The Prisoner of Karachi
by Charles Lemos, Tue Feb 16, 2010 at 03:24:44 AM EST
The New York Times reports that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a "founding father" of the Afghani Taliban and the number two in command behind the blind cleric Mullah Mohammed Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban, has been captured in a joint US-Pakistani operation in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city and commercial capital. According to US government officials, the capture of Mullah Barader occurred "several days" ago and remains in Pakistani custody, with both US and Pakistani intelligence officials taking part in interrogations.
In addition to running the Taliban’s military operations, Mullah Baradar runs the group’s leadership council, the Quetta Shura so called because the Taliban's leaders for years have been thought to be hiding in or near Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, the restive province in southwestern Pakistan. Here some more background on Mullah Adul Ghani Baradar from a Newsweek profile in July 2009:
In more than two dozen interviews for this profile, past and present members of the Afghan insurgency portrayed Baradar as no mere stand-in for the reclusive Omar. They say Baradar appoints and fires the Taliban's commanders and governors; presides over its top military council and central ruling Shura in Quetta, the city in southwestern Pakistan where most of the group's senior leaders are based; and issues the group's most important policy statements in his own name. It is key that he controls the Taliban's treasury—hundreds of millions of dollars in -narcotics protection money, ransom payments, highway tolls, and "charitable donations," largely from the Gulf. "He commands all military, political, religious, and financial power," says Mullah Shah Wali Akhund, a guerrilla subcommander from Helmand province who met Baradar this March in Quetta for the fourth time. "Baradar has the makings of a brilliant commander," says Prof. Thomas Johnson, a longtime expert on Afghanistan and an adviser to Coalition forces. "He's able, charismatic, and knows the land and the people so much better than we can hope to do. He could prove a formidable foe."
No one among the Taliban—least of all Baradar himself—will say he's taken Omar's place. On the contrary, Baradar portrays himself as a loyal lieutenant carrying out the orders of his absent boss. "We are acting on [Omar's] instructions," he told NEWSWEEK via e-mail in a recent exclusive interview. He didn't reveal how or when he gets those instructions, saying only that "continuous contacts are not risk-free because of the situation."
Yet while Taliban fighters are reluctant to be seen criticizing Omar in any way, they clearly imply that his deputy has a more modern, efficient style of command. Baradar is consistently described as more open, more consultative, more consensus-oriented, and more patient than Omar. Taliban operatives say he's less mercurial and more willing to hear different views rather than act on hearsay, emotion, or strict ideology. "Baradar doesn't issue orders without understanding and investigating the problem," says a commander from Zabul province who met with him in March and asked not to be named so he could speak freely. "He is patient and listens to you until the end. He doesn't get angry or lose his temper."
That's raised another question: whether the Americans and the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai might ultimately be able to strike a deal with Baradar. His influence among the insurgents—and with Mullah Omar—is unmatched, and he's not as close-minded as many of the leaders in Quetta are. Back in 2004, according to Maulvi Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban cabinet minister who now lives in Kabul, Baradar authorized a Taliban delegation that approached Karzai with a peace offer, even paying their travel expenses to Kabul. That outreach fizzled, but earlier this year another two senior Taliban operatives sent out separate peace feelers to Qayyum Karzai, the Afghan president's older brother, apparently with Baradar's approval, according to three ranking Taliban sources. They say the initiatives were quickly rescinded. Still, when NEWSWEEK spoke to the elder Karzai last week and asked him about the story, he did not deny that such contacts had taken place, saying only, "This is a very sensitive time, and a lot of things are going on." Publicly, Baradar, who belongs to the same Pashtun tribe as Karzai, has scoffed at peace efforts, denouncing them as a ploy to split the insurgency. But that may simply reflect his feeling that the insurgents currently have the momentum.
Baradar can take much of the credit for rebuilding the Taliban into an effective fighting force.
There are a number of takeaways to the capture of Mullah Baradar. First it took place in Karachi, a teeming city of over 14 million people, suggesting that much of the Taliban's leadership has migrated away from the border areas. Mullah Barader may have been forced to flee from the increasingly less secure hiding places alongside the Afghan-Pakistani frontier as a result of the increased number and ever more effective strikes by unmanned predator drones.
The other key takeaway is that the capture of Mullah Baradar suggests that the US has finally impressed on the Pakistani authorities the urgency of dismantling the Taliban networks inside Pakistan and that the Pakistanis are now more engaged in counter-terrorism operations. US intelligence officials have long accused Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency of sheltering and protecting the more senior and high-ranking members of the Taliban.
The participation of Pakistan’s spy service could suggest a new level of cooperation from Pakistan’s leaders, who have been ambivalent about American efforts to crush the Taliban. Increasingly, the Americans say, senior leaders in Pakistan, including the chief of its army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, have gradually come around to the view that they can no longer support the Taliban in Afghanistan — as they have quietly done for years — without endangering themselves. Indeed, American officials have speculated that Pakistani security officials could have picked up Mullah Baradar long ago.
The officials said that Pakistan was leading the interrogation of Mullah Baradar, but that Americans were also involved. The conditions of the questioning are unclear. In its first week in office, the Obama administration banned harsh interrogations like waterboarding by Americans, but the Pakistanis have long been known to subject prisoners to brutal questioning.
American intelligence officials believe that elements within Pakistan’s security services have covertly supported the Taliban with money and logistical help — largely out of a desire to retain some ally inside Afghanistan for the inevitable day when the Americans leave.
The ability of the Taliban’s top leaders to operate relatively freely inside Pakistan has for years been a source of friction between the ISI and the C.I.A. Americans have complained that they have given ISI operatives the precise locations of Taliban leaders, but that the Pakistanis usually refuse to act.
The Pakistanis have countered that the American intelligence was often outdated, or that faulty information had been fed to the United States by Afghanistan’s intelligence service.
For the moment it is unclear how the capture of Mullah Baradar will affect the overall direction of the Taliban, who have so far refused to disavow Al Qaeda and to accept the Afghan Constitution. American officials have hoped to win over some midlevel members of the group.
Mr. Riedel, the former C.I.A. official, said that he had not heard about Mullah Baradar’s capture before being contacted by The Times, but that the raid constituted a “sea change in Pakistani behavior.”
In recent weeks, American officials have said they have seen indications that the Pakistani military and spy services may finally have begun to distance themselves from the Taliban.
While the capture of Mullah Baradar is a significant development, it is the level of cooperation between the US and Pakistani authorities that is the larger story. That's the real breakthrough.
Nonetheless, it must also be underscored that Pakistan's government is likely to feel the heat from a large segment of the Pakistani population that is vehemently opposed to close US-Pakistani cooperation.