By DEXTER FILKINS - NYTimes
KABUL, Afghanistan — Two senior Taliban leaders have been arrested in recent days inside Pakistan, officials said Thursday, as American and Pakistani intelligence agents continued to press their offensive against the group’s leadership after the capture of the insurgency’s military commander last month.
Afghan officials said the Taliban’s “shadow governors” for two provinces in northern Afghanistan had been detained in Pakistan by officials there. Mullah Abdul Salam, the Taliban’s leader in Kunduz, and Mullah Mir Mohammed of Baghlan Province were captured about two weeks ago in a raid on a house in Akora Khattack, according to a leader at the Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqaniya madrasa there.
The arrests come on the heels of the capture of Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s military commander and the deputy to Mullah Muhammad Omar, the movement’s founder. Mr. Baradar was arrested in a joint operation by the C.I.A. and the ISI, Pakistan’s military intelligence agency.
The arrests were made by Pakistani officials, the Afghans said, but it seemed probable that C.I.A. officers accompanied them, as they did in the arrest of Mr. Baradar. Pakistani officials declined to comment.
Together, the three arrests mark the most significant blow to the Taliban’s leadership since the American-backed war began eight years ago. They also demonstrate the extent to which the Taliban’s senior leaders have been able to use Pakistan as a sanctuary to plan and mount attacks in Afghanistan.
A senior United States official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the arrest of the two shadow governors was unrelated to Mr. Baradar’s capture.
Even so, Muhammad Omar, the governor of Kunduz Province, said in an interview that the two Taliban shadow governors maintained a close working relationship with Mr. Baradar.
“Mullah Salam and Mullah Mohammed were the most merciless individuals,” said Gen. Razaq Yaqoobi, police chief of Kunduz Province. “Most of the terror, executions and other crimes committed in northern Afghanistan were on their orders.”
The immediate impact of the arrests of the two Taliban governors was unclear. In the short term, it could probably be expected to hurt the Taliban’s operations somewhat and possibly demoralize their rank-and-file fighters, but probably not for long. In the past the Taliban have proved capable of quickly replacing their killed or captured leaders.
The three recent arrests — all in Pakistan — demonstrate a greater level of cooperation by Pakistan in hunting leaders of the Afghan Taliban than in the entire eight years of war. American officials have complained bitterly since 2001 that the Pakistanis, while claiming to be American allies and accepting American aid were simultaneously providing sanctuary and assistance to Taliban fighters and leaders who were battling the Americans across the border.
In conversations with American officials, Pakistani officials would often claim not to know about the existence of the “Quetta Shura,” the name given to the council of senior Taliban leaders that used the Pakistani city of Quetta as a sanctuary for years. It was the Quetta Shura — also known as the Supreme Council — that Mr. Baradar presided over.
It is still far from clear, but senior commanders in Afghanistan say they believe that the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies, led by Gens. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Ahmed Shuja Pasha, may finally be coming around to the belief that the Taliban — in Pakistan and Afghanistan — constitute a threat to the existence of the Pakistani state.
“I believe that General Kayani and his leaders have come to the conclusion that they want us to succeed,” a senior NATO officer in Kabul said.
Word of the arrests of the shadow governors came as American, Afghan and British forces continue to press ahead with their largest military operation to date, in the Afghan agricultural town of Marja. Earlier this month, on the eve of the Marja invasion, Afghan officials also detained Marja’s shadow governor as he tried to flee the country.
The Taliban figures are commonly referred to as “shadow governors” because their identities are secret and because they mirror the legitimate governors appointed by the Afghan government. The Taliban’s shadow governors oversee all military and political operations in a given area.
Even before the arrests in Pakistan, the American and Afghan military and intelligence services appeared to have been enjoying a run of success against Taliban leaders inside Afghanistan.
The senior NATO officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said American forces had detained or killed “three or four” Taliban provincial governors in the past several weeks, including the Taliban’s shadow governor for Laghman Province.
Another NATO officer, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Mullah Zakhir, the Taliban’s military commander for southern Afghanistan, had been ordered back to Pakistan before the Marja offensive.
Indeed, the capture of two Taliban governors inside Pakistan may reflect the greater level of insecurity that all Taliban leaders are feeling inside Afghanistan at the moment.
“The Taliban are feeling a new level of pain,” the senior NATO officer said.
Reporting was cojntributed by Mark Mazzetti and Pir Zubair Shah from Islamabad, Pakistan; Abdul Waheed Wafa from Kabul; and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan.