WASHINGTON - Is the United States looking to expand its unmanned aircraft strikes to hunt down insurgents in the teeming populace of Quetta, Pakistan?
The idea is being considerd, according to an article in the L.A. Times on Monday. But the logic and risk was already being questioned by government officials.
The Pakistani city is teeming with Taliban refugees from Afghanistan who are trying to escape the U.S. and coalition presence in that country. These are the hardcore Taliban, set on fighting the U.S. presence and desiring a strict Muslim religious state. Quetta is close enough to orchestrate operations inside Afghanistan, but just far enough inside Pakistan and out of reach of the U.S. military's bombs.
The city is so densely populated, air strikes from U.S. drones would most likely kill a high number civilians, too, which is a concern for the Obama administration.
A U.S. counter terrorism official acknowledged the Afghan Taliban is headquartered in Quetta and that the U.S. "wishes the Pakistanis would do more against them." But as the official put it, "the notion that things would fall out of the sky into a densely populated area" is not the case, "the potential for casualties is too high."
The problem for the U.S. and NATO, however, remains how do you take care of the Taliban leadership in Pakistan if you may not be able to rely on the Pakistan military? U.S. forces are not allowed to operate in the country.
First, perhaps you need to answer how big a threat the Taliban in Quetta are. There are some differing views among the U.S. and NATO leadership on this as we learned on Monday.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen on Monday told reporters at a press conference in Kabul that he "remains deeply concerned about the growing level of collusion between Afghan Taliban, al Qaeda and other extremist groups taking refuge across the border in Pakistan."
But on Monday, as well, the former commander of NATO troops in southern Afghanistan told reporters at a press conference at the Pentagon that it does not matter where the Taliban religious leadership is because they are not the problem in Afghanistan.
"We would overestimate the importance of the Quetta Shura by thinking they coordinate and lead all the operations conducted by the insurgents in southern Afghanistan. Actually, they don't have to," said Major General Mart De Kruif of the Royal Netherlands Army. De Kruif just ended a year-long command of NATO troops in southern Afghanistan who have been fighting a dug-in Taliban insurgency.
"That's the reason why they moved towards this IED (Improvised Explosive Device) campaign, which is characterized not by a hierarchical organization, but by very small cells more or less acting independently," he said. "And that is why it's so very hard to detect and destroy that IED network, but it's also very hard for the Quetta Shura to synchronize their operations."
As the Obama administration continues to flesh out their new strategy, unraveling which is the right approach to Quetta will be an imperative to answering what the road ahead is in Afghanistan and Pakistan.