Zakir: Why Does Pakistan Release Taliban Leaders?

When Pakistani security forces, aided by the CIA, captured the Taliban's second-in-command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in February, U.S. officials hailed it as a "major event," even a "turning point" in the war against the Taliban. Just as surprising, his arrest was followed quickly by the nabbing of some 10 or more Taliban leaders who, like Baradar, had been operating out of Pakistan, though their detention was never officially announced.

The biggest catch among these most recent detainees was Abdul Qayum Zakir, a former Guantánamo inmate who was Baradar's top military commander and one of Mullah Mohammad Omar's most effective and feared commanders during the Taliban's fight to defeat the resisting Northern Alliance militias 10 years ago. To some, these unexpected arrests seemed to suddenly signal that Pakistan was turning on its onetime allies and proxies in Afghanistan, an about-face that Washington had long been hoping and pushing for.

But the reasons for the arrests may be far more murky and complex. The Washington Postrecently reported that U.S. officials believe at least two of these leaders were recently released. And reliable Taliban sources tell NEWSWEEK that at least six of those captured leaders were quietly released, Zakir among them. Several Taliban sources from different regions whom NEWSWEEK interviewed separately confirm that Zakir had been detained and released, though they admit they don't know the details. Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the Pakistani military spokesman, tells NEWSWEEK that he has no information about the arrest and release of these leaders.

Considering that Zakir has been in detention for most of the last decade, his recent release is a blow to Washington. Zakir and the Taliban's ethnic-Pashtun northern forces were on the cusp of victory in late 2001, having driven their largely Tajik and Uzbek enemies to the country's northern border. But the massive intervention of U.S. air power in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 gave the Northern Alliance new life and largely obliterated the Taliban's badly exposed and ill-equipped ground forces. Zakir and his men, surrounded by Northern Alliance forces and being pummeled by U.S. airstrikes from above, surrendered near the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif in October 2001. He spent the next several years in Afghan and U.S. custody, and was finally transferred to the U.S. lockup in Guantánamo Bay in 2006. He reportedly convinced his American interrogators that he had no relations with Al Qaeda and that had seen the error of his ways and only wanted to return home to live a quiet life in Helmand province.

Apparently convinced that Zakir, who is believed to be in his mid-30s, was sincere in recanting any affinity to the Taliban's or Al Qaeda's continuing jihad against the U.S. and Afghan forces, American officials transferred him from Guantánamo to Kabul's infamous Pol-i-Charki prison in 2007, according to Seth G. Jones, Taliban expert and author of In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan. By the spring of 2008 he was a free man. Once released, he made a beeline for Pakistan and was quickly reunited with his former commander on the northern front, Mullah Baradar, who was now overseeing the insurgency from his mobile base near Quetta. By early this year the aggressive and charismatic Zakir seemed to be running the insurgency as the Taliban's top military man.

When Baradar was arrested this past February, Zakir began acting as Baradar's replacement, according to Taliban sources, and is believed to have retreated reluctantly into Pakistan out of concerns for his security. That's when he was allegedly detained by Pakistani security forces before being released.

A U.S. government official, who declined to be identified because he is not authorized to speak on the record, confirms to NEWSWEEK that some of the Taliban leaders had been released, but added that it was not surprising. "It's not a surprise that in a country where politics are often messy, competing interests are carefully balanced, and relationships are complex, some of those people have been let go," the official says. "We know they don't have a consistent policy that they apply consistently, but that doesn't mean we can't work with them. Quite frankly, we have to."

According to the Taliban, those who have been freed besides Zakir include Maulvi Abdul Kabir, who heads the insurgency in eastern Afghanistan from his perch near Peshawar; three of Kabir's top deputies; and Latif Mansoor, a senior commander in three eastern Afghanistan provinces. But Zakir's release is the most important and puzzling. Taliban and U.S. sources say that Zakir was the insurgency's most aggressive and charismatic commander in hotly contested southern Afghanistan. That area is the focus of the ongoing U.S. military surge in which an additional 30,000 combat troops will be deployed this summer to clear insurgents out of their traditional strongholds. The loss of Zakir would have been a serious blow to the Taliban, who want to defend their birthplace and spiritual homeland at all costs.

Taliban sources disagree on the circumstances and reasons for his arrest, but they all concur that Zakir was released after a week or two in Pakistani custody in late February or early March. They say they have since received command messages from him. Several Taliban sources say they had heard that Zakir had left the southern battlefield for the relative safety of Pakistan in advance of the big U.S. offensive that kicked off in Helmand province in early February, and was picked up by mistake soon after he crossed the border. These sources believe Zakir was rounded up in a routine police crackdown on illegal Afghan immigrants near Quetta, a key Taliban haven in Pakistan. The security forces didn't know the importance of the man they had captured, the Taliban say, and released him after having shaken him down along with the other illegals detained with him.

But several other Taliban sources believe Zakir's arrest and release, as well as that of the others, was more likely a determined effort by Pakistan to once again emphasize Islamabad's influence over and importance to the insurgency that still relies on Pakistani sanctuaries and supply lines. One top Taliban source says he has heard that the Pakistan military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) picked up Zakir in an effort to "brainwash" him. This catch-and-release strategy is nothing new, Taliban sources say. They can quickly recite long lists of important insurgents, who, like Zakir, have been arrested by the ISI and then cut loose after weeks or even months in detention in order to emphasize to insurgent leaders that they have to pay attention to Pakistani interests.

One senior Pakistani military source, who spoke on the condition he would not be quoted, said Baradar was arrested because he had "crossed a red line" that Pakistan had drawn. He may have been referring to rumored peace feelers between Baradar and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, an embryonic process of "talks about talks" that had not taken Pakistan into account. The Pakistanis may have given Zakir, who is now acting as Baradar's replacement, along with one or two other senior commanders, the same warning. Zakir, the insurgency's most active and feared commander, was then released, the Taliban speculate, as Pakistan wants to exercise control over the insurgency, not completely undermine it.

"Inside Pakistan there are strong elements who believe we are a strategic asset," says a former top Taliban official who is now a district commander in southern Afghanistan, and who for security reasons requested anonymity. But he says the attitude of Pakistan's military and the ISI toward the Taliban is often unpredictable. "Sometimes they're angry, sometimes friendly, probably depending on external pressure at the time," he adds. "Sometimes they want to show us who is boss." As a result, the former senior official, who says he was captured in 2005 and released the next year, advises his fellow insurgent leaders to stay clear of Pakistan if possible. "It's better to be fighting in the sunlight of Afghanistan than hiding in the shadow of Pakistan."

Zakir is free once again, but he could be running out of luck. Not only does he have to worry about the Pakistanis in the rear, he has to beware of the American surge in his face.