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.

Rizwan Saeed/Reuters
Children stand near a wall which collapsed after an earthquake in Kharan, located in southwest Pakistan's Baluchistan province, Jan. 19. A powerful earthquake of magnitude 7.2 shook southwestern Pakistan early on Wednesday, jolting residents of cities as far apart as Delhi and Dubai, but doing little damage in the sparsely populated region, police said.

Preliminary reports have found minimal damage from a 7.2 earthquake that struck Pakistan early today, alleviating several major concerns for a nation still recovering from last summer’s massive flooding.

The earthquake was felt in neighboring India and as far away as Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, prompting initial fears that Pakistan had yet another calamity on its hands. In addition to dealing with fallout from the 2010 floods, the shaky Pakistani government and overstretched humanitarian groups are also tending to internal refugees displaced by fighting in the nation’s tribal belt.

Officials in Islamabad have an additional reason to breathe a sigh of relief. The temblor struck in the highly sensitive province of Balochistan where government restrictions, along with poor security conditions, have minimized access for foreigners. Light damages there means the international spotlight will not be focused on the area, widely considered to be a haven for Afghanistan’s Taliban leadership.

Epicenter of more than a quake

The earthquake struck some 200 miles southwest of Quetta, the provincial capital and alleged headquarters of the main faction of Taliban leaders, which is referred to as “the Quetta Shura" and led by Mullah Omar.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former top US commander in Afghanistan, wrote in his 2009 war assessment for President Obama that “at the operational level, the Quetta Shura conducts a formal campaign review each winter, after which Mullah Omar announces his guidance and intent for the coming year.”

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.”

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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