In shift, Pakistan plays role in capture of Afghan Taliban's No. 2

By Karen DeYoung and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Pakistan's capture of the Afghan Taliban's operational commander, in a joint operation with the CIA last week, reflects a markedly changed attitude toward an insurgent force that the country had allowed to operate with relative impunity for the past eight years.

As recently as last year, U.S. sources said, Pakistani intelligence officials were thought to be in direct contact with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, second only to Taliban leader Mohammad Omar in the insurgent hierarchy. One source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said midlevel Pakistani officials had attended meetings with Baradar.

"His whereabouts, I think, were extremely well-known to the Pakistanis for a long time," said Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and Taliban expert.

The Pakistani government and the Obama administration refused Tuesday to publicly confirm Baradar's capture in the port city of Karachi, and a Taliban spokesman denied it.

But officials and regional experts expressed hope that Pakistan's decision to take action -- long sought by the United States -- was the beginning of substantive change in a relationship that has been fraught with mistrust and mutual suspicion. Some suggested it could prove a turning point in the Afghanistan war.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that increased engagement by the Obama administration had persuaded Pakistan to increase its cooperation and that Pakistanis' "realization of what was happening within their own country and the threat that it posed also played a big part in changing their actions."

Pakistan last year began a series of major military offensives against the Pakistani Taliban, which had taken over large swaths country's northwest and asserted responsibility for a wave of suicide bombings there. The CIA has directed unmanned aircraft to fire missiles at the group's leaders in sanctuaries in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghanistan border.

The Pakistanis, however, resisted taking action against the Afghan Taliban, based in the southern province of Baluchistan, in an effort to preserve their influence in Afghanistan. Using the leverage of billions of dollars in new U.S. aid, the Obama administration has cited increased cooperation between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban to argue that increased cooperation was in Pakistan's interest. In Afghanistan, they warned, Obama's new strategy was about to turn the tide of battle, and the Pakistanis needed to choose sides.

Pakistani officials portrayed the situation through the opposite side of the same lens, saying that the Americans had begun to realize Pakistan's importance in the Afghanistan equation and the key role it could play in brokering any political settlement there.

"It's high time we move beyond that era [of mistrust] and see what is good for all of us," a Pakistani military official said. "We are home to 70 percent of the Pashtuns," an ethnic group in southern Afghanistan and Pakistan that forms the bulk of the Taliban insurgency, "and we have a legitimate right to be part of this effort," the official said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has announced a major push for talks with "reconcilable" insurgent leaders and has invited representatives of all Afghan groups, including the Taliban, to a "peace and reconciliation" shura, or conference, to be held this spring. The Obama administration has shown less enthusiasm for high-level political talks but thinks the removal of Baradar will significantly disrupt enemy operations against U.S. troops engaged in a major offensive in southern Afghanistan. Officials also say the capture will have a significant psychological effect on the insurgency.

"This is a major terrorist who has been at the core of Taliban operations for years," said a U.S. counterterrorism official familiar with Baradar's role. He said that "no one should think the Taliban are down and out for good. This is an outfit that has suffered serious losses in recent years . . . they've proven resilient before."

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