban from the Afghan political scene has also quieted the right-wing religious parties and extremist Islamic groups, which had challenged the military government of President Pervez Musharraf for supporting Washington and had vowed to topple it through brute force.

After staging violent countrywide protest rallies and successful pro-Taliban strikes, the religious parties are now resorting to non-violent ways of protest directed at the government.

Their pro-Taliban jihad calls have been converted into more political anti-government rhetoric. They are now resorting to issuing press statements to condemn the government for what they call the "debacle" of its Afghan policy that allowed the Northern Alliance -- which Pakistan is deeply wary of -- to be at the helm of affairs in Kabul.

"The Taliban retreat is a strategic move. They are now preparing to wage a long guerrilla-style war," was the half-hearted comment by Munawwar Hassan, the acting chief of Jamaat-i-Islami. "The Afghan policy of the military government has given Afghanistan to a pro-India government," he added.

He believes that a Northern Alliance-dominated administration in Afghanistan is a pro-India one, because New Delhi favors the alliance and is suspicious of the Taliban. In contrast, rival Pakistan is closer to the Pashun-dominated Taliban and is wary of the Northern Alliance, which is made up largely of non-Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan.

For its part, the Council for the Defence of Afghanistan and Pakistan -- the umbrella organization of 22 religious parties and jihadist groups formed after Sep. 11 -- is finding it difficult to face the public.

"There is no turning back in jihad"
While some of its leaders have called for immediate halt to American bombardment now that the Taliban have fallen, the sting and bitterness of their calls are all but gone.

The religious parties that make up the council are now trying to find their place in the country's mainstream politics at a time when their traditional patron -- the Pakistani military -- is taking practical steps toward its moderate transformation to gain greater acceptability by the world community.

Most of these religious parties had idealized Taliban rule in neighboring Afghanistan and had in the past demanded a similar fundamentalist Islamic system in Pakistan.

But after the collapse of their source of inspiration in the past week, these parties are now looking for more "politically correct" options to ensure their political role in the post-Taliban scenario.

Now, the council says, it plans to send delegations of leading religious scholars to countries in the region to seek their support for peaceful and permanent settlement of the long-standing Afghan crisis.

"The leading religious scholars of Pakistan as well as some eminent religious scholars from Arab countries would visit the neighboring countries of Afghanistan and other regional states to seek help in resolving the Afghan imbroglio," said a member of the council.

The council has, however, decided to continue its half-hearted opposition to the military government's cooperation with Washington, maintaining that the Taliban's fall in Afghanistan is temporary and its retreat well-thought-out.

However, many fail to see the logic of claims by religious parties and the Taliban that the withdrawal was strategic -- although at the same time, some say it was the rational thing to do to stop the aerial bombardment and unequal battle against the world's main superpower.

"Now it appears that its (student militia's) military strength was more of an inflated balloon than real firepower with any policy, strategy or tactical depth," said an editorial comment in the Islamabad-based English language daily The News this week.

"They (the Taliban) could have proven a force to be reckoned with if the American troops were on the ground, but they were just helpless to aerial attacks, which were also causing massive civilian casualties," said an expert on Afghan affairs who works with the government-run Institute of Strategic Studies.

"If they had continued with their stubbornness, there would have been massive defections within their ranks and they would have even lost the support, however small, of the Pashtun-speaking populace as they were the ones being killed in the bombings," he added.

Already, there have been press reports that Pashtun tribes along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan are annoyed with the way the Taliban evaporated from the scene. They are now worried about their men, who had gone inside Afghanistan in the last two months to fight alongside the student militia.

"We demanded the government take action against all those who instigated our children to join jihad," said a statement by the relatives of jihadists whose whereabouts are now not known.

Some jihadists who safely returned to their homes after the Taliban fell say that the student militia sent the foreign volunteers to the frontlines.

"A majority of Pakistanis had been sent to Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz to reinforce the Taliban frontlines, which were getting weaker as a result of the Northern Alliance push and American bombing. But we were still in a position to continue the defense of these cities when the Taliban leadership decided to pull back," one jihadist who returned to his home in Hangu town in the North West Frontier Province was quoted as saying by a local news agency.

Hangu was the site of violent pro-Taliban protests and has so far received 19 bodies of Pakistani fighters killed in Afghanistan.

Even the Tehrik Nifaz Shariat Mohammadi (Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law), which mobilized 15,000 armed men for the war in Afghanistan, has blamed the Taliban for its "irresponsible attitude."

"There is no turning back in jihad. Either you achieve martyrdom or victory. The Taliban could have and should have continued their fight until the last drop of blood, as they had been promising," argued Ahmer Ghazi of the Tehreek group, whose chief Sufi Mohammad returned to Pakistan from Afghanistan earlier this week along with hundreds of supporters.

But amid the sense of gloom gripping the religious right, the government is in a jubilant mood, celebrating its gains in the Afghan gamble.

"Pakistan has earned a lot on the diplomatic front. Now the country is on the road to economic progress, as it is working on debt relief, budgetary support and market access programs," Musharraf told the governors of district governments on Nov. 19.

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Albion Monitor November 26, 2001 (

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