Longing for Jihad, Former Taliban Fighters Join Militants’ War in Pakistan

As a child studying in a madrasa in Afghanistan, Mohammad Khalid Tahir dreamed of waging jihad. By the time he was a teenager, he had joined the Taliban and celebrated when they seized power from the U.S.-backed government two years ago.

But the high from that victory did not last. Reassigned as a soldier in the capital, he frequently complained that he was bored and longed to return to his life’s purpose, according to his family.

So this spring, he did — but across the border in Pakistan.

“Our only expectation is to be martyred,” Mr. Tahir says in a video of him en route to Pakistan that was viewed by The New York Times. About a month later, he was killed by Pakistani security forces, his relatives said.

As a generation of fighters raised in war now finds itself stuck in a country at peace, hundredsof young Taliban soldiers have crossed illegally into Pakistan to battle alongside an insurgent group, according to Taliban members, local leaders and security analysts.

Like Mr. Tahir, many say they are determined to continue waging jihad — wherever in the world it takes them.

Mohammad Osman Faryadi shows a video of his son, Mohammad Khalid Tahir, near the border of Pakistan with a group of other Taliban fighters.

The exodus has renewed longstanding fears about violent extremism spilling out of Afghanistan under the Taliban and destabilizing neighboring countries or one day reaching Western targets. Countries from Russia and China to the United States and Iran have all raised alarms about the possible resurgence in Afghanistan of terrorist groups, like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, with more global ambitions.

Taliban leadership has publicly condemned the outflow of fighters. The men, who acknowledge that they have gone to Pakistan without official permission, have joined a militant group known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or T.T.P., which seeks to impose strict Islamist rule.

But whether Afghanistan’s government stems the tide will signal to the rest of the world its ability and willingness to contain extremist groups within its borders.

“If you look at how the Taliban are enabling the T.T.P., restraining but housing various elements of Al Qaeda, protecting and shielding the alphabet soup of Central Asian militant organizations — all of this challenges the idea that the Taliban are serious about not allowing Afghanistan to be a safe haven of international terrorism,” said Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace, a federal government institution.

In Pakistan, the young men have already helped fuel a return of militant violence this year, worsening tensions between the two governments. Pakistani authorities have accused Afghan officials of sheltering terror groups and turning a blind eye to their soldiers joining the groups, which Taliban officials deny.

Last week, an Islamic State affiliate long based in Afghanistan carried out a suicide blast in Pakistan that killed around 60 people. The bombing added to a mounting death toll from similar attacks by the T.T.P. that have grown more frequent since the Afghan Taliban came to power.

Relatives carry the casket of a victim of a suicide bombing in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, last month. The bombing added to a mounting death toll from similar attacks by Pakistani militants.Credit…Mohammad Sajjad/Associated Press

Over the past year, the T.T.P. has carried out at least 123 attacks across Pakistan — about double the number it claimed in the year before the Taliban seized power, according to the Islamabad-based Pak Institute for Peace Studies, which monitors extremist violence.

It’s unclear exactly how many Afghans have crossed the border to join the T.T.P. or other groups, but it is a small minority of the tens of thousands of former Taliban fighters.

“Young men seeking thrill and adventure is common everywhere; from Americas, to Europe to Asia, Africa and elsewhere,” said Abdul Qahar Balkhi, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs.This adventurism does not reflect common trends or public opinion, rather they are anomalies.”

Those who go are driven by yearslong religious education in Taliban-run madrasas that extol the ideals of global jihad and martyrdom, they and their relatives say. Others are bored in their new peacetime roles as soldiers or police officers charged with mundane tasks like manning checkpoints and doing routine security sweeps.

Many are also invigorated by the collapse of the Western-backed government in Afghanistan.

“Peace and security have been secured in our country, so now we need to fight in other countries and secure the rights of other Muslims,” a Taliban member named Wahdat said one recent evening while he drank tea alongside a handful of his colleagues in Kabul.

“It’s more important to go there and continue our jihad there than to stay in our country,” his friend, Malang added. Mr. Wahdat and Mr. Malang, both 22 and now police officers, preferred to go only by their last names because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Both men grew up in Wardak Province, a stretch of central Afghanistan that harbored deep support for the Taliban, where decades of war transformed the young generation. Schools run by the Taliban cropped up across the province. Boys aspired to wage jihad rather than labor on their family’s farms.

“Our village had been known for producing engineers and doctors before the wars,” said Abdulbari Wasil Sardar, 38, a resident of Wardak whose 17-year-old nephew, Muhammad Idrees Suhaib, was killed in Pakistan this spring fighting for the T.T.P.

Ruhullah Ruhoni, 45, with a photo of his 17-year-old son, Muhammad Idrees Suhaib, who was killed in Pakistan this spring fighting for the T.T.P.

“Now the young generation are only interested in doing jihad,” Mr. Sardar added.

Like many boys in their village, Mr. Wahdat and Mr. Malang joined the Taliban as teenagers and disappeared into mountainside hide-outs from where they staged hit-and-run attacks on Western and Afghan government forces. They celebrated each successful operation against the so-called infidels. They lionized their friends who died as martyrs.

But when the Taliban seized power in 2021, Mr. Wahdat and Mr. Malang were reassigned to police units in Kabul, where they spent their days sitting around their outpost, restless to go to the mountains.

When five of their friends went to Pakistan this spring to return to jihad, both men brimmed with jealousy. Pulling out his phone, Mr. Malang opened a video showing a group of men walking across the border, scarfs wrapped tightly around their heads to protect them from the dust.

“We have friends there who even carried out suicide attacks,” Mr. Wahdat said, staring at his friend’s phone. Both men say they will go to Pakistan in the coming months to join the T.T.P.

Pakistan officials have implored the Taliban to crack down on border crossings. On Sunday, Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Syed Asim Munir, implied that his country would use force if Afghanistan failed to act, citing concerns over “sanctuaries” militants had on Afghan soil. Pakistan, he said, “will spare no effort to dismantle terrorist networks and protect its citizens at all costs.”

In response, Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban administration spokesman, denied those accusations and said that “the territory of Afghanistan will not be used against the security of any country.”

The Taliban’s acting minister of defense, Mawlawi Mohammad Yaqoub, also warned former Talib fighters against launching attacks outside of Afghanistan in a speech.

Still, it is unclear if or how the government will enforce that mandate — and whether it will deter young Talibs from leaving the country to fight.

Residents in a stretch of central Afghanistan that harbored deep support for the Taliban say decades of war transformed the young generation.

The enlistments have already helped invigorated the T.T.P., an ally of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan that seeks to expel the Pakistan government from the country’s border areas.

The group was all but stamped out nearly a decade ago. But over the past two years, it has roared back to life. Hundreds of T.T.P. fighters were freed from Afghan prisons during the Taliban takeover and armed themselves with American military equipment once provided to the U.S.-backed Afghan government, according to Pakistani authorities and videos published by the T.T.P.

In recent months, the T.T.P. has also begun systematically recruiting Taliban soldiers in Afghanistan, according to Taliban members and security analysts. Now, anyone interested in joining its ranks is instructed to link up with other recruits and T.T.P. fighters in eastern Afghanistan who know how to cross the border illegally.

In Kabul, Mr. Wahdat and Mr. Malang expressed a sense of duty unfilled after coming of combat age just as the war they trained for came to an end.

Now, they said, they were determined not to let their dreams of martyrdom pass them by. “Everywhere that Muslims are in trouble we must help them,” Mr. Malang said. “Like Palestine and Myanmar.”

Mr. Wahdat added: “Even America.”

Zia ur-Rehman contributed reporting.

Malang, left, and Wahdat, both policemen, voiced a sense of duty unfilled after coming of combat age just as the war they dreamed of fighting in came to an end.
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