Pakistani lawyers, human-rights activists and opposition-party members can scarcely ignore the irony of their situation: while thousands of them are being beaten and locked up under President Pervez Musharraf's newly declared state of emergency, his government has just let more than two dozen militant Islamists out of jail. Protesters might be even angrier if Musharraf disclosed the names of some of those freed militants. Taliban sources tell NEWSWEEK that the top man on the list was Mullah Obaidullah Akhund—the highest-ranking Taliban official ever captured by the Pakistanis. As one of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar's closest confidants and his defense minister until the post 9-11 invasion of Afghanistan, Obaidullah was No. 3 in the group's hierarchy and a member of its ruling 10-man shura (council).
His arrest on Feb. 26 seems to have been anything but a coincidence. That was the very day that Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in Islamabad on an unannounced visit to demand a crackdown on Taliban operations in Pakistan. Washington was out of patience with Taliban commanders not only roaming free in Pakistan's tribal lands but even being allowed to hide in plain sight in cities like Quetta--the provincial capital near the Afghan border where Obaidullah was captured, along with the Taliban's senior Zabul province commander, Amir Khan Haqqani.
Obaidullah, Haqqani and the others might still be in jail if not for a Pakistani military convoy that encountered a rockslide on a highway in South Waziristan in late August. The vehicles were quickly surrounded by fighters loyal to the notorious Pakistani tribal warlord Baitullah Mehsud, a veteran Taliban supporter who operates training camps for suicide bombers in his territory. More than 250 government troops were in the convoy, and they all surrendered without a shot being fired. Mehsud later beheaded several of his captives before Musharraf agreed to a prisoner swap.
Mehsud finally released the last 211 surviving hostages on Nov. 4, the day after Musharraf declared a state of emergency and began rounding up dissidents in the name of confronting "extremism and terrorism." In exchange for the freed troops, the tribal warlord got the men he wanted out of jail. Besides Obaidullah and Haqqani, they included two brothers of another senior Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani. He and his two brothers had shared a house in Quetta until his death last December. U.S. forces, reportedly tipped off by Pakistani intelligence, killed him as he was crossing into Afghanistan. His brothers were arrested at his house in Quetta at the same time. Also released was Mehsud's cousin, who was the first suicide bomber captured with his suicide vest intact.
Intelligence reports of Obaidullah's release have raised concern among American officials. At the moment they're still checking whether it was in fact the senior Taliban official who was freed and not someone else by the same name. A Pakistani military source denied to NEWSWEEK that Obaidullah had been released—but in the next breath claimed to be unaware that Obaidullah had ever been captured. At least two important Taliban commanders have confirmed to NEWSWEEK that Mullah Omar's third in command is back on the loose. Another Taliban operative says Obaidullah spoke to one of his fellow fighters on the phone several days ago.
In any case the prisoner swap is a severe setback for U.S. efforts in the region. The Taliban and their Pakistani tribal allies have learned that hostage taking can yield big rewards. And these days they have all the potential trading chips they could ask for in the borderlands, where Pakistan's out-maneuvered and increasingly demoralized troops are almost routinely surrendering to the militants. For now, the people of Pakistan will have to take any comfort they can from knowing that Musharraf is protecting them from lawyers and human rights activists.