The growing chorus in the western media about a potential U.S. plan to take out Afghan Taliban leaders said to be based in the Balochistan capital Quetta has rudely woken Pakistan to the possibility of American drone attacks in the province.
Unmanned U.S. Predator aircraft regularly carry out strikes in the tribal areas. Three such attacks over the last 24 hours are reported to have killed 18 people, many of them suspected militants. But no such strikes have taken place in the Pakistani mainland yet.
A Sunday Times report this week said the effectiveness of drone attacks in eliminating high-value Al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in the tribal areas of Pakistan had convinced many in the Obama Administration that the "Quetta shura" or council [of Taliban leaders] should be targeted in a similar way.
The report quoted an unnamed Pakistani official saying the U.S. had asked for permission to extend the drone attacks to Balochistan.
It said several Taliban leaders had found safe haven in Quetta, the Baloch provincial capital, including Mullah Omar, the one-eyed supreme commander of the Afghan Taliban.
The Taliban is said to have hidden themselves among the large Afghan refugee population in Quetta, located 60 km from the Chaman border crossing with Afghanistan.
Fast on the heels of this report, the Washington Post on Tuesday quoted Anne Patterson, the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, saying the Quetta shura was "high" on Washington's list.
"In the past, we focused on Al-Qaeda because they were a threat to us. The Quetta shura mattered less to us because we had no troops in the region," she said. "Now our troops are there on the other side of the border and the Quetta shura is high on Washington's list."
But the diplomat also admitted that the U.S. was far less familiar with Balochistan than with the tribal areas, and its intelligence on Quetta "vastly less".
The reports have caused alarm in Pakistan that Quetta, which ranks among Pakistan's biggest cities, with a large civilian population and also a significant military presence, may be the next target of the Predators.
Commenting on the reports, The News said "the spectre of airstrikes over a major city is simply unthinkable", and urged that "Pakistan must voice the strongest opposition to this and dissuade Washington from finalising a strategy for which the people of [this] country would never forgive it and indeed their own government."
But the newspaper also blamed the government for bringing the situation upon Pakistan by not protesting against the Predator strikes in the tribal areas, and also not doing enough to track down key Taliban leaders hiding in Pakistan.
"Had our own security forces apprehended some of them, the case for drone attacks might have been considerably weakened," said the daily.
The Nation commented that "given the present government's proclivity to accede to all U.S. demands, it should not come as a surprise to soon see these drone attacks taking place". But the newspaper said "the development will be suicidal" for Pakistan.
In response to the reports, Interior Minister Rehman Malik has denied the presence of Mullah Omar in Quetta as "incorrect and baseless", and said the Taliban commander was based in Kandahar.
He said "the fact is, the Quetta shura does not exist", promising to "smash" it if the U.S. provided Pakistan with information that it was in existence.
Pakistani media said Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has also reacted to the reports. He is said to have told the Tripartite Commission [of Pakistan, Afghanistan and U.S. military leaders] in Kabul on Tuesday that the U.S. drone attacks in Balochistan would not be allowe