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.

Akhtar Soomro/Reuters
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.

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.

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.' "

Baradar: Pulling away from Pakistan

There are also indications that Baradar tried to carve out greater Taliban independence over the years, most recently by attempting to open peace talks with Afghanistan without Islamabad’s knowledge.

Baradar is widely considered a "moderate" who instituted a code of conduct for Taliban foot soldiers last year that called for limiting suicide attacks to avoid alienating the population. According to Pashtoon, Baradar met with current Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in late 2001 and continued to send messages over the years expressing a desire to negotiate – but that other Taliban leaders disagreed. Rumors are circulating, says Pashtoon, that Baradar himself went to Kabul in recent months, outside Pakistani channels.

As the operational chief for the Taliban, Baradar also worked hard to extricate the insurgency from reliance on Pakistani support, says Wahid Mujda, a former Taliban member who now monitors the group from Kabul. After the Taliban's ouster from Afghanistan in 2001, Baradar attempted to rebuild the movement around men not known to be close with Pakistan and sought funding inside Afghanistan rather than in Pakistan.

"He tried to search for financial sources inside Afghanistan. He made some relations with circles inside Iran," says Mr. Mujda. "His activities inside the Taliban movement were not to the benefit of the Pakistanis."

Pressure from the US

Meanwhile, Pakistan has faced increasing pressure from the Americans to move against the Afghan Taliban – particularly after a US drone attacks killed two successive chiefs of a Taliban faction fighting the Pakistani Army. (Some Taliban members continue to deny the death of the second leader, Hakimullah Mehsud.) Pakistan may have seen arresting Baradar and others as a chance not only to stop Taliban efforts to work around it but also to deepen US-Pakistan ties.

Taliban websites have been quiet about Baradar's capture, says Mujda. "That means that they don't want to say anything against Pakistan," he says, suggesting that the Taliban still fear them – maybe more now than ever.

An honest broker, tainted?

But Mohmand doubts such fear could be used at this point by Pakistan to broker a peace deal. Trust is gone, and few potential peace partners of Baradar’s stature remain within the Taliban. While some analysts have suggested Baradar could be turned – or had possibly agreed to be captured so he could broker talks – Mohmand says he's damaged goods.

"The captive would have to speak the language of the captors. No one will pay any heed to what Mullah Baradar will say now. He, as a mediator, as a broker, is totally finished," says Mohmand. "Now I think both sides will have to really fight it out."

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