Pakistan appears to shift policy on Taliban

KABUL — Pakistan's latest arrests of senior Afghan Taliban figures and al-Qaida operatives have raised the prospect that Islamabad has begun a major strategic shift away from backing Afghan militants. Analysts cautioned, however, that Pakistan's aim may be to apply just enough pressure to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table on terms acceptable to Islamabad.

A combination of the new Pakistani moves and the U.S. military offensive in Afghanistan's Taliban heartland might serve to convince some militants that negotiations hold more promise for them than continued warfare does.

Mullah Abdul Salam and Mullah Mir Mohammad, respectively the Taliban "shadow governors" of the northern Afghan provinces of Kunduz and Baghlan, were captured in Quetta, Pakistan, the official governor of Kunduz province, Mohammad Omar, told McClatchy Newspapers on Thursday.

The Taliban run a shadow, or parallel, government in 33 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, according to a NATO assessment.

In addition, as many as nine militants linked to al-Qaida were arrested in overnight raids in Karachi with the help of U.S. intelligence, according to a senior U.S. official who insisted on anonymity because the matter is classified. One was identified in published reports as Ameer Muawiya, who was said to be in charge of foreign al-Qaida militants operating in Pakistan's tribal area near Afghanistan and was an associate of Osama bin Laden.

Officially, Pakistan broke with the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks, but it hosted the movement's leadership on Pakistani soil, allowed the leaders' families to live openly in Pakistani cities and has permitted arms, money and personnel to flow back and forth across its long border with Afghanistan.

The revelation that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy leader of the Taliban, was arrested in Karachi last week and the news Thursday that two other Taliban commanders were seized in Pakistan indicated that a new policy could be crystallizing in Islamabad.

"I think a shift is taking place inside the military," said Khalid Aziz, head of the Regional Institute of Policy Research and Training, an independent policy organization based in the northwestern city of Peshawar.

In Afghanistan, a Marine general said U.S.-led forces control the main roads and markets in the besieged Taliban stronghold of Marjah, but fighting has raged elsewhere in the southern farming town.

Marines and Afghan soldiers encountered better-fortified Taliban positions and more skilled marksmen on Thursday, the sixth day of the assault, indicating Taliban resistance in their logistics and opium-smuggling center was far from crushed. A British general said he expected it would take another month to secure the town.