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.
During Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting that ended last week, posters appeared on walls across Quetta, asking people to contribute their money, vehicles and sons to the "fight against occupying forces" across the border in Afghanistan.
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has raised new alarms about the Quetta Shura, describing it in his recent report to President Obama as a major command center for the widening wave of Taliban bombings and attacks.
Virtually all of the Afghan Taliban's strategic decisions are made by the Quetta Shura, according to U.S. officials. Decisions flow from the group "to Taliban field commanders, who in turn make tactical decisions that support the shura's strategic direction," a counterterrorism official said.
Unlike Pakistani Taliban groups based farther north in the rugged mountains on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the Quetta Shura is considered uninterested in operations inside Pakistan. Pakistani officials have discounted the shura's dominance and even its existence. But U.S. military officials describe it as "effective" and a "viable command and control organization."
Critics have long raised doubts about whether Pakistan's security forces are willing to seriously pursue Taliban leaders and activities in Baluchistan. Some allege that Pakistan's intelligence services continue to secretly train Taliban fighters there, although Pakistani officials assert that they have purged their ranks of religiously motivated officers. Patterson said Pakistani officials were growing "extremely nervous" that the current policy disputes in Washington would lead to a premature U.S. pullout from Afghanistan. "They will not rush to cut ties with the Taliban if they think they will be back in charge there again," she said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly accused the Pakistanis of ignoring the activities of Omar and his associates. Twice he gave Pakistani officials lists with what he said were the names and locations of Taliban leaders in the Quetta area, but Pakistan flatly rejected the allegations.
Pakistani security officials said they have made significant efforts to stop Taliban cross-border infiltration in Baluchistan, stepping up border patrols at Washington's request. The army has conducted no major anti-Taliban operations there, however, leaving raids to the police and frontier constabulary.
"From our judgment, there are no Taliban in Baluchistan," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, Pakistan's military spokesman. Asked about the names of Quetta Shura leaders provided by Afghan and U.S. officials, he said: "Six to 10 of them have been killed, two are in Afghanistan, and two are insignificant. When people call Mullah Omar the mayor of Quetta, that is incorrect."
Abbas noted that the recent Pakistani army operation in the northwest Swat Valley had successfully driven Pakistani Taliban forces out of the area, and he said he hoped the Swat campaign had overcome any concerns Washington might have about Pakistan's willingness to take on the Islamist insurgents. If the United States has information about Taliban leaders in Baluchistan, "tell us who and where they are," he said. "We will not allow your forces inside, but if you lead, we will follow."
Patterson said Pakistani officials had "made it crystal clear that they have different priorities from ours," being far more concerned about Taliban attacks inside Pakistan than across the border. She noted that Pakistan had once trained Islamist fighters to operate against India and elsewhere and that the same groups have now turned against the state.
"You cannot tolerate vipers in your bosom without getting bitten," Patterson said. "Our concern is whether Pakistan really controls its territory. There are people who do not threaten Pakistan but who are extremely important to us."
Another concern raised by critics and foreign officials is the support by some political and religious leaders in Baluchistan toward the Taliban. They note that the strong local presence of Jamiat-i-Islami, a conservative Islamic party that backed the original Taliban movement and virtually ran the Baluchistan government from 2002 to 2008, has given the Afghan extremists additional protection.
Mehmood Jan, a newspaper publisher in Quetta, said in a telephone interview that there are "thousands" of Jamiat madrassas in the Pashtun belt and that some Jamiat legislators openly champion the Taliban. Jan said provincial police forces had regularly raided Taliban hideouts, including mosques and madrassas, but with only limited success. In many Pashtun neighborhoods, he said, "everywhere you see the white turbans of the young Taliban and the black turbans of the adults."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.