Mullah Obaidullah Akhund.
President Pervez Musharraf’s promise to hunt the Taliban as part of its suspension of the constitution and a virtual state of emergency rings hollow as the Taliban’s grip on the northwest Frontier Province tightens. Newsweek reported the Pakistani government has released several senior Taliban commanders captured inside Pakistani territory over the past year. The leaders were among 25 Taliban exchanged for over 200 Pakistani soldiers captured by South Waziristan commander Baitullah Mehsud in late August.
Among those freed from Pakistani jails are Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, Amir Khan Haqqani, two brothers of slain Taliban commander Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Usmani, and Baitullah Mehsud’s cousin.
Mullah Obaidullah was the Taliban Defense Minister under during the reign of the Taliban from 1996 until the US toppled the government in the fall of 2001. He was the most senior Taliban figure captured to date and “is considered by American intelligence officials to have been one of the Taliban leaders closest to Osama bin Laden,” as well as part of the “inner core of the Taliban leadership around the Mullah Muhammad Omar who are believed to operate from the relative safety of Quetta.” Obaidullah was a member of the Taliban’s Shura Majlis, or executive council, and was thought to be third in command.
Obaidullah was arrested in Quetta in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, which borders Kandahar and Helmand provinces in Afghanistan. The Taliban have established a command and control network for senior leadership to direct operating in Afghanistan in and around the city of Quetta.
Amir Khan Haqqani, the former Taliban military commander of Afghanistan’s southeastern province of Zabul, and Abdul Bari, the former governor of Helmand province, were both captured along with Obaidullah in February 2006. Haqqani was released, but it is unclear if Bari is still in custody.
Baitlullah Mehsud, the powerful Taliban commander of South Waziristan who recently fought the Pakistani military to a standstill, demanded an end to military operations as well as the release of the 25 senior Taliban commanders as condition to the ceasefire.
The Pakistani government has caved to the demands of Baitullah. The Taliban leaders have been released, while the government reinstated the 2005 Sara Rogha accord, which prevents the government from operating with no restrictions on Taliban activities inside or outside of Pakistan.
In August, Mehsud captured almost 300 Pakistani troops — an entire company — as it conducted a resupply mission in South Waziristan. The company surrendered without firing a shot after the Taliban surrounded the convoy. The government freed over 100 of Mehsud’s “tribesmen” immediately after the troops were captured in an attempt to secure their release.
All of the troops have since been released. Several of the troops were beheaded. The morale of the Pakistani military has plummeted after suffering defeat after defeat at the hands of the Taliban in the Northwest Frontier Province. Troops are surrendering or deserting to Taliban fighters in Swat at an alarming rate.
Over 29 Taliban and al Qaeda camps are known to be in operation in both North and South Waziristan alone.