WASHINGTON - As American troops move deeper into southern Afghanistan to fight Taliban, the militant groups leadership council, known here as Quetta Shura, is now high on the Obama administrations agenda, US Ambassador to Pakistan Anne W Patterson has said, amid reports that Washington may start drone attacks on Balochistans capital.
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, Ambassador Patterson was quoted as saying in the course of a dispatch in The Washington Post, which says that Taliban insurgents have a haven in Pakistan.
Now our troops are there on the other side of the border, and the Quetta Shura is high on Washingtons list, she said.
Patterson also acknowledged that the US 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 militants with missiles fired from remotely-piloted aircraft.
As Patterson put it: Our intelligence on Quetta is vastly less. We have no people there, no cross-border operations, no Predators.
The Post dispatch from Islamabad said US officials are expressing new concerns about the role of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his council of lieutenants, claiming that they launch cross-border strikes from safe havens around Quetta.
From our judgment, there are no Taliban in Balochistan, Maj-Gen Athar Abbas, Pakistans military spokesman, was quoted as saying.
Asked about the names of Quetta Shura leaders provided by Afghan and US 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.
Gen Abbas noted that the recent Pakistani Army operation in the Swat Valley had successfully driven Taliban forces out of the area, and he said he hoped the Swat campaign had overcome any concerns Washington might have about Pakistans willingness to take on the insurgents.
If the US has information about Taliban leaders in Balochistan, tell us who and where they are, he said. We will not allow your forces inside.
Patterson said Pakistani officials had made it crystal clear that they have different priorities from ours, being far more concerned about Taliban attacks inside Pakistan than across the border. She noted that Pakistan had once trained fighters to operate against India and elsewhere and that the same groups have now turned against the state.
You cannot tolerate vipers in your bosom without getting bitten, Patterson said. Our concern is whether Pakistan really controls its territory. There are people who do not threaten Pakistan, but who are extremely important to us.
According to the Post dispatch, Pakistani officials 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 extremists in the northwest border region hundreds of miles away.
As a result, Pakistani and foreign analysts here told the Post that Quetta has suddenly emerged as an urgent but elusive new target as Washington grapples with the Talibans rapidly spreading arc of influence and terror across Afghanistan.
Quetta is absolutely crucial to the Taliban today, Ahmed Rashid, an expert on the Taliban told the Post. From there they get recruits, fuel and fertilizer for explosives, weapons and food. Suicide bombers are trained on that side. They have support from the mosques and madrassas.
Michael Semple, a former UN official in Afghanistan now based in Islamabad, described the Quetta regions refugee camps as 'a great reserve army for the Taliban. He said Pashtun tribes in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan, the Talibans ethnic and spiritual base, have strong ties with those on the Pakistan side.
They are intermarried, they have Pakistani ID cards, and you cant tell the difference, Semple said. On the other hand, he said, reports of Taliban leaders living openly in Quetta, even attending weddings, are nonsense. They are deeply suspicious of the Pakistanis, and they have their own agenda, he said.