By Karin Brulliard and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 19, 2010; A01
KARACHI, PAKISTAN -- The capture of senior Afghan Taliban leaders in Pakistan represents the culmination of months of pressure by the Obama administration on Pakistan's powerful security forces to side with the United States as its troops wage war in Afghanistan, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials.
A new level of cooperation includes Pakistani permission late last month for U.S. intelligence officials to station personnel and technology in this pulsating megacity, officials said. Intercepted real-time communications handed over to Pakistani intelligence officials have led to the arrests in recent days of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Afghan Taliban's No. 2 commander, and two of the group's "shadow" governors for northern Afghanistan.
The detentions, which have taken place in a wave since early last week, were initially kept secret to allow intelligence operatives to use information gleaned from captures to draw additional militants into exposing their locations and movements, according to officials who discussed the ongoing operations on the condition of anonymity. Final agreement on the Karachi operation came during the last week of January, with the intercept system up and running by the first week of February.
"The ISI and the CIA are working together, with the Americans providing actionable intelligence and the Pakistanis acting together with them" to track down the insurgent leaders, a Pakistani official said, referring to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate.
The arrests offer stark evidence of something that has long been suspected: Top Afghan Taliban leaders have found refuge across Pakistan, particularly in its cities -- a fact the government here has long denied.
Pakistan's decision to go after the Afghan Taliban leadership reflects a quiet shift underway since last fall, said officials from both countries, who cited a November letter from President Obama to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari as a turning point.
The letter, which was hand-delivered by U.S. national security adviser James L. Jones, offered additional military and economic assistance and help easing tensions with India, a bitter enemy of Pakistan. With U.S. facilitation, the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers have agreed to meet next week, the first high-level talks between the two countries since terrorist attacks in Mumbai in late 2008.
The letter also included an unusually blunt warning that Pakistan's use of insurgent groups to pursue its policy goals would no longer be tolerated. The letter's delivery followed the completion of a White House strategy review in which the administration concluded that stepped-up efforts in Afghanistan would not succeed without improved cooperation from Pakistan.
In explaining Pakistan's shift, sources also cited regular visits to Pakistan by U.S. officials, a boost in intelligence-sharing and assurances by Washington that a military push in southern Afghanistan would not spill into Pakistan. The United States also promised Pakistani officials that it has no intention of abandoning the region once that offensive ends.
Pakistan's agreement last month to allow expanded CIA interception operations follows a long period of estrangement between the U.S. intelligence agency and the ISI.
The CIA has long maintained that the ISI retained close ties with the Afghan Taliban as a way to hedge its bets against Indian influence in Afghanistan and the likelihood of an eventual U.S. departure.
Pakistan has detained prominent militants in the past, only to release them later. It was unclear Thursday to what extent the detained Taliban leaders were cooperating with their captors and whether the three may provide information that helps authorities apprehend others.
Baradar, whom the Pakistanis seized in Karachi with CIA help, was operational commander of the Taliban leadership council that American officials say plans its attacks from the western Pakistani city of Quetta but whose existence Pakistani officials declined to acknowledge. Mullah Abdul Salam, the Taliban leader in Afghanistan's Kunduz province, and Mullah Mohammad, the shadow governor in Baghlan province, were taken into custody in Pakistan about 10 days ago, according to the governor of Kunduz, Mohammad Omar, and a Pakistani security official. The two served as part of the vast network of Taliban leaders who coordinate the Afghan insurgency and oversee Taliban courts, which mete out swift and often brutal settlements for local disputes.
There were differing accounts about where the two shadow governors were arrested. Omar said they were detained in Quetta, but the Pakistani official said they were arrested near the northwestern city of Peshawar. Analysts said the arrests show that Taliban leaders regularly travel between cities such as Quetta and Karachi, a transit hub where they could easily melt into the population of about 16 million.
"Pakistan was looking the other way, for the simple reason that they didn't want to alienate the Taliban," said Javed Hussain, a retired Pakistani army brigadier.
This month's arrests represent "major progress," a U.S. intelligence official said. "No one has forgotten Pakistan's complex history with the Taliban. But they understand how important this is to the United States, the region, and to their own security."
The U.S. intelligence buildup in Karachi re-creates a level of cooperation that existed until 2004 and resulted in the arrests of senior al-Qaeda figures in Pakistan, before relations began to sour between George W. Bush's administration and the then-government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Jones, the national security adviser, visited Islamabad again last week. Significantly, he held a joint meeting with Pakistan's military and civilian leaders, who have often worked at cross purposes on both domestic and foreign policy.
Subtle signs of a shift among Pakistani officials have occurred in recent months, as the Taliban's Pakistani offshoot has unleashed a sustained campaign of suicide bombings. Pakistan's army chief, Ashfaq Kiyani, recently offered to train Afghan forces, an overture that some analysts read as a message to the Afghan Taliban that Pakistan had other options for exerting influence in Afghanistan. Some Pakistani security officials had grown concerned that the Afghan Taliban might be aiding the Pakistani franchise, said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a professor and defense analyst.
"It helps Pakistan from a purely Pakistan perspective," he said of the Taliban arrests, "in the sense that they have also communicated a very clear message, even to the Afghan Taliban, that Pakistan can play tough with them."
Observers in Pakistan say the shift will facilitate the nation's desire to drive any political negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which it views as an opportunity that could end the war and place a friendly regime next door. Baradar and the shadow governors could be valuable bargaining chips, or they could have been surrendered by the Taliban to give Pakistan entry into the talks, according to competing theories in Pakistan.
"It is definitely part of a strategy -- one that will eventually lead to negotiations and talks and the introduction of the Taliban into the mainstream of Afghan politics in a government which has been agreed upon by Pakistan," said Hussain, the retired brigadier.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi insisted Thursday that fear of "Talibanization" in Pakistan, not U.S. pressure, drove the arrests. That concern was underscored by a bombing that killed nearly 30 people in Khyber Agency, near the Afghan border.
A Pakistani intelligence official said the arrests were the result of what the nation had long been demanding from the Americans: concrete information about Taliban leaders' whereabouts.
"We are dependent on technical intelligence being provided by the U.S. . . . That is exactly what happened here," the ISI official said of the Baradar capture. "What is our strategic interest? Our strategic interest is that this guy is a menace, a threat, and we always thought he was in Afghanistan. When we found him in Pakistan, we arrested him. That demonstrates our sincerity."
DeYoung reported from Washington. Correspondent Joshua Partlow in Kabul and special correspondents Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.