The recent arrest here of a Taliban spokesman was hailed by Pakistani authorities as a significant blow in the war against terrorism. But others wonder what took them so long.
As the semi-official voice of the Taliban, Abdul Latif Hakimi was in regular contact with news agencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, calling with the latest inflated claims of U.S. and Afghan casualties at the hands of Taliban fighters. Sometimes he provided reporters with a Pakistani cell phone number.
At least until the end of last year, Hakimi lived more or less openly in this austere desert city in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, where he once dealt in used motorcycles and sometimes dropped off news releases in person, according to a local journalist who met with him as recently as November.
"It was never a problem for him to move around freely in Quetta," said the journalist, who requested anonymity because he did not want to invite scrutiny from intelligence agencies. "How is it possible he was living here two years and they never tried to get him? He came to my office. He was meeting with other journalists."
Even now, some senior Pakistani officials acknowledge they were not troubled by the presence of Hakimi, whom they describe as a propagandist with no direct involvement in violence. They arrested him only after repeated complaints from Afghan and U.S. officials. In phone calls to reporters, Hakimi sometimes claimed to be in Afghanistan, suggesting he was able to cross the border with little difficulty.
"We never went after him because he was not engaged in any militant activity," said a senior Pakistani intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Frankly we never took notice."
The Hakimi case speaks volumes about Pakistan's complex relationship with the Taliban. In particular, it underscores the conflict between the government's generally pro-American foreign policy and its reluctance to sever all ties with the Taliban, which it supported until 2001. The fundamentalist Muslim militia, which ruled most of Afghanistan for five years until being ousted by a U.S.-led assault in late 2001, retains considerable support in Pakistan, especially in the restive tribal areas on the Afghan border.
As Taliban fighters have escalated their attacks on U.S. and Afghan forces in recent months, the Afghan government, with some U.S. backing, has repeatedly accused Pakistan of allowing the Taliban to use its territory for recruitment, logistics and training. Although the criticism ebbed slightly after last month's relatively peaceful parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, analysts said Hakimi's arrest was not likely to put those suspicions to rest -- and in some ways even vindicated them.
"On the one hand, Pakistan can take the credit for arresting this fellow," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, author of several books on the Pakistani military. "On the other, it confirmed the old suspicion that some of the senior Taliban people were in Pakistan and that maybe there are some more in Pakistan."
Government officials deny giving sanctuary to Taliban insurgents, citing the deployment in the last several years of tens of thousands of troops along the mountainous border with Afghanistan. Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, recently suggested strengthening that barrier with a fence.
At the same time, officials draw a distinction between the insurgents and political figures who took refuge in Pakistan after the collapse of the Taliban government but are not involved in violence. They noted that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had demonstrated a similar flexibility by urging former Taliban figures to participate in the recent elections.
"Neither we nor President Karzai believe that all former prominent Talibans are a security threat," said a cabinet member, who insisted on anonymity.
Pakistan's support for the Taliban dates to the early 1990s, when its Inter-Services Intelligence Agency embraced the radical movement -- composed largely of talibs, or students, from religious seminaries known as madrassas -- as an antidote to the chaos that racked Afghanistan following the anti-Soviet jihad of the previous decade.
In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Musharraf announced under intense pressure from Washington that his government would no longer support the Taliban and would throw its weight behind the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.
Pakistan subsequently won high praise from the Bush administration for arresting about 700 al Qaeda militants who fled Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban government. Pakistan has lost more than 300 soldiers in military operations against foreign fighters and their local allies in the tribal areas of South and North Waziristan bordering Afghanistan, but it has been reluctant to pursue the Taliban with similar vigor.
That reluctance stems from several factors, including the Taliban's origins among the ethnic Pashtun tribes that straddle the border -- which also allows Taliban fighters to blend with the local population -- as well as Pakistan's fears about the close ties between Afghanistan and India, Pakistan's perennial rival and much larger neighbor.
Moreover, as part of his strategy for retaining power, Musharraf has formed a tacit, if awkward, alliance with a coalition of hard-line religious parties whose leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, openly supports the Taliban. The parties hold power in two of Pakistan's four provinces, North-West Frontier and Baluchistan. There, they govern in partnership with Pakistan's main pro-government party.
Representatives of the religious parties deny any role in the Taliban insurgency, but there is no mistaking their sympathies. "I don't think any sensible person would dislike" the Taliban, said Noor Mohammed, a member of the national assembly who runs a madrassa in Pushtunabad, a Quetta slum filled with Afghan refugees. "They are against American policies."
The Taliban's historic ties to Pakistan have fueled suspicions in Kabul, the Afghan capital, that the country remains a refuge for senior Taliban figures, including Mohammad Omar, the one-eyed Taliban commander, and several of Omar's top aides. Pakistani officials have repeatedly denied that Omar is in their territory, but they have had a harder time fending off the same charge about other prominent Taliban figures.
Originally from southwestern Afghanistan, near Baluchistan, Hakimi was a mid-level functionary who briefly headed the Taliban's information department in Herat province when the movement was in power. After its ouster, he moved to Quetta. Hakimi began speaking for the organization again in early 2004 with Omar's blessing, according to Rahimullah Yusufzai, a journalist with the News, an English-language daily.
Hakimi, said to be in his thirties, was "initially very selective" in his choice of news media contacts, "but as he became bolder and less worried, he was calling everyone," recalled Yusufzai, who spoke with him frequently. "At times we were surprised at how he could operate so effectively and so openly."
Hakimi's repeated claims of Taliban gains on the battlefield got under the skin of U.S. military officials, who pressed Musharraf on the matter during his visit last month to U.S. Central Command in Florida, according to the cabinet minister and two senior Pakistani intelligence officials, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
That complaint, the officials said, prompted Hakimi's arrest in Quetta's Newa Killi neighborhood.
Special correspondent Kamran Khan in Karachi, Pakistan, contributed to this report.