WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama was to meet Wednesday with members of his war cabinet on Afghanistan after media reported US and Pakistani spies had captured the Taliban’s top military commander.
Obama was to meet in the White House’s Situation Room with top officials including Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and General David Petraeus, head of US Central Command.
General Stanley McChrystal, the senior US commander in Afghanistan, and Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador to Kabul, were to join the meeting via video conference, the White House said.
The meeting comes after the reported capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s second-in-command.
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The New York Times and other media, citing unnamed officials in the United States and Pakistan, said Baradar had been detained in Pakistan’s sprawling port city of Karachi “several days ago” and was being interrogated.
His arrest, if confirmed, would signal a watershed in Washington’s bid to persuade Pakistan to move aggressively against Islamist militants operating on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border.
The White House Tuesday refused to confirm the reports, but said it welcomed better cooperation beteen the United States and Pakistan.
“I think we have in the course of many months seen an increase in that cooperation,” Obama’s spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.
“We’ve seen an increase in Pakistani pushback on extremists in their own country, which I think is beneficial not simply for us.”
US officials had long complained that Islamabad’s spy service was failing to crack down on Afghan Taliban figures but they had recently refrained from public criticism while Washington doled out billions in military and civilian aid.
Baradar is the most important Taliban leader to be captured since the 2001 US-led offensive that ousted the Afghan militia from power after the September 11 attacks on the United States.
Profile of Baradar: Taliban founding father
His reported arrest emerged as 15,000 US, NATO and Afghan troops staged a major assault against the Taliban bastion of Marjah in southern Afghanistan, key to Washington’s new strategy for turning around the troubled war.
The Taliban, however, denied Baradar’s capture and accused US officials of trying to deflect attention from the battle in Marjah.
“We strongly reject the reports of his arrest,” Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.
“He is currently in Afghanistan, where he is leading all jihadi activities… The sole goal of such baseless reporting and propaganda is to make up for the failure in Marjah.”
The Taliban and its allies have come under unprecedented pressure in recent months as Pakistan has carried out a military offensive in the country’s northwest, US-led forces have pushed into the south and Washington has stepped up drone bombing raids on their safe havens in Pakistan.
Islamabad’s ties with the United States are controversial in Pakistan, where Interior Minister Rehman Malik stopped short of confirming or denying that Baradar was in custody, but criticized the report as “propaganda.”
The United States has previously taken out other Taliban figures, often in missile strikes by unmanned drones, but none as senior as Baradar — who ran day-to-day operations for the insurgency.
The Afghan-born Baradar is known as a powerful military chief and trusted aide to the Taliban’s one-eyed and elusive leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
“Mullah Baradar was a close friend of Mullah Omar and both are of the same age group. He was among some 30 people considered founders of the Taliban movement,” said Pakistan-based Taliban expert Rahimullah Yusufzai.
Born in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan to the Popalzai tribe, Baradar fought in the war — covertly backed by the United States and Pakistan — to expel the Soviet forces that occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s.
When the Taliban rose to power in 1996, Baradar’s ties to Omar helped secure him the position of deputy defense minister, before the hardline Taliban regime was toppled by the US-led invasion in 2001 for sheltering Al-Qaeda.
Baradar was in charge of the Taliban’s military operations and leadership council, and reportedly a close associate of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
Reports of his capture have fed speculation about a possible Pakistani shift in approach to the Afghan Taliban, which it had in the past retained ties with as a hedge against India’s possible influence in the region.