November 5, 2010

All Eyes on Quetta

No one has any illusions of Quetta, Pakistan. For years rumored as the base of Taliban leadership, the “Quetta Shura” finds itself in the news every now and then, often used as a target by the US media to denigrate Islamabad’s sincerity. But rarely does a senior Taliban member drop a blatant shout-out, meaning Quetta just blipped loudly on Washington’s radar.

Downplaying intermediary negotiations between the Taliban and Kabul, the anonymous “bulky, bearded” official declared, "None of the big Taliban is talking. I have been to Quetta and I know the council there is not talking."

Obviously US officials don’t need this commander's opinion to assume the “Quetta Shura’s” presence. Believing it to be the Taliban’s headquarters after its leadership fled the US-led invasion, the White House and Pentagon have formulated contingency plans to bomb or raid Quetta for senior officials, notably Taliban chief Mullah Omar. Warned by Islamabad that any incursion would prove counter-productive, both in political and civilian collateral, and in dire need of Pakistan’s full support, Washington has enjoyed no real choice in the matter.
But how much will the balance shift as July 2011 approaches?

Talks with the Taliban aren’t producing encouraging results. No side actually seems interested in ending the war, only improving their own position in case of prolonged conflict. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has reached out to Taliban intermediaries for two purposes: as a contingency to America’s exit and a buffer to Pakistan’s influence with the Taliban. America, on the other hand, goes along with negotiations to keep up appearances, trapped by General David Petraeus’s confession that America cannot kill its way to victory.

The massive barrage aimed at Taliban middle and senior leadership suggests the real nature of US strategy, supported by the fallback plan of pressuring the Taliban into negotiations on US-terms. Washington would prefer that the situation never reaches this point.

Despite the countless reports and rumors of Taliban participation, its actions demonstrate the same line of thinking as Karzai and Washington - negotiating for appearances. So close to July 2011, the Taliban appears to have no intentions of sincerely negotiating, only positioning themselves for a potential takeover of the south. Most of the feelers possess individual demands rather than a unified position from the Taliban.

Habibullah Fauzi, a peace council member who once served as the Taliban's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, explained, "It's not because they can bring Taliban fighters with them that they are talking. Some are facing problems and don't know if they can stay safe in Pakistan; or some were not given the powerful positions in the Taliban they thought they might have."

In his interview, the anonymous 15-year Taliban veteran went so far as to claim the Quetta Shura is protected by Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Kashmir seperatists group funded by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Lies are always possible, but such blatant information like this suggests a degree of truth. The Taliban have every reason to close ranks and using the “Quetta Shura” by name provides a powerful illustration. Leaflets from Mullah Omar have since been distributed to mosques in Afghanistan, threatening death for collaborating with Kabul.

Again, Washington already feels sufficient reason to base its last resort on a Quetta operation, as a bargaining chip against Islamabad and as a real tactical maneuver to shortcut US strategy. That Mullah Omar's capture or death would end the war may be well-wishing, but today’s news surely provided another jolt. Considering the impasse between all sides and the mutual suspicions between Washington and the Taliban, it’s not implausible that force is applied to break the deadlock.

The closer July 2011 gets, the more likely North Waziristan and Quetta turn into the decisive battlefields in America’s war in Afghanistan.

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