US, Pakistan capture a top Taliban leader

Hopeful on interrogations

By Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins
New York Times / February 16, 2010

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WASHINGTON - The Taliban’s top military commander has been captured in Karachi, Pakistan, in a secret joint operation by Pakistani and US intelligence forces, according to US government officials.

The commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, is an Afghan described by US officials as the most significant Taliban figure to be detained since the American-led war in Afghanistan began more than eight years ago. He ranks second in influence only to Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s founder and a close associate of Osama bin Laden before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Baradar has been in Pakistani custody for several days, with US and Pakistani intelligence officials taking part in interrogations, according to the officials.

It was unclear whether he was talking, but the officials said his capture had provided a window into the Taliban and could lead to other senior of ficials. Most immediately, they hope he will provide the whereabouts of Omar, the cleric who is the group’s spiritual leader.

Disclosure of Baradar’s capture came while US and Afghan forces were participating in a major offensive in southern Afghanistan.

His capture could cripple the Taliban’s military operations, at least in the short term, said Bruce O. Riedel, a CIA veteran who last spring led the Obama administration’s Afghanistan and Pakistan policy review.

Details of the raid were few, but officials said that it had been carried out by Pakistan’s military spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, and that CIA operatives had accompanied the Pakistanis.

The New York Times learned of the operation on Thursday but delayed reporting it at the request of White House officials, who contended that making it public would end a hugely successful intelligence-gathering effort.

The officials said that the group’s leaders had been unaware of Baradar’s capture and that if it became public they might cover their tracks and become more careful about communicating with one another.

The Times is publishing the news because White House officials acknowledged that the capture of Baradar was becoming widely known in the region.

Several US government officials gave details about the raid on the condition that they not be named, because the operation was classified.

US officials believe that besides running the Taliban’s military operations, Baradar oversees the group’s leadership council, often called the Quetta Shura because its leaders for years have been thought to be hiding near Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province in Pakistan.

The participation of Pakistan’s spy service could suggest a new level of cooperation from Pakistan’s leaders, who have been ambivalent about US efforts to crush the Taliban.

Increasingly, the Americans say, senior leaders in Pakistan, including the chief of its army, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, have gradually come to believe they can no longer support the Taliban in Afghanistan - as they have quietly done for years - without endangering themselves.

The officials said that Pakistan was leading the interrogation of Baradar but that Americans were also involved. The conditions of the questioning are unclear. In its first week in office, the Obama administration banned harsh interrogations such as waterboarding by Americans, but the Pakistanis have long been known to subject prisoners to brutal questioning.

US intelligence officials believe that elements within Pakistan’s security services have covertly supported the Taliban with money and logistical help - largely out of a desire to retain some ally inside Afghanistan for the inevitable day when the Americans leave.

The ability of the Taliban’s top leaders to operate relatively freely inside Pakistan has for years been a source of friction between the ISI and the CIA.

Americans have complained that they have given ISI operatives the precise locations of Taliban leaders, but that the Pakistanis usually refuse to act.

The Pakistanis have countered that the US intelligence was often outdated, or that faulty information had been fed to the United States by Afghanistan’s intelligence service.

For the moment it is unclear how the capture of Baradar will affect the overall direction of the Taliban, who have so far refused to disavow Al Qaeda and to accept the Afghan Constitution. US officials have hoped to win over some midlevel members of the group.

Riedel, the former CIA official, said that he had not heard about Baradar’s capture before being contacted by The Times, but that the raid constituted a “sea change in Pakistani behavior.’’

Baradar oversees the group’s operations across its primary area of activity in southern and western Afghanistan. While some of the insurgent groups active in Afghanistan receive only general guidance from their leaders, the Taliban are believed to be somewhat hierarchical, with lower-ranking field commanders often taking directions and orders from their leaders across the border.

In recent months, a growing number of Taliban leaders are believed to have fled to Karachi, a vast, chaotic city in southern Pakistan hundreds of miles from the turbulence of the Afghan frontier.

A diplomat based in Kabul, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said in an interview last month that Omar had moved to Karachi, and that several of his colleagues were there as well.