With Mulla Baradar the operational leader of the Taleban movement has been captured. Mulla Baradar – this is a nom-de-guerre and his real name is Abdul Ghani – had been appointed one of the two deputies of Mulla Muhammad Omar when the movement reorganized after its collapse in late 2001.
That made him the movement’s number 3. After the arrest of the other deputy, Mulla Obaidullah by the Pakistani ISI(1), he remained alone at the top of the Taleban’s second-highest authority, the Leadership Council (Rahbari Shura). Only Mulla Omar, as the amir ul-mo’menin, has a higher position. But being underground, only surfacing with indirectly distributed messages from time to time and otherwise, as the Taleban say, ‘giving strategic direction’ – whatever this concretely means –, the role of Mulla Omar has possibly become rather unsubstantial in practice.
Although in the past there had been plenty of mix-ups with Afghan or Pakistani Taleban leaders reported killed or arrested, this time the probability that they got the right man seems to be high. The New York Times, the original source of the report (see it here), says Mulla Baradar had already been arrested almost a week ago and it had learned about the operation on 11 February but had delayed reporting the fact on the request of the White House in order not to jeopardize the information gathering going on. This should have given the Pakistani and US intelligence services involved sufficient time to identify him.
Also, the rather lame response of the Taleban might indicate that Mullah Baradar has indeed been snatched. Here, what the NYT has from Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed: ‘This is just rumor spread by foreigners to divert attention from the Marja offensive. They are facing big problems in Marja. In reality there is nothing regarding Baradar’s arrest. He is safe and free and he is in Afghanistan.’ This is nothing compared to the vitriolic scorn with which the Taleban had reacted to similar reports in previous cases.
Not too much is known about Mulla Baradar’s person. He was reportedly born around 1968 in the Dehrawud district of Uruzgan province and belongs to the Pashtun tribe of the Popalzai, as does President Hamed Karzai.
He seems to have been rather a latecomer in the higher ranks of the Taleban movement. He is not mentioned in any of the lists in Ahmed Rashid’s reference book ‘The Taleban’ (2001). According to Newsweek (see here), Mulla Baradar ‘served first as Mullah Omar’s right-hand man in Kandahar—his headquarters—then as his corps commander for western Afghanistan, and later as the Kabul garrison commander, where he directed the fight against mujahedin commanders in the north.’ Only in October 1999, he was appointed the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Taleban Emirate’s army, a position in the Defense Ministry. My archive does not confirm a position of Deputy Defense Minister (which is reported by some media but possibly confused with the post in the general staff).
During the Taleban’s final stand after 9/11 in 2001, he was given the command over the Taleban troops in Northern Afghanistan, the ‘battle group’ that partly surrendered to Dostum’s troops in Mazar-e Sharif (and where subsequently massacred at Yangi Qala during an uprising there with CIA people reportedly) and partly in Kunduz, from where many Taleban commanders apparently were flown out by Pakistani planes (reported in Ahmed Rashid’s book Descent into Chaos). It is not clear whether Mulla Baradar was amongst them.
Finally, Mulla Baradar rose quickly in the ranks of the resurgent Taleban to become their number 3, behind Mulla Omar and Mulla Obaidullah who had been his supervisor in the IEA Defense Ministry. The Christian Sciece Monitor (see here) already reported him at the ‘top of the military command structure’ of the Taleban in May 2003.
(The best background article on Mulla Baradar in the media yet is Ron Moreau’s ‘America’s New Nightmare’, published on 26 July 2009 in Newsweek, already quoted above. An interview with Mulla Baradar done by Taleban media – in which he interestingly is called ‘Deputy Ameerul Mo’mineen of The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’, can be read here.)
One question is, nevertheless, whether this arrest will disrupt and weaken the Taleban’s ability to act in the long term. Without question, it is a serious blow to the Taleban. But on the other hand, neither the arrest of Obaidullah nor the killings of leading commanders like Mulla Dadullah, Akhtar Usmani and others have done so. The Taleban movement has been growing from year to year, not abruptly in 2005 or 2006 as many claim but rather continuously after their regime’s downfall. And it was apparently able to fill in vacant command posts with ease and without much loss of effectiveness.
Secondly, what are the implications for the much-discussed ‘talk with the Talebs’ an idea that has been further pushed to the forefront by President Karzai of late by his ‘Policy for National Reconciliation and Reintegration of Armed Opposition Groups’ presented at the London conference this January, including the Peace Jirga announced for April now? Will the arrest hamper or further such initiatives?
There cannot be a clear answer to this yet. Much depends on what the Pakistanis make out of it who, according to the NYT have carried out the capture, hold Mulla Baradar in their custody and lead the interrogation. In the past, the Pakistani position vis-à-vis the Afghan Taleban has been ambiguous, to say the least. The US has stepped up pressure on Pakistan since late last year again to support curbing the Afghan Taleban in Pakistan. This has been accompanied by US press reports that there still was substantial doubt about whether the Pakistani military, in the first place, cooperates in this matter (for example see: ‘Rebuffing U.S., Pakistan Balks at Crackdown’ [against the Haqqani network], NYT 15 Deecember 2009).
By the way, the arrest also proves that Taleban leaders indeed use sanctuaries inside Pakistan, including Karachi. Although no one in his or her right mind had any doubts about this anymore, the Pakistani leadership has denied it time and again.
At the same time, the Pakistani military chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, had recently offered NATO that it would be ready to open communication channels with the Taleban (Pakistan Is Said to Pursue Role in U.S.-Afghan Talks, NYT 9 Feb. 2010, see here). This shows that Pakistan wants to get (or maintain) control about any Afghan reconciliation. For Pakistan, the Taleban still are a card to be kept in the sleeve to be played after the expected rather early departure of (most) Western troops from Afghanistan.
On one hand, so, Pakistan’s assistance in this case could be in line with reports AAN (and others) have received over the past years, including cases immediately before the Afghan presidential elections of August 2009, that the ISI had pressured Taleban commanders to go to fight inside Afghanistan or otherwise be handed over to the US to be sent to Guantanamo. Other reports indicated that particularly Taleban commanders that had shown readiness to a political accommodation and contacts had been arrested in and by Pakistan.
On the other hand, maybe Pakistan has now realized that it cannot fool the US any longer. With Mulla Baradar in its custody, it even would have a trump card for any reconciliation initiative. It would not be the first time that the leader of an insurgent movement would broker a deal from within jail. Remember Nelson Mandela or Xanana Gusmao from Eastern Timor. (Not that I want to compare the Nobel Peace Price winner and Xanana with Mulla Baradar – I am ‘technically speaking’).
Let us also not forget that Kai Eide, the outgoing head of UNAMA in whose mandate it is to do outreach to the Taleban and who had argued in favour of contacting the Taleban leadership council (instead of doing nitty-gritty ‘reintegration’), had met Taleban commanders in Dubai believed to have been authorized by the ‘Quetta’ council, i.e. Mulla Baradar (see the Guardian report from 28 January 2010 here). Here, the ‘Popalzai connection’ kicks in again: If Karzai was talking about ‘brothers’ on ‘the other side’, he might have a very certain ‘brother’ in mind. According to the Newsweek article cited above, Mulla Baradar also had sanctioned ‘feeler’ stretched out towards the President’s brother and ex-MP Qayyum Karzai (who stepped down from his parliamentary mandate to concentrate on reconciliation issues).
Our colleague Bette Dam, a Dutch journalist who travelled and researched intensively in Uruzgan province and just published a book about it in Dutch (Expeditie Uruzgan, Arbeiderpers Amsterdam/Antwerp 2009), reports a very interesting story. When Hamed Karzai opened his small anti-Taleban front in Uruzgan in late 2001 and the Kandahar Taleban were about to catch him, it was Mulla Baradar with his fighters who came to rescue him. This definitely has created a memory that would not be forgotten.
(1) Mulla Obaidullah’s current status is, however, far from clear. He was reported arrested (or put under house arrest) in February/March 2007 and arrested in February 2008 again, then said to have been exchanged for the designated Pakistani ambassador to Kabul in May 2008 who had been abducted when travelling there on the Khyber route.
Thomas Ruttig is a Senior Analyst for The Afghanistan Analysts Network – a non-profit, independent policy research organisation – where this article was first published and is reprinted here with permission.