A radicalized ideology from Pakistan is threatening our troops
ADNAN R. KHANJanuary12007
The war in Afghanistan has reached a gruesome stage. Since the axe attack on Capt. Trevor Greene on March 4, 2006, which left the Canadian soldier in a medically induced coma for 20 days, Canadian troops have begun to face an enemy that seems to know no bounds in its ability to strike at its adversary. That attack, in essence, was a suicide mission: the assailant entered a village filled with armed soldiers and struck the blow with the full knowledge that he would not come out alive (he was shot 14 times). But in cold military terms, that was a tactical shift: the Taliban, unlike their insurgent counterparts in the war in Iraq, were not famous for suicide missions. Evidently, the ideology of the Taliban is changing, and along with it the brutality of their tactics.
Suicide attacks have never been the Afghan way. As some Taliban militants told Maclean's in the past, they consider suicide a cowardly act. But there’s been a spike in suicide bombings in Afghanistan over the past year, with a series of attacks in Kandahar that have killed 10 Canadian soldiers and wounded more than a dozen. Imported militants were previously thought to be behind the incidents. But the tactic appears to be gaining favour among the Taliban. And that, almost certainly, indicates an intensification of militant Islamic ideology—killing oneself for a cause is as much an ideological statement as it is an act of violence.
Why is this form of radicalism, previously alien to the Taliban, gaining ground? That is a question that Canadian Forces, who face a constant barrage of explosives-laden humans and vehicles, must ask themselves, because such an ideology is as much a danger to them as the bombings themselves. In part, the answer lies somewhere in the untameable Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the other side of the Afghan-Pakistan border. The region’s inhabitants are Pashtuns, as are the people of Kandahar. Ideas flow back and forth, as do militants Afghan President Hamid Karzai has charged that the Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan are getting substantial aid from their brethren in the tribal areas. That help is both physical and ideological: here, in this wild frontier region, are the unmonitored religious schools that fuse an acidic mix of tribal codes and uninformed Islamic edicts into a potent mix. And it is fuelling not only the current crop of insurgents, but also infecting the minds of their youth—the next generation of fighters.
That the Taliban is placing a premium on education is evident in one of the group’s most recent announcements: a set of 30 new rules signed by their reclusive leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, and distributed to commanders in September and October. These target education directly. “It is forbidden to work as a teacher under the current [Afghan] puppet regime,” one rule states. “True Muslims should apply to study with a religiously trained teacher and study in a mosque or similar institution. Textbooks must come from the period of the jihad or from the Taliban regime.” Any teachers who defy this edict are to be first warned, then beaten and then, if they fail to comply, killed. So far in 2006, 20 teachers have fallen victim to the Taliban’s ideological war, while 198 schools have been destroyed.
Since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, operating the sorts of religious schools in Afghanistan that Omar is calling for has become difficult. But such education is readily available, for both Afghan adults and youth, in schools across the border in the tribal areas. Although Pakistani authorities have tried to clamp down on the numbers of Afghans seeking religious education in their country, many still manage to attend these institutions, called madrasas, before returning home to spread the word through their local mosques. And these schools provide a glimpse into the ideology that is driving the Taliban, and how that ideology is becoming even more militant—to the point of sanctioning what was previously anathema to many Taliban fighters: suicide bombings.
In these madrasas, learning is restricted to a tribally motivated interpretation of the Koran and the Hadith (traditions containing sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). “There’s no other thing here,” says Maulana Abdul Kareem, the 42-year-old leader of the Hamza mosque and madrasa in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s mainly Pashtun North West Frontier Province bordering the FATA. “No television, no Internet, only the Koran. So when the students leave here, that’s the message they bring. That is all they know.” The Hamza mosque follows the Salafi branch of Sunni Islam, the ultra-conservative sect associated with al-Qaeda, whose rigid and literal interpretation of the Koran is often cited as the backbone of Islamic militancy. The creed first gained a foothold in the tribal areas in the 1980s, when the Saudis funded the establishment of schools that helped fuel the mujahedeen struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It waned during the Afghan civil war and the subsequent Taliban era; in spite of the fact that the Taliban harboured Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, their form of Islam was always much more insular and less concerned with global jihad. But since 9/11 and the subsequent NATO invasion of Afghanistan, Salafism has again begun to flourish. And its call for a global holy war is now resonating among the Pashtuns.
That is in part due to the perception that the enemy has changed. The struggle against the Soviets was in large part a nationalistic battle against a foreign invader. Now, however, Islam itself appears to be under siege. In the insular, xenophobic world of the Pashtuns, what little is known about international developments—the U.S.-sponsored war on terror, the war in Iraq, the ongoing occupation by Israel of Palestinian territories—only adds to a perception that a Judeo-Christian axis is working to destroy their religion. And the Salafists hammer home that message, in part with a virulent anti-Semitism. “When I come on a passage in the Koran against Jews,” says Kareem, “I translate it for the students and then I explain it. I tell them the Koran teaches us that Jews are the enemy of Islam.”
In the madrasas, this theme of an outside war against Islam has been taken up by many of the mullahs, even the ones who consider themselves moderate. According to them, Muslims must engage in the great jihad for the survival of Islam against a coalition of infidels. “The foreigner presence in Afghanistan is a test from God for true Muslims,” says Qari Urahman Saeed, a 29-year-old teacher at the moderate Madni mosque in Peshawar. “Those who support the foreigners are against Islam. It is a Muslim’s duty to fight them.” While Saeed insists that he does not encourage his students to go and fight in Afghanistan, the logic of his teaching would leave no doubt in any student’s mind as to what is the required course of action. “Jihad,” says Saeed, “is the duty of every Muslim. The war in Afghanistan is a valid jihad.”
That is the new and more militant ideology being taught in the schools, and exported to Afghanistan with ever-bloodier tactics. How can it be fought? Confronting the source is a Pakistani problem, but it’s not an easy task: as many as 300 madrasas currently operate in the tribal areas, the vast majority of them integrated into mosques that provide an institutional cover for their activities. And the numbers are growing. “All mosques have a madrasa,” says Tor Ali Khan, a 25-year-old Afghan graduate of the religious school system. “Not just in the tribal areas but all over Pakistan.”
Keeping track of each school, in some of the most remote and unfriendly places on the planet, is something Pakistani authorities are struggling to do. Under international pressure to curb the surge in radicalism on their soil, they have started registering these madrasas, monitoring their curricula and shutting down those that pursue a violent agenda. But they face an ideological Hydra in that fight: as soon as one school is closed, another opens up in a new location, often, says Khan, in a private home away from the eyes of the authorities.
“The government is worried about these schools,” says Abdul Kareem of the Hamza mosque in Peshawar. “They don’t want us to teach hatred.” Teachers have subsequently become fearful of talking publicly about jihad or anything political, forcing the ideology underground. But in private, many of them remain defiant. “If the government destroys all madrasas,” says Saeed, “it will not stop us from teaching the holy Koran.” Others have turned their anger into outright support for the Taliban, whom they see as fellow Pashtuns bound by the same tribal codes as themselves.
“Pashtuns will not tolerate outsiders telling them what to do,” says Iqbal Khattak, Peshawar bureau chief for the Daily News, one of Pakistan’s leading newspapers. “They will not be ruled. The harder you push them, the more violently they will push back.” This, according to Khattak, a Pashtun himself, is where Pakistan has learned its lesson, and where NATO and the U.S. have some serious soul-searching to do. A series of peace deals with the agencies of the tribal areas, first in April 2004 in South Waziristan, then again on Sept. 5 of this year between the Pakistani government and elders in North Waziristan, points to a long-term strategy adopted by the Musharraf government to deal with militancy in the region. Those agreements, which ended bloody confrontations between Pakistani troops and the tribals, coupled with registration and oversight of madrasas as well as economic development in tribal country, is what authorities believe will bring the region under control.
But the U.S. isn’t buying it. “America no longer trusts Pakistan,” says Barrister Baachaa, a lawyer with the Peshawar High Court Bar Association. “They believe, rightly or wrongly, that Pakistan’s security agencies are in league with the Taliban.” Pointing to a rise in attacks in Afghan regions that border North and South Waziristan in the weeks and months following the signing of the peace agreements, some regional observers and U.S. military personnel have condemned any truce in the tribal areas as a victory for the Taliban. But the Pakistanis see no other way out. Their military campaign against the Pashtun tribals ended in a stalemate. Moreover, it only served to reinforce the deep-rooted tribal allegiance that is a cornerstone of the Pashtun code.
A more recent attempt at extending the truce illustrates the precarious relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. On Oct. 30, another agreement was slated to be signed between the government and elders in the Bajaur Tribal Agency, the northernmost region in tribal country where, the U.S. claims, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second in command, may be hiding. On that same morning, a local madrasa was bombed and 82 people, mostly teenage boys, were killed. The Pakistani government, which said the school was a terrorist training camp, claimed its own military carried out the attack. Later investigations, however, showed that the site was, indeed, a school headed by an extremist cleric named Maulvi Liaquat, and that it was the Americans who had carried out the bombing, as an adviser to President Pervez Musharraf acknowledged.
The purpose of that attack, observers say, was twofold: first to undermine the peace process, which it did (the agreement was never signed), and second to warn tribal religious leaders of the consequences of teaching militant ideology in their schools. “The message the Americans sent with that attack,” says Baachaa, who led a fact-finding mission to the site, “is that this kind of religious education will not be tolerated. The Bush administration believes that it must end so-called religious fundamentalism among the Pashtun people. It believes it can control fundamentalism elsewhere—in Saudi Arabia, for example—but not in the tribal areas, and this is the greatest threat to world peace.”
But the net result of that attack was to further alienate the tribals and to feed the flames of revenge, another immutable element in the Pashtun tribal code. Villagers at the site have rallied around the incident as evidence that the Judeo-Christian axis is out to destroy Islam. “This is a war for the survival of Muslims,” says one, refusing to provide a name for fear of government reprisals. “If the Americans think this will make us afraid, they are wrong. Death in defence of our religion is the best way to die.”
For Canadian troops in Kandahar, the Bajaur attack came at a time when their own ideological efforts in Afghanistan are critically important. But the hearts-and-minds battle our soldiers are waging there—building roads, schools and relationships with the local community—does little to confront the ideological mill churning out more fighters and suicide bombers across the border in Pakistan. Being part of an infidel army makes Canadians culpable, even subject to the Pashtun tribal code of revenge, when a madrasa like the one in Bajaur is attacked and students killed. Our soldiers are fighting not only insurgents, but an ideology, but while the fight against that ideology is likely to shape the future of the war in Afghanistan, Canadian Forces have little say in how that battle will be fought. They will, however, inevitably face its consequences. *
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