Pakistan cracking down on Taliban —or backing them?

Pakistan’s daily Dawn reports March 2 that the country’s security forces have captured Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, deputy to the elusive Taliban chief, Mullah Mohammad Omar. The newspaper cited a government official in Quetta, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Mullah Obaidullah, supposedly arrested Feb. 27, is the most senior Taliban figure captured since the ouster of the militia from power in Afghanistan in November 2001. He served as defense minister in the Taliban regime, and there is a $1 million price on his head. He is on the US “most wanted” list and a member of the 10-man Taliban Leadership Council announced by the Taliban supreme leader in June 2003. His arrest came the day US Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in Islamabad, but the official said the action which led to his arrest had been planned in advance. He said that two others captured with Obaidullah “could be” Amir Khan Haqqani, a Taliban commander in Zabul, and Abdul Bari, the former governor of Helmand province.

NATO considers Mullah Obaidullah one of three top lieutenants to Mullah Omar. The other two were Mullah Akhtar Osmani and Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor. Mullah Osmani, a former Taliban army chief, was reportedly killed in a US airstrike in Helmand in December. When asked if the arrest of Mullah Omar’s deputy had put the security forces anywhere close to the elusive Taliban leader, the official said: “Had he been in the same city, he would have been taken by now.”

But the Hong Kong-based Asia Times reported March 1, citing interviews with anonymous Taliban/al-Qaeda contacts, that the Pakistani government “has made a deal with the Taliban through a leading Taliban commander that will extend Islamabad’s influence into southwestern Afghanistan and significantly strengthen the resistance in its push to capture Kabul.” The report says the one-legged Mullah Dadullah “will be Pakistan’s strongman in a corridor running from the Afghan provinces of Zabul, Urzgan, Kandahar and Helmand across the border into Pakistan’s Balochistan province… Using Pakistani territory and with Islamabad’s support, the Taliban will be able safely to move men, weapons and supplies into southwestern Afghanistan.” Mullah Dadullah is said to be key figure in preparations for the Taliban’s spring offensive.

Meanwhile, US forces on Afghanistan’s eastern border routinely fire upon and pursue Taliban forces into Pakistani territory, defense officials told Congress March 1. “We have all the authorities we need to pursue, either with (artillery) fire or on the ground, across the border,” Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute told the Senate Armed Services Committee. Lute, chief operations officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said US forces can respond if there is an imminent threat from acorss the border. But he said they would have to seek the Pakistani government’s permission to go after Taliban targets further inside the border. (AP, March 1)

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