WASHINGTON, Sept 29: The United States has now turned its focus to Quetta, claiming that it has now become a major Taliban base from where Mullah Omar and his commanders plan and launch cross-border strikes into Afghanistan. On Tuesday, The Washington Post quoted US Ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson as saying that Quetta was high on Washington’s list of terrorist bases in the region.
“In the past, we focussed 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,” she said. “Now our troops are there on the other side of the border, and the Quetta Shura is high on Washington’s list.”
Gen Stanley A. McChrystal, the top US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, has also raised alarms about the Quetta Shura, describing it in his recent report to President Barack Obama as a major command centre for the widening wave of Taliban bombings and attacks.
Other US officials claim that virtually all of the Afghan Taliban’s strategic decisions are made by the Quetta Shura. Decisions flow from the group “to Taliban field commanders, who in turn make tactical decisions that support the Shura’s strategic direction”, one such official told the US media.
Ambassador Patterson acknowledged that the United States is far less familiar with the vast desert region than with Fata, 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.
“Our intelligence on Quetta is vastly less. We have no people there, no cross-border operations, no Predators,” the ambassador said.
She said Pakistani officials were growing “extremely nervous” that the current policy disputes in Washington would lead to a premature US 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.
Although the media have often quoted unnamed US officials as expressing doubts on Pakistan’s sincerity to fight the Quetta Taliban, this marks the first time a senior US official has publicly endorsed such claims. Pakistan’s chief military spokesman, Maj-Gen Athar Abbas, however, rejected such claims as incorrect. “From our judgment, there are no Taliban in Balochistan,” he said. Asked about the names of Quetta Shura leaders provided by Afghan and US 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.”
The Post report quoted Pakistani analysts as saying that the Taliban’s presence in the Quetta region is more discreet than it was earlier in the decade, when Mullah Omar fled there from US and Afghan military attacks. He was joined by thousands of fighters, who blended into ethnic Pashtun neighbourhoods and refugee camps. The report claims that Pakistani officials have allowed the Taliban movement to regroup in the Quetta area because they view it as a strategic asset rather than a domestic threat.
Michael Semple, a former UN official in Afghanistan now based in Islamabad, told the Post that the Quetta region’s refugee camps were “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.
During Ramazan, 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.
Experts who spoke to the Post said unlike Pakistani Taliban groups in Fata, the Quetta Shura is considered uninterested in operations inside Pakistan. Maj-Gen Abbas, however, rejected the suggestion that because the Quetta Taliban were not attacking Pakistani targets, Pakistan was not interested in combating them. He said he hoped the Swat campaign had overcome any concerns Washington might have about Pakistan’s willingness to take on the insurgents. If the United States has information about Taliban leaders in Balochistan, “tell us who and where they are”, he said. “We will not allow your forces inside, but if you lead, we will follow.”
But Ambassador 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 religious fighters to operate against India and elsewhere and that the same groups had now turned against the state.
“You cannot tolerate vipers in your bosom without getting bitten,” Ambassador 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.”