Pakistan's western Baluchistan province borders Afghanistan and Iran. It's believed to be home to Taliban leaders from Afghanistan. Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal regions, in dark yellow, lie to the north.
Pakistan's western Baluchistan province borders Afghanistan and Iran. It's believed to be home to Taliban leaders from Afghanistan. Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal regions, in dark yellow, lie to the north. Lindsay Powell/NPR
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson spent two weeks traveling with the U.S. military to remote and difficult spots along the long border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, reporting on efforts on the Afghan side to secure this critical frontier.
In a two-part series, NPR's Jackie Northam reports on Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the border with Afghanistan and a U.S. aerial campaign on the area. The remote region, effectively outside the Pakistani government's control, is a haven for Taliban and al-Qaida leaders.
The Obama administration is expected to release its new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan on Friday.
One of the ideas that has reportedly been discussed is expanding U.S. missile attacks on militant targets in tribal areas of Pakistan, perhaps even into Baluchistan.
The western province of Baluchistan is a vast, underdeveloped region bordering Afghanistan and Iran, and is rich in oil, minerals and natural gas reserves. The Pakistani government has long tangled with Baluch separatists who want sole rights to those natural resources.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Taliban, fleeing from U.S. troops in Afghanistan, also has made Baluchistan its home. The Taliban's senior leadership is believed to be in or around the provincial capital, Quetta, and is believed to be directing attacks in neighboring Afghanistan.
"The main traditional center of Taliban activity is ... in the Baluchi area. It is, at this point in time, by far the most effective threat to NATO and U.S. and Afghan forces," says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Cordesman and other analysts say the Taliban operates openly in Baluchistan and that the militants easily infiltrate southern Afghanistan to launch attacks and then slip back across the border. The leadership, known as the Quetta Shura, helps funnel weapons and money collected from Arabs in the Persian Gulf area into Afghanistan and helps bring opium out of the country.
Washington has put pressure on the Pakistanis to go after the Quetta Shura. Daniel Markey, a South Asia specialist with the Council on Foreign Relations, says that hasn't been successful.
"I think the most skeptical people do believe that the Pakistanis not only do little to rout out the Afghan Taliban leadership in Quetta, but actually provide them with, if not active assistance, at least passive assistance in that Afghan Taliban do not fear threat in this area," he says.
U.S. Army Gen. Dan McNeill, who until last year was the NATO commander in Afghanistan, said on several occasions he alerted senior Pakistani army officials when there was compelling evidence about a Taliban gathering around Quetta. McNeill says he received a muted response.
When he requested that senior leaders in the Pakistani army put more pressure on insurgent leaders believed to be around the Quetta area, McNeill says, the response typically was a nod and "Yep, we've got to do something about that."
Part of the problem is the Pakistanis don't see the Afghan Taliban as their enemy. Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency, the ISI, helped create the Taliban. Seth Jones, with the Rand Corp., says continuing support for the militant group is seen as a hedge for the day when U.S. and NATO troops leave Afghanistan.
"There clearly are some within Pakistan's national security establishment who view these organizations as proxy forces for pushing into Afghan territory," says Jones.
Removing the leadership in Quetta could severely disrupt Taliban operations in Afghanistan. Some analysts say if the Pakistanis won't do it, the U.S. should take action.
Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that the U.S. is considering missile attacks — fired from Predator drones — on Taliban targets in Baluchistan. It would be similar to what the U.S. is doing in Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal areas, except that parts of Baluchistan, particularly Quetta, are built-up areas and under Pakistan's rule.
Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations says using Predator strikes in Baluchistan would cross a red line and would likely fuel further unrest in Pakistan. Markey says the Obama administration needs to ask a fundamental question: Which matters more, shutting down the Quetta Shura and its ability to operate from Pakistan to destabilize efforts in Afghanistan or avoiding further destabilization of Pakistan itself?
Markey says missile strikes on Baluchistan could also jeopardize Pakistani cooperation on other issues.