ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Improved collaboration between the United States and Pakistan led to recent successes against the Taliban, including the capture of the group’s number two man, the White House’s special envoy to the region said on Thursday.
Hours after envoy Richard Holbrooke arrived in Islamabad, a bomb in a village in the Khyber area on the Pakistan-Afghan border killed 30 people, underlining the fragile security environment in the region.
The dead included the commander of a militant faction that is not part of Pakistan’s main Taliban alliance, security officials said, adding the blast appeared to be the result of factional rivalry.
Holbrooke lauded the capture of top Afghan Taliban military strategist Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar this month, which comes as U.S. forces spearhead one of NATO’s biggest offensives against his group.
“It is significant in and of itself. Very significant,” he told reporters. “It represents another high-water mark for Pakistani and American collaboration.”
Baradar was picked up in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi in a raid by Pakistani and U.S. agents. He was the most senior Taliban commander ever arrested in Pakistan.
U.S. ally Pakistan is battling its indigenous Taliban but has taken little action against Afghan Taliban operating from its soil who are not fighting the Pakistani state.
The al Qaeda-backed Pakistani Taliban, who are loosely allied with the Afghan Taliban, have launched a wave of bomb attacks in Pakistan in retaliation for offensives on their strongholds.
Holbrooke is on his eighth trip to Pakistan in a year, and, in a sign of warming ties, plans to return next month with Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Also on Thursday, a suspected U.S. drone aircraft fired two missiles into Pakistan’s North Waziristan region on the border, killing three militants, Pakistani officials said.
The United States has stepped up its attacks on militants in Pakistan with drones, launching 15 this year compared with 51 last year and 32 in 2008, according to Reuters tallies.
Although denying any support for its old Afghan Taliban allies, Pakistan has long turned a blind eye to their members and support networks in the belief the Taliban represent the only leverage it has over Afghanistan.
The United States has been pressing Pakistan to take action against the militants. But Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Baradar’s arrest was not a result of U.S. pressure and it showed the sincerity of its fight against terrorism.
“If you think that Pakistan is deploying over 100,000 troops on the western border under pressure, if you think we are conducting military operations in Pakistan under pressure, that’s the wrong impression,” he told Reuters in Belgium.
An Afghan official said two Afghan Taliban provincial “shadow governors” had also been arrested in Pakistan this month.
The arrests of Mullah Abdul Salam and Mullah Mir Mohammad, respectively the shadow governors of the northern Afghan provinces of Kunduz and Baghlan, happened in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, Mohammad Omar, the Afghan governor for Kunduz, told Reuters.
Pakistan’s military spokesman said he had no information.
The Pentagon said the Taliban was “clearly being squeezed” on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, but added it was too soon to gauge the impact on insurgents who are at their strongest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
“Our hope is clearly that this is creating a certain amount of discontent, worry, turmoil within the organization ... that this will ultimately adversely impact the momentum that they have enjoyed,” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said he was encouraged by progress but was also cautious, adding, “I don’t think anyone is declaring victory at this point.”
Baradar’s arrest comes as momentum builds for talks with the Taliban to end a war Western force commanders say they can’t win militarily.
Analysts said the arrest of Baradar and the others should bolster Pakistan’s position as it positions itself to play a role in any Afghan peace process and keep old rival India out, but it probably did not signal a fundamental Pakistani policy shift.
“I don’t see any major change in Pakistan’s policy on links with the Taliban as yet because things are still very fluid,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai, an expert on militancy.
Additional reporting by Robert Birsel and Zeeshan Haider, William Maclean in BRUSSELS, Sayed Salahuddin in KABUL and Phil Stewart and Sue Pleming in Washington; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Will Dunham