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Pakistan arrests more Afghan Taliban. Why the about-face?

After years of deflecting US pressure to rein in the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan has arrested in rapid succession the group's No. 2 Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, two shadow provincial governors, and up to nine Al Qaeda-linked militants.

By Staff writer / February 18, 2010

Plain-clothes policemen escort a man, who was arrested Wednesday, to a district court in Karachi, in this photo released Thursday. The man is a Pakistan Taliban commander from the Bajaur region, a police official said.

Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

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New Delhi

Pakistan has reportedly detained two more top Afghan Taliban commanders, building on its arrest of the Taliban's No. 2 man, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, earlier this month. The latest arrests offer further evidence that Islamabad has decided to seriously pressure Afghan insurgents inside its borders.

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The question is: Why now? Pakistan weathered years of American pressure to take this step. But only last week did it capture Mr. Baradar in a joint operation with the US. In recent days, it nabbed Mullah Abdul Salam and Mullah Mir Mohammad, both “shadow governors” of northern Afghan provinces. Overnight, it arrested eight or nine militants in Karachi linked to Al Qaeda, wire reports said Thursday.

Details are emerging that Pakistan feared losing influence within peace overtures between the United States and the Afghan Taliban. It may have nabbed Baradar so it would control the strongest potential peace negotiator, while currying US favor with its multiple arrests. But experts on the Taliban are divided over whether the country's recent intervention has moved Islamabad to the center of peace talks – or scuttled them entirely.

"There were reports that Mullah Baradar had been in covert contact with the Americans, and that may not have gone down well with certain people in Pakistan," says Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan now based in Peshawar. "The Taliban's trust of the Pakistani government is now absolutely finished [and] the prospects for any negotiations are now completely dim."

Islamabad’s influence

Others are not so sure that Pakistan has committed such an unforgivable offense in the eyes of the Taliban. The insurgent group – which was created decades ago with Pakistani support and now uses Pakistan as a haven – has no other protector to fall back on, says Khalid Pashtoon, a member of the Afghan Parliament from Kandahar.
Pakistan's powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), presents two faces to the Taliban, he says. One faction claims to be friendly with the insurgency, the other friendly to the US.

The Taliban "have to live with a two-faced policy, they don't have a third alternative," says Mr. Pashtoon. "They cooperate because they figure, 'We have to work with the friendly side of the ISI or they will inform on us to the unfriendly side, who will be after us.' "

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