Taliban sources in the North West Frontier Province have confirmed to NBC News that two Taliban commanders were arrested more than a week ago in southwest Pakistan.
Pakistani security forces raided at the Gul Park Hotel in Quetta, the capital of Balouchistan province, and arrested Ameer Khan Haqani, commander of Zabul province in Afghanistan, and Jaland Abdullah Sarhadi of Kandahar.
Sarhadi had been detained for more than three years in Guantanamo Bay after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. He was later released by U.S. authorities.
It is widely believed among the Taliban rank and file that it was the information extracted from these two men that led to the capture of Mullah Obaidullah, the former Taliban defense minister and close confidante of Taliban leader Mullah Omar on Monday.
“We are sure that the arrest of our comrades led to Mullah Obaidullah’s arrest”, said one senior Taliban figure who asked not to be identified by name. “What they do is immediately take away their phones and computers to see who will call and who will try and get in touch.”
Self-appointed Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammed Yousef continued to deny all reports of Obaidullah’s arrest, calling them baseless rumors manufactured by the media.
A Pakistani intelligence official in Quetta, speaking off the record to NBC News, said that Mullah Obaidullah has been taken to the capital, Islamabad where a team of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials will assist in the interrogation process.
Mullah Obaidullah is the most high ranking Taliban member to be captured since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. He was one of four in the Taliban leadership, known as the Quetta Council, who have close ties; even the ear of Mullah Omar. Obaidullah would have been in close contact with the two captured field commanders as plans for the Taliban spring offensive against NATO and coalition forces in Afghanistan heats up.
It is widely hoped that his arrest could provide information about the whereabouts and movements of Mullah Omar who remains elusive.
Pakistani government officials have not confirmed any of these arrests, partly because to do so would be an admission that the Taliban leadership is based in Pakistan, something that they have strongly denied for many months and partly too because confirmation in the media would immediately dry up whatever leads they may be extracting in the ongoing interrogations.
One of those leads could have also led to the arrest of Maulvi Jalil, the former Taliban deputy foreign minister. But this has not yet been confirmed by NBC News.
This surprising and sudden wave of raids and arrests by Pakistani security forces on militant bases and hide-outs comes around the same time as Sen. Carl Levin, the Democrat who serves as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is calling for direct U.S. military intervention against al-Qaida and Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan.
Mushtaq Yusufzai and Carol Grisanti reported from Pakistan and Robert Windrem from New York for NBC News.