QUETTA, Pakistan – There’s an immediate and palpable sense of unease today in the province of Baluchistan, a place some say could be the first violent flashpoint if and when the Taliban or their sympathizers bring the fight to Pakistan.
To say security is tight would be an understatement. Visiting foreigners are greeted with a booklet advising them to travel only with police escort. Not that there’s a choice. Taxis going into town from the airport are taken via armed motorcade. Roadblocks are commonplace, and shopkeepers say some locals are staying indoors.
Several rockets have been fired on this provincial capital in recent days – particularly disturbing, locals said, because they are some 40 miles from the Afghan border.
Rumors of large-scale Taliban recruiting efforts and gun-smuggling operations also run rampant, bolstered by the arrest this week of a truck driver caught carrying a load of rocket launchers and mortars.
"Things were better before, but it has gone very quiet since September 11," said Bilal Arshad, whose family has run a fabric and clothing shop in this provincial city for almost 90 years. "No one is leaving yet, but people are certainly afraid of attacks here."
Arshad said Baluchistan, a more remote and underdeveloped region of Pakistan, has experienced its share of trouble in recent years. They hope there isn’t more to come.
"We have seen a lot since 1979," he said, referring to the year the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, triggering the first of many crises that have brought more than 500,000 Afghans to Baluchistan. "We generally live like brothers with the Afghans. But there have been problems. We certainly didn’t have people walking around with Kalashnikovs 20 years ago."
A largely desert basin with few waterways, hundreds of inarable mountains and few natural resources, Baluchistan is a mostly tribal area that for years was formally controlled by local chieftains. The Pakistani government yanked the province’s special status in 1976, and battled local guerrilla groups well into the 1980s.
Pakistani officials view keeping Baluchistan behind their effort against terrorism is a vital part of the plan to keep the country together. Protests and violence could quickly spread from here to the rest of the country, officials noted, and erode support for the government’s pro-U.S. policies.
Security officials are already on guard against the export of violence from Baluchistan to the rest of Pakistan. Departing passengers at the airport must clear at least four security checks, the last one a manual inspection of every item in every carry-on. Items as seemingly innocent as batteries are confiscated, lest they be used for detonation or communication devices between terrorists.
"The Pakistanis absolutely can’t lose Baluchistan," said one Western source in the national capital of Islamabad, who asked not to be identified. "The integrity of the Pakistani-Afghan border in that area holds the key to the entire region."
But there’s also no denying pro-Taliban and extremist Islamic groups certainly have their supporters in Baluchistan.
It’s no accident, some officials grumbled, that the leader of an Islamic group with strong ties to the Taliban chose Quetta as the place to announce that he would join the fight against the government and the United States if Afghanistan is attacked.
Maulana Fazal-ur-Rahman's, leader of the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam organization and one of Pakistan’s most powerful Islamic figures, told a news conference in Quetta on Wednesday that Pakistanis should take up arms against the government if it backed a major U.S. military operation in Afghanistan. He called on the people of Baluchistan to attack the air base at Quetta as part of any attack on Pakistan.
The government treats Rahman and his supporters carefully. The cleric flew to Islamabad on Thursday morning for a meeting with President Musharraff, and was met on the tarmac and whisked away in a government vehicle as soon as he arrived.
There are also an estimated 20,000 Afghans trying to cross the border into Baluchistan, and there could be some 250,000 more on the way, according to officials with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Local officials are happy to provide the refuge, they insisted, but can’t predict what will happen as a result.
"The problem here is between those who want to stay in Pakistan and those who want something else," said one Quetta resident, who, fearing retribution, demanded his name not be used. "The people who have been here or want to be here will support the government.
"But those like Rahman and the militant Afghans have other ideas," he added.
"Some of the religious groups, and some of the others, they are not supportive because Pakistan is simply not their priority. Why should they care what happens to us?"
Long-established residents like Arshad remain hopeful – for now.
"The people of Baluchistan remain generally supportive of the government position to back the United States," he said. "They lost many people, of course, and something has to be done."