KABUL, Afghanistan — Pakistan's latest arrests of senior Afghan Taliban figures and al Qaida operatives have raised the prospect that Islamabad has begun a major strategic shift away from backing its favorite Afghan militants. Analysts cautioned, however that Pakistan's aim may be to apply just enough pressure to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table on terms acceptable to Islamabad.
A combination of the new Pakistani moves and the U.S. military offensive in Afghanistan's Taliban heartland might serve to convince some militants that negotiations hold more promise for them than continued warfare does.
Mullah Abdul Salam and Mullah Mir Mohammad, respectively the Taliban "shadow governors" of the northern Afghan provinces of Kunduz and Baghlan, were captured in Quetta, Pakistan, the official governor of Kunduz province, Mohammad Omar, told McClatchy Thursday.
The Taliban run a shadow, or parallel, government in 33 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, according to a NATO assessment.
In addition, as many as nine militants linked to al Qaida were arrested in overnight raids in Karachi with the help of U.S. intelligence, according to a senior U.S. official who insisted on anonymity because the matter is classified. One was identified in published reports as Ameer Muawiya, who was said to be in charge of foreign al Qaida militants operating in Pakistan's tribal area near Afghanistan and was an associate of Osama bin Laden.
Officially, Pakistan broke with the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks, but in fact it hosted the movement's leadership on Pakistani soil, allowed the leaders' families to live openly in Pakistani cities and has permitted arms, money and personnel to flow back and forth across its long border with Afghanistan.
The revelation that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy leader of the Taliban, was arrested in Karachi last week and the news Thursday that two other Taliban commanders were seized in Pakistan indicated that a new policy could be crystallizing in Islamabad.
"I think a shift is taking place inside the military," said Khalid Aziz, head of the Regional Institute of Policy Research and Training, an independent policy organization based in the northwestern city of Peshawar. "At the end of it, if the old model had continued into a post-U.S. withdrawal situation, and Pakistan had continued supporting the 'good' Taliban, it would almost certainly end up as a civil war in Afghanistan."
Renewed civil war in Afghanistan likely would spill over into Pakistan, especially its tribal area and North West Frontier Province, which is populated by Pashtuns, who are also the biggest ethnic group in Afghanistan.
Earlier this month, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan's army chief said in a speech that he'd brushed aside the Pakistani old doctrine of "strategic depth," which meant controlling Afghanistan to stop the influence of arch-rival India there. "If Afghanistan is peaceful, stable, and friendly, we have our strategic depth because our western border is secure," Kayani declared.
Rather than a new approach to Afghanistan, some think that Pakistan is pursuing its old policy by a new means — that by weakening the Taliban, Islamabad could deliver some Taliban leaders to the negotiating table to cut a deal that would still give them some measure of power and Pakistan a strong say in Afghanistan's future.
Such a strategy, however, would risk alienating hardcore Taliban elements who remained in Pakistan — unless the Pakistanis were able to find and kill or capture them.
"I think it's a bit early to call it a strategic shift, but clearly the political calculations in Pakistan are changing," said Shuja Nawaz, an expert on Pakistani military at the Atlantic Council, an independent research organization in Washington. "The idea being they can play a role in getting the U.S. to communicate (with the Taliban)."
Backing the Taliban also has come at a tremendous domestic cost, as the movement spawned a copycat group in Pakistan that's even more violent and has squarely targeted the government. More civilians were killed in terrorist violence in Pakistan last year than in Afghanistan.
According to Kunduz governor Omar, the "shadow governors" were arrested in the western Pakistani city of Quetta within the last two weeks. The so-called Quetta shura, or Taliban leadership council, is said to be based there. Some reports said that one of those shadow governors, Salam, was nabbed in the Pakistani city of Faisalabad, in the dominant Punjab province, a place with no obvious Taliban links.
"This (the arrests) is because of the pressure of the world community on Pakistan. And the explosions happening inside Pakistan, the crisis in Pakistan," Omar told McClatchy. Nawaz pointed out that puncturing the Taliban strengthened the relative position of the other main insurgent group operating in Afghanistan, the Haqqani network, which is considered even closer to Pakistan.
The flurry of sudden arrests raised the awkward issue of why Pakistan didn't act earlier. "They (Pakistani intelligence) seem to have found their old address book," quipped one senior U.S. official in the region, who couldn't be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Separately, four more soldiers from the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force were killed in the week-old massive offensive in the southern Afghanistan's Helmand province. Three of the four died from roadside bombs, bringing total ISAF fatalities to eight.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY