One of the most dangerous adversaries facing German troops in Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan has been captured. German officials confirmed to SPIEGEL ONLINE that they were looking into detailed information indicating that the Pakistani intelligence service ISI has arrested Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Salam near Peshawar. According to the information, the apprehension took place in a madrassa at the beginning of February. Mullah Ahmad, a Taliban leader in the neighboring province of Baghlan, has also been taken prisoner.
Both the governor of Kunduz and the head of the Afghan intelligence service have confirmed the arrests. The German army and security officials have likewise been informed of the operation, though the ISI has yet to comment. A US official reportedly confirmed the arrests to Newsweek magazine on Wednesday. Pakistani army spokesman Brigadier Syed Azmat Ali told SPIEGEL ONLINE that he cannot comment "for the time being."
The arrest of top Taliban commanders in Pakistan underlines the delicate balance the country is trying to strike between NATO's efforts to combat the Taliban and its own regional interests. Such arrests clearly demonstrate that the Taliban uses Pakistan as a stronghold. The US has long urged the ISI to arrest top Taliban commanders.
Spiritual Leader to the Insurgents
Confidants of Mullah Salam have confirmed to SPIEGEL ONLINE that their leader has indeed been locked up. "Mullah Salam was urgently called to Pakistan for a meeting of the Quetta shura (eds. note: the Taliban's Pakistan-based leadership council) to discuss northern Afghanistan," said veteran Taliban fighter Hafiz Majid. Numerous Taliban leaders in Pakistan have also spoken about the arrest.
The capture of Mullah Abdul Salam would be a serious blow to Taliban structures in Kunduz province and across northern Afghanistan. Salam, who is thought to be around 35 years old, has been regarded for several years as a spiritual leader to the insurgents and as a driving force in the fight against the Afghan government and the German Bundeswehr. In NATO documents he is described as the so-called "shadow governor" of Kunduz. The Taliban have created such positions in recent years in an attempt to prove their strength when compared with the weakness of the central government in Kabul.
Salam is considered particularly important for the Taliban in northern Afghanistan because he acts as the link between the Quetta shura and various Afghan Taliban groups and foreign insurgents in Kunduz province.
According to insiders, Salam was arrested while he was on his way to meet the Taliban's no. 2 commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was recently captured in a joint US-Pakistan operation. Baradar had repeatedly urged Salam to intensify attacks against the Bundeswehr.
In recent months, Salam had traveled repeatedly to Pakistan, presumably to obtain instructions from the Quetta shura. Intelligence services had pinpointed his location in Kunduz in late December after the Taliban commander used a telephone. Salam was normally very cautious in his behavior, telephoning only very rarely, constantly changing his location and spending each night in a different hiding place. Several attempted assassination attempts had already failed, with Salam being able to escape each time at the last minute.
Bomb Attacks against the Germans
Salam's importance in Kunduz seem to indicate that his arrest is a deep blow to the Taliban in the region. The Bundeswehr considers Mullah Salam their number one enemy in the region and blame him for several attacks on German troops. For some time, ISAF has classified him as a "high value target." International troops may arrest those on the list at any time; in some cases, liquidation of those on the list is also allowed. German troops, however, have so far refused to participate in or carry out such "kill missions."
According to the Bundeswehr, Salam ordered rocket attacks on German bases on several occasions. Furthermore, they hold him responsible for a number of car bomb attacks against Bundeswehr convoys and the murder of three German soldiers at a marketplace on May 19, 2007. He is thought to have been involved in almost all attacks that have occurred since then. In several telephone interviews with SPIEGEL journalists, Salam threatened to continue his campaign of violence against the Bundeswehr until the Germans left Kunduz.
In recent months, US special forces have embarked on almost nightly missions to hunt down Taliban commanders -- killing and arresting dozens of them. On Tuesday night, elite soldiers killed the Taliban fighter Kari Zabi, a man considered responsible for logistics, restocking weapon caches and building road-side bombs.
The German government doesn't formally comment on the US army's aggressive pursuit of Taliban commanders in northern Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the Bundeswehr is happy to see American forces actively pursuing their enemies.