The recent capture of the Afghan Taliban's second in command seemed to signal a turning point in Pakistan, an indication that its intelligence agency had gone from helping to cracking down on the militant Islamist group.
But U.S. officials now believe that even as Pakistan's security forces worked with their American counterparts to detain Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and other insurgents, the country's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI, quietly freed at least two senior Afghan Taliban figures it had captured on its own.
U.S. military and intelligence officials said the releases, detected by American spy agencies but not publicly disclosed, are evidence that parts of Pakistan's security establishment continue to support the Afghan Taliban. This assistance underscores how complicated the CIA-ISI relationship remains at a time when the United States and Pakistan are battling insurgencies that straddle the Afghanistan border and are increasingly anxious about how the war in that country will end.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity and declined to identify the Taliban figures who were released, citing the secrecy surrounding U.S. monitoring of the ISI. But officials said the freed captives were high-ranking Taliban members and would have been recognizable as insurgents the United States would want in custody.
The capture of Baradar was "positive, any way you slice it," said a U.S. counterterrorism official. "But it doesn't mean they've cut ties at every level to each and every group." Initial reports said the arrest was made in February, but U.S. officials say that it occurred in late January.
U.S. officials think that Pakistan continues to pursue a hedging strategy in seeking to maintain relationships with an array of entities -- including the U.S. and Afghan governments, as well as insurgent networks -- struggling to shape the outcome in Afghanistan, even as it aggressively battles the Pakistani branch of the Taliban.
The ISI wants "to be able to resort to the hard-power option of supporting groups that can take Kabul," the Afghan capital, if the United States suddenly leaves, said a U.S. military adviser briefed on the matter. The ISI's relationship with the Afghan Taliban was forged under similar circumstances in the 1990s, when the spy service backed the fledgling Islamist movement as a solution to the chaos that followed the Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Pakistan denies charges
In interviews in Islamabad, Pakistani intelligence officials said the ISI is committed to dismantling insurgent groups and denied that any Taliban operatives had been released after being captured. "It is our policy that we will go against these people," a Pakistani intelligence official said. The CIA and the ISI are "working like this," he said, clasping his hands together.
U.S. officials concur that the collaboration between the CIA and the ISI has improved substantially, but they said they see ongoing signs that some ISI operatives are providing sanctuary and other assistance to factions of the Taliban when their CIA counterparts are not around.
"They did, in fact, capture and release a couple," said a U.S. military official involved in discussions with Pakistan, adding that the ISI's purported decision to do so "speaks to how hard it is to change your DNA."
Pakistani officials acknowledge ISI contacts with the Taliban but describe them as benign. They note that an intelligence service is supposed to monitor militant groups operating in the country.
"There may be certain individuals who may not like American policy, but that does not mean they will not do their duty," said the Pakistani intelligence official, adding that the capture of Baradar in Karachi was one of 63 CIA-ISI operations carried out over the past year.
The U.S. military adviser said the senior Taliban figures later released were detained in Baluchistan, a province that encompasses the city of Quetta, where Mohammad Omar and other Afghan Taliban leaders are thought to have taken refuge after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan drove them out of power.
The releases occurred in January and February, officials said, around the time the ISI conducted a series of raids that led to the capture of Baradar and reportedly four other senior Taliban figures. Among them were "shadow governors" who unofficially preside over swaths of territory in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials said there are questions about whether one of the arrests occurred. Pakistani security officials said in February that Maulvi Abdul Kabir, thought by some to be a member of the core Taliban leadership known as the Quetta shura, had been captured in the northwestern district of Nowshera. But U.S. officials said there has been no evidence of the arrest and now suspect that Kabir was never detained.
Under U.S. pressure
Pakistan has been pressured repeatedly to sever its ties to the Taliban since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. As recently as November, President Obama sent a letter to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari warning that the Islamabad government's use of insurgent groups to advance its interests "cannot continue."
Since 2001, the CIA has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to the ISI, which has helped track down al-Qaeda operatives and provided targeting information for an escalating campaign of drone strikes. Over the past several years, Pakistan also has launched military operations in its tribal belt aimed at rooting out insurgent groups.
Officials from both countries said those efforts have intensified in the past 12 months.
Pakistan recently permitted the United States to put in place additional CIA operatives and eavesdropping equipment. Officials said U.S.-provided communications intercepts helped lead the ISI to Baradar, but the Pakistani agency has requested equipment of its own.
"We are extremely dependent on the Americans for signals" intelligence, the Pakistani intelligence official said. "We have been crying for them to give us satellite telephone intercept capability. We do not have that to date."
Even after the Baradar arrest, some U.S. intelligence officials cautioned against seeing the capture as a decisive turn.
High-ranking U.S. intelligence officials acknowledge that they have a very limited understanding of the ISI. CIA veterans who have worked closely with the Pakistani agency describe it as sprawling and so compartmentalized that units working alongside the CIA might have little knowledge of the activities of the "S" directorate, which maintains ties to insurgent groups.
CIA officials think that the ISI's connection to the Taliban is active, but "it's not clear how high that goes or who knows about it," said the U.S. counterterrorism official. "The Pakistanis did a sharp change of policy after 9/11, and it's not certain everybody got the memo -- or read it if they did."