Strategic Importance of Quetta
It’s not Kandahar—the birthplace of Taliban and hometown of most members of the so-called Taliban Shura–but Quetta being infamous as the hub of Taliban leadership. Western media has been saying Quetta is the city where Mullah Omer leads Taliban Shura. But there is very little reporting or analysis about social and political situation of Quetta. Recently i was in Quetta for two weeks. Interesting is that local journalists and people of Quetta laugh on the myth about Taliban Shura’s existence in Quetta. Being the capital city of a separatist insurgency-hit province—Balochistan—, Quetta has a very strategic location because it’s a bordering city with Iran and Afghanistan. Its home to millions of Afghan refugees, who have settled, bought property and have business in Quetta. The oldest and one of the most prestigious institutions of Pakistan Army, Command and Staff College is in Quetta Cantonment—in South Asia cantonment means a permanent military station. Most of the transportation and trade from Gwadar Deep Sea Port have to come to this city. There are road and railway between Quetta to Afghan and Iran borders. Traveling by road, one can reach Quetta in the evening leaving Kabul early morning. It takes just 10 hours of road travel to reach Quetta from Kabul. Same is the distance between Quetta and Iran border with Pakistan, which’s called Zero Point.Under the British Raj, Quetta was made a military center due to its strategic location. Its 3 hours of drive from Chaman–the bordering Pakistani city with Afghanistan–to Quetta. People living on both sides of bordering towns are from same tribes and mostly same families. Even same families live in Quetta and Kandahar. Thus local people of bordering towns are not bound to any documents for crossing the border. The control on this border is not so strict. It has been a route for militants from the other side of border to come in Kandahar and other provinces for “Jihad” and then return back home safe and sound. This border and surrounding towns are comparatively peaceful than those of Tor Kham border in Peshawar.
Problems of Durand Line
All these make Chaman Border a busy crossing-point where thousands of people cross daily. There are many local people having shops in Chaman of Pakistan and Boldak of Afghanistan, who crosses the border every morning and goes back in the evening. Much of the problems regarding insurgency is linked to the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Kabul, the political sensitivity of the Durand Line has also made it a taboo to discuss the issues related. Durand Line cannot be called a “border” literally. People cross it like herd of sheep without any travel documents. There is no strict check. How could it be called a border? The elite decision makers and politicians should realize now that its a non-issue. Some in Kabul always talk about Durand Line with political purposes and question its legitimacy. The fact is that we cannot bear more troubles. And there is not a nationally united-consensus on this issue among all major ethnic groups. We cannot manage the regions that we have now, why to bring more troubles?
The open border makes it very easy for militants, smugglers of drugs and weapons to move freely. Last year during my trip from this border, there were two Taliban fighters on the vehicle that I was travelling from Kandahar to the border. They were going to Quetta, and were back from the “Jihad” in Uruzgan and Helmand. They were telling stories of attack and escape tactic on the US troops in Uruzgan and Helmand. This is very common. Weapons are supplied to insurgents from border. Former Pakistani President Musharraf once suggested fencing the entire border. He had assured the world that fencing would cover the entire border within 5 years. Though it will need a big force, surveillance equipment, and huge amount of money, but for larger cause of security, its not impossible. There are examples of controlling long borders. The long Indo-Pak border and the Kashmir LOC, the Irani Sestan-Balochistan border are examples of our region. International community has no interest to resolve the key conflicts in the region. These are the roots of the situation in Afghanistan. If the weapons’ supply and manpower of insurgents are stopped from moving freely between borders, the insurgency would reduce and can be defeated easily.
In most cases, suicide bombers in Afghanistan are from bordering areas of Pakistan or vice versa. Whether it’s the suicide bombers of Pakistan’s FATA blowing themselves up in Kabul or those from Paktia of Afghanistan attacking in Lahore, now their agenda is the same radical Jihad. Extremists living on both sides of the Durand Line border are connected not only ideologically but operationally also. Unless the Durand Line is controlled strictly, terrorists would move easily on both sides making bloodshed.
Now coming back to my trip to Quetta, the highway between Kabul and Kandahar is very insecure. There are daily roadside bomb blasts and mine attacks. Taliban stop most of local buses and search for civilians working in international organizations or National Security Forces. Common people are compelled to travel on this insecure way as they have no other alternative route, but the businessmen and well to do people prefer flights from Kabul to Kandahar. On the highway, NATO troops make road blocks. There are firefights on road and civilian vehicles have to stop for hours. While travelling in local vehicle, I noticed that people hate these road blocks by American troops the most. For instance while coming from Boldak to Kandahar, I saw unnecessary road blockade by a convoy of the US troops. A hospital ambulance came there and it was not allowed to cross the convoy waiting for nothing. It’s not the way the US troops want to win hearts and minds.
Improvements on Border
I have travelled on Chaman Border for many times previously, but there were some changes recently. People used to cross the border like a herd of sheep without fences or lines. Even vehicles full of people without any security check could cross the border. Though smugglers transport drugs and weapons daily on this long border from mountains, but on Chaman Border’s gate there are check points and security forces. Despite the gate and check posts, there is no proper checking process. The transporters have a chain of bribing system with the security personnel on the border. Security forces do not stop the vehicles, thus smuggling is very common. This time there were some changes and improvements on Chaman Border. I saw American troops on the Afghanistan side of the border. They were not there previously. While the border blockade on Pakistan side had improved with fenced lines and a proper way for people to go through some minor and informal security checks. I thought all these improvements, concrete walls and fenced lines, were because of the presence of American troops on Afghanistan side of the border. There were some big changes on the other side of border too. Road construction was underway on Khojak Pass, which connects Quetta to Chaman. Like the Khyber Pass of Tor Kham border in Peshawar , there is a similar mountain pass in Chaman too. Elevation of Khojak Pass is 7,513 ft (2,290 m). The road was under construction at the end edge of Khojak Pass near Chaman city. The travel was a little more comfortable on this road as it had been paved all the way from the pass to Quetta city, almost 3 hours of drive. There were many trucks transporting military vehicles and other equipments for American troops in Afghanistan. Oil tankers were also using this way. The route from Peshawar to Jalalabad and Kabul via Tor Kham border is now not so secure. Oil tankers and other NATO supply came under heavy attacks during all the year. It made the US to arrange an alternative route for NATO supply through Russia or Central Asian states. Now this route via Chaman Border is used for supplies. I thought the road construction and the fences might also be related to the NATO supply. This route is much longer compared to Peshawar. The supply comes from Karachi, the southern port city of Pakistan. It takes a long way, and there have already been several rocket firing on oil tankers on the way between Quetta to Chaman. Though security has been good in these parts of Balochistan province, but it’s a fact that the people are very sympathetic to Taliban in these areas (Qilla Abdulla, Muslim Bagh, Quetta). Many Taliban fighters are from these areas that come for “Jihad” to Helmand and Kandahar. I don’t think this route for NATO supply will remain safe for longer. Once there is heavy traffic of supply, attacks will increase. This route is an easier target for militants. Because there is not security forces and a lot of check posts between Chaman and Quetta. In near future, the US will have to once again search for alternative routes for supply, particularly the options of Central Asia and Russia.
In the City of “Taliban Shura”
Quetta city is nowadays like a war zone. There are security check posts on every junction and square in the city. Every local vehicle, including taxis and buses, are checked. It’s due to the worst security situation there. Sectarian and ethnic target killing is a daily routine in the city. During two weeks of my stay there, 10 people got killed by unknown attackers. Mostly they are civilians, killed due to sectarian conflicts and ethnicity. Security forces also come under daily attacks in Quetta. The three major ethnic groups of the city are Pashtoon, Baloch and Hazaras. A small number of people from other provinces of Pakistan also live in Quetta. Thus the ethnic and religious population is a mixed of different ethnicities but divided geographically. I mean people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds live in different parts of the city. And the killings and attacks happen in the center of the city or mixed commercial areas. The sectarian attackers are mostly sectarian militant outfits like Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar Janghvi. These groups are behind the sectarian violence all across Pakistan. Pakistani security officials said Lashkar-e-Janghvi was behind the bloody attack on a shrine in Lahore a couple of weeks ago. This same outfit takes responsibility for the sectarian killings in Quetta. And those who are targeted for ethnic reasons are mostly claimed by the Baloch separatist insurgent groups. Majority of the people killed are from Hazara ethnic, as they are both from a different minority sect—Shiite—and a minority ethnic group of the city. People from Punjab province living in Quetta are mostly killed on ethnic bases and attacks on them are claimed by Baloch separatist groups, while the Hazara killings are claimed by religious outfits.
Recently the US Embassy in Islamabad wanted to establish a consulate in Quetta. There are some diplomatic councils in the city. The most active is the Iranian consulate and the “Iranian Culture House”. As the rumors of the US consulate emerged in media, many political groups “opposed” and criticized the Pakistani Government for it. Among the groups giving media statements in local newspapers and news channels included pro-Iran religious groups and student unions. A pro-Iran religious political party had called delegates of Shiite groups from all Pakistan to come in Quetta for protest against the sectarian killings on July 4. But it had to do more with the US consulate issue than the sectarian killings. When I talked to some local people in the city about the consulate, they knew it and said it will bring them “troubles”. They were saying if there is a US consulate, suicide bombers will come to this city!
There is huge population in Quetta sympathetic to Taliban but local people don’t know their city is known in western media as the “city of Taliban Shura”. Local journalists laugh when you ever talk about this topic. Its mainly because the Taliban have not tried to do something Talibanic and get attention. When the Government of Taliban was toppled by the US, the most violent protest rally was taken out in Quetta city of Pakistan. During 1990s, Taliban also killed father of President Karzai in this city. While the President himself learned and taught English in a language center of this city. Despite its location as a bordering city with two countries, there is less trade and development in this cosmopolitan city of 3 million populations. Quetta is not only the center of trade between traders of three countries Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, and center-point for smugglers from these countries, but also now becoming a place where proxy games are being operated among different countries.