Reporting from Washington — The second-in-command of the Afghan Taliban was captured in Pakistan last week during a raid secretly carried out by Pakistani and U.S. intelligence operatives, officials from the two countries said Monday.
The arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar deals a serious blow to the Taliban and also represents a potential turning point for the government of Pakistan, which often has seemed reluctant to pursue top members of the militant group that previously ruled Afghanistan and who now take refuge across the border.
The loss of Baradar would deprive the Afghanistan insurgency of its top-ranked military mastermind at a time when U.S. forces are in the midst of a major push to roll back Taliban gains in the country.
"It is going to be a big deal, certainly a major blow," a senior Pakistani military official said, speaking of the capture on condition of anonymity.
The arrest may also represent an intelligence coup for the United States, particularly if Baradar has agreed to provide information on the whereabouts of other Taliban figures, including Mullah Mohammed Omar, the group's supreme commander, who is believed to be hiding in Pakistan.
A spokesman for the Taliban in Afghanistan, however, told the Associated Press that Baradar was still free.
"We totally deny this rumor. He has not been arrested," Zabiullah Mujahid said by telephone. He called the report Western propaganda.
But officials said Baradar was arrested in the port city of Karachi as part of an operation conducted by members of Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, working in conjunction with the CIA.
Baradar is in Pakistani custody, but many details about the operation remained unclear late Monday, including precisely when he was captured and whether he is cooperating. The Obama administration has said it no longer engages in such interrogation methods as water boarding; Pakistani authorities have been known to use harsh questioning tactics in the past.
CIA and White House officials declined to comment on Baradar's capture. Senior U.S. intelligence officials including CIA Director Leon E. Panetta have testified in recent weeks that the agency is taking part in overseas interrogations of suspected terrorists. But their comments appear to have preceded the capture of Baradar, who was a close associate of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden before the Taliban and Al Qaeda fled Afghanistan to take refuge in Pakistan after the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.
Baradar is the highest-ranking Taliban militant to be captured since the fighting began. He is perhaps the closest aide to Mullah Omar, and their association dates back to the movement's earliest days.
But even while professing fealty to Mullah Omar, and consistently invoking his authority when dealing with others in the movement, Baradar is believed to have a much greater hands-on role than his chief in masterminding military operations and disbursing Taliban money.
With the reclusive-minded Mullah Omar having retreated into something of a figurehead role, Baradar has been the principal power in the so-called Quetta shura, the main Taliban decision-making body, named for the southern Pakistani city in which it is based. Baradar has a reputation for ruthlessness, but is also described as a charismatic figure who has good rapport with Taliban field commanders throughout Afghanistan.
He is also far better versed in technology and world affairs than the unschooled Mullah Omar, who in many respects is considered little changed from his days as a village cleric.
Baradar has been an advocate of many of the insurgent tactics that have made the last year the deadliest yet for U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, said a Western military official in Afghanistan, also speaking on condition of anonymity. Those tactics include expanded use of homemade bombs, the singling out of vulnerable U.S. bases and patrols for ambushes and raids, the eschewing of efforts to hold territory in favor of mobility and quickness, and the avoidance of head-on confrontations with better armed-Western forces in favor of melting away and regrouping.
The Pakistani military official said Baradar's capture could bolster the U.S. aim of weakening the Afghan Taliban to sap its support and convince less committed elements to leave it.
"Everything you are doing is to start negotiation from a position of strength, and you are gradually getting that strength," the official said. Pakistani and Saudi Arabian intelligence officials have had secret talks with Taliban leaders in recent months to that end.
Baradar's arrest was first reported Monday night by the New York Times, which said its reporters initially learned of the capture Thursday but delayed reporting it because White House officials said that doing so could jeopardize intelligence-gathering. The paper said it published its story Monday night because the arrest was becoming more widely known in the region.