Taliban chief held in joint raid by US and Pakistan

Analysis The Pakistan army has a long-standing relationship with the Afghan Taliban, but the arrest of Mullah Baradar may signal that unrelenting US pressure amid a military surge in neighbouring Afghanistan could be having an effect.

ISLAMABAD // The arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, second only to Mullah Mohammed Omar in the Afghan Taliban hierarchy, in a joint Pakistani-US operation in Karachi several days ago, suggests a behind-the-scenes shift in the complex political dynamics of the region.

Mr Baradar, also known as Mullah Baradar Akhund, is the first senior Afghan Taliban commander to have been pursued and detained by the Pakistani authorities since the US invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Previous detentions of high value militant targets, dating back to the period immediately after the US-led rout of the Taliban, had focused entirely on al Qa'eda, including the March 2003 capture in Rawalpindi of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of September 11.

However, prior to the arrest of Mr Baradar, Pakistani authorities had gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid a confrontation with the Afghan Taliban, and instead keep them as allies in an inevitable post-US Afghanistan. The powerful Pakistan army, which practically dictates foreign and defence policy to the civilian government, had instead chosen to maintain the strong working relationship it had shared with the Afghan Taliban since its emergence in the 1990s.

That relationship had allowed Afghan Taliban commanders, such as Jalaludin Haqqani, to take refuge inside Pakistani territory, particularly in the north-west tribal regions of North Waziristan and South Waziristan, from where they launched seasonal offensives into Afghanistan. Mr Haqqani went on to become a useful peace broker between the Pakistan army and Pakistani Taliban insurgents, with the Afghan commander, frequently highlighted by US officials as a major threat, appearing in person at the signing of a 2004 peace agreement between the military and local insurgents.

Similarly, Afghan Taliban leaders and foot soldiers were allowed to take up residence in and around Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's western Balochistan province, which borders the Taliban-dominated ethnic Pashtun provinces of southern Afghanistan. Amid repeated complaints by the US government, journalists and politicians in Quetta have privately confirmed the presence there of the Afghan Taliban.

In 2009, local journalists said the Quetta suburb of Pashtunabad had become a virtual no-go area for the press. More recently, politicians and journalists have reported a surge in recruitment activity by the Afghan Taliban in the Nushki and Chagai districts of Balochistan, which border Helmand, scene of the ongoing US-Afghan offensive against Taliban strongholds. The presence of Afghan Taliban commanders and fighters in Karachi has been the subject of a much more public controversy in Pakistan, following bitter complaints by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a secular political party based in Karachi and a key ally of Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president. The National verified the MQM's claims in August 2009, meeting an Afghan Taliban commander in the impoverished western suburbs of Karachi, including Baldia Town, from where Mr Baradar was arrested.

All that raises the question: why the sudden change of tack by Pakistan? In the absence of definitive foreign policy statements, there is much room for speculation. However, it is no secret that the US has exerted huge pressure on its Pakistani counterparts, both in the civilian government and army hierarchy, with senior Obama administration officials and Congressional leaders maintaining a virtual procession into Islamabad since plans for the ongoing US military surge in Southern Afghanistan were unveiled late last year.

Equally obvious has been the new level of operational co-operation between the US and Pakistani militaries, highlighted by the incessant pursuit and assassination of top Pakistani militant insurgents by US drones. Without that tactical support, the Pakistani army could easily have been caught in a quagmire in the tribal regions, as it had in 2004, and have lost hundreds of troops in an unpopular civil war.

However, such tactical co-ordination would not have been possible without a change of mindset within the Pakistani army high command, something that has been in evidence since Pakistani Taliban insurgents took brief control of the Swat Valley in February 2009. Since then, the Pakistani military has abandoned attempts at reconciliation with all militants on its territory, including commanders in North and South Waziristan loyal to Mr Haqqani, who have been subjected to the incessant threat of US drones from the air and an uncompromising reassertion of territorial control by Pakistani troops on the ground.

Indeed, so effective has been that strategy that militants in North Waziristan, only months ago considered the last bastion of al Qa'eda, that the army has quietly reasserted control of the area without facing resistance, residents said. That all points to the implementation of a "not in our backyard" policy by Pakistan that excludes the use of its territory to any foreign militant faction on the grounds that it endangers Pakistan's national security.

That was certainly the case after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's then president and military ruler, propagated the slogan "Pakistan comes first" to justify his administration's withdrawal of support for the Taliban government in Afghanistan. thussain@thenational.ae