Mullah Muhammed Omar, the Taliban's one-eyed leader, eluded capture when American bombs ended his fundamentalist regime in Afghanistan in 2001. But a new report of his location is stirring an international uproar.
A captured Taliban spokesman says Mr. Omar is hiding in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's Balochistan Province, under the protection of Pakistan's intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Abul Haq Haqiq, also known as Dr. Mohammad Hanif, made the statements in a video-taped interrogation released by Afghan intelligence on Wednesday, following his arrest while crossing from Pakistan into the Afghan province of Nangarhar.
Hanif's claims are the latest in a stream of international criticism of Pakistan. Afghanistan officials, including President Hamid Karzai, have accused Pakistan of harboring Omar, and news of his whereabouts – credible or not – is amplifying questions about Pakistan's commitment to the war on terror, analysts say.
Hanif's remarks come after the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion removed the Taliban from power in 2001. Some 4,000 people died in insurgent-related violence in 2006. During a visit to Kabul Wednesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he would consider sending more US troops to bolster the 22,500 already posted in Afghanistan.
Omar carries a $10 million bounty on his head and, like Osama bin Laden, is believed to be hiding somewhere in the remote areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Hanif also told Afghan interrogators that the Taliban, with help from the ISI, were responsible for more than 100 suicide attacks that left 270 civilians and 17 international soldiers dead.
"It's extremely important news. When we add all these accusations together, they pose a real problem for Pakistan's credibility, that it is playing a double game," says Rasul Bahksh Rais, a political analyst at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
Omar has barely been heard from since he disappeared, leading many to wonder if he is dead or inactive.
But before he was arrested, Hanif told the Monitor in mid-December that Omar remains a central pillar in Taliban operations. He is not always present at meetings of the upper leadership, but all decisions are conveyed to him for approval, Hanif claimed.
"Without Mullah Omar we would not be able to reorganize and have this intensity of our attacks," Hanif said by telephone last month from an undisclosed location.
Earlier this month, Omar was heard from for the first time in years when he told Reuters, through Hanif, that he hadn't seen Osama bin Laden since 2001.
If true, Hanif's taped confession would constitute the highest level official statement from the Taliban that Omar is in Quetta. It would also verify that the operational center of the movement is in Pakistan. Many have long claimed this, chief among them Mr. Karzai, who last February delivered a series of dossiers to Islamabad detailing the addresses of Taliban leaders in Quetta.
Pakistan rejected the validity of those files, just as they immediately rejected Hanif's claims, calling it another salvo in Afghanistan's escalating blame game.
"This is the most absurd statement that can come out," says Maj. Gen. Shaukut Sultan, the spokesman for the Pakistani military. "Pakistan is fully committed to fighting terrorism."
Hanif's accusations against Afghan intelligence officials may have been coerced, some observers say. They also directly contradict statements Hanif made earlier to the Monitor.
"Mullah Omar is in Afghanistan and all [Taliban] leaders, too. There is no Taliban in Quetta," Hanif said at the time.
But Quetta has long been considered a logical place for Omar to seek refuge. The city lies near the border with Afghanistan, and has historical ties to Kandahar, Omar's home and the birthplace of the Taliban. International media reports have repeatedly highlighted the presence of Taliban fighters in the city.
Residents of Quetta remain divided over Hanif's statement. "This is completely propaganda," says Maulana Nur Mohammed, a parliament member from Jamiat-Ulema-Islami, a hard-line Islamist party that openly supports the ideology of the Taliban. "Because of all the intelligence agencies present here, it is not possible for the Taliban to stay in Quetta."
Others in Pakistan hailed Hanif's claim as proof of an open secret. "As the captured person said, [the Taliban] are in the protection of the ISI. In Quetta city, anybody can see that [the Taliban] are living here," says Akram Shah Khan, general secretary of the Pashtunkhwa Mili Awami Party, a Pashtun nationalist party in Quetta.
Many have also suspected that when he fled, Omar sought protection from the ISI, once his closest ally. In the mid-'90s, the ISI provided Omar's fledgling movement with the operational prowess needed to seize power, but denied doing so to American authorities.
Speaking to the Monitor last month, Hanif dismissed reports that Pakistan is providing aid to the Taliban. "Pakistan is not helping. We don't want their help either. Basically the Afghan people help, themselves," he said.
But he contradicted himself again in Thursday's taped interrogation, claiming that a former ISI chief, Hamid Gul, was providing financial and logistical support to the Taliban, principally in the form of suicide bombers.
Mr. Gul, who ran the ISI during the Afghan war against Russian forces in the 1980s, is known to have cultivated support for the Taliban in their early days. But he denies any involvement with them now.
"This is nonsense. Afghan intelligence is totally groping in the dark," says Gul, who is retired and living in Rawalpindi, near Pakistan's capital. "The real cause is that America is failing in Afghanistan and therefore putting pressure on Karzai...."
On Saturday, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, a top US commander, said that Jalaluddin Haqqani, a Taliban commander, was orchestrating large-scale attacks against Afghanistan from a base in Pakistan's tribal zone. His remarks came days after NATO forces killed 150 Taliban militants infiltrating Afghanistan from Pakistan, one of the single largest such engagements in the conflict.
• Suzanne Koster contributed to this report from Islamabad.