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Arrest of Taliban's No. 2 is a coup for Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's arrest of the top Taliban military commander may be a tactical victory for the United States, but it is also potentially a strategic coup for Pakistan.

In one stroke, Pakistan has eliminated a key Taliban commander, enhanced its cooperation with the United States and ensured a place for itself when parties explore a negotiated end to the Afghan war.

The commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, is an Afghan described by American officials as the most significant Taliban figure to be detained since the American-led war in Afghanistan started 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's capture by a joint CIA and Pakistani team dealt a fresh blow to insurgents under heavy U.S. attack in the Afghan town of Marja and raised hopes that Pakistani security forces are ready to deny Afghan militant leaders a safe haven.

Pakistan helped create the Taliban and supported the militants' regime in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks, when threats from Washington forced Islamabad to disavow the group.

The United States has delivered a fleet of drone aircraft and billions of dollars in aid to coax Pakistan to do more to confront militants taking refuge in the country. But Pakistan's spy agencies have long been accused of protecting top Afghan Taliban leaders — many of whom are believed to have fled to Pakistan during the U.S.-led invasion — to use them as tools to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan when the Americans withdraw.

The arrest followed weeks of signals by Pakistan's military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani — to NATO chiefs, Western journalists and military analysts — that Pakistan wanted to be included in any attempts to mediate with the Taliban.

Baradar's arrest may help push other insurgent leaders toward talks with the Afghan government, a development increasingly seen as key to ending the war.

Baradar, who is thought to be in his 40s and who functioned as the link between Mullah Omar and field commanders, has been in detention for more than 10 days and was talking to interrogators, the Associated Press reported, citing two Pakistani intelligence officials. One said several other suspects were also captured in the raid and that Baradar had provided "useful information."

Baradar's arrest comes at a delicate time, when the Taliban are undergoing a fierce internal debate about whether to negotiate for peace or fight on as the United States prepares to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan this year.

He has been one of the main Taliban conciliators, Afghan officials said.

The New York Times reported that the notion of talks has seriously divided the Taliban, including its leadership.

Some hardliners are arguing to continue the fight. But in recent weeks the balance has been increasingly toward making peace, according to Haji Muhammad Ehsan, a member of the Kandahar provincial council.

Officials in Kandahar, the former base of the Taliban government, have some of the closest links to the Taliban leadership, who are mostly from southern Afghanistan and are now living across the border in Pakistan.

"He was the only person intent on or willing for peace negotiations," said Haji Agha Lalai, the former head of the government-led reconciliation process in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, who has had dealings with members of the Taliban leadership council for several years.

He and other officials in Afghanistan said Baradar's arrest by Pakistani intelligence, and his interrogation by them and American agents, could play out in two ways. Baradar might be able to persuade other Taliban to give up the fight. Or if he is perceived to be mistreated, that could end any hope of wooing other members of the Taliban.

"Mullah Brother can create change in the Taliban leadership, if he is used in mediation or peace talking efforts to convince other Taliban to come over, but if he is put in jail as a prisoner, we don't think the peace process will be productive," said Haji-Baridad, a tribal elder from Kandahar.

The Afghan government did not react to the news of Baradar's arrest, an indication that it was upset at Pakistan's unilateral action. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the president, welcomed the arrest.

"We value the help of Pakistani officials in helping to arrest Baradar; this is actually a positive step, and we hope they will continue this kind of contribution," he said.

Analysts noted that the Taliban rebounded quickly from other leadership losses by capture or assassination. Mohammad Arsalan Rahmani, a former official in the Taliban government who is now a lawmaker, said Baradar's battlefield directives — heavy use of homemade bombs, hit-and-run ambushes, avoidance of large-scale head-on confrontations — have already been incorporated into the Taliban mode of fighting.

Information from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Associated Press was used in this report.

Arrest of Taliban's No. 2 is a coup for Pakistan 02/16/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 11:17pm]
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