U.S. intelligence aided capture of Taliban chief

But officials say luck played key role in CIA's tracing of No. 2 leader in Pakistan

February 17, 2010|By Greg Miller and Alex Rodriguez | Tribune Newspapers

The United States has delivered a fleet of drone aircraft and billions of dollars in aid to coax Pakistan to do more to confront Afghan Taliban militants taking refuge inside the country.

But the Islamist group's second in command was captured in Karachi last week largely because the United States was also able to provide something else Pakistan has demanded for years: solid intelligence on where Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar could be found.

American and Pakistani officials said Tuesday that the capture of Baradar was driven by a rare intelligence break that enabled U.S. spy agencies to pinpoint the Taliban military chief and help Pakistan's intelligence service organize a daring operation on short notice to arrest him.

Officials in Washington said the capture spotlights a heightened level of cooperation that the United States has pursued relentlessly in recent years through a campaign of diplomatic and military pressure. The effort involved a nearly constant stream of often secret visits by top U.S. officials, as well as more unconventional inducements. Twice over the past six months, CIA Predator drones have been used to kill the leaders of the Taliban faction responsible for attacks inside Pakistan.

But as for the arrest of Baradar, one U.S. government official said: "It's not just a matter of their motivation; it's a matter of opportunity that we present."

Officials provided few specifics Tuesday on the nature of the intelligence that led to the capture. U.S. spy agencies have been tracking Baradar's communications and activity closely since December, officials said, but even so the intelligence that enabled the raid in Karachi involved an unexpected break.

Said one U.S. official: "Fortune played a role."

A Pakistani military official provided a similar account.

"For the last two years no one had shared credible intelligence on the whereabouts of anyone in the Quetta shura," the Pakistani military official said, referring to the Afghan Taliban leadership council, believed to be based in Quetta.

Baradar, a senior figure in the council, presided over the military campaign aimed at reclaiming power in neighboring Afghanistan.

Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which operates a network of informants across the country, has helped direct dozens of CIA Predator strikes in the tribal belt along the Afghan border. But captures of top al-Qaida or Afghan Taliban figures in the country's teeming cities have often depended on intelligence provided by the CIA, as was the case with Baradar.

U.S. intelligence and military officials described a long-standing effort to locate Baradar, who is outranked in the Taliban by its spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, but is regarded as an operational director who in many ways has served a more important day-to-day role.

Baradar is being held in Pakistani custody and is being questioned by Pakistani interrogators working closely with counterparts from the CIA. It remained unclear whether Baradar was cooperating, but analysts said that any information he provides could lead to other arrests as well as operations aimed at unraveling Taliban communications and supply networks along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier.

Mohammad Arsalan Rahmani, a former minister in the Taliban government who is now a lawmaker, said Baradar's battlefield directives - heavy use of improvised bombs, hit-and-run ambushes and avoidance of large-scale head-on confrontations with Western forces - have been incorporated into the Taliban mode of fighting. Even so, Baradar's capture was expected to be a blow to Taliban military capabilities.

"It will definitely have an effect. The Taliban will have some problems due to his absence," Rahmani said.

Tribune staff writers Julian E. Barnes in Washington and Laura King in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this article.

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