What's the Quetta Shura Taliban and why does it matter?

Pakistani officials arrested half the Afghan Taliban leadership – 7 of 15 members of the Quetta Shura Taliban - including the Taliban commander in charge of stopping the US troop surge in southern Afghanistan. What is the Quetta Shura and why might these arrests be critical to the war in Afghanistan?

By , Staff writer

The arrest of half the Afghan Taliban leadership – 7 of 15 members of the Quetta Shura – in Pakistan may be indicative of a kind of pincer movement. While a US led coalition takes on Quetta Shura Taliban ground troops in southern Afghanistan, Pakistani authorities are sweeping up key leaders in Pakistan.

Anand Gopal broke the story of the scale of the arrests earlier today, and he included that Pakistan had captured Mullah Abdul Qayoum Zakir - you can read the story here.

But perhaps we failed to sufficiently highlight how important Mullah Zakir is to the fight in southern Afghanistan.

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"He's the Taliban's military commander in southern Afghanistan. He's in charge of heading off the American surge in the south. If it's true that he's been captured, his removal from the battlefield is serious" says Jeffrey Dressler at the Institute for the Study of War.

Zakir has also been the key liaison between the Quetta Shura Taliban and the other Taliban groups and Al Qaeda, says Dressler. "He's the guy that the QST sent to high-level meetings. He's a jihadist with Guantánamo credentials," he says.

But Dressler is also skeptical that Zakir has been captured. "I'm shocked that the Pakistanis haven't made big news with this," he says.

What's the Quetta Shura?

The Quetta Shura is one of three key Taliban groups, as the Long War Journal noted recently: The Quetta Shura, the Haqqani Network, and the forces of Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin.

The Monitor's own look at some of these Taliban groups can be found here.

While these Taliban groups sometimes coordinate their efforts, in southern Afghanistan – especially in the Helmand River valley – the primary threat to security is the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST).

Here's how Dressler and Carl Forsberg at the Institute for the Study of War describe the QST (a pdf of their January report on the QST can be downloaded here):

The Quetta Shura Taliban, whose operations have systematically spread from southern Afghanistan to the west and north of the country, is by far the most active enemy group in Afghanistan. Virtually all enemy groups operating in the country have sworn allegiance (in varying degrees) to the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

The senior leadership in Quetta … provides direction, guidance.The Quetta-based senior leaders also adjust the campaign as it unfolds if major changes in mission or resources are required. For example, senior leaders in Quetta have issued such requests for reinforcements when coalition and Afghan forces launch operations into critical enemy terrain. This type of guidance allows the Quetta-based leadership to identify its priorities to Afghan-based and sometimes is sues direct orders to the senior commanders in the south.

Senior commanders physically travel to Quetta on occasion to meet with QST senior leadership. These visits are arranged to share “best practices” and “lessons learned” to improve operational effectiveness. Communication between Quetta senior leadership and commanders in Afghanistan is not limited to face-to-face inter action, however. Raids on various compounds throughout the region have netted scores of satellite telephones and two-way radios, suggesting that communication between commanders in and out of the south is commonplace.

Helmand is where the focus of the US troop surge is. Prior to 2009, the ISAF had 7,000 troops in the valley. The number is expected to grow to more than 25,000.

The NATO offensive in Marjah, and the expected offensive coming this summer in Kandahar, are aimed at the heart of the Quetta Shura Taliban.

Similarly the arrests of key members of the Quetta Shura may indicate that the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies are now, in effect, supporting the military effort in southern Afghanistan.

The Quetta Shura – the senior leadership council once based in the western Pakistan city of Quetta – was once comprised of some 20 members. Now, that figure is believed to be down to about 15. It is led by Mullah Muhammad Omar, who set up headquarters in Quetta in 2002. He based the QST on the Supreme Shura, the Taliban council that ran Afghanistan prior to the US invasion in 2001. He continues to see the QST as the legitimate government of Afghanistan and has set up shadow government offices in various provinces.

And while the senior leadership may still sneak back to Quetta for meetings, most of the QST leaders have scattered from there.

An email this morning from Pakistani reporter Behroz Khan says:

Some pro-Kabul Afghan officials in Peshawar have said, on condition of anonymity. that the Quetta Shura has been shifted to Karachi due to fear of [CIA-operated] drone attacks. A similar comment was made by the governor of Kunduz Province, Muhammad Omar last week: the Taliban leaders residing in Quetta and runnning a shadow cabinet have been shifted to Karachi, with the consent of Pakistani officials – a charge which has not been confirmed or rejected by Pakistani officials so far.

The arrest of Quetta Shura leaders – some in Karachi – indicates that their location was no secret to Pakistani intelligence agencies.

The question that many in Western intelligence agencies are asking is: Why has Pakistan apparently turned on the group it has long supported?

The US has sought this for years, why now?

And if Pakistan can nab the No. 2 QST and Mullah Zakir, and half a dozen others, will they capture Mullah Omar too?

Want more detail on the Quetta Shura members? Check out Bill Roggio's post today in the Long War Journal: Who's Who of the Afghan Taliban leadership.

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