WASHINGTON — For seven years, the Bush administration has pursued al-Qaida but done almost nothing to hunt down the Afghan Taliban leadership in its sanctuaries in Pakistan, and that has left Mullah Mohammad Omar and his deputies free to direct an escalating war against the U.S.-backed Afghan government.
The administration's decision, U.S. and NATO officials said, has allowed the Taliban to regroup, rearm and recruit at bases in southwestern Pakistan. Since the puritanical Islamic movement's resurgence began in early 2005, it has killed at least 626 U.S.-led NATO troops, 301 of them Americans, along with thousands of Afghans, and handed President-elect Barack Obama a growing guerrilla war with no end in sight.
Violence in Afghanistan is at its highest levels since 2001; the Taliban and other al Qaida-allied groups control large swaths of the south and east; NATO governments are reluctant to send more troops; and Afghan President Hamid Karzai faces an uncertain future amid fears that elections set for next year may have to be postponed.
Nevertheless, a U.S. defense official told McClatchy: "We have not seen any pressure on the Pakistanis" to crack down on Omar and his deputies and close their arms and recruiting networks. Like seven other U.S. and NATO officials who discussed the issue, he requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
"There has never been convergence on a campaign plan against Mullah Omar," said a U.S. military official. The Bush administration, he said, miscalculated by hoping that Omar and his deputies would embrace an Afghan government-run reconciliation effort or "wither away" as their insurgency was destroyed.
Many U.S. and NATO officials, in fact, are convinced that while Pakistan is officially a U.S. ally in the war against Islamic extremism, sympathetic Pakistani army and intelligence officers bent on returning a pro-Pakistan Islamic regime to Kabul are protecting and aiding the Taliban leadership, dubbed the Quetta shura, or council, after its sanctuary in the Baluchistan provincial capital of Quetta.
Wounded Taliban fighters are treated in Pakistani military hospitals in Baluchistan, and guerrillas who run out of ammunition have been monitored dashing across the frontier of sweeping desert and rolling hills to restock at caches on the Pakistani side, the U.S. and NATO officials said.
"They have free rein down there," said a senior NATO official.
Omar, the one-eyed founder of the Taliban movement that imposed puritanical Islamic rule on Afghanistan with Pakistani and al-Qaida support during the 1990s, and bin Laden fled to Pakistan after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
Bin Laden and his followers crossed into the Federally Administered Tribal Area, which borders eastern Afghanistan. Omar and his lieutenants crossed into Baluchistan, which abuts the southern Afghan provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, the heartland of the Taliban insurrection, U.S. officials said.
From Baluchistan, Omar and his council are thought to direct the Taliban's broad military and political strategies and to arrange arms and other supplies for their fighters in southern Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.
They preside over military, intelligence, political and religious committees, and also oversee a fund-raising operation in the Pakistani port city of Karachi that raises money across the Muslim world, said a Pentagon adviser on the region, who asked not to be further identified.
Baluchistan also is a major corridor through which Afghan opium, which is refined into heroin, is smuggled to the outside world, providing the Taliban with $60 million to $80 million a year.
The Bush administration, however, has focused virtually all of its attention, money and energy on routing al-Qaida in the FATA because it considers bin Laden and his organization the main terrorist threat to the United States and its allies, U.S. officials said.
Ronald Neumann, who was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, said that while the Bush administration urged Pakistan to arrest Taliban leaders, "it did not differentiate" between those in the FATA and those in Baluchistan.
"We did not go after Baluchistan as a separate policy issue," he said.
"The U.S. is still focused primarily on this as a counter-terrorism mission, not a counterinsurgency mission," said the Pentagon adviser. "The primary focus of the United States is still the top threat to the U.S. homeland, and that means al-Qaida."
Moreover, the FATA is the base of a bloody insurrection by al-Qaida and its Pakistani allies that's increasingly destabilizing nuclear-armed Pakistan, U.S. officials said.
"There has to be at some point a prioritization of effort," said an official with U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the region. "And right now you have insurgents within FATA who by their own admission are absolutely hell-bent on waging a war against Pakistan."
"So much of our strategy on Pakistan has been settling for the less-than-optimal solution, and this is just one more element of that," said a State Department official.
A senior administration official denied that the administration has ignored the Quetta shura, saying it has pressed Islamabad to act at every high-level meeting. Pakistan has cooperated in operations that killed three top Taliban leaders in Afghanistan, he added. But he conceded that the United States hasn't been "consistent" in pressing for action against the Quetta shura.
The senior NATO official said that while U.S. and European officials routinely demand the arrest of Omar, who has a $10 million bounty on his head, and the Quetta shura, they've never threatened Pakistan with serious consequences if it fails to act.
"All they've done in the last two years is arrest one Taliban leader," he said.
Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, the former Taliban defense minister who was thought to have been close to bin Laden, was placed under house arrest in Quetta in February 2007. It's not known, however, whether Akhund, the only top Taliban leader that Pakistani authorities have ever detained, is still being held.
U.S. officials said that Pakistani authorities might be reluctant to pursue Omar to avoid fanning further unrest and lawlessness in Baluchistan, Pakistan's least-developed and most sparsely populated province, where a low-level tribal insurrection has flared for years.
Pakistani security forces have been overstretched by the Islamic insurgency being waged by al-Qaida-allied Pakistani extremists based in the remote tribal area north of Baluchistan, they noted.
Some experts, however, said that Pakistan could neutralize Omar and his council by arresting several prominent members and ordering the rest back to Afghanistan.
"It would be relatively easy for the Pakistani authorities to quietly arrest some of the leading members. I don't think you need major military offensives," said Ahmad Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and authority on the Taliban. "Everybody knows where they are."
The senior administration official, however, said that Omar's location is uncertain, and that it would be difficult for Pakistani authorities to arrest him or his deputies because that most likely would mean raiding Afghan refugee camps controlled by heavily armed Taliban supporters.
Obama has pledged to give top priority to ending the bloodshed in Afghanistan and stabilizing Pakistan. He has said that he'll boost the 61,000-strong U.S.-led NATO force in Afghanistan by as many as 20,000 more U.S. troops and pursue al-Qaida more aggressively.
U.S. officials and other experts, however, warned that no Afghan strategy can succeed unless the United States and its allies do more to persuade Pakistan to arrest or expel the Taliban and close its bases in Baluchistan.