RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The president's new strategy places considerable emphasis on Pakistan, as we've heard, and the al-Qaida and Taliban militants who operate from that country. The US is already carrying out missile strikes against militants in the tribal areas of western Pakistan. And one idea that's reportedly been under discussion is extending those attacks to a province in Pakistan, where the Afghan Taliban are believed to be based.
NPR's Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM: Pakistan's province of Baluchistan is a vast, underdeveloped region on the far western reaches of the country. Bordering both Afghanistan and Iran, Baluchistan 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.
But since 9-11, the Taliban, fleeing from U.S. troops in Afghanistan, has also 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, says Anthony Cordesman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): 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.
NORTHAM: Cordesman and other analysts say the Taliban operates openly in Baluchistan. Its 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.
Daniel Markey, a South Asia specialist with the Council on Foreign Relations, says Washington has put pressure on the Pakistanis to go after the Quetta Shura, but that hasn't been successful.
Mr. DANIEL MARKEY (Council on Foreign Relations): 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.
NORTHAM: U.S. Army General Dan McNeill, until last year, was the NATO commander in Afghanistan. McNeill said on several occasions, when there was compelling evidence about a Taliban gathering around Quetta, he alerted senior Pakistani army officials but received, at best, a lukewarm response.
General DAN MCNEILL (US Army): I requested of the senior leadership in the Pakistani army if they might put a little more pressure on those insurgent leaders that we believe to be around the Quetta area.
NORTHAM: And what was the response to that?
Mr. MCNEILL: The response typically was nod and yep, yeah, we've got to do something. Yeah.
NORTHAM: 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. Continuing support for the militant group is seen as a hedge for the day when U.S. and NATO troops leave Afghanistan, says Seth Jones with the RAND Corporation.
Mr. SETH JONES (RAND Corporation): There clearly are some within Pakistan's national security establishment who view these organizations as proxy forces for pushing into Afghan territory.
NORTHAM: 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 of law.
Daniel Markey 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.
Mr. MARKEY: Which is, which matters more: shutting down the Quetta Shura and their ability to operate from Pakistan to destabilize efforts in Afghanistan, or maybe it matters more to avoid further destabilization of Pakistan itself.
NORTHAM: Markey says missile strikes on Baluchistan could also jeopardize Pakistani cooperation on other issues.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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