Home from Afghan front in glorious death

City talk | AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE 22 Jul 2021

The last time Abdul Rasheed's family saw him alive was in May, when the young Pakistani left for Afghanistan to fight for the Taleban. He returned home last week in a cardboard coffin.

The militant Islamic group is waging an offensive across Afghanistan's countryside, snapping up territory and leaving the Afghan forces who are battling the group facing a crisis now that the United States and NATO contingents are all but gone.

Many Pakistanis, inspired by religious faith or community pressure, have joined the fight across a border that doesn't distinguish between the Pashtuns who live on either side.

"Rasheed sacrificed his life for a great cause," his uncle, Maroof Khan, a Muslim cleric, says at his home on the outskirts of Peshawar, a few hours from the Afghan border.

Throngs visited to congratulate the family after hearing news of 22-year-old Rasheed's death.

"He went there with a spirit of jihad," Khan says. "Now his young friends want to be martyred like him."

Pakistan's interior minister this month acknowledged that the families of Afghan Taleban fighters were living in the country's capital, while members of its rank-and-file were taken to the country for medical treatment or to be buried.

Pakistan has a long, complicated history with the Taleban.

Since fleeing the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the group's hard-line leaders have been based largely in Pakistan, where they have been allowed to regroup, recruit and manage the insurgency from the safety of Pakistani cities.

The issue is a particularly sensitive one for Islamabad, which has long been accused of supporting the Islamic fundamentalists even while battling a Taleban offshoot within its own borders.

The Afghani and American governments have begged Islamabad to bring the leadership to heel and force the Taleban to hammer out a peace agreement.

The Taleban emerged in southern Kandahar during the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal from the country.

But its ranks were filled with tens of thousands of Afghan refugees who had fled to Pakistan. Some Pakistanis also joined.

Security analyst Tahir Khan says authorities had more recently clamped down on people crossing to fight in Afghanistan, but the porous border in the rugged countryside meant some still made it.

"The number of Taleban fighters from Pakistan is much lower than in the past," Khan says. "Now the Taleban are so numerous they don't need fighters from Pakistan."

Many - including Rasheed - had graduated from the Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqania madrassa near Peshawar, which was given the nickname the "University of Jihad" for its fiery ideology and the number of Taleban fighters it produced.

For decades, Pakistani madrassas have served as incubators for militancy, indoctrinating tens of thousands of refugees who have few other options for education than the fire-breathing lectures from the no-nonsense clerics.

Rather than crack down on them, successive governments in Islamabad - who rely on the support of Islamist parties in coalition governments - have largely given the madrassas a free hand.

Rasheed's family do not know exactly when or where he died, only that it happened somewhere in eastern Nangarhar province.

All that police sources in the borderland Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province can say is that at least four dead bodies of Pakistani fighters had arrived from Afghanistan in recent weeks.

There were chaotic scenes in Rasheed's hometown when his body arrived there.

Video clips posted to social media and confirmed by his family show hundreds of people clamoring to touch his coffin and chanting religious slogans, with some of them waving Taleban flags.

Rasheed's uncle, Khan, was later arrested and handed a two-week prison sentence after being found guilty of organizing an illegal gathering and propagating terrorism.

As visitors continue to pay their respects this week, Rasheed's father, Nasir Khan, sat on a traditional wooden charpoy bench, wearing glasses that stand out above his flowing white beard.

"Rasheed was a bright student," Nasir Khan recalls. "I pray that Allah accepts the martyrdom of my son."

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