MATA CHINA, Afghanistan – Standing before the rows of graves, Afghan men open their hands to the sky. Their lips move in silent prayer to honor the dead.
These dead are fighters of the Taliban and al Qaeda, killed in 2001 when an American bomb crushed the mosque nearby where they had mustered outside the eastern Afghan city of Khost. Since then, U.S. officials have paid for the mosque to be rebuilt – and it stands freshly painted but empty, a few hundred yards down the road.
There has been building, too, at the militants’ gravesite. Donations by visitors have paid for brick walls and decorative iron grates around the graves, and there are plans for a roof over the enclosure. Unlike the American-funded mosque, the shrine draws a steady stream of visitors from eastern Afghanistan and from neighboring Pakistan.
Three years after America’s military defeat of the Taliban and al Qaeda, graves of their dead – here and elsewhere – have become shrines for the ethnic Pashtuns who live in much of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The shrines underscore a reality for the U.S. effort to encourage democracy in both countries – an effort that formally defines the Taliban as an enemy.
While Afghanistan’s Taliban are reviled by the international community and by most Afghans for their brutally oppressive rule here in the 1990s, they remain heroes for many Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s most powerful ethnic group. And even for Afghans and Pakistanis who oppose the militants’ aims and violence, there is deep respect for their spiritual commitment to a religious faith that many Muslims feel is under attack by the Christian and secular West.
The shrine at Mata China has 40 graves – most of them for Arabs and Pakistanis who died alongside the Afghan Taliban.
The shrines “are a sign that people respect the Taliban and want them to have a place in our government even now,” said Niyamatullah, a merchant who stopped to pray at the Taliban shrine in Kandahar early this month. Around him, standing amid headstones and flags dedicated to the martyrs, Pashtun men in turbans acclaimed the idea that President Hamid Karzai, who is cruising to an overwhelming victory in the vote count from this month’s presidential election, should include Taliban members in the new government he is expected to form in coming weeks.
Karzai has said that reconciliation with such Taliban members is possible in principle.
At the Kandahar shrine, the other demand of Karzai was that he get prisoners – many of them Taliban – released from Afghan or U.S. jails.
Afghanistan’s roughly 12 million ethnic Pashtuns are divided between north and south, and talk of a political role for the Taliban seemed more widespread in Kandahar, where the movement was born, than here in more northern areas.
At the Mata China shrine, the discussion was not of politics, but of the spiritual power that arises from the Taliban’s commitment to its faith.
The men buried here had gathered in the mosque to prepare an attack on an Afghan faction allied with the Americans, residents said. “They died in a mosque, on a holy spot, and so they are martyrs,” said Noor Wali Khan, a peasant from a nearby village.
The men were martyrs, and their souls blessed, because they had been fighting non-Muslims in defense of a Muslim land, some of the worshippers said. Such men were surely guaranteed a place in heaven, even if their struggle against foreigners was in defense of Muslim tyrants, they said. But since they had been fighting other Muslim Afghans, people were divided on whether their combat earned them martyrdom.