Pakistan Denies It Harbors Taliban

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 21, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Jan. 20 -- Faced with new charges that Pakistan is harboring Islamic insurgents, including fugitive Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, Pakistani officials this weekend denied such allegations and defended their efforts to curb cross-border insurgent attacks in Afghanistan as sincere if not totally successful.

"We don't deny the Taliban come and go, but that is not the entire truth," Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, Pakistan's military spokesman, said in an interview Saturday. "If 25 percent of the problem lies on our side of the border, 75 percent of it lies on the Afghan side." Of four known top Taliban commanders, he said, three are Afghan and one is Pakistani.

Sultan and other officials denied statements by a Taliban spokesman arrested in recent days in Afghanistan that Omar has been living in the Pakistani border city of Quetta under the protection of Pakistani intelligence agents. Omar's capture has been a top priority for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since the overthrow of Taliban rule in 2001.

Afghan officials have long charged that Omar and other Taliban leaders operate from Quetta, and senior U.S. officials have recently begun echoing those accusations, saying Pakistan has not done enough to curb Taliban attacks although it continues to be a valuable ally in the broader fight against Islamic terrorism.

Sultan said Pakistani officials repeatedly had asked Afghan and U.S. authorities to provide them with solid information on Omar's location but had received none. He also asserted that the captured Taliban spokesman, known as Mohammad Hanif, had lied about Omar's whereabouts after being tortured by interrogators in Afghanistan.

However, the army spokesman acknowledged that several Afghan refugee camps near Quetta and elsewhere provide safe havens for insurgents, who he said easily cross back and forth across the busy and porous border. "They do come for rest and recuperation," Sultan said, adding that Pakistan plans to close the camps and send all their inhabitants home.

Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, said at a meeting of his national security council Thursday that strong punitive action would be taken against illegal cross-border actions and against any terrorists seeking refuge in Pakistan, according to news reports here.

Pakistani officials also defended their recent military and political actions in the tribal regions along the northwest border with Afghanistan, including peace pacts with tribal leaders in the adjoining South and North Waziristan districts. Afghan and U.S. officials charge that cross-border attacks from that area have risen dramatically since the pacts were signed in September.

Sultan acknowledged that a senior Taliban commander based in South Waziristan, Beitullah Mehsud, had been recruiting and arming local men to become insurgents despite the terms of the peace deal, which was aimed at stopping extremist violence in Pakistan and across the border.

He said an airstrike against several training camps in South Waziristan last Monday had been aimed at punishing Mehsud, although the commander escaped and has since tried to rally supporters for revenge attacks. Sultan also denied reports this week that a pilotless U.S. Predator aircraft had first dropped bombs on the camp, saying, "The strike was carried out by us. We struck against five compounds and destroyed three."

In a separate interview Friday, Ali Jan Mohammed Orakzai, the governor of Pakistan's North-West Frontier province and the architect of the North and South Waziristan accords, asserted that the pacts had been successful in some ways but had led to worrisome local tensions and had not been able to stop all cross-border movement by insurgents.

"There have been no attacks on law enforcement agencies, and no efforts to challenge the government writ," Orakzai said. "We do admit that some cross-border movement is taking place, but to say that it has increased because of the agreement is unrealistic. We have 80,000 troops deployed on the border, and they are not sitting there for nothing."

He also said that the government was "really squeezing" local tribes that had violated the agreements, and that they had created confusion and tension between locals and foreign-born residents who fled to Pakistan from various Afghan conflicts over the years and now feel pressure to leave.

But Orakzai, a retired army general who led numerous military operations against Islamic militants in the tribal areas after 2001, said it was imperative to switch to a political approach after hundreds of soldiers died, traditional tribal structures collapsed and local anti-government sentiments soared, helping Islamic extremists attract more support.

Orakzai was scathing in his criticism of the Afghan government, saying it had been unable to extend control or services to much of the country and was largely to blame for the revival of the Taliban insurgency. "There is no democracy, no writ of government in Afghanistan," he said. The Afghan government has received billions of dollars in foreign aid and is protected by tens of thousands of NATO and U.S. troops.

In the past several weeks, the nature of Pakistan's role in relation to cross-border insurgent attacks has provoked contradictory foreign assessments. Top American military and civilian officials have said Pakistan needs to do more to eliminate safe havens for the Taliban and prevent them from slipping into Afghanistan.

But NATO commanders in Afghanistan, who oversee 31,000 troops there, say Pakistan has helped international forces far more than is widely known. For example, they said, Pakistani intelligence sources were crucial in tracking down Akhtar Mohammad Osmani, a senior Taliban commander who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in southern Afghanistan in December.

"The Pakistan government does not wish to see the Taliban in power here," Lt. Gen. David Richards, the outgoing NATO commander in Kabul, said in an interview recently. "They are determined to bear down on the insurgency. But when they help us, they get no credit for it. No one says thank you."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company