Pakistani unrest is Taliban boon

Ethnic ties, separatist tradition help the militia blend into Pakistan's Baluchistan region.

Driving through a market full of turbaned Pashtuns just an hour outside of Quetta, taxi driver Abdul Salam says he doesn't believe the Pakistani government when they say they cannot find any Taliban.

"They are everywhere," says Mr. Salam. His beefy hands steer the beat-up Toyota past a collection of young men, wearing the distinctive black turbans of Islamic seminary students. "Not everyone here is a fighter, but everyone here supports the Taliban."

It's easy to see why Baluchistan would become a haven for the Taliban. Along the 500 mile border with Afghanistan, Pashtun tribesmen are dominant and provide easy cover for their Pashtun relatives who make up the majority of the Taliban fighters.

But along with the anonymity of tribal garb, a long tradition of antigovernment sentiment here is aiding the Islamic militia. Since Pakistan's inception, a significant - and at times violent - independence movement has festered in Baluchistan. While these nationalists have been sidelined of late, they have been replaced by a religious coalition that supports the Taliban agenda and denounces the US presence in Central Asia.

Now Baluchistan, which also borders Iran, is being viewed by many as the home of a political and social movement that forms an underground railroad responsible for ferrying supplies, money, and men to fight against the Afghan government and its international supporters.

"We are not in the business that these people [the Taliban] should think that this is a safe haven for them," says Shoaib Suddle, Baluchistan's inspector general of police, a job overseen by the central government. "But at the same time, it is difficult for us to identify who is who. It is so easy for them to mix with the local population.... They disappear."

Sitting at his office in downtown Quetta, Maulana Noor Mohammad is hardly invisible. He's a member of Pakistan's National Assembly and part of the ruling coalition of religious parties that controls Baluchistan.

"The Taliban [retreated] because they wanted to avoid the bloodshed, and we decided to fight by guerrilla war," says the Maulana Mohammad. A visitor asks the maulana whether he meant to say "we" or "they" when describing the Taliban. He says "we."

"Now in the whole of Afghanistan, there is not a single place where there is peace," the Islamist lawmaker says proudly. "It took some years to defeat the Russians, but it won't take much time to defeat America."

A few moments later, a local reporter's mobile phone rings. The caller is a commander in the Taliban, and he asks the reporter to hand the phone to Maulana Noor Mohammad for a quick chat.

Such warm liaisons are a far cry from the policy of President Pervez Musharraf. But to squeeze the current powerbrokers in Baluchistan, Islamabad cannot easily turn to their opponents - the separatists.

For more than 50 years, Baluch nationalists have sporadically fought for a separate Baluch nation, cobbled together from parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. Their last major campaign, put down in the 1970s, killed tens of thousands of Baluch activists and Pakistani soldiers.

Today's Baluch nationalists have gone mainstream, promoting a secular agenda against the Islamist parties. But nationalist leaders see the Taliban menace as a problem of Islamabad's own making. It was the Pakistani government and its allies abroad that supported and funded the Taliban through native Islamist parties.

"It is difficult to fight against a culture which has been supported institutionally," says Sanaullah Baloch, a Pakistani senator and member of the Baluchistan National Party. "This fundamentalist culture has been supported by rogue states, and they're not wiling to stop support of the Taliban."

The growing concern over Pakistan's sincerity in fighting the Taliban has led to a substantial rethinking of America's relationship with Pakistan, a country the White House regularly calls a "frontline state in the war against terrorism."

Early this month, a delegation of former US ambassadors to Pakistan released a tough report calling on the US to reduce aid to Pakistan because of "Pakistan's failure to do a better job in preventing the use of its territory by terrorists." The report, written by former ambassadors Frank Wisner and Nicholas Platt, concluded that "US and Pakistani policies only partially coincide."

But Mr. Suddle, the police chief, says the problem is not policy; It's geography, and culture, and time.

"My jurisdiction is only towns and cities; that's only about 5 percent of the state, but with about one-half of the state's population," says Suddle. "If the Afghans are ready, we are happy to send everyone - all the Afghan refugees - across." In fact, he notes, Pakistani police have done this on occasion, but the Afghan government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees complained and forced the Pakistanis to take them back.

"These are rather difficult issues that people should understand before we start labeling Quetta as a safe haven for the Taliban," he says.

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