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Taliban Finding Refuge In Pakistani Border Region

by @ 7:09 am on September 29, 2009. Filed under Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, Foreign Affairs, Pakistan, War On Terror

U.S. military analysts are saying that the Taliban are taking refuge in a previously forgotten area of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border:

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.”

The Pakistanis, meanwhile, are denying that there’s a problem at all:

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.”

Yea, I’m sure we can trust you with that.

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