Pakistan walks fine line with capture of high-level Taliban leader

The unconfirmed arrest on Friday of the Taliban's former defense minister, Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, could backfire for Islamabad, analysts here say, offering the most salient evidence to date of what Pakistan has long denied: that its soil is a sanctuary for Taliban leaders and their fighters.

The Pakistani government has yet to officially confirm the arrest, which was leaked to the media by anonymous government sources over the weekend. But, if true, it is the highest-level arrest of a Taliban commander on Pakistani soil since the Taliban's ouster in 2001.

The controversy sharpens rising concern, both here and abroad, that Pakistan could be playing a dangerous game of duplicity, appeasing Washington with high-profile arrests while refusing to sever fully its ties to old Taliban allies.

Sept. 11 was supposed to witness a dramatic U-turn in Pakistan's policy toward the Taliban, which it had supported for years as a tool for leverage in Afghanistan. Mr. Akhund's arrest on Pakistani soil is now reheating a debate as whether or not that ever happened.

"[Akhund] cannot be alone. I can only infer that a senior [commander] cannot venture alone in Quetta and sit quietly," says Ijaz Khattak, a professor of international relations at the University of Peshawar.

Such fears come as Vice President Dick Cheney met on Friday with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad, a visit many saw as part of a stepped-up pressure campaign on Pakistan.

Like many of the Taliban's highest leaders, more mysteries surround Akhund than discernable facts. Once the Taliban's defense minister, he is considered one of only two members of the Taliban's highest leadership council with direct contact to Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's spiritual leader, himself in hiding since the regime's ouster in 2001. Akhund is believed to move freely between Afghanistan to Pakistan's tribal belt, and carries a $1 million bounty on his head.

Mystery also shrouds his arrest. Local media reports, citing anonymous security officials, say Akhund was seized along with other prominent operatives on a tip-off from American intelligence, and is now being interrogated jointly by Pakistani and US officials. The US Embassy in Islamabad says it has no comment on the matter, while the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, could not verify the information.

"We cannot substantiate that he's been arrested. I've heard reports both ways," says Lt. Col. Angela Billings, an ISAF spokesperson in Kabul.

If true, Akhund's arrest would earn Pakistan significant points by striking what could be a major blow, symbolic or otherwise, to the Taliban only weeks before their expected spring offensive.

"The man is one of the top strategists. They are the people who are running the show," says Behroz Khan, a prominent journalist in Peshawar and expert on the Taliban.

Islamabad has officially refused to confirm or deny Akhund's arrest. That silence speaks volumes, according to some analysts, underscoring Pakistan's predicament: The more it seizes significant Taliban targets, placating Washington, the more it confirms that those targets are firmly entrenched here.

"It raises questions about how much [the Pakistan government] knows, and how much capacity they have to do something about it," says Ayesha Siddiqa, an independent defense analyst in Islamabad.

She adds that the government, even if it has the intelligence, cannot completely crack down. Recent suicide bombings, fast becoming a frequent occurrence, showcase the backlash the government is already facing because of attacks on militants.

On Friday, militants in Multan targeted a judge trying a high-profile case against the leader of a prominent local terrorist organization. A bomb hidden in a bicycle wounded the judge and killed three others as the judge was heading to work.

To many, the timing of Akhund's arrest is highly suspect. For almost six years, Akhund evaded capture, critics say, but he was arrested only hours after Vice President Cheney met with Musharraf. The White House has yet to make the contents of that meeting public, and maintains that Cheney's visit was not meant to send a stark message.

Analysts here say that the orchestration shows how Pakistan is able to manipulate events seemingly with the flip of a switch, cherry-picking targets to save face.

"There is international pressure, so Pakistan has to find ways to buy time. It is a childish sort of a game." says Mr. Khattak. "This happens every now and then whenever someone senior comes to Pakistan," he adds, referring to missile strikes on militant enclaves that have coincided with visits by American officials.

Akhund is one of several Taliban commanders to have been captured in Pakistan, particularly in Quetta. In October 2005, police arrested Abdul Latif Akimi, then the Taliban's leading spokesman.

Government officials balk at the charge that Islamabad turns a blind eye. "Nobody is roaming around openly. Why should they do that in Pakistan when they have many areas in Afghanistan? Why would they risk getting arrested in Pakistan," says Sen. Tariq Azim Khan, the state minister for information and broadcasting.

Others fear that Pakistan, long a friend to the Taliban, is not convinced of the need to let them go. "[The Pakistani] government wants to adjust, but not change [its relationship with militants]," says Khattak, adding that many see the recent change in the US Congress as a sign that Washington will pull back its influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan, wanting to prevent destabilization, may back the Taliban again.

Even if Akhund's arrest is verified, it is unlikely to deal a huge setback to the Taliban, analysts warn. Like Al Qaeda, the Taliban have learned to operate in independent units. Akhund is a large symbolic target; his arrest would undercut morale. But others are likely to quickly take his place, analysts say, showcasing the insurgency's flexibility.

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