The recent capture of key relatives and aides to Mullah Mohammed Omar, the fugitive leader of the Taliban, is enabling US and Afghan intelligence officials to tighten the net around him and putting pressure on Pakistan to curb Taliban activities on its soil.
On July 6, Afghan soldiers captured Mullah Sakhi Dad Mujahid, the Taliban commander of southern and western Afghanistan, along with a satellite phone, a notebook of expenses and a diary of telephone numbers including that of Mullah Omar, said General Bismillah Khan, chief of staff of the Afghan army.
''Afghan agents made Mujahid ring Omar's number, but Omar put the phone down after Mujahid mentioned a code word that meant he had been captured,'' said General Khan. ''It was just bad luck.''
Omar's number, according to another senior Afghan official, was not from a Thuraya satellite phone, which can be easily monitored by US intelligence, but was a local Pakistani number in or around the town of Quetta, the capital of neighboring Baluchistan province.
Mujahid is now being intensely interrogated at the US base at Bagram near Kabul, but a US military spokesman declined to say what additional information had been gained from him.
General Khan said that the notebook Mujahid carried showed that in the month of June alone, Mujahid had distributed $1.8 million to Taliban fighters and sympathizers for buying weapons and other supplies.
"It shows the large sums of money the Taliban receive from their sponsors, which include al Qaeda," said Khan. "Taliban fighters are being paid large sums to carry out attacks," he added.
Mujahid was held as a Northern Alliance prisoner from 1997 to 2000 during the bitter civil war with the Taliban that ravaged Afghanistan before September 11. At the time, Mujahid was the Taliban's deputy defense minister. He was released in a prisoner exchange deal in 2000.
Western and Afghan officials have said they have received no concrete information about Osama bin Laden and his top aides, who are believed to be hiding along the mountainous Pakistan-Afghanistan border region.
Meanwhile on July 19, in the southern province of Uruzghan, US and Afghan forces captured Mullah Amanullah, Omar's brother-in-law. He is also being intensely interrogated at Bagram.
Two days later in the same areas, troops killed three brothers of Mullah Abbas, another top Taliban commander, who is also close to Mullah Omar and whose family also lives in Pakistan.
Pakistani officials vehemently deny that Omar is in Pakistan, but US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage raised the issue with Pakistani officials when he visited Islamabad last week. A July 26 meeting between Karzai and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf meant to address the topic was postponed. In his remarks, Armitage admitted for the first time that the Taliban are using Pakistan as a base. "If these Taliban elements are able to cross into Afghanistan to conduct destabilizing activities, this is clearly not in Afghanistan's interest, and it's not in Pakistan's interest either," Armitage said in Kabul on July 16.
In a recent interview with The Nation, a Pakistani newspaper, Karzai said that "the more we cooperate with our neighbor, brother and friend Pakistan, the more we will succeed and I am glad that Pakistan has begun a series of operations to capture members of al Qaeda from its tribal territories."
''We are doing the same in Afghanistan. We must continue the fight and it's good for both countries to resist terrorism and extremism to ensure peace and prosperity.''
US, British and Afghan officials have said that while Pakistan is cooperating closely with them in hunting down al Qaeda in the country's North West Frontier Province, it has declined to arrest top Taliban leaders and fighters living in Baluchistan.
The Taliban have been launching between two and four attacks per day in southern Afghanistan with a declared strategy to disrupt the presidential elections scheduled for October 9. On July 23, a remote-controlled bomb detonated in a street in the southern town of Kandahar, injuring four US servicemen. The attack was preceded by a well-laid Taliban ambush in nearby Helmand province that killed 11 Afghan soldiers.
The Taliban are also targeting UN voter registration teams and foreign aid workers in a bid to drive them out of the country before the elections.
However, Karzai said that the major threat to stability is the growing power of warlords and their militias. ''Militias are a bigger problem than the Taliban,'' he said.
President Karzai's July 26 announcement that he would drop Vice President and Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, a powerful Tajik warlord, as his running mate for the October 9 presidential ballot has heightened those concerns still further. In Fahim's place, Karzai has named Ahmed Zia Masood, Afghanistan's ambassador to Russia and brother to the late Taliban resistance hero Ahmed Shah Masood. Masood, like Fahim, is an ethnic Tajik.
Fahim is now expected to back Education Minister Yunos Qanooni, a fellow Tajik who declared his own presidential candidacy in a surprise announcement the same day. Meanwhile, a second warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, has also entered the presidential stakes.
The decision to remove Fahim was preceded by the July 22 dismissal of three corps commanders from their positions for refusing to obey the central government. One of the commanders, powerful militia leader General Ustad Atta Mohammad, has been reappointed as governor of Balkh province in northern Afghanistan, while the remaining two men Hazrat Ali, commander for eastern Nangarhar, and Khan Mohammed, commander of southern Kandahar have been named police chiefs for the respective provinces.
As the political wrangling over Karzai's decision gathers heat, North Atlantic Treaty Organization peacekeepers have stepped up their patrols in Kabul and US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has appealed for calm among the country's power brokers and ethnic clans. "I do understand that there are some hurt feelings," Khalilzad told a July 27 news conference in reference to Fahim's removal from the ballot, "but the interests of the nation must be put above personal feelings."
Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistan-based journalist and author of the book "Taliban: Militant Islam and Fundamentalism in Central Asia."