PESHAWAR – Ali is only 17. He sells fruit at the bazaar. He sports a white Al-Qaeda headband with “Mullah Omar” written in blue on the side. Ali is an aspiring jihadi. He’s ready to go to Afghanistan to die for Islam.
Ali has no military training: “No need for training.” He wants to go to Kandahar, the southern Afghan city and base of Taliban strongman Mullah Omar. He doesn’t know how. He will be helped by his friend Amjad, 19. Amjad tells Ali that they will be “in a safe place” with the Taliban and that “when the Americans land in Afghanistan, then we will fight.”
Ali and Amjad believe that Israel flew aircraft into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center to force America to crush Palestine. They consider Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf as a “spokesman” of US President George W. Bush and British premier Tony Blair.
Ali and Amjad are not tribals. They don’t belong to any religious party or jihadi organization. They are average, urban Peshawaris. They say that they know of more than 300 people in the city who are also going to Afghanistan. Asked if he has donated blood or money for the jihad, Amjad answers without a blink, “I donated myself to Afghanistan.”
Ali and Amjad, along with at least 8,000 very angry tribals and Pakistanis, took part in a huge rally in Peshawar on Friday – basically against the presence of American troops on Pakistani soil. Afghans could not take part: they were expressly forbidden by the provincial government, and threatened with instant deportation.
The bazaar area was totally cordoned off by an impressive police and army contingent. There was no violence – except for some fierce rhetoric. Youngsters sang war songs in a tribal Pashtu dialect, heaping praise on the Taliban, kids sold orange Osama bin Laden T-shirts and elders carried sticks and their “luggage” – a small bag – ready to depart for jihad. The religious leader at the Madani mosque drew in his nonstop rap many parallels between Afghanistan and Bosnia, Palestine, Kashmir and Chechnya.
Mullah Omar may be in urgent need of a public relations assistant or a spin doctor. But not these crowds in Peshawar. There were the usual, countless Osama newspaper cuttings, but also some colorful variations of the “Graveyard of Empires” theme – America’s is next, and some tirades like “Tony, Bush and Musharraf – Three Brothers.” Bush was represented as both a red pig and a scarecrow, “Tony” only as a scarecrow. Both Bush and Blair were merrily set on fire at the end of the rally – along with the Stars and Stripes, to the sound of “Al Jihad!”
Pakistan is literally under martial law. More than 300 pro-Taliban supporters – including the high-profile Jamiat Ulema-I-Islam (JUI) faction leader Fazlur Rahman – have been arrested. Rahman – even under house arrest – has encouraged JUI followers to “fight against American and British terrorism.” The Taliban ambassador in Islamabad systematically accuses Washington of “cowardice and terrorism.” Millions in the tribal areas are spoiling for a fight. But it has to be Pashtun style: hand to hand, and in the mountains.
There are eight agencies in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In Mohmand agency alone a lashkar (brigade) of no less than 100,000 volunteers is already confirmed: they will leave soon for their jihad. It was called by the elders of the agency because America “is killing innocent people under the pretext of getting Osama bin Laden.” Any American or any Westerner who dares to cross the agency will be killed – and that includes the press.
Sunday is a crucial day. Tribal elders from all eight agencies will gather in the village of Bera, in Khyber agency, to unanimously take a decision: they either vote in favor of Musharraf’s new policy of cooperation with the US, or they vote in favor of the Taliban. If the latter, the elders will request all the tribals to cross into Afghanistan and engage in jihad. In Peshawar, people estimate that at least 50 percent of the success of a jihad against Americans – already called by Mullah Omar – depends on the tribals. Without their support, the Taliban are a spent force.
Perception is reality. Not only for these people in Peshawar, and for Pakistan’s tribal areas, but for the crushing majority of the Muslim world, and for enlightened public opinion in Europe, South America and Asia, “Bombs and Biscuits” – Bush and Blair’s ballistic bonanza – is achieving absolutely nothing, apart from a “relentless” bombardment of innocent Afghan civilians. According to sources in Peshawar close to the Taliban the number of fatalities could be more than 300 in only five days of US attacks.
“Bombs and Biscuits” has just been displaced by the Pentagon jargon BDA (“bomb damage assessment”). Civilians, of course, don’t matter in this hygienic BDA: they are “collateral damage.” But the fact is that more than 300 miserable, wretched souls – and counting – are a part of BDA.
As a Peshawar scholar said at the rally, “Tony and Bush have already lost the moral high ground.” And there’s a whole lot more to lose.