The Lawless Of Arabia
1 July 2001
Kabul: An abusive Arabic phrase- La'anat Ullah Alal Kafrin (curse of Gods on infidels)- was the spontaneous response from a group of four Arab youth when their eyes met mine. We were in a restaurant located in a relatively posh neighbourhood of Kabul. They attracted my attention when I overheard them conversing in Arabic. All in their mid-twenties, they were seated on a carpet partaking from the dishes placed before them on a low table (the traditional manner of dining in an average Afghan restaurant). The bitterness in their tone and expression was plain as they uttered the execration.
From physical appearance to attitudes, there is little tolerance for anything perceived as western in character. Evidently, it was my western attire that had irked these young Arabs and they continued to glance at me with ill-disguised contempt until they left the restaurant.
The number of non-afghan militants in Afghanistan has increased significantly in recent years. Often it is only their language and the green military jacket they often sport that distinguishes them from other Afghans. There are some Arabs, however, with distinctly darker complexions. Most of the Arab militants are in their 20s, an age particularly susceptible to a fanatical embracing of causes, and the grim expression they seem to perpetually wear reflects the profound influence it has on their lives. In Pakistan, these mujahideen are lauded as heroes by religious groups who espouse the jihadi credo; in Afghanistan they enjoy virtual immunity under the Taliban regime, which considers them its comrades-in- arms, God's soldiers dedicated to kill and die in His name. They are often collectively known as Osama Bin Laden's followers, although some belongs to Arab groups other than Osama's Al-Qaida, declared a terrorist organization by the US.
Some of the staff at the restaurant confided in me that although Arabs are their regular customer, they are feared by everyone. "They flaunt their weapons and are prone to violent bursts of temper," said a one-time banker, who is now employed as a waiter in the restaurant. The arabs are evidently above the law so harshly enforced by the Taliban in the areas of Afghanistan under their control. According to the another restaurant employee, "They often create trouble in the streets, beating people up over trivial things and misbehaving with shopkeepers and taxi drivers. Despite this, the Taliban always take their side instead of protecting the citizens in any dispute."
This view of the Arabs seems to be shared by other Kabulis, and there is no dearth of complaints about the Arabs. An Afghan acquaintance related how one of his friend was nearly killed when an Arab stabbed him because he tried to make him desist from teasing a female passerby. Refusal to pay house rents is another common complaint against the Arab. "I rented out my house in Shehr-e-Naw to a group them about 11 months back but only received three month's rent" disclosed a trader. "Whenever I approached them for the outstanding amount, they threatened me with dire consequences." He added, "In response to my compliant, the Kabul administration advised me to settle the dispute with them. There are many others like me who have lost their property to these Arabs." The Arab involvement in Afghanistan's ongoing civil war adds to the resentment against them. "I want them to go back to their own country; they come here to compound our miseries by fuelling the war; we are so fed up this war," said 20-year-old technical college student.
International jihadi groups are accused of instigating a new wave of terror among western relief workers and United Nations (UN) staff in Kabul. Sizeable numbers of them have been shifted to the neighbourhoods of Shehr-e-Naw and Wazir Akbar Khan- relatively upmarket the areas even in a city or in camps away from the Araban centre, the entire western expartriate community in Kabul now resides in and works out of office located in the two areas of the city. Neverthless, at least one group of international jihad's is based near virtually every important foreign mission in Kabul. The Arabs first surfaced in these vicinities following the missile attack on Osama's bases in Afghanistan in 1998. "Their presence here seems a deliberate tactic to use us as a shield, in case there is a similar attempt to dislodge them from Afghanistan," maintain a senior UN official. " I consider them more dangerous than the Taliban because of their unrelenting hatred of the west and non-muslim. They have been brainwashed into thinking there is no sin in killing non-muslim; they are very well-trained killers with modern weapons; they are linked with international terrorist networks and, what's more, they are now living in our neighbourhoods, watching our every move," said another UN official belonging to a European country. "They have become a state within a state; even the Taliban commanders refrain from interfering in their affairs," a medical aid worker maintained. "We are always discouraged by the Taliban from going into the war zones where Arabs militants operate." According to another UN official, the Arabs are becoming increasingly belligerent towards westerners. "I go jogging every morning in front of my house in Wazir Akbar Khan, but never faced any problem until a few week ago when a Toyota picked up with a groups Arabs inside appeared on the scene. They drove the vehicle at the great speed towards me and missed me by a few inches. The fact this occurred on three consecutive days confirms that it was no accident," he said.
Some expatriate women also complain the humiliation they are subjected to by the Arabs. "I don't feel secure walking on the the street of Kabul. Their menacing looks follow us everywhere," said a lady doctor working with a aid agency. Another female relief worker angrily related how two Arab youth spat on her car when she was passing through Kabul's well-known Chicken Street. "Thanks God the windows was rolled up otherwise their split would have hit me in the face," she said. Arab residents in Shehr-e -Naw and Wazir Akbar Khan are estimated at between 400 to 500 while in Kabul as a whole their population is said to number in several thousands.
The Arab fighters form an elite military groups in the Taliban army. The 55th brigade of the Taliban militia consists of nearly 3000 non-Afghan soldiers while smaller groups are also fighting alongside the Taliban against Nothern Alliance forces in the north-east. Apart from their bases in the Taliban strongholds of Kandahar, Kabul and Jalalabad, they are also active in areas such as Bamiya, Mazar-i-Dharif and Kandous in the centre and north of the country where due to presence of large ethinic communities other than Pakhtuns, the Taliban's grip is not so secure. A modest number of Arab fighters are also based in Herat and other part of the country.
Arab fighters are highly admired among Taliban soldiers for their combat skills and fearless approach. "They prefer to die rather than retreat, " said Nasir, a young Taliban soldier, who fought alongside Arabs in the battle to recapture Bamiyan from the opposition alliance last month. The Taliban employed part of the 55th brigade in that encounter. When the opposition manage to retake Bamiyan again, the Arabs once more played a decisive role in the Taliban's successful campaign to drive them out of the city.
Following the US- and Russian-sponsored sanctions on the Taliban regime and the international condemnation directed at the latter for their destruction of the ancient Bamiyan statues, relation between the Arab militants and the hard liners among the Taliban seem to have strengthened even more. Moreover, the official visit recently undertaken by Ahmad Shah Massoud, commander of the opposition alliance to France to meet with EU officials, served to further isolate the Taliban and push them towards the international jihadi networks.
Apart from their role in fighting the civil war, the Arabs have of late significantly increased their presence in the fields of education and relief activities as well. Not less than ten organizations of Arab origin are operating in urban and rural areas across the country, particularly in provinces with a concentration of Pakhtuns.
With the Taliban heavily dependent on Arab assistance in holding their ground against western opposition to their regime, it is believed that many of their decisions are influenced by the Arab mujahideen in Afghanistan.
Aid workers in Kabul maintained that actions such as the destruction of the Bamiyan statues, the raid on the emergency hospital in Kabul, the raid on the ICRC hospital in Kandhar and the attempt to close down the women's bakeries run by the World Food Program(WFP) have been instigated by the Arabs. Moreover, they add, the disagreement over the survey related to WFP's bakery programme and the new regulations that create hurdles in the way of expatriates visiting Afghanistan and working there are also a result of Arab interference in the workings of the Taliban government. The Swedish Committee, an NGO which, since 20 years, has been running development programs largely in education and health sectors in rural Afghanistan, is also under tremendous pressure to close down its projects related to women's welfare.
"All the objections are to girl's education," noted a committee official. According to sources, the committee has decided to follow a policy similar to the one adopted by the WFP over the women's bakeries controversy where they have decided that if women's bakeries are closed down, the organization will close the men's bakeries as well. Thus, if the Taliban forces the committee to abandon the girl's schools, it has vowed to close the boy's schools too. A committee official expressed his conviction that the Arab organizations are preparing to replace western relief organizations in the international community decides to withdraw its support from Afghanistan. He pointed out that madrassas in rural areas funded by the Arabs have shown a sudden increase.
The presence of foreign militants in Afghanistan is hardly a new phenomenon. Ironically, this force which has grown into a many-headed hydra with its rabidly anti-western agenda, was initially transported to the country by the western powers themselves to fight the capitalists' "holy war" against the communists. This exigency arose when Russian troops stepped onto Afghan soil in 1979 to protect their puppet regime under Babrak Karmal against the armed struggle of indigenous religious groups.
The involvement of foreign militants in Afghanistan began with the Egypt-based extremist Muslim organization Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan ul Muslimeen). An Egyptian, Abdullah Azlam, was the first Arab engaged to operate a supply network for manpower to fight against the Russian forces in the name of jihad. Initially, only Arabs were recruited, with the area of recruitment later being expanded to the rest of the Muslim world. Among the recruits was a Saudi national and multi-millonaire, Osama Bin Laden. Unfortunately for the west, Osama turned on his sponsors after the Gulf War, demanding the American troops withdraws from Saudi Arabia. A new jihad, deadlier and more organised than the first, was thus born.