U.S. Says Taliban Has A New Haven in Pakistan

NATO oil tankers caught fire in an attack in Quetta, Pakistan, earlier this month, according to police there.
NATO oil tankers caught fire in an attack in Quetta, Pakistan, earlier this month, according to police there. (By Arshad Butt -- Associated Press)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- As American troops move deeper into southern Afghanistan to fight Taliban insurgents, U.S. officials are expressing new concerns about the role of fugitive Taliban leader Mohammad Omar and his council of lieutenants, who reportedly plan and launch cross-border strikes from safe havens around the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta.

But U.S. officials acknowledge they know relatively little about the remote and arid Pakistani border region, have no capacity to strike there, and have few windows into the turbulent mix of Pashtun tribal and religious politics that has turned the area into a sanctuary for the Taliban leaders, who are known collectively as the Quetta Shura.

Pakistani officials, in turn, have been accused of allowing the Taliban movement to regroup in the Quetta area, viewing it as a strategic asset rather than a domestic threat, while the army has been heavily focused on curbing violent Islamist extremists in the northwest border region hundreds of miles away.

As a result, Pakistani and foreign analysts here said, Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, has suddenly emerged as an urgent but elusive new target as Washington grapples with the Taliban's rapidly spreading arc of influence and terror across Afghanistan.

"In the past, we focused on al-Qaeda because they were a threat to us. The Quetta Shura mattered less to us because we had no troops in the region," said Anne W. Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan. "Now our troops are there on the other side of the border, and the Quetta Shura is high on Washington's list."

Patterson also acknowledged that the United States is far less familiar with the vast desert region than with the northwestern tribal areas, where it has been cooperating closely with Pakistan for several years in the hunt for al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders and where it periodically kills insurgents with missiles fired from remotely piloted aircraft. The United States does not carry out such drone strikes in the Quetta region.

As Patterson put it, bluntly: "Our intelligence on Quetta is vastly less. We have no people there, no cross-border operations, no Predators."

According to Pakistani analysts, the Taliban's presence in the Quetta region is more discreet than it was earlier in the decade, when Omar fled there from U.S. and Afghan military attacks. He was joined by thousands of fighters, who blended into ethnic Pashtun neighborhoods and refugee camps.

But although Omar and his associates now keep a low profile and move constantly among villages and mosques in the lawless Pashtun strip between Quetta and the border, Pakistani and foreign experts said Baluchistan has reemerged as a Taliban sanctuary, recruiting ground and command post.

"Quetta is absolutely crucial to the Taliban today," said Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani expert on the Taliban, in a telephone interview. "From there they get recruits, fuel and fertilizer for explosives, weapons, and food. Suicide bombers are trained on that side. They have support from the mosques and madrassas."

Michael Semple, a former U.N. official in Afghanistan now based in Islamabad, described the Quetta region's refugee camps as "a great reserve army" for the Taliban. He said Pashtun tribes in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan, the Taliban's ethnic and spiritual base, have strong ties with those on the Pakistan side.

"They are intermarried, they have Pakistani ID cards, and you can't tell the difference," Semple said. On the other hand, he said, reports of Taliban leaders living openly in Quetta, even attending weddings, are nonsense. "They are deeply suspicious of the Pakistanis, and they have their own agenda," he said.

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