Pakistani police patrol the streets of Karachi (Photo by MC MasterChef, available at Flickr)

February 19, 2010

The Taliban Capture: Mullah Baradar

Originally published in National Review Online

While the arrest of the Taliban’s No. 2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, could deal a serious blow to the Taliban in the short term — as the insurgent group is struggling to counter NATO’s ongoing offensive in southern Afghanistan — its long-term impact on overall Taliban activity in Afghanistan, Kabul’s reconciliation efforts, and U.S.-Pakistan cooperation should not be overstated.

Mullah Baradar was a senior figure in the Taliban’s hierarchy, ranking second only to Mullah Omar in the Taliban’s Rahbari Shura (leadership council). He became the undisputed leader of the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST) after the capture of Mullah Omar’s deputy Obaidullah Akhund in February 2007, and the death of the Taliban’s top military commander, Mullah Dadullah, later that year. As Omar has remained reclusive, it was Baradar who had been chairing the Taliban’s ten-member Rahbari Shura, appointing and firing local governors and commanders, and issuing the Taliban’s policy statements since then.

Despite Baradar’s top position, however, it is overly optimistic to hope for a leadership crisis within the Taliban or a collapse of the movement following his arrest, as predicted by many analysts. The Taliban have been remarkably adept at replacing leaders without allowing any significant damage to the group. The disappearance of Dadullah and Obaidullah did not weaken the Taliban: The group has grown in strength ever since. Moreover, the Taliban’s leadership apparatus and military operations are not controlled by one individual, and there is a great deal of decentralization of power within the movement.

In addition, while the arrest is a major intelligence breakthrough with regard to the Afghan Taliban, many analysts have rashly concluded that it marks a shift in Pakistan’s policy of supporting the Afghan Taliban. It is not the first time that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), under pressure from Washington, has cooperated with the CIA to capture Afghan Taliban leaders. But Pakistan’s cooperation has always been tactical rather than strategic. The arrest of Obaidullah took place on the same day former vice president Dick Cheney was visiting Islamabad. Pakistan still sees the Haqqani network as a “strategic asset,” although it has arrested several members of the Haqqani family in the past (only to release them later when the U.S. pressure subsided).

It is also possible some QST leaders have colluded with the ISI to oust Baradar. In late December, Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) leaked information on an allegedly “widening rift” between Omar and Baradar over the leadership system and how to counter the U.S. military surge in Afghanistan. On January 8, Afghanistan’s state-run Bakhtar News Agency, quoting an unnamed Afghan intelligence official, reported that Mullah Baradar had relocated recently from Quetta to Karachi, dividing the QST into two factions. “Commanders now under the leadership of Mullah Omar have become frustrated that the commanders belonging to Baradar are more active and enjoy more resources, and they have complained to Omar that Mullah Zakir, Mullah Mansoor, and Mullah Rasul — the Taliban commanders leading the fight in southern Helmand Province and Farah Province — are now acting in favor of Baradar and have more financial resources than them,” the report pointed out.

The disagreement, according to the report, was so serious that Mullah Omar called for a Taliban leadership council to decide on Baradar’s fate. Other reports have indicated that Sirajuddin, the leader of the Haqqani network, had also become critical of Baradar recently over the latter’s opposition to aggressive tactics to counter the U.S. surge. Thus, if the NDS intelligence is accurate, it is not inconceivable that some Taliban leaders may have conspired against Baradar to keep the movement united. Perhaps that is the reason the ISI cooperated this time.