The former Taliban defense minister was arrested in Pakistan on Monday, the day of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's visit, two government officials said Thursday. He is the most important Taliban member to be captured since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
The man, Mullah Obaidullah, was a senior leader of the Afghan insurgency, which has battled U.S. and NATO forces with increasing intensity over the last year.
He is one of the inner core around Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader. The leadership is believed to operate from the relative safety of Quetta, Pakistan, where Obaidullah was arrested.
It was not clear whether he was picked up before, during or after Cheney's visit. But the timing may be significant because Cheney's mission was intended to press Pakistan to do more to crack down on members of the Taliban and al-Qaida who use Pakistan as a sanctuary.
Pakistan has come under rising criticism from U.S. and NATO officials for acting against the Taliban and al-Qaida only under pressure, conducting operations or making arrests timed for high-level official visits, then backing off.
While Obaidullah's detention may be a sign of a new commitment by Pakistan to move against the Taliban leadership, the arrest also seemed to confirm Western and Afghan intelligence reports that the Taliban were using Pakistan, and particularly Quetta, to organize their insurgency.
Pakistani officials have strenuously denied that the Taliban leadership is based in Pakistan, and there was no official announcement of the detention. But two government officials confirmed the arrest.
A NATO spokesman in Afghanistan, Col. Tom Collins, said he was not aware of any arrest. U.S. government officials in Washington confirmed the capture, but cautioned that the arrest was unlikely to deal a significant setback to the insurgents.
"He's a big fish, but nobody around here thinks this will deal a permanent blow to the operations of the Taliban," said one U.S. government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the arrest had not been formally announced.
Last year, NATO forces in southern Afghanistan bore the brunt of a resurgent Taliban. They have lost 85 service members since taking over command of southern Afghanistan in August, in suicide bombings, ambushes and often heavy fighting. Commanders and diplomats say it has become increasingly clear that control of the Taliban fighters traced back to Pakistan.
Many U.S. and NATO officials expect the fighting in the spring to be even more intense.
President Bush sent an unusually tough message to President Pervez Musharraf, timed to coincide with Cheney's visit, senior administration officials said.
Pakistani officials answer the criticism by pointing out that their own military has suffered more than any other, losing more than 600 soldiers in fighting with the militants, before the campaigns bogged down and the government cut peace deals with some tribal leaders.
Pakistani intelligence services also assisted the U.S. military in tracking another top Taliban official, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Osmani.