Not too long after some 15,000 U.S., British, and Afghan national forces launched the largest attack on Taliban forces since President Obama signed orders to send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, news broke of the arrest of the second most senior Afghan Taliban commander since 2001, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
According to officials, he was seized in a secret raid in Pakistan several days ago by U.S. and Pakistani intelligence forces. His capture reflects a markedly changed attitude by Pakistani intelligence toward an insurgent force that the country had allowed to operate with relative impunity for the past eight years.
Stunned by the success of this operation, however, a Taliban spokesman denied reports of Mullah Baradar's capture, saying he was still in Afghanistan, actively organizing the group's military and political activities.
"Mullah Baradar has not been arrested, he is in Afghanistan, I don’t know who spread the rumor, but it’s absolutely false,” Qari Mohammed Yousef, a spokesman for the Taliban, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani media's response to the arrest of Mullah Baradar has been surprisingly muted.
The arrest made international headlines throughout the day this past Tuesday. But Pakistani newspapers and television channels barely covered the news, with some completely ignoring it. Analysts say the blackout was because Pakistan's government and army have been wary of being perceived as an American lapdog. Any collaboration with the U.S. in its "war on terror" in Afghanistan has become increasingly unpopular in Pakistan since Asif Ali Zardari’s government took power in 2008.
The U.S. and Afghanistan have repeatedly pressed Pakistan to do more to combat Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters operating in its territory. But Pakistan's spy agencies have long been accused of protecting top Afghan Taliban leaders, many of whom are believed to have fled to Pakistan during the U.S.-led invasion, in order to use them as tools to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan when the Americans withdraw.
"If Pakistani officials had wanted to arrest him, they could have done it at any time," said Sher Mohammad Akhud Zada, the former governor of Afghanistan's Helmand province and a member of the Afghan parliament in an interview on Al Jazeera. "Why did they arrest him now?"
Many analysts believe that the Pakistani government has realized that the Taliban is a serious threat to them since an all-out war between the Pakistani army and the Taliban broke out in Swat Valley last year, leaving many civilians dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.
“The honeymoon is over,” commented Iftikhar Mohammed, a freelance reporter and an expert on Pakistani affairs. According to him the Pakistani intelligence apparatus and the army have been complacent in the past in curbing the terrorist activities of both the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
What could this mean for the hunt for Osama bin Laden, who is often said to be hiding along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border?
The answer depends on the information Baradar provides to interrogators in the coming few days.
Baradar was the main link between Mullah Omar and field commanders, and knows of the whereabouts of the Taliban leadership, according to security experts. In 1998, the Taliban regime mulled turning bin Laden over to the Saudi government, but the man who Osama bin Laden once called, “Amir al-Mu’minin”, or Commander of the Faithful, interceded.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has recently said that while the United States backed the Taliban integration program, the offer did not include the group’s top leadership. Earlier, in late January, Geoff Morrell, spokesman for U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, suggested that the United States could not negotiate with Mullah Omar because he has "the blood of thousands of Americans on his hands.”
Could the capture of Mullah Baradar create a domino effect and deliver the beginning of the end of bin Laden, or is this going to be a Tora Bora redux…another wasted opportunity?
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