Was the arrest of the Taliban’s second-in-command a strategic blunder?

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The capture of the Taliban’s second in command, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, has been hailed as a huge blow to the Taliban but it may turn out to deliver an even bigger blow to President Obama’s hopes for an early withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.

Hajji Agha Lalai, former head of the Afghan government-led reconciliation process in Kandahar, who has dealt with members of the Taliban leadership council for several years, said Mullah Baradar was “the only person intent on or willing for peace negotiations.”

Last month Baradar facilitated an inconclusive meeting in Dubai between midlevel Taliban commanders and Kai Eide, the departing top UN official in Kabul, according to McClatchy newspapers.

Saeed Shah reported:

According to Vahid Mojdeh, a former Afghan official who worked under the Taliban, Baradar was instrumental in reining in insurgent violence, by banning sectarian killings and indiscriminate bombings.

“Baradar was an obstacle against al-Qaida, who wanted to make an operation in Afghanistan like they did in Iraq,” Mojdeh said. “But Baradar would not allow them to kill Shias” – the minority Muslim sect – “or set off explosions in crowded places.”

Pakistani analysts said Baradar’s capture suggested either that Islamabad had abandoned its attempt to promote peace talks or the Taliban number two had fallen afoul of the Pakistani authorities. Analysts said Baradar was the most likely point of contact for any future talks.

“This is inexplicable. Pakistan has destroyed its own credentials as a mediator between Taliban and Americans. And the trust that might have existed between Taliban and Pakistan is shattered completely,” said Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Kabul after the overthrow of the Taliban.

The capture of Mullah Baradar has been widely reported as the result of a coordinated operation between the US and Pakistan, but so far the story seems very murky.

On Tuesday, February 9, the New York Times reported:

Pakistan has told the United States it wants a central role in resolving the Afghan war and has offered to mediate with Taliban factions who use its territory and have long served as its allies, American and Pakistani officials said.

The offer, aimed at preserving Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan once the Americans leave, could both help and hurt American interests as Washington debates reconciling with the Taliban.

Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, made clear Pakistan’s willingness to mediate at a meeting late last month at NATO headquarters with top American military officials, a senior American military official familiar with the meeting said.

The report said that General Kayani rebuffed US pressure to expand operations against the Taliban in North Waziristan because “the Pakistani Army still regarded India as its primary enemy and was stretched too thin to open a new front.”

Within days we learn of Mullah Baradar’s arrest in Karachi, Pakistan. His capture could cripple the Taliban’s military operations, at least in the short term, says Bruce Riedel, an adviser to the Obama administration. Others in Washington describe this as a huge blow to the Taliban.

But the New York Times now reports:

The arrest followed weeks of signals by Pakistan’s military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani — to NATO officials, Western journalists and military analysts — that Pakistan wanted to be included in any attempts to mediate with the Taliban.

Even before the arrest of the Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a senior Pakistani intelligence official expressed irritation that Pakistan had been excluded from what he described as American and Afghan approaches to the Taliban.

“On the one hand, the Americans don’t want us to negotiate directly with the Taliban, but then we hear that they are doing it themselves without telling us,” the official said in an interview. “You don’t treat your partners like this.”

Mullah Baradar had been a important contact for the Afghans for years, Afghan officials said. But Obama administration officials denied that they had made any contact with him.

Whatever the case, with the arrest of Mullah Baradar, Pakistan has effectively isolated a key link to the Taliban leadership, making itself the main channel instead.

While Washington denied prior negotiations with Baradar, a US intelligence official in Europe claimed otherwise:

“I know that our people had been in touch with people around him and were negotiating with him,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue.

“So it doesn’t make sense why we bite the hand that is feeding us,” the official added. “And now the Taliban will have no reason to negotiate with us; they will not believe anything we will offer or say.”

Update: In an interview on NPR Ahmed Rashid speculated that now that Baradar is in custody he could be in a better position to negotiate. Why? Because he’s not going anywhere?

Much more plausible is that the Pakistanis pulled him in — Rashid acknowledges that Baradar’s whereabouts have never been unknown to the ISI — because they didn’t want to be cut out of the negotiating loop by Americans negotiating directly with the Taliban. In other words, Pakistan is not willing to see a deal agreed to end this war without being able to dictate some of the terms.

If that is the case, no wonder The White House asked its news outlet (the New York Times) to sit on the story for a few days while they decided how it should be told.

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One thought on “Was the arrest of the Taliban’s second-in-command a strategic blunder?

  1. FB Ali

    A hypothesis that would appear to cover the known events is:

    Having decided to negotiate some kind of a settlement with the insurgency in Afghanistan, the US presumably asked Pakistan to use its clout to bring their leaders to the table, and press them to agree to such a settlement. What the US does not seem to have realized was that Pakistan would only oblige if their own needs were adequately addressed in the unfolding of this policy. What Pakistan wants is to become the principal power broker in the Afghanistan of the future, or, at the very least, to ensure no one else achieves that position; of course, what they would like most of all is for the US to choose them to safeguard its interests in that country after it withdraws.

    The US probably assumed that the carrot of promised aid in the future, and the stick of withholding a billion dollars of reimbursements due to the Pakistan military, would be sufficient to make them jump, as ordered (learning diplomacy in Latin America, or by knocking heads together in the Balkans, is bad training for dealing with a country like Pakistan).

    Pakistan’s miltary reacted as one would expect: they not only bluntly refused to extend their operations to North Waziristan, but also did nothing about bringing the insurgents into negotiations. They also expressed very loudly their unhappiness with the US disregarding Pakistan’s interests in a future Afghanistan (most notably by Gen Kayani at the recent NATO meeting and later).

    The message finally appears to have got through, probably on the military channel (McChrystal – Mullen – Jones). It seems the US has now given Pakistan the necessary assurances and commitments. Eager to deliver, Kayani and the ISI found that the Taliban and the Haqqanis were playing hard to get. So, equally adept at knocking heads themselves, they quickly rounded up a few Taliban bigwigs and enabled a deadly drone strike on the Haqqanis. That should prove pretty persuasive.

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