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What lies behind Pakistan's Taliban arrests?

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Islamabad

Taliban fighters in Ghazni province, Afghanistan - 23 January 2010
Afghan Taliban are thought to take orders from chiefs hiding in Pakistan

A succession of senior Afghan Taliban leaders have reportedly been seized in Pakistan in recent weeks. The world has been left guessing as to what might lie behind these arrests.

But answers will take time in coming.

At least four Taliban "shadow governors" of provinces in Afghanistan were arrested in Pakistan in February, reports say.

But for the moment the Pakistani military has only confirmed one arrest: that of the Taliban's top military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was detained in the southern city of Karachi.

Yet they have not issued any categorical denials about the other alleged arrests.

And the US media has been quoting unnamed Pakistani intelligence officials when reporting them.

Shift in attitude?

It is normally unlikely that such leaks could occur without discreet authorisation. Pakistan's policy of ambiguity when it comes to confirming these arrests could be down to the sensitivity of being seen to follow a US agenda.

Indeed analysts have long suspected senior Taliban leaders of finding shelter and sympathy in Pakistan, although the Pakistani authorities have consistently denied this.

So what are Pakistan's reasons for this sudden stream of arrests?

One group of analysts is of the view that the Pakistanis have finally started seeing the Taliban as a threat to their society and have decided to co-operate with the West's efforts to contain the movement.

Some say it is partly a quid pro quo for the US drone strikes that eliminated the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban, responsible for hundreds of bomb attacks in recent years.

But whether this amounts to a shift in Pakistan's security paradigm is unclear.

The arrests also coincide with the onset of a major military offensive in Afghanistan's Helmand province, long considered a Taliban stronghold.

pakistan map

Many believe that Pakistan's powerful security establishment, which is widely perceived to be a supporter of the Taliban movement, has come under considerable pressure from the US to make adjustments in its policy.

The Pakistani military heavily depends on the US for funds and equipment.

President Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan is also an issue for Pakistan. Analysts say that in the event of non-cooperation, Pakistan fears losing the chance of salvaging its "legitimate" interests in Afghanistan.

Countering India

The Pakistani move to arrest top Taliban leaders has also come as fresh peace talks between India and Pakistan were held.

India halted all talks with Pakistan after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which India says was carried out by Pakistan-based militants.

Pakistan, which already disputes India's territorial claim to the northern part of Kashmir, is wary of its growing influence in Afghanistan.

Over the last 20 years, the Pakistani military is believed to have backed a number of militant groups launching attacks in Indian-administered Kashmir.

In this time it has also been accused of training and funding the Afghan Taliban with a view to having a pro-Pakistan regime in Kabul.

In the years since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, the Pakistani military has been repeatedly blamed for "double-crossing" the Americans - protecting the Taliban and other militants while at the same time playing its role as the frontline state in the US-led "war on terror".

Since 2008, Pakistan has also resisted mounting Western pressure for more troops to be deployed in its north-western tribal badlands, on the Afghan border. It has said it needs troops on the eastern border with India.

US marines with 1/3 marine Charlie Company kneel and pray before going on patrol in Trikh Nawar - 18 Feb 2010
The arrests coincide with the US-led offensive in southern Afghanistan

With the Indians finally coming to the dialogue table and the US going for a troops surge in Afghanistan, options for Pakistan may well be shrinking.

And affirming its own influence in a new Afghan order will be important.

Reduced Afghan role?

But there is another interpretation of the latest events.

The argument goes that the recent arrests are part of an American strategy to drive a wedge in the Taliban movement and engage the more "moderate" elements for some kind of a power-sharing deal.

The arrests of top Taliban leaders will hurt the morale of their foot soldiers, and minimise their ability to regroup if they disperse in the wake of the US-led offensive.

These leaders could then be set free as part of a deal with the Taliban, and allowed to lead the movement into a process of integration with wider Afghan society.

If peace is held and reconstruction begins quickly, analysts say the influence of the Taliban may shrink drastically as they would be forced to compete with tribal, regional and political entities.

If that happens, Pakistani influence in Afghanistan will also decline. Is Pakistan ready for this?

Others argue that the leaders reportedly arrested so far have all been close to Pakistan's ISI intelligence service, and as such are more pragmatists than ideologues.

If they have not been arrested with negotiations in mind, their detention may not only close down crucial channels of communication with the Taliban, they may also leave the movement in the hands of more rigid and brutal second-generation leaders.

The fine print here is that Pakistan is unlikely to be naive enough not to see that by eliminating their proteges in the Taliban movement, they will be cutting off their influence over the only group they can hope to befriend in an otherwise hostile, pro-India Afghanistan.

The arrests may just be indicative of a Pakistani decision to settle for a reduced role in Afghanistan.

The fate of the detained Taliban leaders and a close watch on any further arrests may cast some light on Pakistan's strategy - in the absence of official comment.



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