Pakistan seizes a Taliban chief
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: The former Taliban defense minister was arrested in Pakistan on Monday, the day of Vice President Dick Cheney's visit, two government officials said Thursday. He is the most important Taliban member to be captured since the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
The man, Mullah Obaidullah, was a senior leader of the Afghan insurgency, which has battled American and NATO forces with increasing intensity over the last year.
He is one of the inner core around Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader. The leadership is believed to operate from the relative safety of Quetta, Pakistan, where Mullah Obaidullah was arrested.
It was not clear whether he was picked up before, during or after Cheney's visit. But the timing may be significant because Cheney's mission was intended to press Pakistan to do more to crack down on members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda who use Pakistan as a sanctuary.
Pakistan has come under rising criticism from American and NATO officials for acting against the Taliban and Al Qaeda only under pressure, conducting operations or making arrests timed for high-level official visits, then backing off.
While Mullah Obaidullah's detention may be a sign of a new commitment by Pakistan to move against the Taliban leadership, the arrest also seemed to confirm Western and Afghan intelligence reports that the Taliban were using Pakistan, and particularly Quetta, to organize their insurgency.
Pakistani officials have strenuously denied that the Taliban leadership is based in Pakistan, and there was no official announcement of the detention. But two government officials confirmed the arrest.
A NATO spokesman in Afghanistan, Col. Tom Collins, said he was not aware of any arrest. American government officials in Washington confirmed the capture, but cautioned that the arrest was unlikely to deal a significant setback to the insurgents.
"He's a big fish, but nobody around here thinks this will deal a permanent blow to the operations of the Taliban," said one American government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the arrest had not been formally announced.
Last year, NATO forces in southern Afghanistan bore the brunt of a resurgent Taliban. They have lost 85 service members since taking over command of southern Afghanistan in August, in suicide bombings, ambushes and often heavy fighting. Commanders and diplomats say it has become increasingly clear that control of the Taliban fighters traced back to Pakistan.
Over the past five months, Pakistan has come under more constant pressure for cooperation than ever, an American official in Afghanistan said recently. Democrats in Congress have raised the possibility of tying military assistance and other financial aid for Pakistan to its performance in fighting terrorism.
President Bush sent an unusually tough message to President Pervez Musharraf, timed to coincide with Cheney's visit, senior administration officials said.
Pakistani officials answer the criticism by pointing out that their own military has suffered more than any other, losing more than 600 soldiers in fighting with the militants, before the campaigns bogged down and the government reached peace deals with some tribal leaders.
Pakistani intelligence services also assisted the United States military in tracking another top Taliban official, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Osmani, who was killed Dec. 19 in an American airstrike in southern Afghanistan.
Mullah Osmani was the Taliban's main financial official and was operating both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and his death was considered an important blow to the insurgents, Colonel Collins said.
The former Taliban foreign minister, Mullah Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, was detained by American forces in 2002 but was released in 2005 under a government reconciliation program. One of the Taliban's top military commanders, Mullah Fazel, remains imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, along with the former Taliban governor of Balkh Province.
Mullah Obaidullah is originally from Panjwai district of Kandahar Province in southern Afghanistan. As recently as December, he gave an interview to Reuters, boasting that the Taliban had gained in strength and could fight the world's strongest armies, and threatening to step up suicide attacks against foreign military personnel in Afghanistan.
He was often mentioned as being among the four most senior men of what is known as the Quetta Council, the inner circle around Mullah Omar, which is thought to have based itself in or near the city, in southwestern Pakistan.
A former Taliban spokesman, Abdul Latif Hakimi, who was himself arrested in 2005 by the police in Quetta, said Mullah Obaidullah was one of only two people who had direct access to Mullah Omar. He also said that Mullah Obaidullah had personally ordered military operations, including the killing of a foreign aid official in Kabul in March 2005.
Bomb Kills 3 Near School
KABUL, Afghanistan, March 1 — A bomb exploded Thursday in a garbage bin on a crowded shopping street in Farah, in the southwest, killing three civilians and wounding more than 54, including 10 schoolchildren, said Dr. Mohammad Qasim Bayan, the director of health in Farah Province.
The bomb exploded just after 8 a.m. at a busy intersection. A police convoy was passing, and the Farah city police chief, Said Aqa Saqib, said he suspected it was a remote-controlled bomb aimed at the convoy.
Chief Saqib said violence was spilling over from Helmand Province, where the Taliban seized control of much of the north, and was aggravated by the government's campaign to eradicate the poppy crop.
Abdul Waheed Wafa contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.