Taliban Haven in Pakistani City Raises Fears
Carolyn Drake for The New York Times
A street in Kushlak, Pakistan, near Quetta. United States officials say Taliban leaders have been stirring violence in Afghanistan from havens in the Quetta area.
WASHINGTON — Even as C.I.A. drone aircraft pound Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal region, there is growing concern among American military and intelligence officials about different militants’ havens in Pakistan that they fear could thwart American military efforts in Afghanistan this year.
American officials are increasingly focusing on the Pakistani city of Quetta, where Taliban leaders are believed to play a significant role in stirring violence in southern Afghanistan.
The Taliban operations in Quetta are different from operations in the mountainous tribal areas of Pakistan that have until now been the main setting for American unease. But as the United States prepares to pour as many as 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan, military and intelligence officials say the effort could be futile unless there is a concerted effort to kill or capture Taliban leaders in Quetta and cut the group’s supply lines into Afghanistan.
From Quetta, Taliban leaders including Mullah Muhammad Omar, a reclusive, one-eyed cleric, guide commanders in southern Afghanistan, raise money from wealthy Persian Gulf donors and deliver guns and fresh fighters to the battlefield, according to Obama administration and military officials.
“When their leadership is where you cannot get to them, it becomes difficult,” said Gen. Dan K. McNeill, who until June was the senior American commander in Afghanistan and recently retired. “You are restrained from doing what you want to do.”
The Taliban leaders have operated from Quetta for several years, but the increasing violence in southern Afghanistan suggests that the flow of arms, fighters and money there from the Pakistani sanctuary may be increasing.
Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan Province, abuts the provinces in southern Afghanistan where the war’s fiercest fighting has occurred. American intelligence officials said that the dozen or so militants who were thought to make up the Taliban leadership in the area were believed to be hiding either in sprawling Afghan refugee camps near Quetta or in some of the city’s Afghan neighborhoods.
American and other Western officials have long said they suspect that Pakistani security services do little to address the presence of senior Taliban commanders in Quetta. Many of the officials would speak only on condition of anonymity because of the delicate intelligence and diplomatic issues involved.
One former intelligence official with years of experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan likened the situation to America’s difficulties during the Vietnam War, when Vietnamese guerrillas used a haven in Cambodia to bring in fresh troops and weapons.
For the past year, the top American goal in Pakistan has been to press the national government in Islamabad for help elsewhere, in killing and capturing Qaeda fighters in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan, who intelligence analysts say pose a direct threat to the United States.
But NATO generals and diplomats have long complained that the command and control of Taliban fighters, distinct from Qaeda insurgents, trace back to southern Pakistan, and that Pakistani security services ignore the threat. Pakistani officials have said they lack good intelligence about the specific locations of Taliban leaders, assertions that some American intelligence operatives greet with some skepticism.
“We’ve made progress going into the tribal areas and North-West Frontier Province against Al Qaeda, but we have not had a counterpart war against the Quetta shura,” said a senior Obama administration official, using the term for the Taliban’s ruling council. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said the Obama administration will adopt a tough love approach to Pakistan: threatening to cut off military aid to Islamabad unless it carries out a crackdown on militants operating throughout the country.
“Pakistan will act against any individuals involved with Al Qaeda or the Taliban about whom we have actionable intelligence,” Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, said in an interview. “The problem is we do not always get actionable intelligence in Quetta in particular. It’s a very messy area.”
Some current and former American intelligence officials are sympathetic to difficulties that the government in Islamabad faces in rounding up Taliban leaders. Baluchistan has long been an area hostile to government control, and even Pakistani spies have difficulty building a network of sources there, they said.
Last week, gunmen in Quetta kidnapped an American working for the United Nations in the city and killed his driver, leading Pakistani security officials to lock down transit routes in and out of the city.
Aides to Richard C. Holbrooke, Mr. Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American military commander in the region, said the issue of crippling the Taliban leadership was getting more attention from their bosses. Mr. Holbrooke is paying his first visit to the region this week in his new job.
The influence of the Taliban leadership over operations on the ground in Afghanistan is a matter of some debate among American commanders and intelligence analysts.
“The Quetta shura is extremely important,” said Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, a retired former commander of American forces in Afghanistan who is advising General Petraeus on a strategic review of his region, including Pakistan and Afghanistan. “They are the intellectual and ideological underpinnings of the Taliban insurgency.”
But Gen. David D. McKiernan, currently the top military commander in Afghanistan, said in a speech in Washington in November that any assessment that said the Quetta shura’s dictates were closely followed by field commanders “gives the Taliban far too much credit for coherency at the operational and strategic level.”
“They don’t have that,” the general added.
That may be true, intelligence analysts say, but few disagree that weakening the Taliban leadership in Pakistan, coupled with achieving battlefield gains with the larger American-led force on the ground in southern Afghanistan, could begin to reverse the adverse momentum in the war.
“It would remove the ideological standard-bearer, which also provides links to external financing in the gulf,” a senior administration official said. “It wouldn’t erase the rural-based insurgency and narcotics trade in Afghanistan, but the notion is, if you can disrupt them at the top levels, it will have an impact at the bottom, down in the provinces.”
Even more intriguing, American officials say, is this prospect: diminishing the Taliban leadership in Quetta and weakening its influence over Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan might open the way to engage more moderate Taliban politically.
“The challenge has always been to exploit some cleavages between the top leadership, which we’ve ruled out of bounds in terms of reconciliation, and the layers one or two layers beneath them,” said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former South Asia specialist for the State Department.
In recent years, there have been some significant successes in the hunt for Taliban leaders. Pakistani operatives tracked Mullah Dadullah, a senior aide to Mullah Omar, as he crossed the Afghan border in May 2007, and he was later killed by American and Afghan troops.
Yet most of the arrests in Pakistan have coincided with visits by senior American officials.
The arrest of Mullah Obeidullah, the former Taliban defense minister, in Quetta in February 2007 coincided with the visit of Vice President Dick Cheney to Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is unclear whether Mullah Obeidullah is still in Pakistani custody or was secretly released as part of a prisoner exchange to free Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, who was kidnapped last February and released three months later.
Mullah Rahim, the Taliban’s top commander in Helmand Province, was arrested in Quetta last summer two weeks after Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a top C.I.A. officer visited Islamabad to confront Pakistani leaders with evidence of ties between the country’s powerful spy service and militants operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas. But an American intelligence official said last week that Mullah Rahim was no longer in custody.
“The dilemma at the moment,” said Seth Jones, a terrorism analyst at the RAND Corporation, “is that some elements of the Pakistani government continue to support the Taliban as a proxy organization in Afghanistan.”