Pakistan Loses Control

Pakistani soldiers secure an area near Kotkai village in South Waziristan. Nicolas Asfouri / AFP-Getty Images

The Afghan Taliban's three operational chiefs have gone deep underground, senior insurgent officials tell NEWSWEEK, and meetings of the leadership have been canceled until further notice. The three—former Taliban civil-aviation minister Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, former Taliban provincial governor Mullah Mohammad Hasan Rahmani, and military commander and former Guantánamo inmate Abdul Qayum Zakir—had operated with impunity from their rear bases inside Pakistan for years until the arrest near Karachi in February of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the group's director of day-to-day actions at the time. (Top leader Mullah Mohammed Omar has been in hiding since he fled Afghanistan in late 2001.)

Now, however, the three have dropped out of sight; they may no longer even be in Pakistan, several Taliban officials say. "They are in safe areas where the [Pakistani] military has no control," says a top Taliban intelligence officer, requesting anonymity for security reasons. The fugitive leaders stay in separate locations to ensure their safety, the intelligence officer says, and they communicate only with oral or written messages relayed by couriers, never electronically. "These men are younger and stronger than Baradar and can stand the rigors of staying in Afghanistan or elsewhere," he adds. "We are not going to sit quietly like chickens in a cage waiting for the butcher to grab us one at a time for slaughter."

The disappearance of the Taliban's top leaders might sound at first like good news for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The trouble is that it comes now, as Pakistan has finally begun pushing for an end to the war. Taliban commanders say they're thoroughly sick of Islamabad using them for its own foreign-policy purposes, and the group is now distancing itself from its former patrons and overseers. "Pakistan is worried that it is losing control," says a similarly unnamed senior Taliban logistics official who shuttles between Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas. "The fact that our leadership can now survive and thrive away from Pakistani control and influence is a good sign and shows that the insurgency is becoming more free and independent."

Taliban officials suggest their newfound autonomy explains why Pakistan is now claiming it can get the Taliban-allied Haqqani network to accept a power-sharing deal with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "The Pakistanis are saying to us: 'You guys are not the only Taliban. We have other clients, so we don't care if you run away,'?" says the logistics officer. A defection of the Haqqanis—arguably the most effective antigovernment fighters in Kabul and eastern Afghanistan—would seriously divide and weaken the insurgency, which is exactly America's strategy. But it's doubtful Pakistan can deliver. "Ninety percent of Afghans and 100 percent of the Taliban hate Pakistan," the intelligence officer says. "In the past we didn't have any options, but we do now."