Taliban gives the nod to military training camps

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The Independent Online
Khost - There could be few better places to hide 360 trainee guerrillas than in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, in Eastern Afghanistan.

It is an isolated, lonely area, inaccessible to anyone without a pass from the local Taliban governor, or from the Pakistani authorities just over the border.

Foreigners are banned. I wore a burqua - a head-to-toe veil - to get past the Pakistani checkpoints. and managed to slip in through the back, and onto the training ground.

The 12-square-mile compound is enclosed by a high barbed-wire fence and look-out posts. Apart from a blackboard, exercise equipment, ropes and hurdles which can be seen from the main gates, there are few obvious signs that this is one of Afghanistan's biggest military training centres.

The trainees are put into one of two camps: Al Badr 1 and Al Badr 2. Al Badr 1 holds about 200, mainly Pakistani, recruits. They train to fight against the Indian army in Kashmir for separatist groups such as Harkat- ul-Ansar, the Pakistan-based Islamic militants. Al Badr 2 accepts up to 160 foreign trainees, especially Arabs and Sudanese Muslims who want to fight in Chechnya and Bosnia.

Their lessons are in bomb-making, the use of automatic weapons, rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns. There are religious classes, instructing trainees in the nature of the Jihad - Holy War - they are preparing to fight. Every trainee is sponsored by an Islamic group. When the fundamentalist Taliban government took over the camps two months ago, they inherited items the previous management had left behind, including 150 AK-47s, 70 of them brand new and still in their boxes; one tank, ten rocket launchers, a multi-barrelled rocket launcher and boxes of combat uniforms.

For the long evenings in the camps, there was a video player and a television set, with 80 video cassettes. Most of the videos were instructive films on guerrilla warfare.

They also seized motivational audio cassettes of speeches by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of Hezb-i-Islami. Music is banned in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan and listening to the politically correct poems - usually about the glory of dying for Allah - is the only entertainment allowed. The families of some of the trainees do not even know where their sons are. Some trainees are young men, only 17 or 18 years old, who admitted that they had run away from home to join the Jihad.

But the training is dangerous. All the men are given an AK-47 when they begin the course and few have any experience of how to use them. As I left the camp through the back, I passed a single grave marked by a pile of stones beside a muddy track.

"This man died during training," said my guide. "Nobody knew where he came from, his family do not even know he is dead."