Pakistan Arrests Senior Taliban Leaders

KABUL–Pakistan has arrested nearly half of the Afghanistan Taliban’s leadership in recent days, Pakistani officials told the Monitor Wednesday, dealing what could be a crucial blow to the insurgent movement.

In total, seven of the insurgent group’s 15-member leadership council, thought to be based in Quetta, Pakistan, including the head of military operations, have been apprehended in the past week, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.

Western and Pakistani media had previously reported the arrest of three of the 15, but this is the first confirmation of the wider scale of the Pakistan crackdown on the Taliban leadership, something the US has sought.

“This really hurts the Taliban in the short run,” says Wahid Muzjda, a former Taliban official turned political analyst, based in Kabul. Whether it will have an effect in the long run will depend on what kind of new leaders take the reins, he says.

News of the sweep emerged over the past week, with reports that Pakistani authorities had netted Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the movement’s second in command, as well as Maulavi Abdul Kabir, a prominent commander in charge of insurgent operations in eastern Afghanistan, and Mullah Muhammad Younis.

Pakistan has also captured several other Afghan members of the leadership council, called the Quetta Shura, two officials with the Pakistani Intelligence Bureau, and a United Nations official in Kabul told the Monitor.

These include: Mullah Abdul Qayoum Zakir, who oversees the movement’s military affairs, Mullah Muhammad Hassan, Mullah Ahmed Jan Akhunzada, and Mullah Abdul Raouf.

At least two Taliban shadow provincial governors, who are part of the movement’s parallel government in Afghanistan, have also been captured.

A Taliban spokesman denied the arrests, saying that they were meant to hide the difficulties that United States and NATO forces were having in Afghanistan.

Why Pakistan’s sudden crackdown?

The crackdown may to be related to efforts by some Taliban leaders to explore talks with Western and Afghan authorities independently of Pakistan, the UN official said. Pakistan is widely suspected of backing the Afghan Taliban in a bid to maintain influence in Afghanistan, a charge Islamabad has long denied. But Pakistan may also be wary of Taliban attempts to initiate talks without its involvement or sanction.

“Pakistan wants a seat at the table,” says the UN official, who is familiar with Taliban efforts to initiate talks. “They don’t want the Taliban to act independently.”

“It’s possible that Mullah Baradar and those around him wanted to start thinking about an eventual settlement,” says Mr. Muzjda. Former and current Taliban figures emphasize, however, that such a settlement necessarily involves a timetable for withdrawal of foreign forces in the country.

Reports emerged last month that the outgoing head of the UN mission here, Kai Eide, had met commanders associated with the Taliban leadership to explore the possibility of talks. Mr. Eide has declined to comment.

Much about the arrests and Pakistan’s motives remain unclear, but they do reflect Pakistan’s evolving approach to the Afghan Taliban leadership inside its borders.

“A year ago when this [Obama] administration was completing its first Afghanistan review and we asked the Pakistanis about the Afghan Taliban leadership operating from their country, they flatly denied it,” says Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who led President Obama’s initial Afghanistan policy review. “Now not only do they say there are senior Taliban leaders in their country, but they are frankly taking action against them.”

With the arrests of such important senior leaders as Baradar and Mr. Zakir, “we have what are very significant catches,” says Mr. Riedel, now a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “This is going to have a disruptive impact on the Taliban and its activities in Afghanistan.”

US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) chief Robert Mueller met with Afghan Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and his Pakistani counterpart, Rehman Malik, Wednesday, Pakistani officials say. The three discussed the possibility of transferring Mr. Baradar and other captured Taliban leaders to Afghanistan.

Mr. Malik told reporters in Islamabad that the captured insurgents would be transferred, but did not give a time frame. “We have to ensure first that these people did not commit any crimes against Pakistan,” says an official in the Pakistani Interior Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Washington and Kabul have been pushing to have the insurgents transferred so that they can be interrogated directly, since currently American officials have limited access to the prisoners.

Are top commanders replaceable?

Zakir, who was held in Guantánamo and released in 2006 only to rejoin the Taliban, has played a significant role in shaping the movement’s military strategy in recent years, Taliban and Afghan officials said. His presence is particularly felt in southern Afghanistan, where he has organized the resistance to US offensives such as the ongoing campaign in Marjah. “He is a brilliant organizer,” said Abdul Salaam, a Taliban commander in Kandahar Province, in an interview last summer. “Many of the fighters and commanders look to him as a leader.”

Afghan officials and analysts credit Baradar with modernizing the Taliban movement, changing it from a largely fundamentalist movement that shunned compromise to one that increasingly spoke in nationalist terms and reached out for allies in its fight against foreign forces.

“The Taliban is trying to convince the world that it is a just cause,” says Muzjda. “They issue appeals to international bodies and prohibit their fighters from attacking Shias, for example. This is new, and Baradar had a lot to do with this.”

“The Taliban are under a lot of pressure from these arrests,” says Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaif, a former Taliban official who lives in Kabul.

He and others associated with the group insist, however, that the arrests will not fundamentally alter the movement. “You can arrest Mullah Baradar, but there are many Mullah Baradars out there,” says Mr. Zaif. “The commanders are replaceable. The fighters on the ground will keep fighting.”

Muzjda and other analysts say the true impact of the arrests may not be felt for some time.

“We will have to wait and see if this changes everything,” says Muzjda, “or if the Taliban will be able to regroup like they have done so many times before.”

Behroz Khan contributed reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan; Huma Yusuf from Karachi; and Howard LaFranchi from Washington.

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