Culture of revenge stalks U.S. in Afghanistan

KHOST, Afghanistan — Haji Din Mohammad's family has been marked by two tragic acts. The first was an American bombing raid in December 2001 that killed his nephew Zeni Khel in a local mosque. The second was the murder of an American CIA agent a month later by another nephew, Abdul Malik, in an act of revenge.

It's this eye-for-an-eye code of Mohammad's Pashtun ethnic group that al-Qaida and its allies are exploiting to create new suicide squads in Afghanistan, say Afghan intelligence officials. They are drawing recruits from families who have suffered losses in the past year of war. With motives and methods copied from Palestinian suicide bombers, the young men pose the newest, and perhaps gravest, threat to the young government, to American aid workers and to U.S. troops.

"I am too old to feel revenge," says Mohammad, the family elder. "But for our youths, revenge is like an ember that burns in your heart."

He blames local mullahs for converting his pious nephew Malik into a murderer.

"I used to tell my nephews, what happened has happened, it is in the hands of God," says the old farmer, crouching in a dry riverbed outside his house. "But they did not listen to me; they listened to the radicals, the mullahs who pump the emotions of the boys."

Malik may be one of dozens of young men willing to take the war in Afghanistan to a new level of danger, risking their own lives to avenge the deaths of family members for the sake of culture, family, and to a certain extent, Islam.

"The worst enmity in Afghanistan is not religious and not political, it is cultural," says Mohammad Ibrahim Mushfiq, deputy governor of Khost, referring to the Pashtun code of revenge.

"The only solution is cultural. If a tribal council came with U.S. forces to a family of a victim, and they apologized and said we are sorry for your loss and we ask for your pardon, the family will not reject that. But if you don't do that, these families can be the most dangerous because they are the ones who will do suicide attacks."

The December 2001 bombing of the mosque is just one action that has many Afghans upset. On Dec. 20, 2001, American bombers, tipped off by an Afghan warlord, bombed a car caravan full of Pashtun tribal leaders from the Khost region, killing 30. In May 2002, U.S. planes bombed a mountain in Khost province where two tribes were fighting in a land dispute, killing 10. The following month, American planes bombed a wedding party in Urozgan, killing 37, mainly women and children.

In each incident, tribal councils alerted the provincial government that they intend to take revenge against U.S. forces.

Turning angry Pashtuns into professional killers, Afghan intelligence sources say, appears to be the work of Hizb-I Islami, a Pashtun-dominated religious party that once fought against Soviet presence in Afghanistan. After the Soviet-backed Afghan government fell in 1992, Hizb fought in a bloody civil war for control of Kabul and the national government.

When the Taliban ended the civil war in 1996 and entered Kabul, Hizb's chief, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, fled to Iran. But when America's bombing campaign began last October, Hekmatyar declared a jihad against American troops. Last month, he announced his alliance with al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Hekmatyar is thought to be operating both in remote parts of southeastern Afghanistan, including Khost, Paktia and Nangrahar provinces, and in Konar province in the northeast, say Afghan military officials. They say he also finds refuge on the Pakistani side of the border in autonomous Pashtun tribal areas where Pakistani authorities have little control.

"Hizb-I Islami has the expertise to bring together those who have lost family members, to equip them with weapons, to train them and to provide transportation to Kabul, where they can carry out their attacks," says Gen. Khial Baz Sherzai, the military chief of Khost province.

Countering this threat is a problem, Sherzai says, because local Afghan forces don't have sufficient manpower or weapons to stop infiltration by Hizb fighters. "Everybody can easily enter here and carry out what they want. We have security only in the city of Khost, not the province of Khost."

Afghan intelligence sources say that most of these suicide attackers are making their way to Kabul, where U.S. soldiers, aid workers, diplomats and even journalists are easy to find. Just three weeks ago, in a crowded market in Kabul, a boy threw a grenade into a jeep full of American soldiers. The soldiers were severely injured.

Maj. Steve Clutter, the U.S. military spokesman at Bagram Air Base, said the attacks were considered serious but showed the current weaknesses of al-Qaeda and its allies.

"Clearly there are people who have bad intent, and they don't like the way things are going in the war on terrorism," he said recently. "They appear to be acts of a desperate foe."

In the Khost province village of Mandozai, a scattering of mud-walled homes, a senior family member and neighbors say the teenager being held at Bagram Air Base is Abdullah Jan, brother of Nasratullah Noori, who was killed in the December mosque bombing.

Abdullah Jan's family admits to visitors that they lost one son to the mosque bombing. But Abdullah Jan's father vehemently denies that his son was involved in any attack on Americans. "I have a son named Abdullah Jan, but he is not the one who carried out the attacks," says Abdul Karim, a local farmer.

If Karim is cautious, it may be because of the experience of the family of Malik, the 18-year-old who killed the CIA agent. When Malik escaped to Pakistan, local Afghan authorities arrested two of his young cousins in an attempt to pressure the family to bring him back.

One of those cousins, Salahuddin, says he was tortured and beaten by Afghan intelligence agents during 10 months of captivity in Kabul. "The worst thing was our Afghan secret police," says Salahuddin, who has only one name. "They would give us electric shocks to compel us to confess.

"But I really liked the Americans. They were not as cruel as I thought they would be. They were very friendly. They offered me a Pepsi. Even when they would beat us, it was like they were joking."