NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of the Central Command, disclosed in congressional testimony this week that despite a new U.S. policy of pressuring Pakistan, the Islamabad government is still supporting the Taliban terrorist group in the border region with Afghanistan.
Asked during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday if Pakistan is continuing to back terrorist activity in Afghanistan, Gen. Votel said the U.S. pressure campaign has produced some “positive indicators” of a shift.
However, on the question of continued Pakistani support, Gen. Votel noted: “I cannot tell you that we have seen decisive changes in the areas in which we’re working, but I remain very well-engaged with my partner to ensure that we are moving forward on this.”
Asked about a recent surge of Taliban attacks in Afghanistan and whether they were linked to support from Pakistan, Gen. Votel said: “Having sanctuary in Pakistan or having support from other actors in the region certainly is an aspect of the Taliban’s success here.”
An intelligence source close to the Afghan border region said Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service is continuing its covert support for the Taliban in the border region. The source said ISI is providing both protection and material support to the Taliban in areas between Quetta and the Afghan border.
Both the Pakistan military and ISI operatives are working with the Taliban in Pashtun ethnic areas of Balochistan province in the northwestern part of the country.
“In Pashtun areas which are close to Quetta, religious groups are operating madrasas” — Islamic schools, the source said. “Among these groups, the Jamiat Ulema-e-islam is most active. Under Sami ul Haq’s leadership, madrasas are creating new soldiers for Taliban in Balochistan’s Pashtun belt.” Maulana Sami ul Haq is a Pakistani cleric regarded as “the father of the Taliban.”
Taliban terrorists from Afghanistan travel freely to a Pakistani army garrison in Quetta where they meet with military and ISI officials.
“We believe top Taliban leadership are operating from Pashtunabad, Gulistan and surrounding areas,” the source told Inside the Ring.
Another area where the Taliban is working with the ISI is a small border district called Killa Abdullah, about 44 miles from Quetta, capital of Balochistan. Within that district, an area known as Chaman that borders Afghanistan is a Taliban hub, where terrorists operate openly and are known to local residents as Talibs.
Taliban fighters have been spotted along the road from to Kuchlak “with automatic weapons either in motorbikes, or [in] four-by-four vehicles along with two to five companions,” the source said.
ISI also conducts security patrols in facilitating Taliban transit along the main highway to Kuchlak, using a Toyota SUV that according to the source is owned by the ISI. The ISI security is an open secret in the region.
Local police are not permitted to stop the Taliban from traveling from Afghanistan to Pakistan and the fighters refuse requests at checkpoints for identification by simply stating they are Talibs.
“These people freely travel in Quetta, Chaman and all surrounding areas,” the source said. “Civilian [police] forces cannot intervene because they work under ISI and military apparatus. The police are also powerless and are afraid for their own security.”
Other key Pakistan redoubts for the Taliban include Guldara Baghicha, near Chaman city, that is also houses a Pakistani paramilitary garrison. Guldara Baghicha is said to be a major residence for families of the Taliban.
Local police are banned by the ISI and Pakistan’s Frontier Corps from entering or patrolling that area.
Another area nearby, Kili Jahangir, includes restricted zones because Taliban families live nearby.
Still another Taliban hub in the border region is Jungle Piralizia, south of Chaman. The source described this location as a Taliban “resting place after their campaigns in Afghanistan against Western forces.”
The region has been scene of clashes between local police and Taliban fighters, who are known to retaliate against local police who try to arrest them, in one case blowing up a police vehicle and killing several policemen.
“In such cases, the Taliban are arrested by local police, then the ISI intervenes immediately and promptly releases them,” the source said.
China loser in Trump-Korea talks
China analysts say the Chinese government is the big loser in the U.S.-North Korea diplomatic initiative involving a future summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Beijing was taken by surprise by Mr. Trump’s acceptance of a meeting with Mr. Kim, who has not been allowed to visit Beijing for a similar meeting with a Chinese leader since he took over the country in December 2011.
Now the Chinese are scrambling to get a piece of the diplomatic action by offering to host the Trump-Kim summit in China.
Trump administration officials, however, say they are opposing a Chinese venue and are looking at holding the meeting at the Demilitarized Zone that separates South and North Korea, or possibly in Switzerland.
One source said Mr. Trump’s initiative has put a stake through the heart of the policy of successive U.S. administrations that sought to farm out the North Korea problem to China. Mr. Trump in just the past few weeks has shifted his policies on China by adopting hardline positions. He imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum in a bid to counter Chinese overproduction and flooding of world markets with steel.
Next, the president is readying sanctions on China for stealing American intellectual property and technology through illicit trade and business practices.
Thornton nomination delayed
The firing of Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson by President Trump this week has thrown doubt on the confirmation of Susan Thornton, Mr. Tillerson’s pick to be assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
Ms. Thornton came under fire during her nomination hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican. New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the committee’s ranking Democrat, also questioned Ms. Thornton during a Feb. 15 hearing on how she would shift to the tougher Trump administration policy toward Beijing on both trade and security matters.
Despite the lack of confirmation, Ms. Thornton, currently principal deputy assistant secretary, has taken an active role in preparing for the summit meeting between Mr. Trump and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un.
The committee received the nomination on Dec. 19 but has yet to vote, a month after the hearing. A committee spokesman said the lengthy delay in holding a vote was not unusual.
At the hearing, Mr. Rubio grilled Ms. Thornton regarding her role in interagency discussions that resulted in blocking the FBI from arresting three Chinese Ministry of State Security officials in New York last October. The Chinese officials were to be arrested for violations of U.S. law related to the harassment of dissident Chinese businessman Guo Wengui.
Ms. Thornton provided conflicting answers to Mr. Rubio’s questions about the incident, first stating she didn’t remember her role in the policy discussions, and then saying she had no role in the decision to block the FBI arrests.
A source close to the Senate said the selection of CIA Director Mike Pompeo to succeed Mr. Tillerson at State is expected to delay the Thornton nomination and possibly lead her to withdraw.
Mr. Pompeo has said he regards China as the most significant long-term U.S. national security threat and may want someone else to hold the key China policymaking post.
Critics of naming Ms. Thornton, a career diplomat, say she is too wedded to the conciliatory policies toward China of the Obama administration, and is unlikely to implement the tougher new Trump administration approach that regards China, along with Russia, as one of two major strategic competitors of the United States.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.