October 13, 2009 3:00 am

US focuses on Taliban's 'post office' at border

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As President Barack Obama reconsiders his strategy for the war in Afghanistan, the US military is closely watching the Pakistani city of Quetta from where Taliban commanders are believed to be overseeing the stubborn insurgency across the border.

According to western officials in Islamabad, US officials have focused on Pashtunabad, a dusty suburb of Quetta, which they believe is a vital link between the Taliban's 12-15 member top leadership council, known as the "Quetta shura ", and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In his leaked report, Gen Stanley McChrystal, the US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, also highlighted the Quetta shura as one of the main insurgent groups that threaten the Afghan mission.

Operating under the leadership of Mullah Omar, who remains at large since fleeing Afghanistan following the 2001 invasion, the shura uses its contacts in places such as Pashtunabad to send and receive messages from Afghanistan.

"This place is like the Taliban's post office in Baluchistan," says one western official, referring to the western Pakistani region that borders the southern Afghan province of Helmand. "The people who travel across this border with Taliban connections include those carrying out assignments for the Quetta shura . They carry messages to and from the shura to people on the ground, and work as eyes and ears for the shura ".

In a sign of how seriously Washington views the problem, the US Congress recently imposed a condition on an aid package to Pakistan that requires Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, to certify that Pakistan is acting against militant bases in several areas, including Quetta.

Another western official said the Quetta shura was the closest thing the Taliban had to a central command. Nato powers believe the shura issues battle orders, and that individual commanders ultimately report to the council.

Nooruddin Malangi, an Afghan cleric who expresses sympathy with the Taliban, underscores how tough it is for the US to deal with Quetta-based militants.

Mr Malangi openly claims to be "among those who keep on reinforcing the links between the two cities [Quetta and Kandahar] that are important for the Taliban". But Mr Malangi is just one of thousands of Taliban loyalists who frequently travel across the largely un-policed Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

While Mr Omar is believed to oversee the shura , Thomas Ruttig, codirector of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts' Network, a research group, says he believes the Taliban leader is physically isolated from the council for security reasons.

Mr Ruttig says the Quetta-based leadership gives strategic direction, and may also order specific bombings or assassinations, but he stresses that field commanders also enjoy a high degree of autonomy. "We're not talking about a western army structure or Nato, it's a network of networks."

Mr Ruttig says there have been multiple reports of sightings of senior Taliban figures in Quetta, in spite of Pakistan's denials that it shelters the Taliban leadership. "I would assume the Pakistanis know very well where they are," he says.

Recent rumours that the US Central Intelligence Agency is preparing to launch missile strikes at locations in Baluchistan where Mr Omar may be hiding have sparked furious denials from Pakistani officials that there is a Taliban shura operating from Quetta. "I can say categorically that Mullah Omar is not on our side," says Rehman Malik, Pakistan's interior minister.

One of the unanswered questions about the shura is whether the Taliban leadership is focused on Afgh-anistan or whether they have played a role in the recent attacks in Pakistan.

Mr Ruttig says that while the Quetta shura is focused on the insurgency in Afghanistan, it may provide advice and moral support for members of the loose coalition of groups known as the Pakistani Taliban.

Despite the recent threat from homegrown militants, Mr Ruttig says some Pakistani security officers maintain the view that the Taliban are a potentially useful tool for exerting influence in Afghanistan. "Some people may still think about the Taliban as an option for Afghanistan for a time when the west has withdrawn from there."

Additional reporting James Lamont in New Delhi

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