Taliban Leaders Taking Shelter in Karachi

How worried are Taliban leaders about a possible surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan? President Obama's new strategy for turning the tide of the war includes sending thousands of additional troops to fight the insurgency. But senior Taliban officials tell NEWSWEEK they are confident that their guerrilla presence on the ground is now so well entrenched and widespread in southern, eastern, western, and even northern Afghanistan that increased U.S. troop numbers will not pose a serious threat.

What they're more concerned about is the vulnerability of top Taliban leaders, including Mullah Mohammed Omar, whom the U.S. has targeted with Predator drones and Special Operations Forces just across the border inside Pakistan. As a result, there's been a steady migration of senior Taliban officials from Baluchistan and other areas to Pakistan's crowded and sprawling port city of Karachi where, well out of America's reach, they can operate more freely. Indeed, there may be more senior Taliban operating out of Karachi these days than Baluchistan's provincial capital, Quetta, according to one of the sources, a senior Taliban operative named Zabihullah who, like many Afghans, goes by one name, and who has proved a reliable source in the past.

Zabihullah says he could not confirm recent press reports that Mullah Omar had moved from Quetta to Karachi, which is home to more than 13 million people. But he points out that Omar's family is not unfamiliar with Karachi. Omar's first wife; his stepfather, Mullah Noor Mohammad; and his brother Manan arrived in Karachi in 2003. Noor Mohammad died of heart trouble in Quetta in 2007, but Omar's first wife, their several children, and Manan continue to live undisturbed in Pakistan's commercial and financial center.

Karachi's large ethnic Pashtun population, which numbers about 3.5 million, makes it especially friendly for Taliban members—themselves Pashtuns. And like other ethnic groups in the metropolis, many Pashtuns are focused almost entirely on the business of making money. Most would have no concern about a Taliban safe house operating next door. Some Taliban operatives and sympathizers even run legitimate and lucrative businesses, from construction to commerce and transportation, according to Zabihullah and other Taliban sources in the city. Not wanting to draw attention to their presence, the insurgents keep a low profile and don't foment violence. "Karachi is the safest place for us," says Zabihullah. "We want to keep it that way." According to Zabihullah, many Taliban, even senior operatives, hold either legitimate or fake Pakistani national identity cards, allowing them access to public services.