U.S. officials say Pakistani spy agency released Afghan Taliban insurgents

By Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 2010; 11:36 PM

The recent capture of the Afghan Taliban's second in command seemed to signal a turning point in Pakistan, an indication that its intelligence agency had gone from helping to cracking down on the militant Islamist group.

But U.S. officials now believe that even as Pakistan's security forces worked with their American counterparts to detain Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and other insurgents, the country's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI, quietly freed at least two senior Afghan Taliban figures it had captured on its own.

U.S. military and intelligence officials said the releases, detected by American spy agencies but not publicly disclosed, are evidence that parts of Pakistan's security establishment continue to support the Afghan Taliban. This assistance underscores how complicated the CIA-ISI relationship remains at a time when the United States and Pakistan are battling insurgencies that straddle the Afghanistan border and are increasingly anxious about how the war in that country will end.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity and declined to identify the Taliban figures who were released, citing the secrecy surrounding U.S. monitoring of the ISI. But officials said the freed captives were high-ranking Taliban members and would have been recognizable as insurgents the United States would want in custody.

The capture of Baradar was "positive, any way you slice it," said a U.S. counterterrorism official. "But it doesn't mean they've cut ties at every level to each and every group." Initial reports said the arrest was made in February, but U.S. officials say that it occurred in late January.

U.S. officials think that Pakistan continues to pursue a hedging strategy in seeking to maintain relationships with an array of entities -- including the U.S. and Afghan governments, as well as insurgent networks -- struggling to shape the outcome in Afghanistan, even as it aggressively battles the Pakistani branch of the Taliban.

The ISI wants "to be able to resort to the hard-power option of supporting groups that can take Kabul," the Afghan capital, if the United States suddenly leaves, said a U.S. military adviser briefed on the matter. The ISI's relationship with the Afghan Taliban was forged under similar circumstances in the 1990s, when the spy service backed the fledgling Islamist movement as a solution to the chaos that followed the Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Pakistan denies charges

In interviews in Islamabad, Pakistani intelligence officials said the ISI is committed to dismantling insurgent groups and denied that any Taliban operatives had been released after being captured. "It is our policy that we will go against these people," a Pakistani intelligence official said. The CIA and the ISI are "working like this," he said, clasping his hands together.

U.S. officials concur that the collaboration between the CIA and the ISI has improved substantially, but they said they see ongoing signs that some ISI operatives are providing sanctuary and other assistance to factions of the Taliban when their CIA counterparts are not around.

"They did, in fact, capture and release a couple," said a U.S. military official involved in discussions with Pakistan, adding that the ISI's purported decision to do so "speaks to how hard it is to change your DNA."

Pakistani officials acknowledge ISI contacts with the Taliban but describe them as benign. They note that an intelligence service is supposed to monitor militant groups operating in the country.

"There may be certain individuals who may not like American policy, but that does not mean they will not do their duty," said the Pakistani intelligence official, adding that the capture of Baradar in Karachi was one of 63 CIA-ISI operations carried out over the past year.

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