By Kamran Haider
QUETTA, Pakistan, March 26 (Reuters) - An expansion of America’s secret war in Pakistan to Baluchistan province would justify jihad and see many more young men rally to fight foreign forces in Afghanistan, a radical cleric said.
The New York Times reported last week that the United States is considering expanding its covert war to Baluchistan, a sprawling province of deserts and jagged mountains on the border of violence-plagued southern Afghanistan.
So far, missile strikes by pilotless Central Intelligence Agency-operated drones, which Pakistan objects to, have been limited to ethnic Pashtun tribal areas to the north of Baluchistan, mostly in the North and South Waziristan regions.
"America is trying to scare us but it won’t work. Rather it will be a justification," Noor Muhammad, a well-known radical cleric who runs a madrasa, or religious school, in Quetta, capital of Baluchistan province, said of possible U.S. strikes.
"America is foolish because it will only force more people here to stand up against it," he said.
Sitting in a room his madrasa complex, the 60-year-old grey-bearded Muhammad denied any policy of sending young men from his school to fight Western forces in Afghanistan.
But he said it was the duty of every Muslim to do that.
"If infidels occupy a Muslim land then it’s obligatory for all Muslims to do jihad ... Preaching jihad is my duty," he said.
President Barack Obama has said the United States is not winning in Afghanistan, more than seven years after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban, and he is due to announce the result of a review of policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan in coming days.
U.S. officials say success in Afghanistan is impossible without tackling the problem of militant safe havens in Pakistan.
In the Pashtunabad area on the outskirts of Quetta, support for militancy appears strong. Walls on a street leading to Muhammad’s madrasa are daubed with slogans such as "Long Live Mullah Omar".
Afghan and foreign officials in Kabul have long said they believe Taliban leaders, including supreme leader Mullah Omar, are hiding in Baluchistan. Pakistan denies that.
LOVE FOR JIHAD
Officials in Kabul also say young men are pouring out of radical religious schools in Pakistan into Afghanistan to join the Taliban and become suicide bombers.
If the lessons that students get at Muhammad’s seminary are anything to go by, it’s not hard to understand why.
"We spread the message that the Taliban and Osama (bin Laden) have adopted the right path and that’s the solution of all problems," Muhammad said.
"The protection of Koranic teachings is only possible through arms .... those who make weapons, make them available and use them will go to heaven," said Muhammad as four of his teenaged students with black turbans and wispy beards sat at his feet.
Pakistan has for years been saying it wants to reform madrasas but little has been done. Muhammad said there was nothing the government could do to quell zeal for jihad.
"The love and affection for jihad have developed among the youth to the extent that neither their relatives nor the government can control them," he said.
Unlike northwest Pakistan, Baluchistan has been relatively free of Islamist violence but militants have recently stepped up attacks, including an attack on a moderate cleric.
Major General Salim Nawaz, chief of the paramilitary Frontier Corps in Baluchistan, also said drone strikes in Baluchistan would merely stir up militancy.
"That would be music to the Taliban, music to their ears," said Nawaz at his headquarters in the city centre.
He said there were no Taliban safe havens in the province and none of its more than 1,000 madrasas supported the Taliban.
"There’s been talk that Mullah Omar is the ‘mayor of Quetta’, there’s been talk of the Taliban shura (leadership council), but actually there’s nothing on the ground," he said.
Nawaz said the United States should try to engage moderate Taliban, a possibility that Obama has raised.
"They need to demotivate these so-called terrorists. Some space needs to be given to the Taliban. Some confidence-building needs to be done," he said. (Editing by Robert Birsel and Valerie Lee)