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Pakistani Volunteers Join Taleban Forces - 2001-11-07

Thousands of armed tribesmen from Pakistan have crossed into neighboring Afghanistan to join the ruling Taleban in what they call a holy war. The Pakistani government is opposed to its nationals going into Afghanistan illegally, but is unable to stop people crossing from the semi-autonomous tribal areas along the border.

With one hand on a Kalashnikov assault rifle and another hand punching the air, Amir Jan says he is leaving his family to join Afghanistan's Taleban in its Jihad or holy war against the United States.

He says their war will continue even if America stops its military operation.

Mr. Jan is one of more than 1,000 Pakistani tribesmen that made the treacherous journey over Ghakhi Pass on this day.

Armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, small machine guns, rocket launchers, swords, axes, and locally-made shotguns, these tribesmen range in age from 16 to 70. Almost none have military training, but most are familiar with using a gun.

A handful of Pakistani security personnel at the nearly 2,000 meter high border post lack the power to stop the self-proclaimed holy warriors from crossing into Afghanistan.

They come from Bajaur, a border region in northern Pakistan, where fever of "holy war" has swept through virtually every house. The militant mood appears to be growing daily as the U.S. led military attacks intensify against the Taleban, which shelters Osama bin Laden.

Outside a main Madrassa, a religious school, local leader Ahmed Khan is teaching more would-be warriors how to use Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers.

He tells them they have picked up these weapons to defend the Islamic Taleban and defeat the Americans.

Within the walls, the head of the school proudly displayed huge bags of gold and silver jewelry, thousands of wristwatches, quilts, and blankets handed over by local families eager to help the Taleban.

Many of the tribesmen are supporters of a popular hard-line religious group, Tehrike-e-Nifaz-e-Shariaf Mohammadi, that demands implementation of Islamic laws in the rugged mountainous region. Its leader, Maulana Soofi Mohammed, is in Afghanistan to win permission from the Taleban to send in his armed followers.

The Taleban had been blocking their entry, saying they would need additional fighters only after the U.S. led coalition landed ground troops in Afghanistan. But Taleban ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef says the Pakistani fighters are now being welcomed. "We do not want to break their emotions," he said. "For that reason, we allowed them to go to Afghanistan because they are anxious to go and we have allowed them to go."

Pakistan has little control over Bajaur and six other tribal regions. In those regions most people's loyalties lie with the Afghan Taleban rulers, not the leadership in Pakistan.

Tribal area residents are heavily armed and fiercely independent, having mainly their own laws. They share a language, ethnicity and Islamic ideology with the Taleban.

Nasir Shah is a locally elected political leader. He says attempts by authorities to stop the pro-Taleban militants can lead to serious trouble. "I do not think they can stop them because [Tehrike-e-Nifaz-e-Shariaf Mohammadi leader] Maulana Soofi Mohammed has issued a declaration that whenever the government functionaries try to stop you, shoot them," he said. "So it is impossible for the government to stop them."

Since the U.S. led bombing campaign began last month, Pakistan has closed its more than 2,000 kilometer border with Afghanistan to restrict cross border movement. But it has proved virtually impossible in the tribal areas along a lengthy stretch of the frontier.

20 year old Ziaul Haq has just returned from a week-long stay in the Afghan city of Jalalabad. He says Pakistani volunteers and Taleban commanders are devising a strategy to defend against a possible ground assault by American forces.

Mr. Haq says he and his comrades face little danger of being stopped by border guards at Ghakhi check post. If the guards do so, he says, the tribesmen will wage a holy war against them.