ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
While the U.S. and NATO troops are hard at work in Afghanistan's Helmand province, another very different offensive is underway across the border in Pakistan. Security forces there have apprehended a number of key Taliban leaders over the past few weeks. And analysts say the arrests are having a serious impact on the militant group.
NPR's Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM: You almost need a flowchart to keep track of all the different groups in Pakistan that either carry the name or the ideals of the Taliban. But it's the original Taliban and its leadership council known as the Quetta Shura that provides the direction over the whole movement and the war against the U.S. and neighboring Afghanistan.
Over the past few weeks, at least six of its senior members have been arrested, says Michael Semple, who has spent more than two decades living and following developments in Afghanistan and is now with the Harvard Kennedy School. Semple says the arrests are having a serious impact on the Taliban.
Mr. MICHAEL SEMPLE (Fellow, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School): I think things have changed decisively. The reality is that half the Taliban leadership is now sitting in Pakistani custody. That's now just a fact of life.
NORTHAM: The legendary Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, remains at large. But among those detained are Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's second in command and its military operations chief, also Mullah Abdul Kabir, a regional commander based in Peshawar, and Agha Jan Mutassim, the Taliban's former finance minister. Semple says the detained Taliban leaders are people who have been directing military operations against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Mr. SEMPLE: When these people are abruptly picked up, it disrupts military operations. So there's been confusion for the Taliban inside Pakistan, and I'm sure that their support to military operations in Afghanistan has been weakened.
NORTHAM: The arrests have also left the Pakistan-based Quetta Shura, essentially the Taliban's central government in disarray, says Alex Strick, a writer and researcher who has lived in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar for the past two years.
Mr. ALEX STRICK (Writer, Researcher): The Quetta Shura have more or less been taken out of the picture, at least for the moment, while they reshuffle themselves.
NORTHAM: In the past, Taliban leaders who were arrested or killed were simply replaced, as well the six or so members this time. What's curious about this group is they are widely considered to be relatively moderate and at least open to the idea of negotiating a peace deal with the Afghanistan government under President Hamid Karzai.
Ahmed Rashid, an author and analyst on the Taliban speaking from his home in Pakistan, says that it's especially true of the detained military commander, Mullah Baradar.
Mr. AHMED RASHID (Author, Analyst): There's the very strong speculation and especially coming from Kabul that Mullah Baradar was in touch with the Karzai government in Kabul and that his people, at least, were talking to the Kabul administration. And these negotiations have been going on for some time.
NORTHAM: Rashid said it's believed the other men recently captured were also part of the negotiations. All the analysts interviewed for this story agree the arrests by the Pakistan security forces are not mere coincidence, and most likely an effort on Pakistan's part to ensure a seat at any negotiating table involving the Taliban. But the arrests may have an impact on any potential future negotiations, because it's believed those detained will be replaced by more hardliners, men such as Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir, who commands military operations against the U.S. in Afghanistan's Helmand province. Bill Roggio, the editor of the online Long War Journal, says Zakir is considered to be a top contender to replace Mullah Baradar as the number two man in the Taliban.
Mr. BILL ROGGIO (Editor, Long War Journal): He is one of the top Taliban commanders, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee. We released him in 2006 and quickly returned to the insurgency. He's considered the Taliban's military commander in the south.
NORTHAM: Roggio says a new, more dangerous Taliban could emerge. Still, he says the Taliban's leadership has to be rattled, what with Pakistan's sudden rush to crack down on militants on its soil.
Mr. ROGGIO: There has to be a lot of concern within the leadership and the ranks of the Taliban that may be their safe haven in Pakistan, those good old days are gone. I think if I was in the Afghan Taliban and I watched six of the top leaders of our movement suddenly disappear from the battlefield, I'd be very concerned and be looking over my shoulder.
NORTHAM: Many analysts say the disarray within the Taliban could open up a power struggle, especially between the older, original members and the younger generation. But that is likely some form of the militant group will remain standing.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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