QUETTA, PAKISTAN // Ever since becoming leader of the Taliban in 2015, Mullah Akhtar Mansour knew he was at the very top of the CIA’s kill list. Aware of the prospect of a missile with his name on it, he stayed on the move and often travelled incognito.
Yet on the day last May when a drone strike hit the battered taxi he was travelling in, he might have been forgiven for feeling more relaxed than usual.
It happened not as he was driving through the Taliban heartlands of southern Afghanistan, but near Quetta in neighbouring Pakistan – long considered a haven for the Taliban leadership.
In Quetta, a dusty frontier town ringed by mountains, such accusations have swirled since 2001, when the late Mullah Omar – Mansour’s predecessor as Taliban leader – was said to have fled there after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.
In 2009, the then commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Gen Stan McChrystal, said the Taliban’s Quetta Shura, or council, “conducts a formal campaign review each winter, after which Mullah Omar announces his guidance and intent for the coming year”.
These days, such criticisms upset Pakistan rather more than they used to, given Islamabad’s newly-proclaimed position as an enemy of Islamic radicals.
Over the past three years, Pakistani security forces have arrested and killed thousands of militants, galvanised by escalating terrorism on its home soil, including the massacre two years ago of 132 children at a military school in Peshawar.
Responsibility for that atrocity was claimed by the Pakistani branch of the Taliban, a domestic offshoot that Islamabad has long regarded purely as terrorist. But today the government insists that there are no “havens” for the Afghan Taliban either – including Quetta.
And with that in mind, officials took the rare step of inviting journalists on a government-chaperoned tour of the city.
“It’s a blatant lie to suggest that the Taliban are based here,” said Anwar ul Haq Kakar, Quetta’s senior government spokesman, over dinner in Quetta’s heavily-guarded Serena Hotel.
“After all, they control more than half of Afghanistan as it is. Why come here to plan things when they can attack the heart of Kabul?”
All the same, for most of the past decade, the government has been notably reluctant to let journalists near Quetta at all.
Permits to go to the city were almost always denied – possibly because of widespread accounts that the Taliban operated openly here. According to one report in 2011, landlords in Quetta’s Kharotabad neighbourhood were renting out so many homes to Taliban fighters on combat leave from Afghanistan that locals feared the area would attract US drone strikes.
“There’s no doubt that some of the Taliban we were fighting were trained in Pakistan, and got resupplied there,” said James Glancy, a British army captain who fought in Sangin in Helmand province, which the Taliban recaptured from Afghan forces last month.
“The biggest indicator that Pakistan was calling the shots was the way the Taliban fighting season was always from spring to the end of autumn, because traditionally the mountain passes to Pakistan freeze up at that time and make access difficult.”
True, on the streets of Quetta itself, the only thing to remind the visitor of the Taliban are the large numbers of Afghan refugees, including Mullah Omar lookalikes sporting the same black beards, turbans and white robes.
“We’ve heard claims about the Taliban being here,” said Mohammed Waseem, 40, a gunsmith, to nods from customers in his shop. “But we’ve never met any.”
Other locals, though, claim that certain neighbourhoods – including Kharotabad, Pashtunabad, and the outlying town of Kuchlak – remain Taliban strongholds.
According to a Reuters report in September, Hibatullah Akhundzada, who succeeded Mullah Mansour as Taliban leader, spent the previous 15 years in Kuchlak as a preacher. He also spoke at a public rally in Quetta commemorating the death of an Afghan Taliban commander.
One local, who asked not to be named, said: “In neighbourhoods like Pashtunabad, even ordinary people from Quetta aren’t allowed in. If we go in ourselves, we’ll get asked what we’re doing there and told to leave.”
Keen to prove otherwise, Mr Kakar, the government spokesman, agreed to act as a tour guide to Pashtunabad, driving there himself with reporters in tow. It looked no different to anywhere else – but within minutes of arriving, the government bodyguards accompanying the delegation decided it was not safe, claiming to have detected hostile looks from passers-by.
Just what had unnerved our escorts was never made clear. But while Mr Kakar stuck rigidly to the government line, other Pakistani officials have begun to openly acknowledge the Taliban’s presence.
Speaking in Washington last year, Sartaj Aziz, a senior government adviser, said Islamabad had hosted Afghan militants ever since the 1980s, when it helped America train them for the anti-Soviet jihad. But these days, he said, Pakistan was using its contacts with the Taliban to promote peace rather than war.
“We have restricted their movements, restricted their access to hospitals, and threatened them that ‘If you don’t come forward and talk, we will at least expel you’,” he said. “[We told the Taliban leaders that] we can’t do it anymore because the whole world is blaming us just by their presence here.”
Indeed, Islamabad was reported to have hosted seven senior Taliban figures late last month to press them into a new round of peace talks – this time backed by Russia, which is now trying to increase its influence in Afghanistan.
However, no other rounds of talks have yielded fruit, and Islamabad has not made it clear what sanctions the Taliban on its soil will face if the latest round fails. Quetta’s Taliban landlords, it seems, will not be short of tenants for some time.