Was the Taliban's Captured No. 2 on the Outs with Mullah Omar?

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Xinhua / Landov

An undated photo allegedly of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, , the No. 2 Taliban commander who was captured by Pakistani forces with U.S. cooperation in February 2010

Since the capture of the Taliban's purported second in command by Pakistani forces, military relations between Islamabad and Washington have appeared to be on an upswing. Not too long ago, U.S. insistence that Pakistan step up its cooperation in the fight against the Afghan Taliban had riled the military bigwigs in the south Asian nation — Pakistan's military helped create Mullah Omar and his Taliban fighters in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and have surreptitiously supported them, for the most part, ever since. The ties have remained testy. When army chief Ashfaq Kayani, the most powerful man in Pakistan, was in Washington a few months ago, General David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, remarked, "We're your only friends in Washington." Kayani reportedly replied, "Your friendship is exactly what's causing me headaches back home."

But the arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Mullah Mohammad Omar's vaunted No. 2, seems to have reversed the momentum. Talking to TIME inside the 2,000-year-old Bala Hissar fortress jutting above Peshawar's old bazaar, Tariq Khan, frontier corps commander major general, admitted that "at first, that commitment with the Americans wasn't there." Now, however, Khan says the U.S. and Pakistani forces along the border are sharing intelligence "in real time, as it's happening."

Counter-arguments abound, of course. There are two interpretations regarding Baradar, who was leaving a seminary in a dingy slum outside Karachi when Pakistani operatives, acting on a tip from the CIA, picked him up. The first theory is that Pakistan owed the U.S. big time for knocking out one of their troublesome insurgents and could not dither when the CIA demanded that Baradar be grabbed. But the second theory, put out by local Pakistani journalists with reliable Taliban contacts, suggests that Baradar was dispensable for the Pakistani intelligence since he broke last December with Omar. According to Peshawar journalist Rahimullah Yousufzai, Taliban sources said the two old comrades split over Baradar's supposed openness to talks with the Kabul government of Hamid Karzai, whom Omar and the Pakistanis despise. Also, Baradar was reportedly upset that Omar had shrugged off his warnings not to put too much trust in the Pakistanis. After Baradar's capture, says Yousufzai, "all the Taliban will be thinking, Who's next?"

That fear is exactly what the U.S. military command wants to stir in the minds of Taliban leaders. Afghan Taliban commanders may now hesitate before heading to Pakistan for refuge. Meanwhile, the U.S. is being generous with its intelligence. Pakistani military sources say the U.S. has passed on GPS coordinates of the bases used by the Pakistani Taliban — extremist tribesmen who see Islamabad as their enemy No. 1, not the NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan — so that the Pakistani military under General Khan can hammer them with artillery or aircraft strikes. These sources say that several dozen American "trainers" are passing on intelligence on the Pakistani Taliban that was gleaned from the eye-in-the-sky drones.

It was a U.S. drone strike earlier this month that either killed or severely wounded Hakimullah Mehsud, head of the Pakistani Taliban. Knocking Mehsud out of commission may have been the favor Islamabad was repaying with the capture of Baradar and three Afghan Taliban "shadow" governors who were operating out of Pakistan. Mehsud had masterminded a suicide-bombing campaign that hit schools, police stations, bazaars and garrisons across the country, killing hundreds. (On Tuesday, another Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Qadir, ex-governor of Afghanistan's Nangahar province, was reportedly arrested, though neither Pakistan nor the Taliban spokesman would confirm the capture.)

The U.S. assistance is paying dividends for Pakistan in the fight against its domestic insurgency. Inside the forbidding mountain ranges along Pakistan's Afghan border, "the drones can hit where the Pakistani military cannot," says Talaat Masood, a retired general and independent military analyst in Islamabad. On Feb. 19, U.S. aerial surveillance helped the Pakistanis find and kill more than 30 militants in a bombing run in a forested valley in South Waziristan, which, until a major Pakistani offensive last October, had been crawling with Pakistani and Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters.

Washington's newfound friendship with Islamabad could still fray over one particularly vicious Afghan clan. The NATO forces' most dangerous adversaries are the Haqqanis, who have sworn loyalty to Omar while operating semi-independently in the eastern Afghan provinces and also across the border in Pakistan. Since the days of the jihad against the Soviets, Pakistani spy service the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has kept close ties with the Haqqanis. Now the Pakistanis are resisting demands by Washington to clear the Haqqanis out of their lair in the Pakistani territory of North Waziristan. Pakistani officials insist they will — but within six months. For now, they say, their 140,000 troops are too busy fighting the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal agencies of Orakzai, Bajaur and South Waziristan to tackle the Haqqani clan.

Privately, some army officers present a different perspective. They see the Haqqanis as future players in any deal that might be struck between Karzai and the resistance — and believe it is crucial that the Pakistani military remain close to the clan in order to preserve Islamabad's influence in Afghanistan. That is not a result the U.S. wants. The Americans blame the young Haqqani warlord Sirajuddin for the most lethal attacks, many of them by suicide bombers, on NATO forces around Kabul. U.S. intelligence suspects that the Haqqanis are sheltering dozens of al-Qaeda fighters.

And so while U.S.-Pakistan relations are better now, they are still fraught. As U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke, a veteran of the Balkans and other bruising diplomatic acts, remarked wearily on Feb. 18, during his seventh swing through Islamabad, "This is the most complicated relation with an ally that I've ever experienced. I don't want to mislead you; it's still fragile."