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Pakistan’s Taliban captive: an accident or a turning point?

Pakistan wants to be part of possible US negotiations with Taliban over Al Qaeda.

Plain clothed police show case a handcuffed and blindfolded to media in Karachi, Feb. 17, 2010, the same that the Afghan Taliban's top military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was captured. (Akhtar Soomro/Reuters)

BOSTON — Seldom are things exactly as they seem in the complicated labyrinth of Pakistani-American relations. Take the recent capture of the Afghan Taliban’s military chief, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Karachi early this year. As far as is known, the CIA got word through a communications intercept that there might be a Taliban meeting taking place in the port city. The CIA tipped off Pakistani intelligence, which made the arrest.

Not long afterwards, the Pakistanis picked up Mullah Kabir, another ranking member of the “Quetta Shura,” the inner circle of the Afghan Taliban leadership. This, in addition to the arrest of a Taliban shadow provincial governor, Mohammed Yunis, indicated to the Americans that Pakistan had a change of heart about their erstwhile allies, the Taliban.

“This indicates Baradar was not a one off or an accident, but a turning point in Pakistan’s policy towards the Taliban,” a former CIA official, Bruce Riedel, told The New York Times. “We still need to see how far it goes, but for Obama and NATO this is the best possible news. If the safe haven is closing then the Taliban are in trouble.”

But Pakistani author and journalist, Ahmed Rashid, who literally wrote the book on the Taliban and has impeccable sources, has a different narrative. Addressing a conference in Camden, Maine, last weekend, Rashid said that the capture of Baradar had in fact been an accident. The Pakistanis thought that had caught only small fry, but soon found out they had captured Taliban Chief Mullah Omar’s right-hand man.

“They were deeply embarrassed,” Rashid said. “Pakistan still thinks of the Taliban as a useful ally.”

Ever since the recent London Conference on Afghanistan, trying to strike a deal with the Taliban has been the favored approach of not only the government of Hamid Karzai in Kabul, but of the United States. The Americans talk of “peeling off” layers of Taliban supporters who might not be that loyal to Mullah Omar. Karzai talks of possible negotiations with higher-ups.

According to Rashid, Barabar has been in contact not only with the Karzai government but with Saudi Arabia as well. When Taliban leaders want to travel they use Pakistani passports.