The capture of the Taliban's No. 2 leader by CIA and Pakistani security forces coincides with the ongoing military offensive in Afghanistan and is a major setback for the insurgency in Afghanistan but not its end, several U.S. officials said Tuesday.
The seizure of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar several days ago also is triggering optimism among officials about the war in Afghanistan because the detention of the key military commander could assist efforts to lure more moderate Taliban away from the insurgency.
"He'd be a major loss to the Taliban," said a U.S. official familiar with the operation to capture Mullah Baradar.
U.S. officials said Mullah Baradar, who is credited with rebuilding the Taliban's military force of about 20,000 fighters, was captured several days ago in a joint operation by the CIA and Pakistan's intelligence services. He is being interrogated to learn details about the insurgency.
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The Washington Times reported in November that the Taliban's No. 1 leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and his associates, including Mullah Baradar, had fled from the Pakistani city of Quetta, close to Afghanistan, to the southern port city of Karachi, seeking refuge from U.S. drone strikes.
Several U.S. intelligence officials and one former senior CIA officer said that Mullah Omar traveled to Karachi in October, after the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. He inaugurated a new senior leadership council in Karachi, headed by Mullah Baradar.
Karachi has been free of U.S. and Pakistani counterterrorism campaigns, the officials said.
A former senior Special Forces officer with knowledge of the war in Afghanistan and the Afghan Taliban said Mullah Baradar was the main "operational guy for the Taliban" and that he had been "on the high-value target list for three or four years."
"He was the guy who ran the Quetta shura for Mullah Omar," the senior Special Forces officer said, referring to the group's decision-making body. The officer said Mullah Baradar is viewed as a "more approachable and moderate Taliban," and his capture may be a way of bringing the Taliban more into the fold.
"Beyond the interrogation, this may be part of a plan to lure moderate Taliban."
In October, U.S. intelligence officials confirmed Mullah Omar's move through both electronic and human sources, along with intelligence from an unnamed allied intelligence agency, a senior U.S. official told The Times.
Senior Pakistani officials are neither confirming nor denying the capture of Mullah Baradar. However, a senior Pakistani government official who spoke to The Times said that for the past several years, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence agencies have been working closely to track Taliban leaders.
"If it is an authentic capture, it is a tremendous success and will have long-lasting effects against the war on terror," the senior Pakistani official said. "This is evidence that Pakistan is working closely with the U.S. Some people don't understand the magnitude of our joint operations."
He said U.S. and Pakistani intelligence agencies have been involved in joint operations for the past two years and have made numerous successes. "However, if it is verified, this would be the most spectacular one," he said.
Mullah Baradar was among the top Taliban leaders operating inside Pakistan. Press reports in April 2009 said he was among several senior Taliban leaders who fled Quetta to Karachi because of fears of U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle attacks.
"He's basically their strategic commander, one of the founders of the group. He's also a primary conduit to Mullah Omar," the Islamist group's senior leader, one U.S. official said.
Mullah Baradar has "helped shape the way the Taliban fights and the way it approaches or doesn't approach the Afghan government," the official said.
Mullah Baradar has been a major insurgent leader who is responsible for the deaths of many people, including Americans.
"He's no stranger to suicide bombers," the official said. "Getting him is important, but it doesn't mean the end of the Afghan Taliban, not by a long shot."
However, Mullah Baradar was captured at a particularly sensitive time for the Taliban, which is facing high military pressure, especially in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, where U.S., British and Afghan troops are engaged in a major offensive to take control of a town from the Taliban.
"They have other paramilitary leaders, but this guy was at the top, had a relatively broad perspective with political experience, too, and goes way back with Mullah Omar," the official said. "That kind of resume is hard to replace."
Newsweek magazine, in a profile of Mullah Baradar published in July, said he appointed and fired Taliban commanders and governors and issued the group's most important statements. Asked whether he had taken over for Mullah Omar, Mullah Baradar told the magazine in an e-mail that "we are acting on [Mullah Omar's] instructions."