‘Taliban have new havens around Quetta’
* Washington Post says US grappling with rapidly spreading arc of Taliban influence
* US officials concerned Quetta shura planning cross-border strikes
Daily Times Monitor
ISLAMABAD: An American newspaper has reported that Taliban – headed by their fugitive leader Mullah Muhammad Omar – have new safe havens around Quetta, with US officials expressing concerns over the role of the group in the area.
“As American troops move deeper into southern Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, US officials are expressing fresh concerns over the role of fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar and his council of lieutenants, who reportedly plan and launch cross-border strikes from safe havens around Quetta,” said the Washington Post. “But US officials acknowledge they know relatively little about the 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 and foreign analysts said Quetta 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… the Quetta shura mattered less to us because we had no troops in the region,” said US Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson. “Now… the Quetta Shura is high on Washington’s list.”
Although Omer and his associates keep a low profile, Pakistani and foreign experts say Balochistan has re-emerged 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. “From there they get recruits… suicide bombers are trained on that side.” Michael Semple, a former UN official in Afghanistan now based in Islamabad, described the Quetta region’s refugee camps as “a great reserve army” for the Taliban. (Daily Times)
Editorial: The so-called ‘Quetta shura’
The US ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W Patterson, has told the Washington Post that “the United States has now turned its focus to Quetta”, claiming that the area has now become a major Taliban base from where “Mullah Omar and his commanders plan and launch cross-border strikes into Afghanistan”. The US-NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley A McChrystal, has also raised the matter of the “Quetta shura” as a major command centre for the Taliban bombings and attacks inside Afghanistan in his initial assessment to US President Barack Obama. As if to complete the message, a newspaper in London has hinted that the US could be making ready for drone attacks in Balochistan too.
The military spokesman in Pakistan says there are no Taliban in Balochistan. DG-ISPR Major-General Athar Abbas also says that the names given to Pakistan by Afghanistan under the so-called rubric “Quetta shura” are of Taliban commanders that have mostly been taken out while some are in Afghanistan: “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 it is incorrect”.
Pakistan has always denied the presence of Mullah Umar and his council of warriors in Quetta. The allegations have mostly come from western journalists claiming eyewitness accounts. That of course raises the question of how journalists can be privy to such goings-on even as in the same WP report US officials admit the lack of any credible intelligence on their part. Of course, the area is awash with about 400,000 Afghan Taliban who have been domiciled there since the Soviets walked into that country. These people indulge in smuggling, euphemistically referred to as cross-border trade. Surely, they could not be the “Quetta shura”. The problem is that the city has been a natural “fall-back city” for the Taliban because of its proximity to Kandahar. Even the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, lived in Quetta for many years till his father was killed by Mullah Umar here.
Western accounts regularly allege that Pakistan may not be forthcoming on the Afghan Taliban because it differentiates them from the Pakistani Taliban who make trouble inside Pakistan. This leads to the US “deduction” that since the Afghan Taliban are old clients of Pakistan and are not making trouble here, the “Quetta shura” might enjoy exemption from attack, thus indirectly committing Pakistan to backing the Afghan Taliban in their war against the US-NATO forces in Afghanistan. These accounts also flow from information contained in author Ahmed Rashid’s book Descent into Chaos: How the War against Islamic Extremism is being Lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia (2008) who notes that Quetta was host to the Taliban till 2006.
The fact is that Quetta is not a city that Pakistan can boast of controlling effectively, leave alone the rest of Balochistan. A VIP of the Quetta government can get killed in front of the assembly building in broad daylight. There is trouble in the province because of Baloch separatists who are supported by hostile intelligence agencies. The political consensus even among the elected members of the assembly (and there is a PPP-led government in the province) is that there should be no new cantonments built in the province, there should be no paramilitary force like the Frontier Constabulary and no police.
Balochistan was in fact the first territory in Pakistan to become like Afghanistan with hardly any writ of the state there. And that is over 40 percent of Pakistan’s total territory. But there was a time when Quetta at least was orderly, mainly because of presence there of Pakistan’s prestigious Command and Staff College. Now the army keeps strictly out of the city and the police is regularly targeted by terrorists. Also targeted are the Hazaras, a part of the old Afghan exodus, ghettoised in the city.
Pakistan cannot give the go-ahead to US drones. Even if a joint strategy is drawn up for their use, it is going to be very difficult for Pakistan to allow attacks on cities. Neither will it be easy for Pakistan to clean up Quetta. Every time Pakistan has tried to control the border, Afghanistan has objected to it. We have had to remove the biometric system at Chaman because of such objections. Similarly, Kabul has objected to Pakistan sending back the Afghans to their own country. The US must keep all of these factors into mind before embarking on a policy based on journalistic accounts with obvious slants. (Daily Times)