Looking for the Taliban: check Quetta

In the media Friday Times: Pakistan's First Independent Weekly Paper - 6th October 2006

Malik Siraj Akbar is a SAF Group Scholarship student from Pakistan, class of 2006 at the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ), Chennai, India. He writes While it is difficult to say who is or is not a Talib, one thing is clear: Quetta and other areas are swarming with people who are rabidly anti-US.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly accused Pakistan of being a source of shelter and support for the revived Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. But in an interview with Newsweek on 2nd October, Karzai took his accusations one step further by saying that Mullah Omar was in Quetta “for sure” and that President Pervez Musharraf knew this. In fact, according to Karzai, Afghanistan had given Musharraf the GPS numbers of Omar’s house as well as the telephone number.

There are constant reports coming in of Taliban operating from northern Balochistan in the areas of Chaman and Spinboldak; there is much talk also about Taliban presence in Quetta. During Musharraf’s recently concluded trip to the United States, these reports again came up and the Afghan president constantly argued that the Taliban were regrouping in Quetta, which was now the ‘Taliban headquarter’. For his part, Musharraf termed these allegations “most ridiculous”.

So what’s really going on?

When TFT contacted government officials to get an answer to this question, no one was willing to speak about the ‘sensitive issue’. Chief Minister Jam Mohammad Yousaf’s press secretary promised an appointment with the CM but later said it was not possible due to the CM’s busy schedule in the week. Balochistan Governor, Owais Ahmed Ghani’s military secretary too was reluctant to commit. The Home Minister was out of station and the inspector general of police was not willing to talk to the media.

All one has to go by are official statements, the most recent being that given by Governor Ghani and CM Jam Yousaf, at a high-level meeting in Quetta. They declared the allegations of Taliban re-grouping in Quetta as ludicrous and also announced that security on the Pak-Afghan border would be tightened by deploying more Frontier Corps (FC) personnel.

“No one, including the Taliban, will be allowed to use Balochistan’s territory for terrorist activities,” CM Jam Yousaf said at the meeting, adding that the Balochistan government had been taking “stern action” against suspect Taliban in the past and would continue to do so in the future. “Pakistan is actively engaged in the ‘war on terrorism’ and has contributed much more to this war than any other county in the world. No Taliban or Al Qaeda members are present in Quetta and the government had been hunting all suspected terrorists,” he concluded.

Ironically, despite official claims that there are no Taliban in Quetta, the government also says it has arrested a large number of Taliban operatives from the area. “Where these Taliban supporters come from and how long they’ve been here remains anybody’s guess,” said an observer. “With the [Musharraf] regime engaged on several other internal and external fronts, it has failed to effectively curb the rapidly regrouping Taliban.”

Observers also feel it is the government’s failure to implement madrassah reforms and settle the political crisis in the province that has paved the way for a Taliban comeback. “There can be no positive results until the government starts monitoring religious schools where the minds of the young are filled with ideas of hate and militancy,” says one observer.

The Taliban enjoy the overwhelming moral support of some sections of the Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal, the second largest partner in the Balochistan government. “The MMA has been a vocal opponent of government raids against the suspected Taliban,” said an observer.

  Maulana Noor Mohammad, provincial chief of Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), has been one of the biggest opponents of operations against suspected Taliban in Quetta. When the government arrested around 200 Taliban suspects in July this year, he organised a large public rally in Quetta to condemn these raids against those he called, “our Muslim brothers”. “The government is only pleasing its western masters,” Noor said.

In fact, critics of Musharraf’s Taliban policy say that the biggest problem with it is that Musharraf is careful not to crack down too heavily on powerful Islamist radicals – a mix of clerics, army generals and spies – who have retained their Taliban links. “There seems to be a twin-track policy, even if it sometimes moves in opposite directions,” one western official says. “This means that officials turn a blind eye to Taliban in centres such as Quetta.”

This year, law enforcement agencies in Quetta conducted what they claim to be several successful raids against the suspected Taliban at religious schools and private hospitals. Such raids take place about once a month. Earlier in July this year, Quetta police rounded up about 100 Afghan nationals who they said were all Taliban operatives. The arrested persons also included a Taliban commander, Hamdullah. Following the tip-off provided by Hamdullah, the police conducted another raid the same week and arrested a hundred Taliban suspects from a madrassah.

“Who can say with any amount of certainty that the arrested men were actually Taliban,” points one observer.

On August 15, the police rounded up around 29 Taliban suspects following a successful raid on a private hospital in Quetta. The suspected Taliban were reportedly under-treatment in Quetta when the police nabbed them. Then, on September 14, Quetta police claimed to have arrested another 14 Taliban in a similar raid on another private hospital.

While the US-led hunt for the Taliban continues relentlessly in Afghanistan, sources say finding the insurgents is a far easier task in neighbouring Pakistan: you just stroll down to the shops in Quetta where you find posters of Osama bin Laden brandishing a Kalashnikov and cassettes with recordings of speeches and poems calling young men to join the jihad or mourning martyrs. Gory covers match the themes – crossed swords dripping with infidel blood, battlewagons loaded with black-turbaned fighters, and beatific images of bearded militants now detained in Guant´┐Żnamo Bay.

According to a British newspaper, the men sitting cross-legged behind the counter call themselves staunch Taliban supporters. “We will not go home until there is an Islamic government in Afghanistan,” says shop owner, Muhammad Gul. Others go much further: “I am a mujahid and I will fight to the end of my life,” says Yar Muhammad, a 22-year-old Talib who says he has just completed guerrilla operations in Afghanistan.

Later, in the car, he describes the insurgent’s life of training to fire rockets and planting roadside bombs; conducting night-time attacks against Americans and then escaping under the nose of three armies. “We change our clothes and take off the turban to disguise ourselves. Some Taliban even shave,” he says.

Sources say many like Muhammad have now come to Quetta’s religious seminaries from where they will go back to the battle. “The terrain [in Balochistan] is very favourable to the insurgents,” says Shoukat Haider Changezi, director general of the Levies, a rural police force. “The state would need a phenomenal amount of resources to be effective.”

Pak-Afghan relations have, at this point, hit an all-time low. There is now talk of holding jirgas with tribal elders to empower them and move them away from supporting the Taliban. With all else having failed, it is difficult to say how far this plan will go to stabilise the region and help cut down on insurgent raids.