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Pakistan struggles to identify Taliban

With violence rising in Afghanistan – including a suicide bombing Monday – attention focuses on Pakistani city.

By David MonteroCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 29, 2006


Imadad Ullah isn't afraid to talk about being a Taliban student, even after two of his friends walked away when the topic came up. They might have good reason: Mr. Ullah says that Taliban members are arrested every day in this region.

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His friends wandered back into their madrassah, where some 50 other Afghan Taliban study. But Ullah remained seated by the roadside some 20 miles from Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's Balochistan Province. Ullah wouldn't answer if he or his friends had plans to fight jihad in Afghanistan. He only spoke of the prowess of those already fighting.

"We are fighting. We have a lot of ammunition in Afghanistan. When the Taliban fell, we kept a lot of ammunition in the mountains," he says.

Ullah is one of an untold number of Afghan Taliban living inside this provincial capital and its environs, according to local officials, residents, and journalists. His presence throws a spotlight on a contentious debate: British military and Afghan officials have said this capital, which lies about 60 miles from the Afghan border, is the base of operations for the Taliban. Insurgents, they say, cross into Afghanistan for deadly attacks, then recuperate and plan back in Pakistan – where they are safe from allied troops and feel little pressure from Pakistani forces.

These accusations have only intensified as violence in Afghanistan has escalated this year to the worst level since the US-led ouster of the Taliban government in 2001. Monday, a suicide bomber in the southern Afghan province of Helmand blew himself up in a crowded market, killing 17 people and wounding 47.

Pakistani officials admit the presence in their country of some Afghan Taliban – after all, the police have arrested several Taliban officials and commanders and uncoverered Taliban bomb factories after accidental explosions in Quetta. But officials here testily deny that Pakistan has become a Taliban base. Such allegations, they suggest, cannot be corroborated for the same reason that Pakistan hasn't been cracking down more: There is no simple way to identify who is and who isn't a Taliban fighter.

"[Taliban fighters] may be coming. I'm not disputing that," says Chowdhury Muhammad Yaqoob, the inspector general of police in Quetta. "The border is porous. People keep moving in and out," he says. But he denied that any Pakistanis were going to Afghanistan to fight.

And he and other local police say they cannot arrest everyone in Quetta who wears a turban, which is traditionally associated with the Taliban. There are 400,000 Afghans living here, almost all the men wearing the traditional headdress, along with many Pakistanis.

The problem was etched in sharp relief in mid-August, when police arrested 29 wounded Afghan men from Al-Khair, a private hospital in Quetta. The police said 10 had been fighting NATO forces in Afghanistan, and hailed the arrests as a symbol of their crackdown on Taliban fighters. But hospital officials at Al-Khair and others say they have no reason to believe the men were fighters.