The American airstrike in Baluchistan, Pakistan that targeted and killed Taliban emir Mullah Mansour was unprecedented as the US military and CIA have not launched an attack in the province since the drone program began in 2004. All but one of the 392 strikes recorded by The Long War Journal occurred in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (the other strike occurred on the border of the FATA). But Baluchistan province, which has been left alone until last weekend, has long been a major hub for the Afghan Taliban, replete with training camps, madrassa, mosques, and command and control centers.
The US focused its drone campaign in Pakistan’s FATA, primarily against al Qaeda, the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, and allied groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. However the Haqqani Network, a dangerous Afghan Taliban subgroup that is closely allied with al Qaeda, was also the target of numerous drone strikes; 93, or nearly 24 percent of the strikes, hit Haqqani Network assets.
While the US honed in on jihadist groups operating in the FATA, the Taliban was left to operate in Baluchistan province without any repercussions. Baluchistan borders the Afghan provinces of Paktika, Zabul, Kandahar, Helmand, and Nimroz, all major areas of Taliban operations and its traditional strongholds.
While Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, is well known for its role as a Taliban haven — the Taliban’s Rahbari Shura, or central leadership council, is also called the Quetta Shura — a host of cities and towns such as Zhob, Killi Nalai, Qila Saifullah, Loralai, Chaman, Pishin, Kuchlak, Ahmad Wal, Dalbandin, Chagai, and Girdi Jangal host the Taliban and provide vital support for the group’s activities in Afghanistan.
Well-developed Taliban networks in these cities and towns play a vital role in ensuring the group can recruit, train, and arm new fighters; provide safe areas for existing Taliban units to regroup as well as give their fighters and commanders an opportunity to visit their families; and gives Taliban leaders a chance to regroup and organize new offensives. Taliban recruiters, fundraisers, financiers, training camp commanders, and ideologues operate unmolested, and often with the support of Pakistan’s military and Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.
After the US invasion of Afghanistan following al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania, and the rout of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the Taliban quickly regrouped and reestablished networks used by the Mujahideen during the Soviet occupation. Taliban training centers were immediately opened in Dalbadin, Chagai, Qila Saifullah, Kucklak, Loralai, and Quetta, Ahmed Rashid wrote in Descent into Chaos.
Towns such as Zhob and Killi Nalai became major centers for Taliban activity. In June 2007, after British special operations forces killed Mullah Dadullah Akhund, the Taliban’s military emir, in Helmand province, Afghanistan, the pro-Taliban Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam political party organized the ‘Martyred Mullah Dadullah Conference’ at the Shamsul Uloom Madrassa in Killi Nalai. More than 10,000 Taliban supporters attended the conference. The audience chanted “Long live Mullah Omar, Long Live Osama bin Laden and the Taliban movement” during the conference. Mullah Mansour Dadullah, Lang’s brother, addressed the gathering via teleconference.
Mullah Mansour Dadullah was captured by Pakistani security forces during a raid in Zhob in early 2008. While this was hailed as Pakistani cooperation with the Taliban, Mansour Dadullah was ejected from the Taliban by his emir, Mullah Omar, in late 2007 because he “carried out activities which were against the rules of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” So in effect, the Pakistani military and intelligence removed a Taliban commander who no longer was part of the group from the playing field.
Zhob has been a key hub of Taliban support. In 2003, Imam Maulana Hayee ran a madrassa that trained what Der Spiegel described as a “soldiers of faith,” while at the home of Mauli Allah Dad Kahar, a “friend” of the founder and first emir of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, “the recruits of Allah are dispatched to the various fronts of Islam.”
“Islamabad looks the other way,” Der Spiegel noted.
The border towns of Chaman and Girdi Jangal serve as key forward command and control centers for the Taliban. Two of the Taliban’s four regional military shuras are named after the towns (three of the four regional military commands are based in Baluchistan, the third being based in Quetta, while the fourth is in Peshawar).
Chaman and Girdi Jangal also serve as transit points into Afghanistan. Additionally, Girdi Jangal hosts an Afghan refugee camp that is fertile recruiting ground, and borders the Afghan town of Baramchah, which is also known to host Taliban and al Qaeda training centers. The Taliban has run its shadow government for Kandahar province from Chaman while the town has served as an important finacial hub. The US Treasury Department has designated a Taliban hawala, or money exchange, and its owner as well as two financiers who operate from Chaman as terrorists or terrorist entities.
The city of Kuchlak “functions as a haven and command center for the Taliban,” CBS News reported in 2013. In 2007, the Taliban openly flew their white banner in the city. Senior Taliban leaders have been spotted in Kuchlak. In January 2016, Maulvi Muhammad Alam, a Taliban commander in Afghanistan’s Zabul province, was gunned down by rivals, while Mullah Mansour, the Taliban emir who was killed in the Baluchistan town of Ahmad Wal, is said to have been appointed by Taliban leaders who met in Kuchlak.
In addition to the Afghan Taliban, terrorist groups such as the Movement for the Taliban in Baluchistan, al Qaeda, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi also operate in the province. The Pakistani military targets these groups as they wage war against the state. The Movement for the Taliban in Baluchistan, al Qaeda, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi are sheltered and supported by the Afghan Taliban, which is ignored by Pakistan’s intelligence service and the military.
It is unclear if the US military will continue to target the Taliban’s top leaders in Baluchistan, or if the the May 21 strike that killed Mullah Mansour was a rare target of opportunity as well as a pointed message to the Taliban. President Obama has said he hopes Mansour’s death will bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. If the US does decide to step up attacks against the Taliban in Baluchistan, there will be no shortage of targets.