The recent capture of the Afghan Taliban’s second in command seemed to signal a turning point in Pakistan, an indication that its intelligence agency had gone from providing help to cracking down on the Islamists.
But US officials now believe that even as Pakistani security forces worked with American counterparts to detain Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and other insurgents, the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI, quietly freed at least two senior Afghan Taliban figures it had captured on its own.
US military and intelligence officials said the releases, detected by spy agencies but not publicly disclosed, are evidence that parts of Pakistan’s security establishment continue to support the Afghan Taliban. This assistance underscores how complicated the CIA-ISI relationship remains at a time when the US and Pakistan are both battling insurgencies that straddle the Afghan border and are increasingly anxious about how the war in that country will end.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity and declined to disclose the names of the Taliban figures who were released, citing the secrecy surrounding US monitoring of the ISI. But officials said the freed captives were high-ranking Taliban members and would have been recognised as insurgents the US would want in custody.
The capture of Baradar was “positive, any way you slice it,” said a US official. “But it doesn’t mean they’ve cut ties at every level to each and every group.” Initial reports said the arrest had occurred in February, but US officials say that it took place in late January.
US officials believe that Pakistan continues to pursue a hedging strategy in seeking to maintain relationships with an array of entities — including the US and Afghan governments, as well as insurgent networks — struggling to shape the outcome in Afghanistan, even as it battles the Pakistani branch of the Taliban.
The ISI wants “to be able to resort to the hard power option of supporting groups that can take Kabul” if the US suddenly leaves, said a US military advisor briefed on the matter. The ISI’s relationship with the Afghan Taliban was forged under similar circumstances in the 1990s, when the spy service backed the fledgling Islamist movement as a solution to the chaos that followed the Soviet withdrawal.
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