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Pakistan earthquake hits Afghan Taliban haven

The massive Pakistan earthquake caused minimal damage, welcome news to a government trying to keep inquisitive reporters away from the Afghan Taliban stronghold of Balochistan.

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Far from ousting the shura (council), operatives of Pakistan’s spy agency have been attending their meetings, according to a June 2010 report by Matt Waldman published by an affiliate of the London School of Economics. The Pakistani military called the report “rubbish.”

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Pakistani security forces did round up half the shura in a series of raids early last year – but apparently to keep them more close under thumb, rather than remove them from Quetta. The roundup targeted shura members who were involved in nascent talks with the Afghan government without the involvement of Islamabad. Suddenly, the Pakistani government knew exactly where to find the leadership after years of denials. (Pakistani leaders officially deny this consensus interpretation of events, pointing out that the raids involved US forces.)

For years, the US has reportedly tried to extend drone attacks beyond the tribal mountain regions to Balochistan but have met firm opposition from Pakistan. Islamabad has more than Afghan geopolitics to consider with such a request: Quetta itself is an urban center unlike the usual drone targets, and the province is home to a separatist movement that has proven difficult to pacify without the possible aggravation of US missile strikes.

Closely guarded area

In a set of leaked cables in 2009, US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry warned that the Pakistani military is not addressing “the role of the Quetta shura, which has the most influence over the insurgency in southern Taliban strongholds…. Until this sanctuary problem is fully addressed, the gains from sending additional forces may be fleeting.”

His view did not prevail in the war deliberations, however, and Mr. Obama ordered an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.

Aside from occasional eruptions from leaked cables or reports like Mr. Waldman’s, the awkwardness of the location of the Taliban high command usually fades into the background of daily media reports from the region since it isn’t “new.”

Journalists visiting Pakistan are officially barred from traveling there. Visas invariably say “Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi only,” a provision that Pakistani officials say is for journalist safety. In practice, the restrictions are often ignored with seemingly no consequences. However, few foreigners – journalists or otherwise – venture to Quetta given the dangers of operating there. When New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall traveled to the city in 2006, she later wrote intelligence agents followed her every move – then broke into her hotel and punched her in the face twice.


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