In what appears to be a major shift in the war against the Taliban, a joint raid by Pakistani and American security forces has captured the insurgents’ most senior military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in the Pakistani port city of Karachi.
Although the news was broken in the New York Times on Wednesday — and initially denied by Pakistani officials — Baradar was actually detained a week earlier. Such is the sensitivity and secrecy of this war that Washington officials requested a media blackout of Baradar’s capture because, they claimed, other senior Taliban were not aware of it, even days after it occurred.
Baradar was effectively the day-to-day commander of Taliban forces in Afghanistan — in charge of everything from tactics to paying fighters and appointing field commanders. He is also considered to be the mastermind behind the Taliban’s improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs, that have been the biggest killer of foreign troops in Afghanistan.
In another apparent major success, a further two senior Taliban commanders from northern Afghanistan were captured in similar raids inside Pakistan yesterday. Their capture is not believed to be directly related to Baradar’s in Karachi.
For Western leaders — and especially for US President Barack Obama — the capture of such senior Taliban leaders, and particularly that of Baradar is a welcome publicity coup. It will no doubt hasten claims across Western news media that victory is on the horizon in Afghanistan.
Described as a "cunning and dangerous" commander, Baradar was nevertheless seen as a future interlocutor in any future negotiations with the Taliban because of his apparent centrality to the insurgency. His health failing, Taliban founder and spiritual leader Mullah Omar had, for practical purposes, given management of the insurgency to Baradar in recent years.
It is probably no coincidence that his capture occurred just as US-led forces in Afghanistan commenced a major operation to conquer Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan, an operation that has already claimed at least 17 lives. Although Baradar’s capture is not expected to lead to an immediate loss of morale among the insurgents, Pentagon planners hope that it will nevertheless disrupt overall Taliban strategy.
Beyond that, the capture is a symbolic blow to Taliban prestige. Like any successful insurgency, the Taliban’s greatest skill has been the capacity to melt into the countryside after hit and run attacks against more powerful adversaries. The fact that their leaders have generally remained at large has added to their mystique. Baradar’s capture humanises the Taliban in a way that will give their opponents confidence.
The capture of Baradar also signals a potential shift in Pakistan’s 16 year relationship with the Taliban. The capture of senior commanders in the Pakistan heartland sends a clear message that it is no longer a safe haven for the Taliban, argues veteran journalist Zahid Hussain.
Ever since the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, the Pakistan Army, which controls the state’s regional foreign policy, has looked to Islamists like the Taliban as their only viable ally in neighbouring Afghanistan. Even at the height of the current war against the Taliban, Pakistan forces have mainly targeted militants seeking to overthrow the government and those aligned with Al Qaeda — and not those fighting US-led forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.
US security analysts have for years accused Pakistan of harbouring Afghan Taliban commanders as potential assets in the event that foreign troops withdraw from the devastated country. Baradar’s arrest suggests that Pakistan has now categorically shifted away from this policy.
There have been other signals too. Pakistan’s Army Chief Pervez Kayani, generally a media-shy individual, made a public statement and declared categorically that military forces did not want a "Talibanised" Afghanistan or Pakistan.
Beneath the surface, however, these high profile captures raise more questions than they answer. Will other Taliban commanders be open to dialogue if they are approached by the three who have just been caught? And who facilitated their capture? According to the rumour mill, Baradar was considered a traitor by some factions of the Taliban insurgency because he may have opened back channels with the pro-US Afghan President Karzai over a possible future ceasefire. If that were the case, Taliban commanders less inclined to negotiate could have tipped off authorities as to Baradar’s whereabouts.
Other reports claim that Pakistan captured Baradar to increase its stake in talks with the Afghan Taliban because the US has hitherto cut it out of its own informal discussions with the insurgents. Pakistan authorities have in the past surrendered high profile insurgents when facing US pressure to crack down on militancy, as was widely believed to be the case with the arrest of alleged 11 September architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in 2007.
The big test for Pakistan is whether it will now target senior field commanders like Sirajuddin Haqqani, and Mullahs Nazir and Bahadur who are believed to be based in Waziristan.
Baradar is understood to be undergoing "intense interrogation" by Pakistani and American authorities that will almost certainly involve torture. It is certain that they will try to convince him to join their efforts to make the Taliban lay down their arms.
This effort, and his capture, may backfire in the long run. The Taliban are a military and security threat — but only because they are a product of the corruption, chaos and foreign interference that has plagued Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas for over three decades now. Recent history suggests that new commanders will rise to replace those already captured or killed unless these deeper problems are not honestly tackled.
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