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.
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.
"We haven't seen anything that will give us the sense that these are Taliban. They are simple Afghans. All have long beards and turbans. He's not carrying any rockets," says Muhammad Amer, a hospital administrator. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which referred the men from Afghanistan, also says there is no way to confirm if the men are Taliban. Paul Fruh, ICRC's head of office in Quetta, adds that innocent civilians are wounded in southern Afghanistan every day – and that many of the men are afraid to seek medical help because they are often falsely accused of being Taliban.
More concrete evidence does exist, however, suggesting there are more concrete leads to follow. Mr. Yaqoob, for example, referred to a recent raid on a house that uncovered materials for improvised explosive devices, which are commonly used against allied forces in Afghanistan.
"Should our entire intelligence agencies be working on this? That's probably what the Western world wants. But there are other problems in this country," Yaqoob says.
Local residents take exception to this stance, saying anyone who has lived for a long time in Quetta knows where the Taliban and its commanders live.
"You can usually make out these people. They have very costly vehicles," says Tahir Mohammed Khan, a former federal information minister and now a human rights activist. "They're moving around openly. I know them in a social context."
Like many others, Mr. Khan could not provide specific names or addresses, but he listed the general areas where the Taliban dwell: Pashtunabad, a bustling enclave with narrow lanes, and also the adjoining Satellite Town. Local journalists also pinpoint Eastern Bypass, a sprawling brick warren on the outskirts of town.
Yaqoob, the police chief, maintained that his force always seizes upon actionable intelligence. In October 2005, police arrested the Taliban's chief spokesman, Abdul Latif Hakimi, who they said had been living in Quetta.
Although it is difficult to assess precisely how many people have taken up arms to fight, there is no shortage of sympathy for the Taliban here.
"I'm not asking anyone to take part in [the war in Afghanistan]. But we have an ideology; we support those people who have a right to fight against foreign invasion. If someone decided to go, I would support him," says Hafeez Fazal Mohammed Barech, Quetta president of Jamiat Ulema-e Islam, a hard-line Islamist party. His remarks seem to be typical of the Pashtuns living in Quetta, who constitute a majority of the city's 2 million residents. Mr. Barech, however, denied that madrassahs like his organization's provide militant training.
Around dinner tables and in drawing rooms, many residents of Quetta suggest that theirs is becoming a captured city. "The whole of the city, by its attitude, is Talib," says Mr. Khan, the activist. "Their thinking, their culture, everything is like the Taliban."