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Taleban Students Remain Committed To Afghan Leader Despite Bombing - 2001-10-26

It is not known how many Afghan fighters have died in U.S. led military strikes against targets in Afghanistan, but volunteers from religious schools in neighboring Pakistan appear ready to join the Taleban. The campaign against terrorism has not caused the rank and file to desert Afghanistan's ruling Taleban movement.

Drawing boys from mostly impoverished families and Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, some of the Islamic schools offer a curriculum heavy on the Koran, the Muslim holy book.

The seminaries such as Madrassa Haqania are also recruiting grounds for militant Islamic groups seeking passionate young fighters. It is located near the border town of Peshawar and is run by a leading Pakistani Islamic leader, Samiul Haq.

The school proudly displays a list of its favorite graduates, including some of the senior leaders of the ruling Taleban movement in neighboring Afghanistan.

Last week, Mr. Haq handed out certificates of graduation to more than 1,000 students at an annual ceremony in Haqania.

The ceremony marked a milestone in the life of the young students, who range from late teens to mid-20's. Their heads were draped in the new white turban bestowed on graduates. Raising their hands in the air under posters of Osama bin Laden, these religious students vowed to cross into Afghanistan to join the fight against the United States.

Addressing the gathering, the head of the school, Samiul Haq, condemned U.S. led forces for bombing Afghanistan.

Mr. Haq told the gathering that God has taken revenge by inflicting anthrax on the Americans who are trying to kill Taleban leader Mullah Omar and accused terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Mr. Haq was referring to letters containing anthrax germs that have been mailed by a terrorist in the United States. Three people are known to have died as a result of the mail attacks.

The ceremony had some young men weeping with fervor as another speaker prayed that God would punish oppressors.

More tears came as the cleric evoked the struggle of Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taleban movement.

The U.S. military campaign against the Taleban is meant to force the surrender of Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in last month's terror attacks on U.S. cities and the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

After nearly three-weeks of bombing, the Taleban says its forces are still intact, Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden are both alive, and the accused terrorist will not be surrendered.

Despite claims by Afghan opposition forces of mass Taleban defections, there is little evidence to show that the Taleban is disintegrating. Analysts say this is because loyalty to leader Omar is the fundamental principle of the Taleban movement.

Rasool Bakhsh Raais is professor at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University. "I would say that Mullah Omar is the critical element in the Taleban movement, keeping this movement together. Once he is out, I do not think that another leader within the Taleban movement will be able to gather support, maintain coherence and unity of the (Taleban) movement.

Another factor holding together the Taleban ranks is the lack of a political alternative in a post-Taleban Afghanistan.

Mushahid Hussain is a foreign policy expert in Islamabad. "Unless there is a viable political alternative that has support both from the West and Pakistan, then only we may see some unraveling in the Taleban ranks. But so far that has not happened," he said. "And secondly, I think that the Taleban historically, they are Afghans, they are fighters. Seeing war and battling modern technology is not something new to their ethos and culture. So it is like a people who have nothing much really to lose."

Analysts say the enthusiasm of the students who support Mullah Omar's movement in Islamic schools, such as Haqania, could provide the Taleban with a crucial source of support in fighting a guerrilla war. This could make it difficult for a post-Taleban administration to govern and bring stability to the war-shattered country.