WASHINGTON/KABUL - The Taliban's top military commander was captured in Pakistan, U.S. and Pakistani officials said on Tuesday, but the move may not deal a decisive blow to a group putting up fierce resistance to a NATO offensive in Afghanistan.
The Afghan Taliban denied that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was captured in a joint raid by Pakistani and U.S. spy agencies.
Washington hopes Mullah Baradar's capture will at least temporarily weaken the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, where U.S. Marines are leading one of NATO's biggest offensives of the 8-year war in the southern militant stronghold of Marjah.
I would call it significant, a U.S. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. But even when you get their leaders, they've shown an amazing resilience to bounce back. It's an adaptive organization.
A second U.S. official confirmed the capture.
A Pakistani security official who declined to be identified told Reuters: Yes, it's true. He has been arrested. He's in our custody.
The New York Times said the capture took place in the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi several days ago.
The capture of Mullah Baradar suggested there is a new level of cooperation between Washington and Islamabad, given that the raid was led by members of the Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) with help from the CIA.
The United States has long pressured Pakistan to move against Afghan Taliban groups, which it has cultivated for years to use as a future counterweight to old enemy India in Afghanistan.
It's very clear to me that the Pakistanis understand that this fight is for them and it's a fight for everybody who is going to stand up against terrorism, U.S. Senator John Kerry told CNN after he met Pakistan's army chief, president and prime minister.
Kamran Bokhari, regional director of global intelligence firm STRATFOR, said Mullah Baradar was a key deputy of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
It's not clear though that the arrest will have a major impact on the battlefield, he said. I suspect the Taliban gave up this guy to the Pakistanis who then gave him to the Americans in exchange for some concessions on Afghanistan and India.
A Taliban spokesman said Mullah Baradar was in Afghanistan actively organizing Taliban military and political activities.
He has not been captured. They want to spread this rumor just to divert the attention of people from their defeats in Marjah and confuse the public, Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters, referring to the NATO offensive.
In a sign of how tough it is to gather intelligence on the Taliban, there have been conflicting reports on who is winning the battle in Marjah, a breeding ground for militancy and poppy cultivation that Western states say finances the insurgency.
Some Marine units have been bogged down by heavy Taliban gunfire, sniper attacks and booby traps.
Much of the success of the offensive depends on limiting civilian casualties to ensure that the local population does not turn against the government and Afghan forces.
Underlining those concerns, U.S. troops are reaching out to local residents.
I went to a home nearby here and paid them for their windows, they got blown in by one of our controlled dets, Marine Gunnery Sergeant Brandon Dickinson said, referring to a controlled detonation of an insurgent-planted improvised explosive device (IED).
TALIBAN SAYS IN CONTROL
The Taliban said on their website on Tuesday that they were in control of Marjah district and that troops had not made any progress beyond the areas where they were transported by helicopters on Saturday at the first stage of the operation.
Ghulam Mahaiuddin Ghori, a senior Afghan National Army general for the southern region, said many Taliban militants had escaped, and Afghan forces had reached the stage where they were searching houses for arms and ammunition.
We have asked the shopkeepers to reopen their business and have urged those villagers who had left (prior to the launch of the operation) to return to their houses, he told Reuters.
Although the capture of Mullah Baradar may be a big morale boost to Washington after a suicide bomber killed seven CIA employees at a U.S. base in Afghanistan in December, getting him to give up valuable intelligence is another matter.
Especially when it comes to clues on the whereabouts of reclusive Taliban chief Mullah Omar, who gave him the nickname Mullah Baradar (brother), in a sign of trust.
(Additional reporting by Peter Cooney in Washington, Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad and Faisal Aziz in Karachi; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Bryson Hull and Philip Barbara)