REPORTING FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN AND NEW DELHI -- Coalition forces in Afghanistan said Saturday they had captured a senior leader of the militant Haqqani network earlier in the week while conducting security operations in Paktia province close to the porous border with Pakistan.
Haji Mali Khan, the uncle of the group’s leader Siraj Haqqani, who is described as a key strategist, was armed at the time he was detained Tuesday but did not resist, the International Security Assistance Force coalition said in a statement.
Word of Mali Khan’s seizure was kept quiet for several days, presumably so U.S. and Afghan forces could interrogate him and follow up on any intelligence leads.
Mali Khan reportedly served as an emissary between the Haqqanis and Baitullah Mehsud, the former head of the Pakistani Taliban killed in a suspected U.S. missile attack in 2009. The captured official is accused of establishing and managing bases in Paktia and handling financial and logistical support for various militant operations.
The capture is a "significant milestone in the disruption of the Haqqani network," the coalition said. A number of other insurgents also were reportedly captured, including Mali Khan's deputy.
The U.S. is considering adding Haqqani to its list of designated foreign terrorist organizations. The network was founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a warlord who made his name –- and received funding from the CIA and Pakistan -- during the 1980s fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.
With its links to both the Taliban and Al Qaeda, it’s been described as a top Afghan security threat. Hundreds of attacks are blamed on the group, including a 19-hour siege of the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters last month.
Mali Khan's capture came days after the assassination of former Afghan president and negotiator Burhanuddin Rabbani, also blamed on the Haqqani network. Responding to Rabbani’s killing, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Friday he would focus regional security talks on Pakistan rather than on the Taliban.
Pakistan’s links to militancy are under growing scrutiny amid heightened political pressure from the U.S. and Afghanistan. Last week, the U.S. military accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency of assisting the Haqqani network in a recent attack on Kabul, a charge Pakistan has denied.
In an interview Friday, President Obama stopped short of directly linking the Pakistan government to Haqqani but said Islamabad has "got to take care of this problem.”
On Saturday, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, said it handed over evidence to Pakistan that Rabbani’s assassination was planned in a posh suburb in the Pakistani city of Quetta.
Many analysts believe the Taliban leadership, known as the Quetta Shura, uses Quetta as a base. Pakistan has denied any such activity in Quetta, while the group claims it only operates out of Afghanistan.
-- Aimal Yaqubi in Kabul and Mark Magnier in New Delhi
Photo: Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sept. 22. Credit: Kamran Jebreili / Associated Press