Page last updated at 01:46 GMT, Monday, 25 January 2010

On the trail of the Taliban in Quetta

Children in Pashtunabad street
Taliban leaders are rumoured to be in Quetta - but nobody can pinpoint where

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Quetta

In April 2009, Pakistani forces arrested a Taliban militant from Afghanistan carrying documents for his high command. He said this was based in the south-western Pakistani city of Quetta.

The man - codenamed Khattab by his Taliban group - was initially detained at a checkpoint on the northern suburban fringes of Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province.

Pakistan's government has long denied that prominent Afghan Taliban leaders operate out of Quetta. It does admit that some militants may move across the border as civilians to spend time with their families, many of whom live as refugees in Pakistan.

But among the documents found on Khattab was a written "confession" of a "spy" allegedly working for Nato troops who was caught, interrogated and then beheaded by a Taliban group in the southern Afghan province of Zabul.

Major-General Salim Nawaz, chief of the Frontier Corps (FC) in Balochistan province
How come neither we nor the media have been able to track down a single Taliban leader?
General Salim Nawaz

A reliable source in Quetta who had detailed conversations with Khattab told the BBC that the leaders of the Taliban group, who were apparently based in city, objected to the beheading, saying they slaughtered the wrong man.

"Khattab was tasked by the Taliban commander in Zabul to carry the signed confession to his high-ups as proof that the beheading was not a mistake," the source said.

But it is not clear who Khattab's top leaders are, or where in Quetta they live.

There is also no indication of any arrests having been made on the basis of information provided by him.

"If Taliban leaders are living here, they will obviously have a lifestyle, some form of security arrangements, and will need civic services such as health," says Maj-Gen Salim Nawaz, head of the paramilitary Frontier Corps in Balochistan.

"How come neither we nor the media have been able to track down a single Taliban leader?" he asked.

"Yes, Taliban may be coming and going - they do it all over Pakistan - but to say that there is a [Taliban] shura here that holds sessions, plans [war]… is nonsense."

In Pashtunabad

He may have a point.

Quetta's vast and crowded eastern neighbourhood, inhabited by the ethnic Pashtun group to which the Taliban belong, shows few signs of Taliban activity.

If I have seen one [Taliban], why would I tell you? You look like an American agent
Quetta resident

Several mosque schools (or madrassas) dot the narrow lanes of the neighbourhood, and men wearing Taliban-like turbans are not an infrequent sight.

But the predominant activity in the area is trade and commerce, for which the Pashtuns are better known in these parts.

And flags hoisted on most houses in the area are not those of the Taliban or any Pakistani religious group, but of a secular Pashtun political party, the PMAP, which opposes the Taliban.

"If there were Taliban in Pashtunabad, I wouldn't be selling vegetables here," says Gul Agha, a pushcart vendor who is ethnic Hazara and a Shia Muslim, which the Sunni Muslim Taliban consider un-Islamic.

In another street, a bulky man with a clean-shaven face and Ray-Ban sunglasses reacts angrily to my question if he has seen Taliban in the area.

"If I have seen one, why would I tell you? You look like an American agent."

Gul Agha, the ethnic Hazara vegetale vendor in Pashtoonabad area of Quetta
Shia Muslim Gul Agha says he would not be here if the Taliban were present

People in another likely Taliban hideout, Kharotabad, react in the same way.

Journalists and political circles cautiously indicate that the Taliban have a presence in the city, but they are either uninformed about the specifics or are unwilling to discuss them.

When the Americans attacked Afghanistan in October 2001, most members of the Taliban government in Kabul crossed over into Pakistan's north-western city of Peshawar.

But the Taliban's top leadership, including their spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was based in Kandahar.

Destination Quetta

Quetta, with an Afghan refugee population of more than one million and its history as a staging ground for Afghan fighters operating in southern Afghanistan, was their obvious destination.

quetta map

Geographically, Quetta and areas north and east of it link up with the Waziristan region where the so-called Haqqani network, an Afghanistan-focused militant group, established the Taliban's earliest sanctuaries in the post-9/11 period.

The Haqqani network is loyal to Mullah Omar and has close links with Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda.

Together, the Haqqani network and fighters operating from Balochistan's border with Kandahar and Helmand provinces of Afghanistan form a crescent of Taliban resistance that has been destabilising all of southern and south-central Afghanistan.

Relentless missile strikes by US drones in Waziristan, and a recent operation by Pakistani forces in parts of that region, is pushing an increasing number of Taliban fighters into areas north-east of Quetta.

Taliban spread south

A government official, requesting anonymity, told the BBC that these fighters were flocking to the Toba Kakar area of Balochistan, and it was only a matter of time before they spread west to Qilla Abdullah district, and the Quetta region itself.

Shop on Quetta streets
The predominant activity on Quetta's streets is commercial activity

"There is considerable concern among people in the Zhob-Qilla Saifullah region following the influx of militants and media reports that the drones may target locations in Balochistan as well," a politician from the area said.

There are also credible reports of armed Taliban presence in areas nearer Quetta, especially in some former refugee camps that have now become permanent villages.

It is instructive, though, that the Taliban foot soldier codenamed Khattab was heading straight to Quetta, and not to any of the other areas with a reported Taliban presence.

So while a Taliban shura - or council - with the wherewithal of a war office may not exist in Quetta, the presence of mid-level leaders with the ability to monitor and oversee Taliban activities inside Afghanistan cannot be ruled out.

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