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Taliban leader's arrest hinged on U.S. information

Officials say an intelligence break let U.S. spies pinpoint military chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and help Pakistan organize a daring raid. Islamabad denies its cooperation is something new.

February 16, 2010|By Greg Miller and Alex Rodriguez

Reporting from Karachi, Pakistan, and Washington — The United States has delivered a fleet of drone aircraft and billions of dollars in aid to coax Pakistan to do more to confront Afghan Taliban militants taking refuge in the country.

But the Islamist group's second in command was captured in Karachi last week largely because the United States was also able to provide something else Pakistan has demanded for years: solid intelligence on where Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar could be found.

U.S. and Pakistani officials said Tuesday that the capture of Baradar was driven by a rare intelligence break that enabled American spy agencies to pinpoint the Taliban military chief and help Pakistan's intelligence service organize on short notice a daring operation to arrest him.

Officials in Washington said the capture spotlights a heightened level of cooperation that the United States has pursued aggressively in recent years through a campaign of diplomatic and military pressure. The effort involved a nearly constant stream of often secret visits by top U.S. officials, as well as more unconventional inducements. Twice over the last six months, CIA Predator drones have been used to kill the leaders of the Pakistani Taliban faction responsible for attacks in Pakistan.

But as for the arrest of Baradar, one U.S. official said: "It's not just a matter of their motivation; it's a matter of opportunity that we present. I don't think it's fair to say they decided they wanted to help us all of a sudden. We don't get great opportunities at these guys all the time."

Officials provided few specifics Tuesday on the nature of the intelligence that led to the capture. U.S. spy agencies have been tracking Baradar's communications and activity closely since December, officials said, but even so, the intelligence that enabled the raid in Karachi involved an unexpected break. "Fortune played a role," one U.S. official said.

A Pakistani military official gave a similar account, saying U.S. suspicions of Islamabad's motives have been unfounded and that the problem from Islamabad's perspective was a lack of reliable intelligence.

"For the last two years, no one had shared credible intelligence on the whereabouts of anyone in the Quetta shura," the official said, referring to the Afghan Taliban leadership council, believed to be based in Quetta, in southern Pakistan.

Baradar was a senior figure in the council and presided over the military campaign to reclaim power in neighboring Afghanistan.

Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which has a network of informants, has helped direct dozens of CIA Predator strikes in the tribal belt along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. But captures of top Al Qaeda or Afghan Taliban figures in Pakistan's teeming cities have often depended on intelligence provided by the CIA, as was the case with Baradar.

Referring to such intelligence, the Pakistani official said, "As long as it is shared with us, you will find the results."

Officials at the CIA and White House declined to comment on the arrest.

But U.S. intelligence and military officials described a long-standing effort to locate Baradar, who is outranked in the Taliban by its spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, but is regarded as an operational director who in may ways has served a more important day-to-day role.

In December, U.S. intelligence officials learned that Baradar had told Taliban leaders that he was planning to return to Afghanistan to take "direct responsibility" for military operations.

U.S. officials at the time did not know whether Baradar was truly intent on returning to the country. He may have been trying to boost the morale of Taliban leaders, one official said. But he also could have been trying to counter the U.S. decision to deploy more troops, or might have wanted to put out disinformation.

Regardless, the official said, the intelligence showed weakening Taliban morale.

"The Taliban senior leaders are not in the fight, and that has burned the" rank and file, the official said.

Baradar, who was captured with three other Afghans in a Karachi neighborhood called Nooriabad, is in Pakistani custody and being questioned by interrogators working closely with the CIA. It was unclear whether he was cooperating, but analysts said that any information he provided could lead to other arrests as well as operations aimed at unraveling Taliban communications and supply networks.

Analysts noted that the Taliban movement rebounded quickly from other leadership losses resulting from capture or assassination. Those include the arrest of Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, a top deputy to spiritual leader Omar, and the killing of senior military commander Mullah Dadullah, both in 2007.

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