Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Karachi, Pakistan -- A campaign against senior members of the Afghan Taliban has netted a second major figure, the “shadow governor” of a northern province who presided over a dramatic buildup of forces that took over entire districts and harried NATO troops, Afghan and Pakistani officials revealed Thursday.
Word of the arrest of Mullah Abdul Salam and a Taliban associate follows disclosure this week of the recent capture, also in Pakistan, of the Afghan Taliban’s top military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, whose influence has been described as second only to that of the movement’s spiritual leader and supreme commander, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Intelligence sources in Pakistan on Thursday also reported the arrest of three suspected Al Qaeda militants in the port city of Karachi a day earlier. Taken together, the cluster of arrests represents a sharp increase in cooperation by Pakistani authorities in pursuing Islamic extremists, particularly Afghan Taliban militants who have used Pakistani soil as a haven.
In Washington, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said the series of arrests, which he declined to discuss in detail, could also help “reverse the momentum” of the Taliban and force its fighters to reassess their loyalty to the insurgency.
“Between the concerted efforts that you’re seeing in Pakistan and the concerted efforts that we are undertaking along with our Afghan partners in Afghanistan, the squeeze is being put to the Taliban,” Morrell said. “Our hope is clearly that this is creating a certain amount of discontent, worry, turmoil within the organization.”
Morrell also said that as more Afghan Taliban leaders are “picked up, taken out, killed, arrested -- whatever it may be,” the security situation would improve.
Abdul Salam, the shadow governor of Kunduz province in Afghanistan’s north, was arrested this month, said the officially appointed governor of Kunduz, Mohammed Omar. That was confirmed by Pakistani intelligence sources, who said the capture took place near the largely Pashtun city of Nowshera, in North-West Frontier Province.
“This is a big blow for the Taliban here,” Gov. Omar said.
There was no indication that Abdul Salam’s arrest was related to that of Baradar, but Taliban shadow governors, who are usually high-ranking military commanders, are thought to travel regularly to Pakistan for consultations with the movement’s leadership council, known as the Quetta shura. Baradar was a senior member of the council.
Both Gov. Omar and the Pakistani sources said another Taliban figure, Mullah Mir Mohammed, was arrested along with Abdul Salam. Some reports have previously identified Mullah Mohammed as the shadow governor of Baghlan province, near Kunduz, but Gov. Omar said Mohammed served as a deputy to Abdul Salam, and it was believed that they shared some responsibilities in the two provinces.
Taliban shadow governments sprang up across Afghanistan after the movement was driven from power in 2001 by U.S.-led forces. By late last year, according to a Western intelligence official, there were shadow governments in all but two of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
Although shadow governors usually function as military chiefs, directing insurgent attacks in their respective provinces, they also oversee activities such as collecting taxes and setting up Taliban courts. Their authority sometimes supplants that of the “real” government.
Afghan and American troops in recent weeks have been conducting a quiet but concerted campaign against Taliban shadow governments. Last week, shortly before the start of the major coalition offensive in the southern Afghan town of Marja, a shadow official from Helmand province was captured in neighboring Kandahar province; he was believed to have been on his way to Pakistan.
In Kunduz, a once-quiet corner of Afghanistan, Abdul Salam had presided over an increase in the number of Taliban fighters over the last 18 months.
The insurgents repeatedly attacked security posts, fought North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops -- mainly from Germany -- and menaced a NATO supply line running through Kunduz.
One of the worst civilian-casualty episodes of the war occurred in August 2009, after suspected Taliban fighters hijacked two fuel tankers. The Germans, fearing that the vehicles would be used for an attack on their main base in Kunduz, called in an airstrike that killed dozens of insurgents, along with dozens of civilians.
Late last year a series of raids, carried out mainly by U.S. special forces, drove the insurgents underground in Kunduz, but their presence remained a threat, Gov. Omar said.
On the Pakistani side of the border, the three suspected Al Qaeda militants detained Wednesday night in Karachi were described by intelligence sources as Arabs, two of them identified as Abu Reyan al Zarkazi and Kifayatullah. Six other militant suspects were arrested as well.
The Pakistani English-language newspaper Dawn reported on its website that the three men were in Karachi to buy washing machine timers that could be used in bombs, though that report could not be confirmed.
The disclosure of Baradar’s arrest preceded a visit to Pakistan this week by U.S. regional special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, who also visited Afghanistan. Speaking to reporters Wednesday in Kabul, the Afghan capital, Holbrooke described the capture as “very significant.”
Analysts say Pakistan’s reluctance to carry out such arrests until now has been driven by its belief that maintaining an amicable relationship with the Taliban offers a measure of protection in the event of an eventual Western withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Pakistan also believes that maintaining ties with Afghan militants would act as a counterbalance to India’s expanding influence in Afghanistan.
However, Pakistani authorities have long maintained that the U.S. did not previously provide credible intelligence on the whereabouts of leaders such as Baradar and Mullah Mohammed Omar.
It was information provided by the CIA that led to Baradar’s capture in a Karachi suburb.
Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.