KABUL — A rough-hewn ax won’t do you much good against a rocket, but for a group of volunteers heading to Kunar province to “defend” the border, symbolism trumps firepower.
In the latest example of increasing Afghan nationalism and anti-Pakistan fervor growing out of cross-border rocket attacks in the country’s northeast, a group of ax-wielding men headed to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border Sunday. Organized by a former presidential candidate, the men are protesting what they see as Pakistani aggression and meddling in Afghan affairs.
With cries of “Death to Pakistan” and “Death to America,” the group of about 60 protesters walked through Kabul, chanting slogans and carrying banners on their way to a convoy that would take them some 100 miles by road to Kunar province, where thousands of villagers say they have been chased from their homes by rocket attacks coming from Pakistan.
“The Afghan nation wants to condemn Pakistan’s attacks,” said protester Bashir Ahmad, who traveled from the northern province of Takhar to join the convoy. “It is our country and we will defend it.”
Asked what he would do once he got to Kunar, Ahmad, armed only with an ax and slingshot, harkened back to the success of the mujahedeen who fought against the much better-armed Soviet Army in the 1980s.
“We defended our country with bare hands,” he said. “We didn’t have tanks and airplanes.”
National rage against Pakistan has boiled over in Afghanistan over the rocket attacks, which are a constant topic on popular radio and television shows. Afghans overwhelmingly blame the Pakistani military for the attacks and Pakistan’s intelligence service for a range of maladies in Afghanistan, all of which Islamabad steadfastly denies. Pakistan’s military says members of the Pakistani Taliban, who focus their attacks inside their own country take refuge in Afghanistan in the very provinces that are being shelled.
Former presidential candidate and businessman Bismillah Sher, leader of the Wefaq-Milli Afghanistan (National Unity Party of Afghanistan), spearheaded Sunday’s march and convoy to Kunar. He said many more volunteers were meeting the group in Kunar province; he estimated there would be 3,000 protesters.
“We want to live life with respect, and we don’t like Pakistan threatening us and disrespecting us,” he said.
Wasifullah Wasifi, a spokesman for the governor of Kunar province, said he expects around 1,000 volunteers to show up and that they will be welcomed by the local government and given free accomodations and meals. He downplayed any fears that the protesters could further inflame tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan and even lead to more violence.
“We need more support from Afghans and for the government and Afghan people to be united against these attacks,” he said.
The Afghan government earlier this month sent a full infantry brigade of Afghan National Army soldiers to the border in Kunar province, and the border police there bolstered with more heavy weapons to respond to threats from Pakistan, officials said.
Sher was cagey about exactly what the volunteers would do once they get to the border, saying they first want to hear from Kunar residents about what they need. But some, like Narullah from Baghlan province, were girding for a fight.
“We want to defend our country so that our children and brothers can live in peace,” he said. “We don’t have weapons, but when you are ready to die, you can do anything.”