Two former agents of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) -- high-profile figures who often publicly defended the Taliban -- are reportedly being held by an extremist group in the western tribal regions of Pakistan.
Sultan Amir Tarar, commonly known as Colonel Imam, had often boasted that he mentored the reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar -- along with tens of thousands of Afghan extremists during the 1980s and '90s.
Khalid Khawaja, another former ISI agent who has gone missing with Imam, recently petitioned a Pakistani court to prevent the government from extraditing Taliban operational chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar to Afghanistan. Baradar was arrested in a joint U.S-Pakistani raid in the southwestern port city of Karachi in February.
In late March, the two accompanied British-Pakistani documentary maker Asad Qureshi to the Taliban's Waziristan stronghold. But all now appear to have been abducted by a little known extremist group called Asian Tigers.
The three were shown in a video e-mailed to Pakistani media recently with a demand for the release of Taliban leaders Baradar, Mullah Abdul Kabir, and Mullah Mansoor Dadullah. Kabir had been captured after the arrest of Baradar, while Dadullah was detained in 2008.Well-Known Jihadi Figures
The video has done little to quell speculation about the former intelligence officers. Veteran Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid tells RFE/RL that both officers were "propagandists" who promoted the cause of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban in the media.
They are not important people. They are not foreigners...They are Pakistanis, and it is unlikely that anybody will be released on their return.
Rashid says the two are well-known jihadi figures from Pakistan's military who were used when there was a need to propagate jihad, anti-American, or anti-Indian sentiments.
Rashid rules out the possibility that these men were kidnapped by Pakistani or Afghan Taliban.
"They seem to have been arrested or captured by one of the dissident groups that are operating in the tribal areas, which are not necessarily supporting the Taliban," Rashid says. "An independent group perhaps, or perhaps a criminal group looking for a ransom.
"But the fact is that there is also speculation that because Colonel Imam, in particular, was very outspoken in his support for the Taliban, the government itself -- or the military or the intelligence services themselves -- may have organized something like this."
In the video, Khawaja claims to have been sent to Waziristan by retired generals Hamid Gul and Aslam Baig, former heads of the ISI and Pakistani military in the 1980s and '90s who publicly support the Taliban. But Gul denies any involvement in organizing their journey. Khwaja's wife blames the United States for the apparent kidnapping. But Pakistani authorities remain silent.
Retired Brigadier General Mehmood Shah, who previously headed security affairs in Pakistan's troubled tribal areas, tells RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that the three missing men had traveled to the tribal areas without government permission because they wanted to make a documentary film about the Taliban. 'Just For The Money'
Shah suggests the reported kidnapping could be a ploy to forestall government action against them.
"They knew the government would arrest them upon returning [from the tribal areas]. The British government has also passed a law about the glorification of terrorism," Shah says. "And if they screen their documentary they will be scrutinized under that law.
"So this is a drama and they want to create conditions to show that documentary. They know the Taliban really well and they are doing this just for money."
Former Pakistani intelligence officers have similar views.
Asad Munir, a retired brigadier general and former ISI station chief in Peshawar, tells RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that the two probably miscalculated their risk. He says it is unlikely that the Pakistani government will listen to the demands of the purported captors.
"I don't think that anybody will be released to secure their freedom," he says. "They are not important people. They are not foreigners. If they were Americans or Germans, [there would be more chances of bargaining]. But they are Pakistanis, and it is unlikely that anybody will be released on their return."
Munir suggests that the Pakistani government would be reluctant to even release an ordinary Taliban foot soldier, let alone Baradar, to secure their release.