Signing up volunteers for a holy war: ”We see victory, not defeat”
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) – Just like his American counterparts, the polite, clean-cut young recruiter says he’s having no problem signing up volunteers to go fight in Afghanistan.
He says he’s turned away boys too young and men too old to fight – even a one-legged man who begged to be sent to the front. He’s got combat veterans and raw recruits alike at the ready. Morale is high, he says; his side can’t imagine losing.
But recruiter Obeid Qureshi and his would-be Taliban warriors differ in one key respect from the American troops preparing for a possible ground war in the barren plains and jagged mountains of Afghanistan.
”The best outcome, of course, would be martyrdom,” the neatly bearded 23-year-old said Wednesday during a break from manning a recruiting post in the frontier city of Peshawar. ”That is every fighter’s greatest desire.”
Pakistani border zones like this one – where pro-Taliban sentiment runs high, where radical Islamic parties have a large following, where religious schools, or madrassas, exhort students to fight the infidels – are proving fertile recruiting grounds for the war next door.
Islamist parties have set a target of 50,000 recruits from Pakistan’s border belt – a goal perhaps unrealistically high, as it exceeds the estimated strength of the Taliban standing army.
Qureshi says about 1,000 volunteers have signed up in Peshawar since the start of the American-led air campaign, and many thousands have volunteered in the province’s tribal areas closest to the Afghan frontier. Uncounted others have taken matters into their own hands and crossed into Afghanistan to join up.
For now, the fighters-in-waiting who turn up at recruiting posts – little more than wooden tables set up in the open air – are asked to leave contact information, including a mobile phone number if they have one.
They’re also asked to make an appointment to give blood, and to donate whatever funds they can afford to the cause.
Most of those who want to join up are men between the ages of 21 and 27, but volunteers as young as 17 and as old as 50 are allowed. There’s no physical exam; only those with some serious disability, like the one-legged man, are turned away.
Some of the volunteers fought in Afghanistan’s previous wars, or with Muslim separatists in disputed Kashmir. But none is refused for lack of combat experience, Qureshi said.
Recruits scoff when asked about their government’s decision to side with the United States in the confrontation over Osama bin Laden, chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Their loyalties lie elsewhere.
Nearly all the volunteers are Pashtun, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and that to which most of the Taliban leadership belongs. Many of the volunteers have relatives across the border and have lived in Afghanistan themselves.
Signing his name on Wednesday at a recruiting outpost in the market town of Mardan outside Peshawar, Qari Remat Ullah, a turbaned and bearded 27-year-old, said he was ready to do battle.
”The United States started this war,” he said. ”Now we want to fight them face-to-face.”
Religious leaders say they won’t mobilize any fighters until a ground war begins.
”It will be orderly – first people from the tribal areas, and then from elsewhere,” said Abdul Jalil Jan, the provincial head of the pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema Islam party. ”There is plenty of manpower.”
Qureshi, who was appointed as a recruiter by party elders, said he hoped to fight alongside those whose signatures he is collecting now.
”Of course I want to take part in this jihad myself,” he said. ”We see victory, not defeat.”
In Afghanistan, there have been persistent reports of fighting-age men and boys being forcibly conscripted by the Taliban. Qureshi said he didn’t believe such accounts.
”There is no need,” he said. ”Look at all of us here who are ready to fight.”
Volunteers insist no one is worried about the overwhelming strength of U.S. forces.
”We are the ones who have the advantage,” said Qureshi. ”We know the land, we know the language, we have the support of the people. And we have a great history of driving out invaders.”
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