Pakistan sheltering Taliban, says British officer

Posted in Broader Middle East | 19-May-06 | Author: Declan Walsh

Afghan National Army (ANA) troops on patrol in Laskhar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.

· Colonel's outburst follows multiple terror attacks
· Afghanistan president says Quetta used as base

A senior British officer accused Pakistan of allowing the Taliban to use its territory as a "headquarters" for attacks on western troops in Afghanistan as insurgents struck on multiple fronts yesterday.

In one of the worst 24-hour periods since they were ousted from power in 2001, the Taliban launched two suicide bombs, numerous firefights and a massive assault on a village in Helmand province, where 3,300 British soldiers are being deployed. The violence, which started on Wednesday night, caused 105 deaths including 87 Taliban, 15 police, an American civilian and a Canadian woman soldier, according to the highest estimates. British forces were not involved.

Colonel Chris Vernon, chief of staff for southern Afghanistan, said the Taliban leadership was coordinating its campaign from the western Pakistani city of Quetta, near the Afghan border. "The thinking piece of the Taliban is out of Quetta in Pakistan. It's the major headquarters," he told the Guardian. "They use it to run a series of networks in Afghanistan."

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, echoed these comments by accusing Pakistan of arming the insurgents. "Pakistani intelligence gives military training to people and then sends them to Afghanistan with logistics," the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news agency quoted him as saying.

Col Vernon said the Quetta leadership controlled "about 25" mid-level commanders dotted across the Afghan south, one of whom was captured last month. He declined to name him.

The unusually forthright British criticism, reflecting sentiments normally expressed in private by western commanders, drew a furious denial from the Pakistani military.

"It is absolutely absurd that someone is talking like this. If the Taliban leadership was in Quetta we would be out of our minds not to arrest them," said a spokesman, Major General Shaukat Sultan. "They should give us actionable intelligence so that we can take action."

The clash reflects growing tensions between Pakistan and the west as Nato prepares to assume command of southern Afghanistan from the US on July 31.

About 7,000 troops from Britain, Canada and the Netherlands are deploying to Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces, while another 1,000 Americans and Romanians will be stationed in Zabul.

Kandahar has suffered the worst upheaval, much of it apparently aimed at unbalancing the Nato mission before it can settle down. Canadian troops have been pummelled with a string a suicide attacks, roadside bombs and an axe attack on an officer during a village meeting.

On Wednesday a suicide bomber rammed into a UN vehicle near the main coalition base at Kandahar airport, killing himself and injuring the driver. Col Vernon said he had tightened security on the road after similar attacks in March by "imposing Northern Ireland procedures". On Wednesday night hundreds of Taliban fighters assailed Musa Qala village in northern Helmand, sparking an eight-hour battle that officials said left 40 militants and 13 police dead.

Having convulsed the volatile south, the guerrilla summer offensive now threatens the rest of the country. Yesterday suicide bombers struck in the normally peaceful cities of Herat in the west and Ghazni to the north, killing an Afghan motorcyclist and a US police trainer.

"This is the worst things have been since the fall of the Taliban," said a western source in Kandahar.

Across the border, worried British and Canadian diplomats are pressing the Pakistani government to take a tougher approach to the Taliban. Although Pakistan forces have killed or arrested hundreds of al-Qaida suspects since 2001, it has detained only a handful of Taliban officials. The last big catch was spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi, who was arrested in October 2005 after his mobile phone was traced to Quetta.

"Clearly the Taliban are at large in Baluchistan, operating in Quetta. Obviously that's a cause for concern," said a British diplomat in Islamabad. "There's no evidence of a serious network of Taliban camps but it's easy for them to take cover in Afghan refugee camps."

The 930-mile border, most of it barren mountains and desert, is notoriously porous. Maj Gen Sultan said that it was impossible for Pakistani officials to discriminate between ordinary Afghans and Taliban insurgents.

Col Vernon did not say whether Mullah Omar, the Taliban's leader, was also sheltering in Quetta. Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan worsened sharply in March after Afghan allegations that Omar, Osama bin Laden and more than 100 Taliban leaders were hiding in Pakistan.

The Taliban fight has also become a propaganda war. The insurgents regularly paste "night letters" - threatening tracts against "collaborators" - on walls and doors in southern villages. A Taliban radio station has also started operating in Helmand, where the British troops are being deployed. Nato commanders are retaliating, pushing local media to publicise their successes. Domestic pressure means western journalists are also coming under scrutiny.