The Taliban’s top military commander in southern Afghanistan has not been detained by Pakistani intelligence officials, despite reports of his capture last month.
Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir, the leader of one of the Taliban’s four regional military councils, is still directing operations against Coalition and Afghan and Taliban forces, according to US and Afghan intelligence officials.
Zakir is a former detainee at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility who was released by the US in December 2007 and sent to Afghanistan, where he was subsequently released by the Afghan government. Zakir, whose real name is Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul, quickly rejoined the Taliban and took over operations in the strategic Afghan South.
The Taliban designated Zakir as their “surge commander” ; he has been assigned the task of countering the Coalition and Afghan surge of forces and change of strategy to deny the Taliban safe haven in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. Zakir is considered to be one of the Afghan Taliban’s fiercest and most committed commanders and is believed to have close links with al Qaeda.
Zakir was first reported captured by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency in The Christian Science Monitor on Feb. 24. But US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal warned that there was no indication that Zakir was in custody. These intelligence officials later confirmed that Zakir was not in Pakistani custody.
According to a report today in the The Associated Press, Afghan intelligence officials operating in southern Afghanistan and a former governor in Zakir’s home district in Helmand province have also denied claims that Zakir is in Pakistani custody. One Afghan intelligence official said that Zakir narrowly escaped a raid two weeks ago but three of his associates were captured. Also, last week, Zakir was spotted in the town of Pishin, in the district of the same name in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Baluchistan.
The earlier report of Zakir’s capture had fueled optimism that Pakistan has indeed turned the corner and has begun to detain the top leaders of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s executive council. In February, Pakistani security forces detained five top leaders of the Quetta Shura, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the second in command of the Taliban and the director of the council; Maulvi Abdul Kabir, the leader of the Peshawar Regional Military Shura; Mullah Abdul Salam, the shadow governor of Kunduz; Mullah Mir Mohammed, the shadow governor of Baghlan province; and Mohammed Younis, the former shadow governor of Zabul province, during raids throughout the country.
Zakir has been named as a possible successor to Baradar. Two other possibilities are Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, the Taliban’s former Minister of Civil Aviation and Transportation, and the former shadow governor of Kandahar; and Agha Jan Mohtasim, the former Finance Minister during the Taliban regime and a relative and confidant of Mullah Mohammed Omar. [See LWJ report, “The Afghan Taliban’s top leaders,” for a list of known leaders of the Afghan Taliban.
Afghanistan has insisted that Pakistan turn over Baradar and the other four Afghan Taliban leaders, but the Lahore High Court blocked any transfer until the court rules on their status. The petition to block the transfer was filed by Khalid Khawaja, a self-described human rights activist with deep ties to the Taliban, al Qaeda, and a host of terrorist groups operating on Pakistani soil. Khawaja is a former Squadron Commander in the Pakistani Air Force who fought alongside al Qaeda and reportedly Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s. He has also been linked to the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Significantly, Khawaja’s petition to block the transfer did not include Zakir or three other Taliban leaders reported to have been captured with him. A senior US military intelligence official contacted by The Long War Journal said that Khawaja was in a position to know who is in Pakistani custody.
“I think you can see from Khawaja’s petition who really is in custody,” the intelligence official said.
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