The recent capture of the Afghan Taliban's second in command seemed to signal a turning point in Pakistan, an indication that its intelligence agency had gone from providing help to cracking down on the militant Islamist group.
But U.S. officials now believe that even as Pakistani security forces worked with American counterparts to detain Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and other insurgents, the country's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI, quietly freed at least two senior Afghan Taliban figures it had captured on its own.
U.S. military and intelligence officials said the releases, detected by spy agencies but not publicly disclosed, are evidence that parts of Pakistan's security establishment continue to support the Afghan Taliban. This assistance underscores how complicated the CIA-ISI relationship remains at a time when the United States and Pakistan are both battling insurgencies that straddle the Afghanistan border and are increasingly anxious about how the war in that country will end.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity and declined to disclose the names of the Taliban figures who were released, citing the secrecy surrounding U.S. monitoring of the ISI. But officials said the freed captives were high-ranking Taliban members and would have been recognized as insurgents the United States would want in custody.
The capture of Baradar was "positive, any way you slice it," said a U.S. counter-terrorism official. "But it doesn't mean they've cut ties at every level to each and every group." Initial reports said the arrest had occurred in February, but U.S. officials say that it took place in late January.
U.S. officials believe that Pakistan continues to pursue a hedging strategy in seeking to maintain relationships with an array of entities -- including the U.S. and Afghan governments, as well as insurgent networks -- struggling to shape the outcome in Afghanistan, even as it aggressively battles the Pakistani branch of the Taliban.
The ISI wants "to be able to resort to the hard power option of supporting groups that can take Kabul" if the United States suddenly leaves, said a U.S. military advisor briefed on the matter. The ISI's relationship with the Afghan Taliban was forged under similar circumstances in the 1990s, when the spy service backed the fledgling Islamist movement as a solution to the chaos that followed the Soviet withdrawal.
'We will go against these people'
In interviews in Islamabad, Pakistani intelligence officials said the ISI was committed to dismantling insurgent groups, denying that any Taliban operatives had been captured and released. "It is our policy that we will go against these people," a Pakistani intelligence official said. Clasping his hands together, he said the CIA and ISI are "working like this."
U.S. officials concur that that the collaboration between the CIA and ISI has improved substantially but said they see ongoing signs that some ISI operatives are providing sanctuary and other assistance to factions of the Taliban when their CIA counterparts are not around.
"They did in fact capture and release a couple," said a U.S. military official involved in discussions with Pakistan, adding that the ISI's decision to do so "speaks to how hard it is to change your DNA."
Pakistani officials acknowledge ISI contacts with the Taliban but describe them as benign and note that monitoring militant groups inside the country is what an intelligence service is supposed to do.
"There may be certain individuals who may not like American policy, but that does not mean they will not do their duty," said the Pakistani intelligence official, adding that the capture of Baradar in Karachi was one of 63 joint CIA-ISI operations carried out over the past year.
The U.S. military adviser said the senior Taliban figurers were detained in Baluchistan, a province that encompasses the sprawling city of Quetta, where Mullah Muhammad Omar and other Afghan Taliban leaders are believed to have taken refuge after being expelled from Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion in 2001.
The releases took place in January and February, officials said, around the same time that the ISI conducted a series of raids that led to the reported capture of Baradar and four other senior Taliban figures. Among them were so-called "shadow governors" who preside unofficially over swaths of territory in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials said there are new questions about whether one of those arrests occurred. Pakistan security officials said in February that Maulvi Abdul Kabir, thought by some to be a member of the Taliban's "Quetta Shura" leadership core, had been captured in the northwest Nowshera district. But U.S. officials said there has been no subsequent evidence of the arrest, and now believe that Kabir was never detained.
Pakistan has been pressured repeatedly to sever its ties to the Taliban since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. As recently as November, President Obama sent a letter to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari warning that the government's use of insurgent groups to advance its interests "cannot continue."
CIA funnels money
In the years since 2001, the CIA has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to the ISI, which has helped track down al-Qaeda operatives and provided targeting information for an escalating campaign of drone strikes. Over the past several years, Pakistan has also launched a series of military operations in the tribal region aimed at rooting out insurgent groups.
Officials from both countries said those efforts have intensified during the past 12 months.
Pakistan has recently permitted the United States to insert additional CIA operatives and eavesdropping equipment. Officials said U.S.-provided communications intercepts helped lead the ISI to Baradar in Karachi earlier this year, although the ISI has requested equipment of its own.
"We are extremely dependent on the Americans for signals" intelligence, the Pakistani intelligence official said. "We have been crying for them to give us satellite telephone intercept capability. We do not have that to date."
Even after the Baradar arrest, some U.S. intelligence officials cautioned against seeing the capture as a decisive turn.
High-ranking U.S. intelligence officials acknowledge that they have a very limited understanding of the ISI. CIA veterans who have worked closely with the agency describe it as sprawling and so compartmentalized that units working alongside the CIA might have little knowledge of the activities of the so-called "S" directorate that maintains ties to insurgent groups.
CIA officials believe that the ISI's links to the Taliban are active, but "it's not clear how high that goes, or who knows about it," said the U.S. counter-terrorism official. "The Pakistanis did a sharp change of policy after 9/11, and it's not certain everybody got the memo -- or read it if they did."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Islamabad contributed to this report.