How Pakistan shut down Afghan-Taliban peace talks

In the New York Times, Dexter Filkins reports:

When American and Pakistani agents captured Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s operational commander, in the chaotic port city of Karachi last January, both countries hailed the arrest as a breakthrough in their often difficult partnership in fighting terrorism.

But the arrest of Mr. Baradar, the second-ranking Taliban leader after Mullah Muhammad Omar, came with a beguiling twist: both American and Pakistani officials claimed that Mr. Baradar’s capture had been a lucky break. It was only days later, the officials said, that they finally figured out who they had.

Now, seven months later, Pakistani officials are telling a very different story. They say they set out to capture Mr. Baradar, and used the C.I.A. to help them do it, because they wanted to shut down secret peace talks that Mr. Baradar had been conducting with the Afghan government that excluded Pakistan, the Taliban’s longtime backer.

In the weeks after Mr. Baradar’s capture, Pakistani security officials detained as many as 23 Taliban leaders, many of whom had been enjoying the protection of the Pakistani government for years. The talks came to an end.

The events surrounding Mr. Baradar’s arrest have been the subject of debate inside military and intelligence circles for months. Some details are still murky — and others vigorously denied by some American intelligence officials in Washington. But the account offered in Islamabad highlights Pakistan’s policy in Afghanistan: retaining decisive influence over the Taliban, thwarting archenemy India, and putting Pakistan in a position to shape Afghanistan’s postwar political order.

“We picked up Baradar and the others because they were trying to make a deal without us,” said a Pakistani security official, who, like numerous people interviewed about the operation, spoke anonymously because of the delicacy of relations between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States. “We protect the Taliban. They are dependent on us. We are not going to allow them to make a deal with Karzai and the Indians.”

My question: Did the New York Times really need six months to piece this story together?

Back on February 17, I wrote a post headlined: “Was the arrest of the Taliban’s second-in-command a strategic blunder?” This is what I wrote:

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 (2/17/10): 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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3 thoughts on “How Pakistan shut down Afghan-Taliban peace talks

  1. DE Teodoru

    I recall Mr. Woodward’s prescience in his commentary about Baradar when he was first arrested. No doubt Americans and NATO countries’ citizens will show their displeasure with Pakistan through their lack of response to the flood crisis. And perhaps that’s the best reason for getting out of Afghanistan: regional issues of long history are beyond us as we see ourselves as the John Wayne nation. And when we fail, to hide our fear of failure, we go after the most helpless and most desperate, the innocents. That’s what we’ve done since Vietnam and didn’t even realize it. Our addiction to seeing ourselves as a nation of John Waynes has made us pathologic and we should consider that our mediocre generals are the least able to act on our behalf. Let us recall that 9/11 was a REACTION– not an unprovoked action– to what we did in the Middle East to promote our narrowest of political interests at home and our addiction to oil. Perhaps, before Iraq and Afghanistan BOTH blow up in our faces again and we become totally demoralized as we thrash our way out of democracy and into totalitarianism blaming others for our decisions, we had better return home and let others know that we are NO LONGER the “far enemy.” AlQaeda can be far more ably dealt with by others as Saudi Arabia has proven thus far in its own territory. Young men in the Mideast whose parents slaved to put through school are desperate upon graduation when they find there are no jobs for their skills. Continuing to live at home as parasitic failures is unbearable. And so, in desperation, they accept missions of suicide terror in return for their families receiving $25,000 and they remembered as heroic shahids instead of worthless parasites at home. Perhaps if we had helped the Mideast deal with its youth problem since the end of WWII 9/11 would have never been such an obsessive nightmare for us all.

  2. Christopher Hoare

    I’d suggest the NY Times is a very poor source of information. The article quoted below was published by Asia Times Online on February 22nd by their Pakistan Bureau chief. An earlier article reporting the capture was published February 16th.

    The strange case of Mullah Baradar
    At least five important people associated with the Taliban movement were sitting in a room with this correspondent when the conversation turned to Mullah Baradar’s arrest and why the Pakistan military turned him over to the Americans. A week after news of his arrest became public, the Taliban are still pondering why such a senior person was given to the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

    One view was that the CIA would have traced Mullah Baradar anyway, so Pakistan pre-empted this and won some praise from the US in the process.

    Another thought was that the arrest of Mullah Abdul Salam and Mullah Mir Muhammad, two shadow Taliban governors in northern Afghanistan, in Faisalabad in Pakistan on January 26, led to them tipping off the authorities over the whereabouts of Mullah Baradar.

    “Under whatever circumstances the Pakistan army turned over Mullah Baradar to the Americans, whether under duress or through greed, it has lost its credibility in the eyes of the Taliban and now no dialogue is possible with the Taliban,” a source close to many top Taliban leaders told Asia Times Online.

    The administration of US President Barack Obama, while surging ahead with the military option, is also keen to start a negotiation process with elements of the Taliban. The Pakistan military, which is calling the shots in the country’s “war and terror” dealings with the US, rather than the civilian government, sees itself as playing a pivotal role in the dialogue process.

    “Now, the Taliban won’t accept Pakistan as a mediator in any talks. The Taliban were softening towards talks, but after Baradar’s arrest the world will see a tough stance from the Taliban,” the source said.

    Intelligence contacts in Karachi tell Asia Times Online that Mullah Baradar’s arrest marks the first time that American and Pakistani teams had mounted a joint raid without calling in – or even informing – either the police or rangers.

    And previously, Pakistan would first have taken any terror-related figures into its custody for interrogation, and only then would the person have been handed over to the US. With Baradar, a joint interrogation team was set up at the outset.

    For the first time in the nine years of the “war on terror”, Pakistan, by cooperating in operations and the interrogation process, appears to have fully adopted the American war in Afghanistan as its own battle.

    Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

  3. Norman Morley

    Corruption, both at home & abroad, continues, so why is this news today. The only way that I see a change, a monumental change, is for the axe to fall on both the Pentagon procurement and the closing of all the European, Asian & lessor outposts that the U.S. Military occupies today. The U.S. could better be positioned to lend a hand to those who need it without using the Military. It’s been over 30 years since Vietnam, the bloated General Staff of the U.S. Military has mostly lost its edge with few exceptions. We can no longer afford to continue occupying Country after Country, wasting Treasure because some General thinks victory is just over the hill. If the private industry want an Army, then let them pay for it themselves. Has the State Department come up with the costs fo staffing its private Army in Iraq? Where does that money come from? Washington had gone “MAD” thinking that wars can go on for ever, as the destruction of the American way. It’s time to pull up stakes and leave. The defense of the U,S, is not being served by being everywhere at once.

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