After months of mounting frustration with Pakistan over its unwillingness to crack down on Afghan Taliban leaders finding sanctuary on its soil, Pakistan appears to be coming through with cooperation that could help turn the tide in the war in Afghanistan.
Following last week’s revelation that the number two Taliban leader, Mullah Baradar, was captured in Pakistan earlier this month, fresh reports indicate that at least three other senior Taliban leaders have also recently been arrested in Pakistan. These include Mullah Abdul Kabir, a deputy prime minister in the former Taliban regime and a member of the Quetta Shura (Taliban leadership Council) as well as two “shadow governors” of provinces in Afghanistan.
Afghan Interior Minister Hanif Atmar has said he hoped these arrests represent the beginning of a “large-scale” Pakistani operation against the Taliban. Afghan officials have also claimed that Pakistan has agreed to turn over Baradar to Afghan authorities, although Pakistani officials say he will be tried in Pakistan first. If Pakistan does indeed hand over Baradar to the Afghans, that would be a promising sign of new Pakistan-Afghanistan cooperation at a critical time in the Afghanistan war.
U.S. and NATO forces launched a key offensive two weeks ago to oust the Taliban from one of their strongholds in the southern Helmand province. After the area is secured, the U.S. will help the Afghan government establish its writ over the area through an infusion of development aid and assistance with institutional capacity building. The Afghan Taliban leadership based in Pakistan coordinates the insurgency across the border in southern Afghanistan and thus convincing Pakistan to disrupt their sanctuary is critical to coalition forces gaining the upper hand against the insurgents.
It is unclear why Pakistan is stepping up to the plate now on cracking down on the Afghan Taliban. Most observers believe Islamabad may be seeking to ensure it has a role in determining any potential settlement of the conflict. Others say it is partly a response to building U.S. pressure. President Obama appealed directly to the Pakistanis to crack down on the Afghan Taliban through a letter hand-delivered by National Security Advisor Gen. Jones to Pakistani President Zardari last fall. The letter coincided with revelations from the arrest of David C. Headley, a Pakistani-American who worked with the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba in Pakistan to scout sites for the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai. Headley was arrested by U.S. authorities in early October and a former Pakistani Army major was named in the U.S. affidavit as serving as Headley’s handler for the Mumbai terror attacks. Since then, the U.S. has repeatedly made the case to Pakistan that facilitating some terrorist groups while fighting others is counterproductive. It is possible this message is finally beginning to sink in.
But given Pakistan’s long track record of support to militant groups fighting in Afghanistan and India, it is too early to determine whether the most recent arrests signal a permanent reversal of its past policies, or merely a tactical shift to demonstrate its leverage in the region.