Pakistan – A safe haven for terrorists?

Billy Goodchild

2008-07-09

Pakistan is allowing Taliban fighters wounded in battles with British and other NATO forces in Afghanistan to be treated at safe houses. Taliban commanders and their fighters were found recuperating in the city of Quetta and moving freely around parts of the city.

In a white-walled compound in the northern suburb of Pashtunabad, more than 30 Taliban were recovering from the bloodiest fighting in Afghanistan since their regime was ousted five years ago.

Dressed in neatly pressed robes with the black turbans and kohl-rimmed eyes typical of the Taliban, they lounged on cushions, sipping green tea and sucking at boiled sweets while laughing at NATO reports that they have sustained heavy casualties.

Among the most defiant was a young commander who had been shot in the calf while fighting British troops in Gereshk, a town in the Afghan province of Helmand, and who had returned to Quetta to be treated.

"Fighting the British is as easy as eating a loaf of bread from my hand," he said in a soft voice. "Fighting the British is much easier than the Americans. They have no faith."

The proof that Taliban are using Quetta for rest and recuperation — if not also for training as widely suspected — is embarrassing for the Pakistani government, which has long denied claims from the Afghan government that their military intelligence is providing support and safe havens for the Taliban.

Drawn by the British, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is more than 1,400 miles of largely mountainous terrain that is hard to monitor, largely lying in lawless tribal areas. These border areas were used as bases by the mujaheddin in their fight against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and many of the camps and ammunition stores remain.

But there is growing unease in both Washington and Whitehall about how much of the problem is logistical, and whose side Pakistan is on. Not a single known Taliban has been arrested in Pakistan apart from a spokesman, Latifullah Hakimi. That came only after British intelligence intercepted his telephone call from Peshawar ordering the execution of a British engineer.

British and American military commanders in Afghanistan are fed up with their men being killed by fighters who slip back across the border where they cannot be followed. Gen. David Richards, the former British commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, flew to Islamabad last year to raise the issue with Pakistan, though he insisted his aim was "co-operation, not confrontation.”

In the safe house in Quetta, the Taliban fighters seemed relaxed, some reading the Koran, others laughing and discussing recent battles. Several regional commanders were present and confirmed they used Quetta to relax and study out of reach of NATO. Although the men said they were regularly "shaken down" by the police, a bribe of as little as £2 [GBP] usually resolved the issue.

NATO claims as many as 1,500 Taliban fighters were killed, but this has been disputed by the Taliban.

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