PAKISTANI CITY SERVES AS A REFUGE FOR THE TALIBAN
At a time when the Taliban is making its strongest push in years to regain influence and territory across the border in Afghanistan, this mountain-ringed provincial capital has become an increasingly brazen hub of activity by the Islamist militia.
Quetta serves as a place of rest and refuge for Taliban fighters between battles, a funneling point for cash and armaments, a fertile recruiting ground and a sometime meeting point for the group’s fugitive leaders, say aid workers, local officials, diplomats and others.
“Everybody is here,” said Mahmood Khan Achakzai, a Quetta-based member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, describing the routine comings and goings of senior Taliban commanders in Quetta, the capital of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.
The apparent ease of Taliban movement in and out of Quetta comes against a backdrop of increasingly bitter squabbling by authorities in Afghanistan and Pakistan over who bears responsibility for the militia’s use of tribal areas on the Pakistani side of the border as a staging ground for attacks that have killed at least 180 North Atlantic Treaty Organization and allied troops this year.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai this month blamed Pakistan for orchestrating Taliban activity. Pakistan, a key ally in President Bush’s “war on terror,” in turn accused Karzai of seeking a scapegoat for his own failures of governance.
Quetta is a microcosm for these tensions. Local Pakistani authorities insist that they keep a tight lid on Taliban activity -- a claim derided by many residents of this city of about 1.5 million people, and one backed by little demonstrable evidence.
Residents described nerve-racking random encounters with Taliban convoys bristling with weaponry and hearing volleys of automatic-weapons fire echoing from within some walled-off madrasas. Taliban recruitment videos sell briskly in stalls tucked between the gun emporiums and carpet shops of Quetta’s raucous main market.
“For the Taliban, this is considered to be a safe haven,” said Syed Ali Shah, a journalist who writes for the Baluchistan Times. “They come here, they regroup and retrain.”
At a local madrasa, or Islamic seminary, black-turbaned young men gathered around a makeshift fountain on a recent day, performing their ablutions before noon prayers. One, then two, then half a dozen of them aimed steely glares at outsiders lingering near the rusty green gate of the mud-brick compound.
The madrasa is one of dozens in and around Quetta at which Taliban ideology is openly preached. From these schools, willing foot soldiers emerge by the hundreds to join the fight against Western forces in Afghanistan.
The Taliban presence in Quetta is helped by the insular and secretive nature of Pashtun tribal society, the virtually unsecured border with Afghanistan and the city’s large population of Afghan refugees, with whom the militia’s members can readily blend.
The city also has close historic, ethnic and cultural ties to the Taliban’s birthplace, the Afghan city of Kandahar, a bone-jarring five hours away by road. Many Pashtun clans have roots on both sides of the border.
Afghan provinces close to Baluchistan have been the scene of some of the heaviest fighting this year between Taliban and Western and allied forces. The bulk of more than 115 suicide attacks against coalition troops has taken place in and near Kandahar, which was the seat of Taliban power when the movement ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
Today in Quetta, it’s almost as if the Taliban never went away.
Some Taliban-affiliated madrasas operate almost in the shadow of police and military installations. On the main road that runs from the border town of Chaman to Quetta, there is only one police checkpoint. On a recent day, two police officers sat in a lean-to, drinking tea and barely glancing up at passing cars.
Pakistani police in Quetta say they have rounded up hundreds of suspected Taliban militants in the last year, and report frequent raids on madrasas suspected of militant ties.
“All the time we are harassing them,” said Salman Syed Mohammed, Quetta’s deputy police inspector-general.
But one Western aid official, speaking on condition of anonymity, described such roundups as a “catch-and-release” program, with most of the detainees seen on the streets again within a matter of days.
Mingling with refugees
Militants who are deported to Afghanistan can make their way back to Pakistan at will, either traveling by motorbike on unmarked border trails or joining the crush of up to 6,000 people, mainly Afghans, who cross the border daily at Chaman.
By mingling with refugees, wounded fighters are able to seek treatment in several Quetta hospitals, which on the whole are better equipped than those on the Afghan side of the frontier. The International Committee of the Red Cross helps arrange medical care in Quetta for injured civilians, and says that inevitably some fighters slip in among them.
“According to international law, once a wounded combatant has put down his weapon, it becomes a humanitarian case,” said Paul Fruh, who heads the Red Cross office in Quetta.
Although most local people are afraid to talk about sightings of senior Taliban figures, commanders are said to have unimpeded access to the city, even highly recognizable ones.
“Dadullah roams these streets, and they know it,” said Achakzai, the lawmaker, referring to Mullah Dadullah, a one-legged Taliban commander with a reputation for egregious brutality.
Pakistan’s security branches demonstrate far more efficiency in keeping track of Western outsiders, including foreign journalists, whose movements in and around Quetta are closely monitored.
New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall was questioned this week by Pakistani security agents who forced their way into her Quetta hotel room and at one point struck her in the face, she said. Gall’s notes and laptop were seized but later returned. The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad said it was looking into the incident.
For the families of young fighters from Quetta and its environs, the subject of their decision to take up arms for the Taliban is taboo. A local leader said the tiny hamlet of Charqol, about a dozen miles northwest of Quetta, had produced half a dozen suicide bombers this year alone. None of their relatives would talk.
The climate of fear extends to foreign humanitarian agencies, whose workers are required to have armed escorts whenever they venture outside Quetta. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office in Quetta was briefly shut down this year in response to a Taliban threat.
“I’m afraid, not as an aid worker but as a citizen, as someone living here,” said Duniya Khan of the refugee agency. “Everyone in this city feels insecure.”