By Karen DeYoung and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; A07
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."
Pakistani officials were interrogating Baradar but providing the CIA access to him. "He is talking," another U.S. source said, adding that Baradar's information would be "gauged against what we already have, to see how much of it is relatively true."
The loss of Baradar is a major blow to the Taliban, not only because he was one of the few leaders with access to the reclusive Omar, but because he coordinated all Taliban operations in Afghanistan, said a former midlevel Taliban commander in the Herat province of western Afghanistan who did not acknowledge that Baradar had been captured.
Other former Taliban members disagreed on the impact of one person on the widespread movement. "In fighting, in battle, this kind of thing happens, people get captured," said Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan during the Taliban government.
A Pakistani military intelligence official in Karachi who confirmed Baradar's arrest offered scant detail on the operation, which he insisted took place last weekend rather than during the previous week as indicated by U.S. and other Pakistani sources. The official said his officers, acting on intelligence, stopped a car they thought was carrying militants about 35 miles outside the city. He said Baradar was among the passengers, who were detained without resistance and handed over to the intelligence service.
Several former U.S. intelligence officials and terrorism experts said Karachi is increasingly seen as a base of Taliban operations, with key leaders hiding in plain sight in an urban center that offers greater access to communication and resources.
Brulliard reported from Islamabad. Correspondent Joshua Partlow in Kabul and staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington contributed.