It’s so hard to tell what’s kabuki and what’s not in these Pakistan/Taliban stories that I’m half-inclined to stop blogging them altogether. For instance, is this proof that the skeptics are right, that Pakistan’s holding the Taliban’s number two as a bargaining chip vis-a-vis Karzai? Or is it just propaganda aimed at the anti-American Pakistani population, with Islamabad fully intending to hand over Baradar et al. to the U.S. in the guise of “deporting them to Afghanistan”? Or could it be that Pakistan’s technically telling the truth about not handing them over while secretly allowing U.S. interrogators full access to the prisoners, a la some European CIA “black site”? (The Times story that broke the news about Baradar claimed that American agents are part of the team that’s questioning him.)

What’s it all about, Alfie?

Interior Minister Rahman Malik said Pakistani authorities were still questioning Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the most senior Taliban figure arrested since the start of the Afghan war in 2001, and two other senior militants arrested with U.S. assistance in separate operations this month.

If it is determined that the militants have not committed any crimes in Pakistan, they will not remain in the country, he said.

“First we will see whether they have violated any law,” Malik told reporters in Islamabad. “If they have done it, then the law will take its own course against them.

“But at the most if they have not done anything, then they will go back to the country of origin, not to USA,” Malik said.

That sounds like good news — if they’re in Afghan custody, they’re effectively in U.S. custody — but don’t forget the lesson of the Qais Khazali clusterfark in Iraq. It’s amazing how forgiving governments can be of terrorists when there’s political advantage to be had.

Meanwhile, a bit more dirt from WaPo on how the great Taliban clampdown came to be:

Pakistan’s decision to go after the Afghan Taliban leadership reflects a quiet shift underway since last fall, said officials from both countries, who cited a November letter from President Obama to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari as a turning point.

The letter, which was hand-delivered by U.S. national security adviser James L. Jones, offered additional military and economic assistance and help easing tensions with India, a bitter enemy of Pakistan. With U.S. facilitation, the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers have agreed to meet next week, the first high-level talks between the two countries since terrorist attacks in Mumbai in late 2008.

The letter also included an unusually blunt warning that Pakistan’s use of insurgent groups to pursue its policy goals would no longer be tolerated. The letter’s delivery followed the completion of a White House strategy review in which the administration concluded that stepped-up efforts in Afghanistan would not succeed without improved cooperation from Pakistan…

Observers in Pakistan say the shift will facilitate the nation’s desire to drive any political negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which it views as an opportunity that could end the war and place a friendly regime next door. Baradar and the shadow governors could be valuable bargaining chips, or they could have been surrendered by the Taliban to give Pakistan entry into the talks, according to competing theories in Pakistan.

I want to know more about that “unusually blunt warning.” The fact that The One was holding out relations with India as a carrot makes me wonder if India was also part of the stick, explicitly or otherwise. As for Baradar either surrendering himself or being handed over by his own men in order to make negotiations with Karzai easier, would he really have done that without some sort of guarantee from Pakistani that he wouldn’t be questioned by American interrogators? Or could it be that the detail in the Times about American interrogators was itself a lie planted by U.S. officials to spook Taliban commanders in the field? See what I mean about how maddening the kabuki possibilities are? We’re at a point where the U.S., Pakistan, and Baradar could all secretly be working together to try to broker a deal with Kabul, or the U.S. and Pakistan could be earnestly cracking down on the Taliban, or Pakistan and the Taliban could be coordinating to maximize their leverage over the U.S. Or, I suppose, all three. All theories welcome!

For extra credit, answer the following: Just two days ago, in North Waziristan, a U.S. drone liquidated another top Al Qaeda military commander as well as several other “important militants.” Related to this or not?