The Taliban's top military commander has been arrested in a joint CIA-Pakistani operation in Pakistan in a major victory against the insurgents as US troops push into their heartland in southern Afghanistan, officials said today.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the number two behind Afghan Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and a close associate of Osama bin Laden, was captured in the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi, two Pakistani intelligence officers and a senior US official said.
One Pakistani officer said Baradar was arrested 10 days ago with the assistance of the United States and "was talking" to his interrogators. The New York Times first reported the arrest on its website late yesterday.
Pakistan's spy agency has been accused in the past of protecting top Afghan Taliban leaders believed to be sheltering in the country, frustrating Washington. Moving against Baradar could signal that Islamabad increasingly views the Afghan Taliban, or at least some of its members, as fair game.
The arrest also comes amid a new push by the United States and its Nato allies to negotiate with Afghan Taliban leaders as a way to end the eight-year war in Afghanistan. Pakistan is or will play an important role in that process because of its close links with members of the movement, which it supported before the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Karachi is Pakistan's largest city and has been increasingly cited as a possible hiding place for top Afghan Taliban commanders in recent months. It has a large population of Pashtuns, the ethnic group which makes up the Taliban, but it is on the Arabian Sea and far from the Afghan border.
Baradar headed the Taliban's military council and was elevated in the organisation after the 2006 death of military chief Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Usmani. He was known to co-ordinate the movement's military operations throughout the south and south-west of Afghanistan. His area of direct responsibility stretched over Kandahar, Helmand, Nimroz, Zabul and Uruzgan provinces.
According to Interpol, Baradar was the deputy defence minister in the Taliban regime which ruled Afghanistan until it was ousted in the 2001 US-led invasion.
A Taliban spokesman in Afghanistan told The Associated Press that Baradar was still free, although he did not provide any evidence.
"We totally deny this rumour. He has not been arrested," Zabiullah Mujahid told the AP by telephone. He said the report was Western propaganda aimed at undercutting the Taliban fighting against an offensive in the southern Afghan town of Marjah, a Taliban haven.
"The Taliban are having success with our jihad. It is to try to demoralise the Taliban who are on jihad in Marjah and all of Afghanistan," he said.
The Times said it learned of the operation against Baradar on Thursday but delayed reporting it at the request of White House officials who argued that publicising it would end a valuable intelligence-gathering effort by making Baradar's associates aware of his capture.
The newspaper said it decided to publish the news after White House officials acknowledged Baradar's capture was becoming widely known in the region.
Word of Baradar's capture came as US Marine and Afghan units pressed deeper into Marjah, facing sporadic rocket and mortar fire as they moved through suspected insurgent neighbourhoods on the third day of a Nato offensive to reclaim the town.
US-based global intelligence firm Stratfor said the reported arrest was a "major development", but cautioned it may not have a major impact on the battlefield in Afghanistan.
"It is unlikely that a single individual would be the umbilical cord between the leadership council and the military commanders in the field, particularly a guerrilla force such as the Taliban," it said in an analysis soon after news broke of the arrest.