According to the Washington Post, the U.S. government says the Taliban have “a new haven in Pakistan,” namely, the city of Quetta in Baluchistan province.
This a lie.
Quetta is not a “new haven” for the Taliban. Mullah Omar and the Taliban’s high command have been based there for years. Moreover, their presence has been an open secret in the region — as is the fact that Mullah Omar and his men could not be there without the tacit agreement of the Pakistani state, and in particular the ISI intelligence agency.
The real mystery is why, even as Mullah Omar and the Taliban’s “Quetta Shura” ordered attack after attack on coalition forces across the border in Afghanistan, the American and British governments said and did nothing about Pakistan’s provision of an open sanctuary for the Taliban in its third-largest city.
It is remotely possible that they did not know for sure that Omar and Co. were hiding in Quetta. After all, Pakistani officials have ritually denied it, and presumably they have refused permission for American intelligence-gathering in Quetta (which is the home of Pakistan’s military academy). And it’s worth remembering that American officials and journalists alike have a tendency to become astonishingly credulous upon arriving within Pakistani airspace. (Read David Ignatius’s column in today’s Washington Post for a tragicomic example.) This is especially true if said Americans are from the generation that came to Pakistan during the anti-Soviet war and developed passionate affection for the country and its military.
However, Indian experts argue that there is no way that U.S. intelligence was unaware of Omar’s longtime presence (or al-Qaeda’s presence) in Quetta. They say the CIA has tacitly accepted Omar’s presence and kept it secret — notably forbearing to use drones in Quetta — perhaps thinking that such restraint might make future negotiations easier. (Some Indian experts even claim that the Taliban are under CIA protection as much as ISI protection, though this presumably reflects traditional Indian paranoia about American aims in the region.)
You might ask why the Pakistani state would tolerate the Taliban’s presence in the camps outside Quetta and within the city itself (Mullah Omar has been called “the mayor of Quetta”), given the tension this could cause with the U.S. and the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. After all, those elements in the ISI and other parts of the Pakistani military who helped the Taliban take over Afghanistan, and who continue to see the ongoing Pakistan–Taliban alliance as a valuable strategic asset, could maintain the relationship without giving Omar such an obvious and outrageous sanctuary.
The explanation for Pakistan’s decision lies in the country’s internal stresses and Quetta’s ethnic makeup. Quetta is the capital of Baluchistan, Pakistan’s largest province. As in neighboring Iran, the Baluchi tribes resent rule by central government, and Baluchistan has been the locus of several bloody revolts (in 1948, 1958, 1963–69, and 1973–77) against central-government rule. (These revolts are of course blamed almost entirely on India, which almost certainly has aided Baluchi rebels in retaliation for Pakistani sponsorship of insurgents in Kashmir and terrorists in other parts of India.)
Baluchi revolts have been suppressed by the Pakistani armed forces with a thoroughness and ruthlessness that might surprise anyone who witnessed their efforts in the NorthWest Frontier and even in Swat. During the reign of Bhutto père, a favorite of foreign liberals, Iranian-supplied helicopter gunships were used to murderous effect against the Baluchi tribes.
Pakistan is absolutely determined to keep Baluchi separatism down, not least because the province is rich in resources, with vast reserves of copper, and because Pakistan has persuaded its Chinese ally to build a huge new deep-water port at Gwadar. The Pashtuns of the province have generally opposed the idea of Baluchi independence. For this reason, Islamabad may be happy to further dilute the population of Baluchistan with Pashtuns, such as the Afghan refugees in the camps and Mullah Omar’s troops.
Too often in the past, U.S. officials have failed to understand that such domestic imperatives and Pakistan’s ongoing obsession with India are the things that really determine Islamabad’s relationship with the Taliban. However, the briefings that the U.S. government has given to the Washington Post, announcing the “new haven” in Quetta, may be an encouraging signal that something is changing in Washington’s approach to Pakistan. Dropping the pretense that we know nothing of Mullah Omar’s safe haven in Quetta could even mean that the new “Af-Pak” strategy outlined by General McCrystal is already being adopted, at least in part, and that the old disingenuousness about Pakistan’s role in terrorism and subversion in Afghanistan is about to fall away.
(For years it has driven our Afghan allies crazy that we invite the Pakistani military to “tripartite commission” talks on Afghan security with Afghan and NATO forces, even though everyone knows that Pakistani officers have fought and even been killed alongside Taliban officers, just as they fought and were killed alongside the anti-Soviet mujahedeen.)
The fact that America — in the form of the anonymous “U.S. officials” quoted in the Washington Post — is going public about the Taliban (and likely al-Qaeda) sanctuary in Quetta could be a warning to Pakistan and the world that the Predators will come and it will no longer be such a safe haven. After all, if Mullah Omar and Co. no longer feel safe, they are more likely to come to the table — and to come in desperation, rather than as victors.
– Jonathan Foreman is an editor-at-large for Standpoint in London. He writes frequently about South Asian affairs for publications including National Review, Commentary, and the Daily Telegraph magazine.