Two Taliban leaders caught in Pakistan

Arrests follow capture of two top officials

By Dexter Filkins
New York Times / February 19, 2010

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KABUL, Afghanistan - Two senior Taliban leaders have been arrested in recent days inside Pakistan, officials said yesterday, as American and Pakistani intelligence agents continued to press their offensive against the group’s leadership after the capture of the insurgency’s military commander last month.

Afghan officials said the Taliban’s “shadow governors’’ for two provinces in northern Afghanistan had been detained in Pakistan by officials there. Mullah Abdul Salam, the Taliban’s leader in Kunduz, was detained in the Pakistani city of Faisalabad, and Mullah Mir Mohammed of Baghlan Province was also captured, in an undisclosed Pakistani city, they said.

The arrests come on the heels of the capture of Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s military commander and the deputy to Mullah Muhammad Omar, the movement’s founder. Baradar was arrested in a joint operation by the CIA and the ISI, Pakistan’s military intelligence agency.

The arrests were made by Pakistani officials, the Afghans said, but it seemed probable that CIA officers accompanied them, as they did in the arrest of Baradar. Pakistani officials declined to comment.

Together, the three arrests mark the most significant blow to the Taliban’s leadership since the American-backed war began eight years ago. They also demonstrate the extent to which the Taliban’s senior leaders have been able to use Pakistan as a sanctuary to plan and mount attacks in Afghanistan.

A senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the arrest of the two shadow governors was unrelated to Baradar’s capture. Even so, Muhammad Omar, the governor of Kunduz Province, said in an interview that the two maintained a close working relationship with Baradar.

“Mullah Salam and Mullah Mohammed were the most merciless individuals,’’ said General Razaq Yaqoobi, police chief of Kunduz Province. “Most of the terror, executions and other crimes committed in northern Afghanistan were on their orders.’’

The arrests - all three in Pakistan - demonstrate a greater level of cooperation by Pakistan in hunting leaders of the Afghan Taliban than in the entire eight years of war. American officials have complained bitterly since 2001 that the Pakistanis, while claiming to be allies - and accepting American aid - were simultaneously providing sanctuary and assistance to Taliban fighters and leaders who were battling the Americans across the border.

In conversations with American officials, Pakistani officials would often claim not to know about the existence of the Quetta Shura, the name given to the council of senior Taliban leaders that used the Pakistani city of Quetta as a sanctuary for years.

It was the Quetta Shura - also known as the Supreme Council - that Baradar presided over.

It is still far from clear, but senior commanders in Afghanistan say they believe that the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies, led by Generals Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Ahmed Shuja Pasha, may finally be coming around to the belief that the Taliban - in Pakistan and Afghanistan - constitute a threat to the existence of the Pakistani state.

“I believe that General Kayani and his leaders have come to the conclusion that they want us to succeed,’’ a senior NATO officer in Kabul said.

Word of the arrests came as American, Afghan, and British forces continue to press ahead with their largest military operation to date, in the Afghan agricultural town of Marja. Earlier this month, on the eve of the invasion, Afghan officials detained Marja’s shadow governor as he tried to flee the country.

US-led forces now control the main roads and markets, a Marine general said yesterday, even as fighting raged elsewhere in the southern farming town.

Marines and Afghan soldiers encountered better-fortified Taliban positions and more skilled marksmen on the sixth day of the assault.

A British general said he expected it would take another month to secure the town.

NATO said six international service members died yesterday, bringing the number of allied troops killed in the offensive to 11 NATO troops and one Afghan soldier. The international coalition did not disclose their nationalities, but Britain’s Defense Ministry said two British soldiers were among the dead.

No precise figures on Taliban deaths have been released, but senior Marine officers say intelligence reports suggest more than 120 have died. The officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to release the information.

Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, commander of US Marines in Marja, said that allied forces have taken control of the main roads, bridges, and government centers in the town of about 80,000 people located 360 miles southwest of Kabul.

“I’d say we control the spine’’ of the town, he said as he inspected the Marines’ front line in the north of the dusty, mud-brick town. “We’re where we want to be.’’

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.